Friday, August 26, 2011

Walnuts: Cracking the Case of Heart Health

Nuts have always been part of our daily diet recommendations. But they are dogged by their dark side – one that likely developed as a result of their ubiquity as an over-indulged in, high-calorie snack. They can be found in the ingredient list of many processed foods, are a perennial companion for chocolate, and end up in bottomless bowls at parties and bars across the country. And while nut consumption and production has risen sharply over the last decade, overall consumption of tree nuts – hard-shelled fruits of a plant, a category that excludes the peanut – is relatively low in the U.S.

Too bad. Tree nuts, in particular the walnut, are superior when it comes to heart health. The walnut’s claim to fame? It is brimming with unsaturated fats, notorious combatants of bad cholesterol levels, and it is crammed with omega-3 fatty acids, famously good for the heart.

Omega-3s are made up of a number of different fatty acids. The most well-known are known as DHA, EPA and ALA. Walnuts are an excellent source of ALA –  a 1-ounce serving has 2.5 grams. In fact, a diet including things like soy protein and nuts has been shown to lower LDL levels (the bad cholesterol) even more than statin drugs or a low-fat diet, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They also provide fiber, vitamin E, cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, and (drumroll, please) they are satisfyingly delicious.

If you are focused on health heart, start thinking like a squirrel and take a crack at a nut that waves the flag of heart health: the walnut.

New Nut Research

Walnuts have been well-researched when it comes to their health benefits, and the research into their functional food potential continues to show promise. A 2010 study showed that adding walnuts to the daily diet of adults with Type 2 diabetes for two months significantly improved blood vessel health. Walnuts added to the diet improved “endothelial function”, an indicator of heart disease risk, lending evidence to the walnut’s potential role in diabetes prevention. Results of the study also indicate that walnuts earn their superfood status, especially when they are part of a Mediterranean diet.
Is there something in there? by Dawn Huczek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Dawn Huczek

In addition to their potential for Type-2 diabetes prevention, they have powerful antioxidant ability, and they have a great deal of cancer prevention potential. They have been found to control inflammation, influence gene expression, help reduce body fat, and boost fertility in men, according to published research. And, they have a hidden advantage: they are effective at controlling appetite because of their powerful ability to satisfy and keep us feeling full – one of the best payoffs we get for ingesting calories.

Replacement Strategy 

Rarely do we think of eating healthy by urging ourselves to simply “Eat!” But that’s sometimes just the advice we need to fill our nutritional gaps. Maintaining a healthy heart often accompanies a course of action of eliminating bad foods. But adding good foods, especially those that are known to improve important heart numbers by lowering LDLs, like walnuts, is an equally important strategy.

We mentioned nuts’ dark side – they are high in calories – so moderation is the key. Experts recommend 1-1 ½ ounces per day, or up to 20 walnut halves. Helping demolish the benefits of the nut are health sabotagers that love to cling to them, such as salt, sugar and chocolate, which can negate their nutritional power. At the same time, weight gain is not inevitable. In the diabetes study above, subjects did not gain weight. Instead, they used replacement strategies that helped them make room in their diets for the walnut calories.

The bottom line? Go nuts but keep your head. If you are eliminating cheese as a snack or on a salad, use walnuts as a stand-in. Reaching for a mid-day cookie? Swap with the walnut. Nuts can also come in handy when you are seeking something healthy that still provides a little crunch, or if you are eliminating proteins (think bacon) but desire a “meaty” flavor. Add walnuts to cereal, oatmeal, rice and quinoa, or try them in pizza (really!) when oily toppings are off limits.

If you are a bona fide nut nerd, consult the NuVal scale – one of the simplest ways of measureing nutrition (from 1 to 100), to judge your nut varieties in proper context. Walnuts set a high bar with a score of 82, followed by the almond (81). Contender coulda-beens include the pistachio (69) and the pecan (67). Consult this healthy nut slide show at Lifescript  for the run-down.

Love dry roasted? No problem. They usually have no additional oils and the same health benefits as raw. Even peanuts – not true nuts, but legumes – are relatively healthy in moderation, though they don’t measure up to the walnut’s nutritional advantages. They come in at 29 on the NuVal scale.

