Produce Spotlight: Okra

Before I talk about okra, I just want to mention that yesterday I found out that this week is Eat Local week in Maryland – I didn’t know that before I posted yesterday- so it’s just a coincidence. Still, it’s a good promotion for the local farm industry!

Okra, or Abelmoschus esculentus; Lady’s Fingers; gumbo, is a vegetable currently in season in several areas of the US. It’s an underused vegetable with a gooey inside (when raw). It is typically fried or used as a component of soup (can be used dried nearly as easily as if it were fresh). Additionally, the oil of the ripe vegetable can be used as a substitute for other vegetable oils (and often is, in the Mediterranean, for example).

According to Tamu.edu,

Okra apparently originated in what the geobotanists call the Abyssinian center of origin of cultivated plants, an area that includes present-day Ethiopia, the mountainous or plateau portion of Eritrea, and the eastern, higher part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Considering the little contact between that region and the rest of the world within historic times, it is not surprising that little is known about the early history and distribution of okra.

Although the plant has been well known in India for a long time, it is not found wild there. Modern travelers have found okra growing truly wild, however, along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country as well as in Ethiopia.

Because of the outstanding popularity of okra in the French cookery of Louisiana, and its slow gain in popularity elsewhere in this country, it is safe to assume that it was introduced to this country by the French colonists of Louisiana in the early 1700’s. It had been introduced to the New World, however, before 1658, reaching Brazil supposedly from Africa. It was known in Surinam in 1686.

The seeds have also been used as a cheap and local (and caffeine free) coffee substitute; apparently roasted okra seeds taste similar to roasted coffee beans (not extraordinarily supriszing).

Okra is a highly nutritional vegetable as well. It is full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Just a cup of okra has 3.2g fiber, about half of which is soluble fiber (good for reducing cholesterol) and half of which is insoluble fiber (good for reducing the chance of developing colorectal cancer). It also has 300mg potassium/cup, 35% RDA of vitamin C, 81% RDA calcium, and a ton of other nutrients – too many to list here. If I were to speculate, I’d hope that okra would rise in popularity over the next few years – it’s a healthy food that people should incorporate into their diet!

So try some okra (especially if it’s in season where you are). Roast it, fry it, or if you’re brave and like “gooey” vegetables, have it raw on your next salad! (Or have some pseudo-coffee)

Sources/Further Info:

Okra, or “Gumbo”

Okra

Okra@TheDailyPlate

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Being a Locavore

This is my new mission (well, not new, but something I’ve been moving towards relatively recently). What is a locavore, you ask? If you’ve read any Micheal Pollan (or similar) work, you’ve probably encountered this term before (Wiki credits Jessica Prentice for coining this term). Essentially, a locavore is anyone that makes an active effort to source local food for consumption. The closer the food is to your home, the better (less travel = fresher, more nutritious food with less of a carbon impact). Obviously, there are varying degrees of dedication to the locavore movement, but thanks to the All Knowing Internet, pretty much anyone can be a locavore year round with fairly minimal effort.

There seem to be so many benefits to being a locavore:

  • Environmental reasons: reduce carbon emission by eliminating shipping as well as voting with your wallet: you support the local farmers who farm sustainably – thereby promoting sustainable agriculture.
  • Health: fresher food (that hasn’t been in refrigeration for a long time like many supermarket foods) is more nutritious – vitamins, for example, degrade over time.
  • Taste: Anecdotal – local food tastes better because it’s fresher.
  • Economical: Infuse your local economy with money, know where and how your agricultural neighbors spend this money (as opposed to some Colombian banana farmers)
  • Animal welfare: Again, vote with your wallet. Are animals slaughtered humanely or do they suffer?

These are just a few of the benefits – if anyone reading wants to add anything, let me know in the comments or via Twitter and I will add it.

Cons? There aren’t many to speak of that I can think of (let me know if you disagree, and why) – other than perhaps a slightly increased cost (local operations tend to be smaller, and thus have higher costs as they cannot produce in bulk).

Personally, I’ve made a big step today: I placed my first order with Polyface Farm – the same one in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I recently rediscovered a local “buying club” that receives a shipment from Polyface every 5 weeks. This is my first attempt at getting local beef and poultry (FYI, I got eggs, steak, a broiler chicken, ground beef, and some sausage links). Local lamb/goat is available very close by (as well as venison) but I don’t know of many things nearby that have beef or poultry. So next Tuesday, I’ll be picking up my purchase from somewhere in Leesburg, VA (not too far) – I will let everyone knows how it is! Perhaps I’ll stop at a farm stand after picking up my order…!

Do you want to start becoming a locavore? It’s not that hard. I’ve found several farmers markets, farm stands, and locavore restaurants in my area simply by going to LocalHarvest – it has been an invaluable resource in my quest to begin eating local. Also, if you want more info about the Locavore movement, visit SustainableTable.com, another good resource. Have any other good resources? Let me know!

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Fish Oil — Why?

Sorry for the hiatus so soon after starting this blog – I was on vacation. Short post for now!

I don’t understand why people take fish oil capsules. Sure, it’s a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids – but why can’t you just eat fish? You’re removing a lot of good stuff if you only take fish oil capsules. Fish is a great source of protein and other nutrients. It’s especially good for those on high protein diets – red meat has a lot of saturated fats – by switching to fish you can limit your saturated fat intake.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Methylmercury, PCBs, dioxins, etc. Sure, there are certain types of fish (usually high in the food chain – like yellowfin tuna) that are contaminated to the point that consuming them is unsafe. Fish oil supplements only have traces of these contaminants because they’re found primarily in the meat of the fish. However, if you follow the Seafood Watch Program – run by the Monteray Bay Aquarium, you can avoid most of these contaminants (i.e. have your fish, and eat it, too).

