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June, 2011

Fresh Produce: Final Answer

By Dennis Linden

Recently, a good working knowledge of fresh produce came to the rescue in my own kitchen

I found myself preparing for a dinner party that was turning out to be a culinary challenge rivaling any thrown at chefs on one of those popular reality cooking TV contests. The menu plan got more complicated with each RSVP. Each guest accepted with a dietary request that I smiled to on the outside, but did a private culinary shutter as I knew the menu plan would have to change course (literally) yet again. By the time I was ready to start slicing and dicing, the meal needed to be: vegetarian, gluten-free, diabetic-friendly; it could not contain leafy greens or nuts of any kind and no cheese please!

It started innocently enough, with a suggestion by a friend that I invite two people over for dinner who had just returned from a long trip out of the country. Since half that couple was a “no flesh” vegetarian, I decided to invite two other friends with a similar dietary discipline because it’s easier to cook for three rather than one. Or so I thought! Actually this second couple is of the no-red-meat-but-fish-and-fowl-are-fine sect; close enough, what’s a few feathers ‘n scales amongst friends?

The travelers accepted the invite with a humble suggestion from the vegetarian half that I just make an extra large salad for her and not go to any trouble. Of course, this provoked me to promise a delicious multiple course vegetarian feast. In hindsight, that simple salad suggestion was a missed opportunity. After we decided on a date, she added a BTW, which started the challenge; her husband was on a no cheese diet after over doing it on their trip, so could I not tempt him. The soup thickened with the second couple’s acceptance, which came with two more “small” dietary caveats -- one of them was now gluten-free and the other had developed an allergy to nuts.

With the chef himself being diabetic, this meal was going to demand some serious ingredient cross-checking research before even get close to a cutting board. The process was enlightening as I discovered that the world in apparently held together by gluten! It took awhile, but eventually I was able to plan out a meal that did, in fact, start with that big salad, some healthy spinach to be exact, and continued with two more tasty dishes plus a lusciously decadent dessert -- all within the parameters of all my guests’ dietary preferences. That is until the woman whose idea it was for the dinner in the first place incurred a sports injury (extreme gardening) and was put on a precautionary blood-thinning medication. This prescription came with a ban on foods heavy in vitamin “K”, like leafy greens, which apparently cause the blood to thicken. So it was back to the kitchen for another planning session to replace the spinach salad. More research also uncovered that the fresh strawberries, planned as a part of the dessert, would also have to be scratched because of the fruit’s “K” content.

Within each of the major food groups – meat, fish, poultry, dairy and grains – there are certainly differences in flavor and texture; however, for the most part, the body take in about the same set of nutritional benefits (and negatives) from each group. The exception to this rule are fresh fruits and vegetables that, depending on the nutrients and vitamins contained in each variety, are assimilated by and affect the metabolism in very differently ways.

From apples to zucchini and hundreds of items in-between, the fresh produce sections of most retail grocery stores in this country are displays of seasonal crops from around the world. To my menu planning point, the diversity of fresh produce available to us in this country offers choices from sweet to sour, high sugar or low Glycemic, as well as blood thickening or thinning agents--all wrapped in tasty, colorful, edible packages. While my dinner challenge was the perfect storm of dietary confluences coming together at one table, I am sure that many readers have had similar experiences to a lesser degree. Just remember that there is something in the produce department isles of your local retailer or famers market that will support most every dietary disciple that we quirky humans can think up or be prescribed to follow!

So what was the final answer for my table of finicky dinner guests? A shredded red cabbage and tangerine salad made the final menu cut as my starter. At the risk of this sounding like the advertisement it is, Melissa’s Vegetarian Garbanzo Beans helped streamline the prep time to make a large batch of Falafels. These tasty morsels were flavored with several fresh herbs and served with a choice of two produce-centric dips: a fresh orange juice & Kalamata olive reduction and yogurt blended with cilantro and garlic. I also tinkered with the Green Chile Soy Cheese Bake casserole recipe featured in May’s Cookin’ with the Kids feature; cutting out the sour cream and taking off its kid gloves by combining a spicy Pasilla chile with the Anaheim chile in the recipe. We capped off the evening with champagne glasses filled with pineapple & banana slices topped with a Chocolate Mint liqueur. So it was fresh produce that saved the day with this tough crowd. In fact, by count, there were twenty-two different fruit and vegetable ingredients used! Plus, technically, the grapes that made the bottles of wine on the table and the coco or mint that went into the liqueur. Come to think of it, no one put any dietary limitations on the libations that would accompany the meal!