See the Mayo Clinic for a comprehensive list of nut benefits.

Mix It Up! Try These Walnut Recipe Ideas 

Eating Well’s Zucchini Walnut Loaf not to mention their Baked Apples with Dried Fruits & Walnuts are perfect for ingredients profuse in the waning summer season.

Elevated Existence offers this Walnut Encrusted Salmon for an Omega-3 blast.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Good Guy Noir: Nutrition is the New Black

Whoever said black never goes out of style must have been referring to nutrition. Dark berries are certainly a runway favorite. They are high on the list of foods that provide excellent benefits to our health thanks to that dark color – it's your tip off that you are in the presence of anthocyanins. Dark skin is a fruit UV protector, and may be the key to our protection as well, as a scavenger of free radicals that cause aging and serious diseases. So grab a bowl and head to the nearest abandoned schoolyard, back lot, or backyard, and go in search of the dark colored berry. You'll come back with a bowlful of sweetness and nutrition that never fails to turn a serious style maven's head in pies, in ice cream, as a jam or a vinaigrette.

Blackberry or Black Raspberry?

Both blackberries and black raspberries might be harder to find if you live in the North. While red raspberries are adaptable in colder climates, black berries are not as hardy, and grow more often in southern Maine, or in sheltered areas to the north. But being in the realm of the dark colored berry can be a source of confusion: often we refer to blackberries when we really mean black raspberries.

While they look very similar, blackberries and black raspberries have slightly different growing seasons, and are slightly different when picked. If the little white core is left on the plant at picking time, you’ll know it is part of the raspberry family – raspberries easily pull from the core, leaving the hollow fruit – it’s how we can tell if the fruit is ripe. Blackberries, on the other hand, don’t separate from the core.

While both black-colored berries provide excellent nutritional benefits, black raspberries are purported to have higher antioxidant properties. Tastes differ as well. Black raspberries will be harder to distinguish from a red raspberry whereas blackberries have a taste all their own, and tend to be sweeter and less tangy than black raspberries.

Healthy Berry

Dark berries are strong performers when it comes to antioxidant activity. As we've mentioned, fruit with  deeper, darker skin means higher concentrations anthocyanins. Blackberries and black raspberries also have a high skin-to-pulp ratio due to their clumping, or "bramble" fruit, which contributes as well. The result is a high ORAC score. ORAC measures the antioxidant activity in foods by using the cellular antioxidant activity (CAA) assay, which provides information on the uptake, metabolism, distribution and activity of antioxidant compounds in cells.

Black berries also have high fiber content, owing again to their skin. They are high in Vitamin C, manganese and B vitamins, and they have high amounts of phenolic compounds. Phenols are part of the reason we consider wine as being good for our health: they can have wide-ranging benefits, including anti-viral and antioxidant properties.

Studies are currently underway to determine just how beneficial black raspberries will turn out to be. Some preliminary studies suggest they may help to slow breast, cervical, colon and esophageal cancers. You can learn more about berry health benefits.

Foraging Favorite

Blackberry and black raspberries have their challenges. They are fairly fragile, and quick to mold or deteriorate if they are crushed, and while freezing does preserve their glory, when fresh, they stay in shape for only a couple of days. And, as accessible as they are, their thorny branches can act like a barbed wire fence making picking seem more like a prison escape than summer recreation.

But these dark berries are worth the trouble. They are a foraging favorite, found copiously around yards, railroad tracks, and fences, and they grow expansively in the wild, often feeding birds and other creatures attracted to their glowing dark color. But if you prefer to forgo the thorns, these berries can easily be found at supermarkets and farmer's markets this time of year. They work extremely well with other berries, creating a healthy synergy. Combining black raspberries with wild blueberries in a cobbler or buckle, for example, creates an uniquely surprising palate of yin and yang as well as a powerfully healthful punch.

Blackberries and black raspberries shine on their own, too, enlivening salads and adding flavor and antioxidants to smoothies, jams, muffins, cobblers, pies and wine. They make a sweet snack alone, and their fabulous dark shiny exterior enhances a cheese plate while acting as the perfect tasting accompaniment.