The whole allergy issue is bunk as well – most people sensitive to fish are still allergic to fish oil.

So it would seem that the only reason that people have to avoid fish are those that don’t like fish. Sorry that you have to miss out!

Health Benefits of Fish

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Produce Spotlight – Tomatillos

Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica), or husk tomatoes, are relatives of the tomato that grow in papery husks. According to GourmetSleuth,

The Aztecs domesticated the tomatillo and the fruit dates back to at least 800 B.C.  The Aztec word tomatl means something “round and plump”.  Europeans that came to the New World and documented the local foods often confused the food names.

As a result, while these are relatives of tomatoes, they are absolutely nothing like any other tomato I have every had. I tried these for the first time (as raw produce, anyway) last week, because I was looking for a substitute for tomatoes (trying to spice things up). They can range in color from green to yellow, but are typically used when green. These are a fruit most widely avaliable in the summer.

Tomatillos via Wikimedia

(Image from Wikimedia)

I made the mistake of trying to bite into these without cutting them ahead of time. It’s possible, but the skin is thick and trying to bite a whole one may result in tomato innards spurting everywhere. When I bit into it, I was first met with a sour, tangy sensation and a mildly bitter flavor. These are nothing like tomatoes – I was expecting something completely different. The flavor could be described as unripe green apple…with a plum-like texture. I found that they went well with a simple oil and balsamic dressing, the tartness of the tomatillo seemed to bring out the sugars in the balsamic.

As far as nutritional value goes: these aren’t particularly “packed” with vitamins and minerals, but they aren’t by any means “empty calories”. They’re mainly an interesting, flavorful way to get a few extra nutrients.

1/2 cup of these, raw (according to nutritiondata.com) has:

Only 20 kcals

1g fat (mix of poly/monounsaturated)

1g fiber (5% DV)

13% DV Vitamin A

8% DV Vitamin K

177mg Potassium ( not as much as a banana …)

and a smattering of other micronutrients in small concentrations.

It also contains a good amount of water, and will help make you feel more full! (Don’t forget it makes a great green salsa!)

Sources:

http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/tomatillos.htm

http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/3020/2

http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?info_center=15&tax_level=5&tax_subject=261&topic_id=2131&level3_id=6589&level4_id=11019&level5_id=20445


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Quick Berry Smoothie

Here’s a trick I picked up in Hawaii 3 years ago. Don’t use ice in your smoothies! Instead, peel and cut a banana (or several). Then freeze it. Take the some of the banana, add that to a blender with milk or juice (whichever you prefer/fits your dietary restrictions), fruit of your choice (unfrozen or frozen) – I typically just use what’s avaliable – usually, that’s strawberries and a blend of Marionberries, Blueberries and Raspberries (from Costco/Rader Farms – I know, not local, not good for the environment, etc. Anyway, I believe these are the nutrition facts: http://is.gd/1pW9j). Then blend and enjoy. For more protein, use plain Greek yogurt and a tablespoon of honey instead of some of the milk.

I usually eyeball the ingredients. However, if you were to add:

1/2 cup skim milk

1.5 frozen bananas

1 cup strawberries

1/2 cup berry mix

1 kiwi (for fun)

1 cup fat-free greek yogurt

1 tsp honey

You would have a pretty nutritionally packed smoothie: http://is.gd/1pXGZ . High in potassium, vitamins, and fiber.

And it tastes really good.

That would serve one hungry person or two people that want a snack.

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Living through Nutrition

First of all: I’m not a registered dietician. I don’t have any formal training specifically in the science of nutrition. I’m just a college junior in pursuit of a Biology/Chemistry double major who is interested in improving his life via nutrition (hence, Living through Nutrition). Over the past few years, I’ve experimented with various diets (although I hate to use that term as it conjures up images of Atkins and South Beach – I simply mean different types of food sources). If I’ve learned anything, it’s that one of the biggest challenges to a good diet is time, money, and knowledge of what a balanced diet is (I’m still trying to learn this myself). Also – I’m not trying to sell you anything: not a Blendtec Blender (although I want one!) … not a patch of wheatgrass … not a recipe book.

However, it is apparent to me that nutrition is a key to improving life (among many other things). It’s important if one wants to be competitive in a certain sport (genetics are probably more important there, though); I believe that it’s also necessary to eat well if one simply wants to live comfortably.

I don’t claim to know everything – it’s quite the opposite. I just want to share my findings with others in order to facilitate a discussion about how toimprove life via nutrition. I’m definitely open to criticism and would like to hear other peoples views on nutrition.

About me personally: I’m a runner of several years (a relatively slow runner) who also spends time hiking, swimming, biking (very occasionally). I’m also going into my second year as a ski instructor at Whitetail Ski Resort;  I’m hoping to get my PSIA Level 1 certification this winter. I suppose I’m a fan of the outdoors in general. Also, recently, I’ve been experimenting with minimalist and barefoot running – I am an avid fan of Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs). I’m hoping that I’ll be diligent in maintaining this blog – hopefully it will be an enjoyable outlet for my thoughts!

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