a book review + watercress pluot salad with lime-nutmeg vinaigrette

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In one of my recent weekly visits to the blog Gluten Free Girl and the Chef I stumbled across an excellent review of a new book, Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. Shauna writes about Robinson’s dedication, research and passion for both wild plants and modern cultivars, and discusses the connection between plants of the past and our diets of the present. That was enough to pique my interest, and as soon as I could get to the library I picked up my own copy.

Early into the first chapter I knew this was going to be a great read. I started keeping a pen and a notebook with me while I read it to jot down interesting tidbits about vegetable varieties and how to make them more nutritious. With recipes, historical anecdotes (with one involving the nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, no less!), gardening advice and shopping tips, Robinson combines all of her knowledge, in a pleasant way, her gentle voice shining through the academic citations.

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Robinson breaks the book down into two parts – fruits and vegetables – and from there divides the categories into chapters for individual varieties. There is a chapter devoted to lettuces, to berries, to apples, to corn. She describes to history of each plant, tracing the modern lineage back to its ancient ancestor, and details how the varieties have developed through science or by accident.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Robinson ensures the reader comes away with an appreciation for a plant’s nutrition – it’s not all about color and flavor, although these usually play a key role in tapping into the nutrients. From this she offers ingenious ideas on ensuring we as consumers can choose the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and then learn how to enhance those nutrients through cooking and storage techniques.

The tip I’ve been remembering the most has to do with garlic. Studies crop up like weeds about the anti-cancer properties of garlic nowadays, and traditional remedies recommend choking down pungent concoctions with the stuff to stave off colds and the flu. Robinson reveals, however, that the disease-fighting properties of garlic are not so easily accessed as to swallow a clove whole. There are two enzymes contained in a clove of garlic, and it is only after the whole garlic has been processed somehow – by chopping, pressing, smashing – that the two enzymes can combine to create the cancer-fighting enzyme that is so often lauded in scientific studies. It is important, as Robinson reveals, to process the garlic and let it rest for 10 minutes to activate the production of the helpful and healthful enzyme before cooking. Through this, and only through this, will you extract the most nutrition and the most disease-fighting properties from your common garlic clove.

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This is just one of many amazing kitchen-nutrition tips that Robinson offers, like the fact that cooking beets with the skins on retains more of the nutrients, or cooking and then chilling potatoes overnight before serving reduces the glycemic load of the starchy tuber. Fascinating!

I kept a running list of interesting varieties of fruits and vegetables to plant in my someday garden, thanks to Robinson’s recommendations at the end of each chapter. From Carolina Ruby Sweet Potatoes to Brigadier broccoli, to Tuscan Kale and Hawaiian Currant Tomatoes, to French Gray Shallots and Merlot lettuce, to Spanish Roja Garlic and Detroit Dark Red Beets, I am inspired to reap the benefits of nutrition and flavor in my own plot of land someday.

Eating on the Wild Side also inspired me to try some new produce at the grocery store. Instead of my typical kale and spinach, I purchased two bundles of delicate watercress. Instead of apples or berries, I chose a handful of translucent-skinned pluots. With a homemade vinaigrette and some gently toasted pistachios, all I needed was that new and vibrant produce to create a new salad. I made this twice I liked it so much – something about the bitter greens, the sweet fruit, the crunch of the nuts and the acidic spice of the vinaigrette combined perfectly.

Truly, as Robinson writes, when the fruits and vegetables are fresh and nutritious, they need but a little dressing up to turn them into a good meal.

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Watercress Salad with Pluots, Toasted Pistachios and Lime-Nutmeg Vinaigrette

1 bunch fresh watercress, washed and trimmed

2 pluots

1 c. raw pistachios

1 lime, juiced

1/4 c. olive oil

1 egg yolk

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. sea salt

Arrange the washed and trimmed watercress in a large salad bowl, Slice and pit the pluots and arrange on the greens. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and toast pistachios with a pinch of sea salt and a splash of olive oil until fragrant, about 5 minutes, before sprinkling over salad.

Meanwhile, whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a bowl or in a food processor. Combine the lime juice with the olive oil, salt and nutmeg, and briskly stir in the egg yolk until the dressing emulsifies. Drizzle over salad and serve immediately.

The salad does not keep well dressed — if you are making this ahead of time or in a large batch, dress only what you’ll be eating immediately, and store the greens, fruit, nuts and vinaigrette in separate containers in the refrigerator to keep everything crisp.