Go to the Dark Side! Try These Black Berry Recipes

Martha Stewart offers up Napoleons with Black Raspberries for a dark indulgence.

Food & Wine’s Marilyn Batali's Blackberry Pie is a classic from a famous Mom who'd know.

Looking for a crisp with berry synergy? Black rocks’s Black Raspberry Wild Blueberry & Marion Blackberry Crisp

Kick back with some homemade Blackberry Wine from the Guardian.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Quite Contrary: Green Roofs Take Gardens to the Heights

At the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor, you can find plenty of lowbush blueberries in surprising places, but no more surprising than on this small-scale living roof. They've planted these blues up high – not to keep them from enthusiastic pickers (these “burgundy” blueberries are primarily ornamental) but to put the marriage of horticulture and architecture on display.

A "living roof " grows lowbush blueberries at Coastal Maine
Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
Green, or living, roofs are becoming more and more popular as ecological architects seek ways to build sustainably, and vegetation that completely covers a building’s roof benefits air quality, conserves energy, reduces stormwater runoff and helps lessen the “urban heat island effect” in cities in which traditional roofs absorb the sun’s heat during the day then radiate it back a night.  Chicago has been a leader in green roofs and rooftop gardens in the U.S., and in Canada, Toronto approved a by-law in 2009 that mandated green roofs on residential and industrial buildings.

Of course, a true green roof – a roof covered mostly or completely with vegetation planted over a waterproofing membrane – differs from a rooftop garden, which consists of various container plantings on a roof or deck surface. However, some more intensive roof gardens are planted into soil that covers the roof. It’s an exciting way add beauty to an environment: planting a diversity of flowers and shrubs can add amazing color and some desired “green space” to an urban community.

We are likely to encounter fewer true green roofs in the Northeast, but they exist. In fact, students at the University of Delaware found that growing a garden on the roof of their college buildings had many advantages, and they hope their idea will take off. Plants on the roof had a cooling effect in the summer, and caused the peak temperature on the roof to occur later in the day, making classroom temperatures more comfortable and lessening the need for air conditioning.

If you are considering a roof garden, either for aesthetic, sustainable, or gastronomic reasons, choose durable plants that grow year-round and require little attention beyond occasional weeding, and be aware of safety issues associated with weight and weight distribution. While not all your edibles will work well up on the roof, things like herbs, snow peas, and greens like spinach and bok choy can thrive if your roof has a seasonal focus.

You can find out more about roof gardens at The Kitchn, and shows you how to start your own rooftop veggie garden.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

It’s National Farmers Market Week!

Celebrate By Targeting These 5 Market Fresh Foods 

Farmers’ Market by NatalieMaynor, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  NatalieMaynor 

It’s not unusual to get a hankering for a bag of farm fresh potatoes (bursting with a variety of phytonutrients). Around the time when the urge hits, wouldn’t it be great to watch them instantly turn into a Garden Vegetable or Zesty Corn and Potato Salad? You can! Maine Foodie Finds digs deep into Maine’s farmers markets and comes up with gorgeous red potatoes and glowing yellow string beans, all fresh from the ground and vine, then uses a little culinary magic to turn these summer nuggets into foodie gold.

It’s easy to get inspired with seasonal ingredients when there is so much pleasure in the hunt. Take a lesson, and hit your own kitchen with your take. It’s the perfect activity for National Farmers Market Week. In July, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack proclaimed August 7th to the 13th, 2011 as National Farmers Market Week – again. It marks the twelfth year markets have been given the national nod.

According to the USDA, the number of farmers markets have multiplied continuously since in 1994, increasing by 16% just last year – these beloved gathering places for fruits and veggies (and other things, like meats, breads, and cheeses, of course) currently number 6,132 nationwide. Year-round markets have increased as well. It means better access to local, fresh food for more people more often. That’s something to celebrate.

In honor of National Farmers Market Week, the Portland Farmers Market  in Portland Maine is challenging everyone to prepare at least three meals this week using ingredients entirely purchased at the Market. The food gauntlet is down!

5 Fresh Fruit & Veggie Finds for August

What’s healthy and delicious in August for your (at least) three market-sourced meals? Here are five fruits and vegetables that are likely to populate your local shopping hot spots this month. Get them while you can, and make the most of this seriously servings-rich season.

Wild Blueberries

The verdict is in! It’s harvest time for the tens of thousands of acres in Maine and Canada currently being stripped of their glorious blue color. If you aren’t already smothering your plate with antioxidant-rich disease-preventing wild blueberries, now is the time to start a healthy habit. Initiate yourself with a handful for your salad, sauté some up with a little red wine for a sauce or vinaigrette, use them to lend a spark to fish (try this Tuna Carpaccio with Wild Blueberry Wasabi Sauce), chicken or pork (Wild Blueberry Rhubarb Pork Chops anyone?), and finish with a charlotte or a crumble. The big, blue world is open to you!

dogs n corn by 46137, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  46137 

Nothing tastes more like August than corn fresh from the garden. August is the month when those pencil-thin stalks start growing to edible size, and the golden gems of summer offer up their sweet taste straight off the stalk, if you like. Get your fill of the essential summer taste of corn by grilling it with a shake of cayenne or cilantro. Make some summer corn chowder, or use it in a colorful salad. While buttered and salted may be a family favorite, we’re up to our ears in ways to leverage this classic summer veggie. Here’s ten sweet recipes from The Kitchen.

Whether you put their taste on display in a classic caprese salad, in an elegant tomato and lemon mascarpone tart or stuffed with fresh summer corn, tomatoes are the best ever in late summer. There’s simply no taste like a late summer tomato warm from the sill, and thanks to their lycopene, they provide superior health benefits to boot. Eat up, or save your take for a midwinter marinara by preserving them says, the Portland Press Herald.

Tomatoes by La Grande Farmers

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  La Grande Farmers' Market 

There’s a lot to love about peppers, and while bell peppers can be found year round, late summer they are at their shiny, tasty best. Peppers are a good source of vitamin C, thiamine, vitamin B6, beta carotene, and folic acid, and they contain large amounts of phytochemicals, providing exceptional antioxidant activity. Not to mention, they are a perfect ingredient: they provide sweetness, crunch, and bright color to hundreds of recipes. If you love a stuffed pepper (go meat!) now’s the time. But don’t limit yourself to stuffing. Make it simple, with a sweet and sour bell pepper salad, or try Gourmet Magazine’s logic-defying Chilled Red Bell Pepper and Habanero Soup, a sensational cold soup that’s also hot.

Summer Squash

Summer squash peaks at summer’s end and these long, green vegetables are plentiful for good reason. While they may not be known as one of the antioxidants powerhouses, summer squash is a very strong source of key antioxidant nutrients, including the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which could play a role in preventing memory loss, vision loss and heart disease. The skin of summer squash is particularly antioxidant-rich, so leave it intact when you can. (You can read up about the health benefits of summer squash at This versatile veggie can be your go-to summer food during all of August and beyond. It is perfect for stuffing, grilling, tossing with feta and tomatoes, or even putting it in a cupcake.

How are you preparing your (at least) three meals this week using ingredients entirely purchased at the farmers markets? Tell us!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New! Harvest Pics From Down East Maine’s Wild Blueberry Barrens

Plus: What To Do With All That Blue?

Awash in blue! In August, wild blueberry harvest season brings hundreds of workers to the fields, a sight that can only be witnessed in this region of the country. Washington County is home to half of Maine's commercially harvested fields, and photographer/videographer Geoff Leighton was there for a first-hand look at the action.  

Agricultural and nutritional researchers know a good thing when they see it. Capitalizing on a nutritional powerhouse like the blueberry means backing the right horse when it comes to delicious foods that provide high concentrations of healthy, disease preventing antioxidants.

But while some researchers are busy traveling to South America to seek alternatives to high-bush or so-called “grocery store” blueberries that have higher concentrations of antioxidants to fight cancer and heart disease, they neglect to mention that right here, in Maine and Canada, alternatives already exist. Wild, low-bush blueberries have the highest antioxidant capacity per serving, compared with more than 20 other fruits, including high bush blues, and they are right here in the states, being harvested by the billions of pounds every August.

