Long Live Grilled Cheese!

A panini, a quesadilla, a tosti, a croque-monsieur, a Welsh rarebit…. it has been thoroughly tested the world over, and has been unequivocally determined: a grilled cheese is a good thing.  In conjunction with Wilson Farm’s Grilled Cheese Weekend (my childhood neighborhood farm and farm stand hosting their First-Ever Grilled Cheese Weekend, March 1 & 2, 2014), I’m having what has become my favorite way to enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich.

kimchi grilled cheese

Thanks to a thematic overhaul and a particularly lively addition, the grilled cheese recently jumped up in the ranks of my favorite sandwiches. The new theme is probiotics – those BFF bacteria we can’t live without and live much better with. Filling my sandwich with as much life as possible, I’ve been opting for a true sour dough bread (which is naturally fermented), layered with sliced raw milk hard cheese (naturally cultured Cheddar being the favorite choice in my area), topped with a generous scoop of sauerkraut or kimchi (lacto-fermented cabbage teaming with probiotics), all melted together to the point of perfection.

kimchi

kimchi grilled cheese

Add even more life to your meal, by washing it down with a tall glass of kombucha (a naturally fermented tea), ginger bug, kefir or a lassi and you are in good bacterial hands!

Sliding Gently into Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut, one of the better known members of the probiotics food group, is a very cost effective medicinal food.  It gives most any dish a tasty zing and keeps your digestion and immunity humming along.

Cabbage is already a good source of vitamin C, folate, fiber, manganese, beta carotene and other antioxidants. A member of the cruciferous family, it is credited for fighting cancer, high cholesterol and inflammation. Now lacto-ferment it (and start calling it “sauerkraut”), and the nutrient profile gets even better. Developed centuries ago, the natural pickling process of vegetables allows for long term storage, and increases the vitamin content, adds digestive enzymes and probiotics and makes many nutrients easier to absorb.

Early civilizations from China to Europe relied on it for its health benefits.  Many long ocean voyages packed barrels of sauerkraut to keep their sailors healthy. It is said that Captain Cook protected his crew from scurvy death with sixty barrels of kraut.

Unfortunately, its foreign name and the suggestion of something sour has not done wonders for its modern day reputation. If you’ve found sauerkraut reluctance is keeping you from optimal health, here’s a recipe, based on a popular Dutch dish, zuurkool stamppot met worst, which smooths out kraut’s rougher edges, and offers a gentle entry into the healthful world of fermented vegetables.

Kraut-Potatoes with Sausage

  • 4-6 potatoes (ideally organic)
  • 1 cup sauerkraut
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/2 -1 cup milk or dairy-free milk 
  • sea salt and pepper to taste
  • cheddar cheese, cut into small blocks (optional)
  • vegetarian or meat sausage (optional)
  • parsley, chives or other green herbs

Method:

  1. Scrub and cut potatoes into medium-sized pieces (keep peel on for greatest nutrition).
  2. Put potato pieces in pot and fill with water to cover.
  3. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and allow to cook for 8-10 minutes.  Add sauerkraut and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes or until potatoes are soft.  Pour off and save excess water.
  4. Place pot back on a low flame, add garlic through a garlic press and milk, and mash. Add more milk or excess water to reach preferred consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Meanwhile cook vegetarian or meat sausages in a skillet.
  6. Assemble dish by adding cheese cubes, sausages, fresh green herbs and/or edible flowers.  Serve warm and enjoy the perfect blend of medicinal food and comfort food.

How Rhubarb Shines Sans Strawberries

Rhubarb, with its edible stalks starting in May, perfecting bridges the locally harvestable dessert gap between maple syrup in April and strawberries in June.

The rhubarb plant is a persistent perennial, growing back with gusto year after year. Sometimes to the point of overload for some home gardeners.  This year I was on the lucky receiving end of such overload. I happily created garden space for a separated rhubarb plant, and immediately picked a beautiful late May bouquet.

With strawberries in the backyard and now rhubarb in the front, I thought my yard was ready to provide the tried and true late spring combo, but with most of the berries still unripe, I had to let the rhubarb fly solo for now.  It did very well on its own.

Rhubarb Yogurt Cups

  • 1 ball jar full of rhubarb stalks, washed and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 tablespoon beet powder
  • 1 cup of whole milk yogurt (ideally from organic, grass-fed cows)
  • generous sprinkling of cacao nibs

Method:

  1. Warm skillet and melt butter.
  2. Add rhubarb pieces, orange juice, half the maple syrup and beet powder and allow to cook down to a sauce (a downside of cooking rhubarb is that it loses its color and turns grey. The beet powder, which does not affect the taste, tints the sauce a deep shade of pink).
  3. Mix the remaining maple syrup with yogurt, and divide among serving bowls or cups. Top with rhubarb sauce and sprinkle with cacao nibs (which on their own can be rather bitter, however combine them with fat such as in whole milk yogurt and they taste like pure chocolate without any added sugar. Cocoa nibs are full of fiber and a good source of potassium, chromium, copper, calcium, zinc, vitamin C and a rich source of magnesium).
  4. Jar up any remaining rhubarb sauce for on biscuits, pancakes, oatmeal or toast instead of jam.
This will help pass the time while I wait for the strawberries to ripen….. and the many recipes featuring the classic pair.

