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April, 2008

A Delicious May

By Christina Pirello

With spring upon us, cooking becomes a joy that is unparalleled at other times of the year. Oh, sure, we love to create hearty stews and soups in winter and lovely, light salads come summer, but there is nothing like the fresh sweetness of spring vegetables.

With spring upon us, cooking becomes a joy that is unparalleled at other times of the year. Oh, sure, we love to create hearty stews and soups in winter and lovely, light salads come summer, but there is nothing like the fresh sweetness of spring vegetables. With spring blossoms come the delicious first vegetables of the harvest to come. After a winter season of heavy foods, these garden gems lighten our energy, refresh our spirits and make us feel as fresh as a spring breeze. The word vegetable comes from the Latin "vegetale," meaning "to enliven" and that is never truer than in the spring...and incredibly delicious with these lovely vegetables and fruit of the season.

Maui Onions
Maui Onions
In Bulgaria, the legend says, "Eat onions all year and you will eat honey for the rest of your life." While an old wives' axiom, this little phrase has its roots in absolute truth. Most cooks would be lost without onions. Their sweet bite adds flavor and vitality to dishes in the most delicious ways. And that's only the taste.

But a bit of history first...the geographical origins of onions are unclear, but it is believed that they were brought to the Middle East from China. The first written history of the onion is from Mesopotamia, in a cuneiform inscription from Sumer dating back to 2400 BC. A long and honorable evolution follows, with onions being rationed to the poor, along with their bread, in the Middle East, with the Egyptians including onions in offerings to their gods and the departed. In 500 BC, the Greeks adopted the onion, where, as in Rome, it became the staple of the poor man's diet. Taxes were even paid in onion braids.

Why all the fuss? The medicinal properties of onions are no myth. Rich in potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and vitamin B-6, onions add more than just flavor to our cooking. With their vitamin and mineral content remaining the same, whether cooked or raw, these sturdy vegetables are said to act as a diuretic, a natural antibiotic and are traditionally used in the treatment of colds, intestinal parasites, gallstones, diarrhea and rheumatism. In Chinese medicine, it is said that crying while cutting onions is the result of the their strong character drawing congestion from our lungs, as we breathe in their strong aroma.

Maui onions are cultivated in a warmer climate, making them sweeter and a bit more mild...and as a result, absolutely perfect for the lighter cooking of spring. Without a strong bite, they are the perfect spicy addition to a fresh spring salad--thinly slice and toss in with the fresh greens. A touch of extra virgin olive oil and salt and you are on your way. And in cooking? Maui onions' sweet flavor is pure heaven. Give this recipe a try and see for yourself.

Strawberry Papaya
Strawberry Papaya
The papaya tree, with its stiff, straight trunk is native to Mexico, but quickly spread to all of tropical America, the West Indies, India and Africa. Both flowers and fruit grow on the trunk, which has no branches and whose leaves grow only at the top. In continuous bloom, the papaya tree bears fruit year-round and propagates itself easily.

The Strawberry Papaya, native to tropical America, differs slightly from the common papaya, with its beautiful salmon-pink flesh and richly sweet taste, hinting...just a peaches and raspberries. Resembling a long melon, choose fruit with a lovely reddish blush to their greenish outer skin, which should yield slightly to the touch. (Avoid hard, completely green papayas, as they have been picked prematurely and will not ripen, leaving them flavorless.) A ripe papaya yields a sweet fruit with its juicy flesh the texture of cantaloupe, with its center cavity filled with numerous seeds embedded in a mucilaginous substance. Resembling large peppercorns, the seeds have a peppery flavor and are edible.

But these babies aren't just sweet. When the skin of the papaya is punctured, the fruit releases an odorless, white liquid. It is from this liquid that papain comes, an enzyme credited with wondrous properties for improving digestion. An excellent source of vitamin C, potassium and vitamin A, the papaya is mostly credited with its ability to stabilize digestion. The peppery seeds are used in folk remedies to cleanse the intestines and in Brazil, a sedative syrup is made from papaya juice, lending credibility to its reputation for relaxing the body.

Pretty easy to work with, strawberry papaya is best just scooped out of the skin and eaten like seductivet, you won't even need to sweeten it, but it is brilliant with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. It can be cooked to create jams, chutney and a ketchup. Strawberry papaya can be pureed or pressed to create a fabulous juice. Just remember that if you want to add papaya to a fruit salad, add it just before serving, as its strong enzymes may soften the rest of the fruit too much.

Papaya seeds can be ground and used like black pepper, although there are people who like to crunch on them while eating the fruit, saying that the flavor of the seeds enhances the sweetness of the fruit. I agree... In South America, papaya is often pureed and baked into a sweet cake...delicious...but here is my favorite recipe.

Fresh soybeans are, in my opinion, the eighth wonder of the world. The fruit of an annual plant originally from Asia, the soybean grows best in warm climates. Cultivated for over 13,000 years in China, soybeans were one of the first foods domesticated by humans. Along with barley, rice, wheat and millet, soybeans were considered one of the five foods essential for life. Soybeans grow on a branching plant that can reach one to six feet in height. The oblong down-covered pods can be pale yellow, grey, brown or black and contain one to four hard seeds that vary in color from variety to variety.

Fresh soybeans, edamame, are harvested young, before becoming starchy. They can be cooked with or without their pods; lightly blanching them makes for easier shelling. Traditionally, in Japanese cooking, they are blanched in the pods and then tossed with salt. As you shell the soybeans, the salt from the pods coats your fingertips and seasons the beans as you munch...delicious. Fresh soybeans contain anti-nutrients such as trypsin and phytic acid inhibitors, both causing poor digestion. Since these substances are neutralized during cooking or fermentation, soybeans are best for us when cooked or fermented, as in edamame, miso or soy sauce. There is only good news about soybeans. Containing more protein than any other legume, soybeans are most nourishing. (In fact, 1 cup of soybeans contains the same amount of protein as one-quarter pound of meat, poultry or fish). It gets better. Soybeans also contain a balanced supply of amino acids, are high in lysine, and are 78% unsaturated fat, containing no cholesterol.

Rich in isoflavones, soybeans can aid in maintaining hormonal balance, in relieving symptoms of both PMS and menopause and are excellent sources of magnesium, potassium, iron and folic acid, as well as copper, phosphorous, niacin, riboflavin, zinc, thiamine, vitamin B-6 and calcium. Whew...quite a lot for a humble little bean. And easy to work with? With no soaking and short cooking time, fresh soybeans are a gift.