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herbed [activated] almonds

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Water, a dash of salt, a pound of raw almonds, twenty-four hours. This simple equation is all is takes to transform something ordinary into something incredibly delicious and nourishing. By harnessing — and in this case, by encouraging — the force of nature upon a little seed, we unlock vast potential, almost as if a door has been opened and a flood of energy unleashed. Sound a little trippy? Embrace your inner hippie and come along on a biochemical nutritional geekery magic carpet ride with me.

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Almonds, on their own, seem like a healthy snack. In their raw form they are free of roasting oils and seasonings that would never be found in nature — BBQ or wasabi almonds, anyone? — and seem to be the best choice, as any wellness magazine would tell you. But in reality, almonds contain a host of warriors that fight against digestion and mineral absorption when consumed raw, and can cause more harm to the body than good.

I first learned about the chemical makeup of almonds (and most other nuts and seeds) from the nutritional tome Nourishing Traditionsif you haven’t picked up a copy for yourself, I suggest that you do. I learned about the anti-nutrient contained in nuts and seeds that exist to protect the reproductive potential of the plant. Phytatic acid is what prevents much of the digestion of almonds and hinders the absorption of minerals in the body, often encouraging digestive upset, mineral deficiencies and a whole host of other problems, potentially leading to leaky gut and autoimmune disorders.

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Take a difference perspective: if you were a plant, you would want to protect your DNA-containing embryo that would help your species propogate. It’s the same reason why fowl protect their eggs and wheat kernels are so difficult to digest without some form of processing. The organism needs those seeds to survive in order for the organism’s lineage to survive.

It doesn’t only happen with wheat and almonds — when birds eat berries they are able to fully digest the fruit, but the seed of the blackberry or blueberry they just consumed passes whole through their digestive system and is spread across the country through their waste. This is one of the ingenious mechanisms of biochemistry that allows plants and animals to work together, synergistically.

So if we take into account the anti-nutrients contained in almonds and why those anti-nutrients exist, should we even eat almonds and other nuts in the first place? Yes, I contend, but in small doses, and with proper preparation.

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There is a process — called soaking, sprouting or “activating” — that helps to neutralize the harmful phytic acid and make the minerals within an almond more bio-available (meaning, our bodies can absorb them better). By soaking nuts overnight in clean water with a pinch of salt, we activate the almond’s growing response and thereby “turn off” the production of harmful phytic acid. Think of it this way: the almond has been on the defensive, trying to protect itself and its genetic material for the future. But now, under the right circumstances, it is being encouraged to grow, to start a sprout, and to eventually produce more almonds. In this “safe place,” it no longer needs phytic acid to protect itself, but now can use all of its resources — resources that are nutritious to the human body — to propagate.

This is certainly more time-intensive than eating raw almonds straight out of a package, but it is worth it in the long run to reap the health benefits and negate the detriments of phytic acid on the body. Plus, by soaking/sprouting/activating the almonds, you open up a whole new flavor profile and an opportunity to customize. With my typical recipe, I soak and dehydrate almonds without the addition of spices, but this time I created an autumn-inspired mix with sea salt, dried rosemary, and a little extra time in the oven to promote a roasted, toasted flavor.

Look at this as one big science experiment and have fun with it — that’s half the reason why we get into the kitchen in the first place, to tinker and to play.

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Salted Rosemary [Activated] Almonds

1 lb. raw almonds

2 quarts water

dash of sea salt (or an acidic medium like apple cider vinegar)

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. sea salt

1-2 Tbsp. dried rosemary

Soak the raw almonds overnight in fresh water with a dash of salt or apple cider vinegar. This helps to begin the sprouting (or “activating”) process that removes many of the phytates and other anti-nutrients contained in the nut which prevent digestion and adequate mineral absorption.

After soaking, drain and rinse the raw almonds, shaking as much water off as possible. In a large bowl, toss the almonds with olive oil, salt and dried rosemary to coat. Spread on a lined baking sheet and leave in the oven for at least 12 hours at 170 degrees — the almonds are adequately dehydrated when they are crunchy and have a slightly sweet, toasted flavor.

Try other flavors and combinations:

smoked paprika + cayenne + garlic salt

pumpkin pie spice + maple syrup

cumin + chili powder + lime zest

oregano + tomato paste + olive oil + sea salt

honey + sea salt + sesame seeds

ginger + turmeric + honey

garam masala + sea salt