Kombucha: My New Bubbly

On Mothers Day, I was blessed with another “daughter”: a perfectly slimy, thoroughly unappealing looking, squishy, whitish patty. She won’t be winning any beauty contests, but she is teaming with life, and healthy energy!  Earlier than I had expected, the “mother” kombucha “SCOBY” (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) from which I brewed my first batch, had already grown a mini version of herself.  I was delighted!

As a follow-up to a recent post about probiotics, here’s more about what has become one of my favorite food forms (well drink, actually) of naturally occurring probiotic bacteria: Kombucha.

When first introduced to the supposed elixir, it was described to me as an effervescent fermented tea made from a mushroom.  Though I am (for the most part) open-minded and eager to try new foods (particularly ones surrounded by information about their numerous health benefits), fermented mushroom tea was a stretch.  As it turns out, it is not made from a mushroom, but a “SCOBY” which resembles a mushroom (or rather a pancake, I think) in appearance.

Kombucha traces its history back to Russian as well as ancient Japan and China, often in a context of profound health and healing.  Although conclusive scientific studies have yet to be completed in the US, centuries of anecdotal evidence have convinced many to add this beverage to their diet, and some have used it as a successful healing therapy.

The drink’s naturally occurring bacteria serve to replenish our internal gut flora, which improves our digestion and boosts immunity. It contains glucuronic acid, which is effective in cleansing the body of toxins.  In addition, the tea provides a worthwhile amount of vitamin B complex, antioxidants and minerals.  It appeals to health-seekers, do-it-yourselfers, low-carb dieters and foodies in numbers large enough to have caught the attention of beverage makers such as Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and Celestial Seasonings (all of whom have leapt on board the kombucha train).  Being more of the DIY persuasion, I gave it a try.

How to make kombucha home-brew:

When the much anticipated SCOBY (which can be ordered online) arrives in the mail:

Brew strong black tea (ideally organic) with organic sugar:

Remove tea bags or leaves, add SCOBY and fill jar with additional cool water.  Allow to sit, covered with a cloth, in a warm place:

After one-two weeks, start to taste your brew.  It will continue to ferment (as the bacteria will continue to eat the sugar), making the flavor stronger and less sweet the longer you wait.

Save the SCOBY (which may already be growing a “daughter” so that you can start making twice as much) and serve your refreshing home brew.

Curious to know more? Various websites, such as kombucha camp, and these books can help.

Cheers!

Welcome Probiotics!

You’ve probably heard that yogurt contains healthy bacteria, and have perhaps been swayed by recent ad campaigns treading dangerously close to “tmi”  bathroom talk. You may have tried one of the highly processed, packaged, flavored and sweetened yogurt products in an effort to improve your digestive situation. While it is true that real yogurt (as well as other naturally fermented foods) made with active cultures offer the body unique nutrition called “probiotics,” it is also true that Dannon was sued over unsubstantiated health claims made in their advertisements for “Activia” yogurt-like products and has been quietly reimbursing costumers. So beware of wannabes.

With 100 trillion bacterial cells from 500 different species, your gut is a veritable microbial zoo teaming with critters, and that’s exactly the way you want it.  These bacteria, when healthy and plentiful, in turn keep you healthy, digesting well, crowding out “bad” bacteria, and may also help protect against more serious chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  According to this month’s issue of the Life Extension Foundation‘s magazine, your gut contains 70-80% of your body’s immune system, where probiotics work at the molecular level to keep you well.

Their biggest enemy? Antibiotics. Not only are we being prescribed the antis more and more often, but most of our animal foods come from CAFO factory farms where animals are pumped full of antibiotics, and so by extension, so are you when you eat the meat, milk and other animal foods from these sources.  The artificial sweetener aspartame and oral contraceptives both interfere with healthy gut bacteria, and genetically modified foods and chlorinated water very well may too.

A good way to repopulation your gut bacteria, is to frequently eat fermented foods – those  sometimes called “traditional” or “live” which contain natural forms of probiotics. A quick tour around the world of traditional fermented foods include Japanese miso, tamari and natto, German sauerkraut, Bulgarian yogurt, Russian kefir, Ethiopian injera bread, Korean kimchi, Indian lassi drinks, Salvadoran curtido, etc.  For more information and simple recipes for these traditional foods, I highly recommend Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  Although probiotics have been receiving well deserved media attention only recently, they are by no means a new method of maintaining good health.

With the goal of a thriving community of probiotics in your gut, you have to be a good host. Keep them out of harm’s way (antibiotics) and nourish them with prebiotics.  Foods such as bananas, garlic, onions, raw honey, wheat, barley, and soybeans naturally contain prebiotics, or probiotic food. For additional support, or in times of therapeutic need (such as during and following a course of antibiotics), you may also want to consider a high quality probiotic and prebiotic supplement.

Since I’ve been focusing on probiotics, no meal feels quite complete without a generous scoop of kimchi or kraut.  A bowl of plain yogurt satisfies a snack or dessert desire, and when thirsty, I reach for kombucha (a fermented tea drink).  A few of my recent favorite “full of life” foods: kimchi in an avocado half; kimchi or kraut quesadilla; sourdough bread with cultured butter; yogurt with raw honey and ground flaxseeds, miso broth to sip and kombucha to drink. To satisfy my growing thirst, I ordered a SCOBY (a kombucha “mother”) and have started brewing my own kombucha).

Hungry for more?  Let me recommend these articles on probiotics:

And if you’re as hooked as I am, you’ll be happy to know this great looking new book is coming out next month: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Katz with a foreword by Michael Pollan.

But first, my bowl of yogurt: