Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Yogurt: Health Food or A Big, Expensive Lie?

It can be either, and the smart eater makes the right choices.

What exactly IS yogurt? An expensive way to drink milk? No, not necessarily. Yogurt, like cheese, is one of the world’s oldest processed foods. Plain yogurt is simply milk which has been heated to kill the microbes, blended with selected bacteria and allowed to ferment.  Yes, it’s more expensive than drinking a glass of milk, but also a lot more interesting. And, for some people, it is easier to digest than milk, as the culture breaks down lactose which can mitigate lactose intolerance.

Frozen Yogurt

What about frozen yogurt? If you’re eating it because it is delicious, that’s fine. But, don’t indulge because you think it’s a health food. Frozen yogurts can be packed with as many calories as ice cream, or contain artificial colors and sweeteners which you may or may not want.

What makes it “Greek”? This yogurt is strained to eliminate some of the whey (liquid) so it is thicker and more concentrated than regular yogurt because it has a higher percentage of milk solids.

Fage lays claim to inventing Greek yogurt in a small shop in Athens in 1926, later growing a significant business in Greece and initiating imports to the United States in 1998. They were one of the first to start manufacturing in Upstate New York, whose dairies are new booming thanks to this craze.

How about those new “Probiotic” yogurts? Activia, for example, contains live cultures known as probiotics. There are health claims that these bacteria help in digestion and these products have a significant following, particularly among people with digestive disorders. Some additional yogurt brands (e.g. Chobani and Oikos) contain probiotics but don’t actively promote it; others do not (e.g. Fage).

Yogurt is incredibly versatile, and there are innumerable dishes around the world made with it. Interestingly, many internet recipes for centuries old dishes now specify using Greek yogurt, a testament to the how wildly popular this relatively new concept has become.

Tzatziki in a Meatball Sandwich on Pita Bread

Some of myMEGusta’s favorite yogurt concoctions are:

Tzatziki – A traditional Greek sauce sauce made with grated cucumber, lemon, dill, used as a dip and in pita sandwiches such as gyros or souvlaki

Cucumber Raita

Raita –A similar Indian dish which is wonderful accompanying hot foods: yogurt with cucumber, with seasonings such as mint, cumin, paprika or cayenne

Lassi – Another treat from India: yogurt blended with fruit, e.g. mango,  with no need for sweetener if the fruit is ripe enough

Mango Lassi

“Fake” crème fraiche – Beat Greek yogurt until smooth and add a sweetener (try agave syrup!) to make a tangy fat-free dessert sauce, e.g. for berries, maybe adding cocoa or other flavorings

Quick Quiz: Who’s Frank Meyer?

Quick answer: Hardly anyone cares, and even he didn’t know he would be famous in the world of gastronomy.

Meyer Lemon Tree

In the early 20thCentury, the USDA employed “plant explorers” whose mission was to travel the world in search of exotics which would then be introduced to the United States.  Of course, this is the opposite of what we do now in assiduously avoiding the introduction of potentially dangerous new species (or new diseases along for the ride) here.

Frank Meyer was one of these men, assigned to China. One of the items he brought back  was an unusual lemon tree, easy to grow and beautiful, but whose fruit was too thin skinned to be commercially viable, so it was considered an “ornamental”. It was not well known outside the world of botanists, horticulturalists and landscape designers for over half a century, although it did bear his name.

Enter Martha Stewart.

Organic Meyer Lemons

Always on the lookout for something unique, she started using Meyer lemons in her recipes, and the species became wildly popular.  A cross between a mandarin orange and ‘regular’ lemon, Meyer lemons have a sweeter and less acidic flavor, and can even be used thinly sliced with the rind on as one might  an orange. They can be used in lieu of either of these, or of limes, in many recipes.

Meyer Lemon Cupcake

The season mirrors that of other citrus, the winter months. Fresh Meyer lemons are rarely seen commercially other than in farmers markets in the warm climes where they are grown or specialty stores like Whole Foods. Like other citrus, they are, however, available in additional months to the trade, which is why dishes made with them can appear on menus out of season.

It is also possible to purchase Meyer Lemon Concentrate, a frozen product which is certainly finding its way into (and probably the dominant source of Meyer lemon) in restaurants, especially when the fresh product is not available. MyMEGusta has not done a side-by-side tasting of dishes prepared from fresh and from concentrate, and welcomes comments from readers who have. Perhaps this will be a project for next winter!

Pease Porridge Hot…

How many generations of parents and little kids have quoted this and not had the vaguest idea as to what the idea of “pease porridge” was and why people ate it?

There was a time when sugar snap peas did not exist, snow peas (“mange tout” or “eat it all” in French) were considered quite exotic, and the only way most people ate regular peas, also known as English peas, was the dried version. Split pea soup (especially delicious when made with a ham bone or hock) was wildly popular, and a staple food year round. “Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old” was a reality, as the pot might have been reheated over and over (not recommended, by the way).

Fresh peas were not taken for granted, and the short season was celebrated, a tradition which I carry on, seeking out this treat at the farmers markets, although the best of the best is when you can go to a U Pick It farm and select your own pods to rush them home and enjoy immediately at their peak.

Peas on the Vine

Peas are one of the few foods which are often better frozen than fresh, the former picked at that peak and processed immediately while the latter may have been picked overripe then languished in shipping or in storage for days, with what remained of the delicious sugars rapidly turning to starch. You can make fabulous puree of “fresh” pea soup with the frozen ones and no one will know the difference.

For shoppers, it’s easy to succumb to the false economy of seeking out the fullest pods only to be disappointed in the flavor. Look for shiny green pods, not dried out and not too full, and the little green orbs inside will be at their sugary peak.

Sugar snap peas (edible round pods) and snow peas (edible flat pods) are delicious, too. Like regular peas, they should only be barely cooked, just enough to heat them through. I like to simply blanch them, then season with butter or sesame oil or toss into another dish to finish, perhaps a pot of risotto or new potatoes.

Pea Shoots

Pea shoots, the tendrils and baby flowers, are a personal favorite and taste like a cross between spinach and peas. The best way to obtain them is to grow snow peas and just snip before the pods start to develop; alternatively, they are usually available at Asian markets. Look for them in Chinese restaurants, called “dau mui” (dow-my), often stir fried with oyster sauce or garlic.

Another Asian approach to enjoying this little vegetable is in delicious wasabi peas.

Cow peas, also known as black eyed peas, are distant relatives of green peas, not at all like them, and we’ll take a closer look at them on another day.

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