Not only do we have access to these highly concentrated healthy fruits, we can see their evolution first hand. If you are assessing the source of your meal as part of understanding what on your plate is a cowboy and what is an alien, with wild blueberries, it’s easy to trace. August is wild blueberry harvest season, a time when berries cover the barrens in blue, and the race is on to pick, rake, and mechanically harvest every last one so they can provide us with their nutritional properties and sweet, tangy, complex tastes all year.

We talk about the unique qualities of the wild blueberry all the time, but a picture is worth a thousand words. Thanks to Geoff Leighton of Leighton Images, we can eavesdrop on what’s happening in the glorious, bountiful world of the wild blueberry right now, when the harvest is on.

A raker works the field in Deblois, Maine. Hand rakers are often dispatched to work the rocky or steep terrain, and for their efforts are paid by the  pound or by the box. The fields are usually wiped clean by mid-August.

Most  farmers rely heavily on mechanized harvesting. Once a field is free of  rocks, if farmers are lucky enough to have level ground, mechanized harvesting is more efficient and environmentally sound.

Rake-making at The Hubbard Rake Co. in Jonesport, Maine. Owner Ike Hubbard is responsible for re-inventing the blueberry rake. Rakes are now available in many styles, including two-handled rakes, long handled rakes for raking upright, and small models for backpackers.

Farmers harvest half their fields every year while the other half is managed to encourage vegetative growth.  For a farmer with  3-4 acres of land, it would not be unusual to harvest 10 thousand pounds during the month of August.

Workers on the line at Merrill Wild Blueberries in Ellsworth, Maine.  Up to 20,000 pounds of wild blueberries per hour can pass through processing lines like this one during harvest.  

Use Your Blues

While most wild blueberries are frozen immediately after harvesting using IQF technology to preserve all the taste and nutrition, you are certain to find pints fresh from the field at local stores and farmer’s markets.

What to do with all that blue?

Desserts? Pies? Cakes? You bet. But nothing’s off limits when it comes to blues. Canadian food columnist, Chef Dez reminds us that blueberries shine with meats such as steak, beef or lamb – their bold flavor stands up well as a sauce or jam accompaniment. Blueberries also add sweetness to vinegar, making them perfect for salads, and add a mellowing complex flavor. Chef Dez says, try this at home: take a handful of blueberries, wash and dry them, and toss with a teaspoon of balsamic and a sprinkle of sugar, if desired. Perfection!

That being said, it’s Endless Simmer that gets the wild blue ribbon for assembling 100 of the best ways to use blueberries (make sure to use wild for best taste and nutritional intensity). They outdid themselves by searching the blogosphere for the most deliciously conceivable ways to take advantage of the season. Choose from cocktails and chicken, honey ice cream, almond smoothies, blueberry mint ice cream sandwiches, marshmallow crisps, sauces and jellos. Endless Simmer, you get a Big Blue Bravo!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens: Battling Food From a Faraway Galaxy

Have you ever looked down at the food you're eating and thought, “Where did you come from?”

It’s no space age phenomenon – it can happen right here in 1873…er, 2011. You can get the feeling a spaceship arrived in your kitchen and took over what you thought was a decent, healthy meal.  Sometimes even the good guys – that is, the healthy, disease-preventing foods that provide antioxidants, vitamins and nutrients – can’t battle the forces that have brought your dinner plate to its knees.

That’s when you know you’ve entered a culinary battle royal coming to a kitchen near you: Cowboys and Aliens.

The Cowboys

Whether you consider your eats as urban as Sissy’s line-dancing Bud, or as free as a galloping horse carrying Alan Ladd, your culinary cowboys will always be characterized as foods that roamed the West when America was young. The cowboy foods are the good guys. They are the mainstays of your health: the foods that crusade against disease, fight cancer, maintain a healthy heart, and prevent obesity-related illness. They slap the dust off their boots and get to the work of dusting free radical from your cells.

Feeling like it’s your first rodeo? Here are some examples of culinary cowboys that will tip their Stetson to your well-being and longevity.

Caveman food. They pre-date cowboys by a smidge, but eating like a caveman isn’t that different from eating like a cowboy. Follow suit, and you’ve got a start on battling gastronomical evil forces. According to Superfood originator Steven Pratt, our genetic makeup remains the same as our cave dwelling (or ranch-roaming) ancestors’, but our lifestyle does not. The more modern our lifestyle and food choices, the more we need foods that cavemen used to get their nutrition in order to counteract our choices. That means eating berries, nuts, and foods that grow on trees and from the ground.

Food without labels. Food that requires no packaging and no ingredient label should serve as the basis of our cowboy diet. These cowboy-friendly foods – usually found at the perimeter of the supermarket or at farmer’s markets – are sold just as nature intended them to be, and they are the foods that do the most to keep us healthy as we traverse the frontier.

Local food. They may roam far and wide on their trusted steed in movies, but real cowboys were too busy handling things at home to stray far from the pasture. They ate food made and grown locally that was native to their surroundings. Taking advantage of local food means eating what local farmers grow. And, cooking with indigenous ingredients is often indicative of someone eating real, whole, healthy food. Not to mention, when you are eating locally, your dollars are kept close to home, and that means your helping your own, Pilgrim.

Clear origins. Cowboys brand their cattle so if they stray, there’s no question where they came from. Can you trace the origin of what you’re eating? What does that origin look like? Is it a farm or a factory? Is it a kitchen or a plant? Is it made by many hands or none?  Could you tour the facility that made it? Is it far away or close to home? Tracing the origins of what’s on your plate can be a great way to discover the real roots or the wicked source of the food you’re colluding with.

Eating with the Posse. Eating together is the cowboy way. What does that have to do with your plate? A lot, actually. Research shows that making and eating family meals is a key element in eating well and staying healthy. Cowboys also eat as much as they are hungry for, and they eat mindfully – they don’t scarf a bag of chips while they on a perilous journey into the sun.  They slow down and enjoy the victuals.

The Aliens

No food is bad. But some are just not of this world. Now that you know the cowboys, the aliens are easier to identify. Sometimes these advanced organisms are straight out of a Spielberg film, sporting one eye and two antennas, but sometimes they walk stealthily among us, their true identity hidden by an earthling-like smile that charms our eyes and our stomachs.

Extraterrestrials. Food activist Michael Pollan cautions against foods your “grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”.  That usual means, in true alien style, that it doesn’t come from the earth. If your food comes in a tube or a carton, is sprinkled with colored sugar or iridescent cheese powder, Rooster Cogburn might have sauntered right by it without even realizing it's food – and so should we.

Alien names. Do the ingredients in your food seem, well, alien? Unpronounceable, multi-syllabic words on your ingredient list is a sign clearer than a crop circle that there is something unearthly in your lunch. It could be hurting your health, or at least taking up calories that could be spent on those that improve it. Instead, throw your lasso around foods that have four ingredients or less, and when you can, those that have just one.

Alien claims. Whether they are “light”, “enriched” or “heart healthy”, alien foods try hard to assimilate, but if they require a label, it means they are trying a little too hard. The best foods come in their own packages (with the exception of frozen, which require packaging –  the good ones have just one ingredient) and make claims from nutritionists and scientists, not marketers.  

Ageless food. According to the Lempert Report, shoppers are making more trips to the supermarket and spending less money per trip. These “narrow missions” could be part of avoiding aliens – that is, food that keeps forever. If your food doesn’t go bad, there’s a reason (see above). Frozen fruits and veggies or unfrozen foods that decompose like a giant parasitic egg bent on attacking Sigourney Weaver are foods that are real, whole, natural, and healthy. Keeping fresh, vulnerable foods around might require more frequent trips to the store, but you’ll be free to buy what you want without worrying it won’t get eaten.

Fight the Good (Food) Fight

Sure, sometimes we’re all itching for a good fight (or have a soft spot for Harrison Ford riding a horse), but if you’re interested in doing the best thing you can do for your health and longevity, give the food aliens a boot back into orbit. Knowledge and a few good cooking tools will serve as your magic bracelet – that’s all you need to saddle up and get yourself some colorful, antioxidant, nutrient-rich fixins that aren’t from a galaxy far, far away.