Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sure, variety is the spice of life. But is it the key to good health, too?

Most of us who enjoy cooking do so because we get pleasure from the flavors, the aromas, and the textures of food. Certain foods also evoke happy memories because they are part of our cherished traditions and experiences. However, it's occured to me over the last year that I've been drawn to cooking for another reason. I'm totally fascinated by the powerful health benefits derived from using new spices, obscure (until recently) vegetables and even learning which foods can be combined to increase their nutritional potency. It also hasn't been lost on me that by looking at food this way I've put one priority -that's always driven me - aside. And that is....does it taste good? Honestly, there's not always an easy answer to this. I'm learning that my taste buds are not at all objective. They are totally subjective. They have been "taught" to enjoy the same flavors over and over again. And the older I get, the harder it is to change their memory. But just like children can be picky over their food, I know I need to try things multiple times before I learn to like it and one day even crave it. Someday soon my tastebuds will have new memories to draw from, I know I will say a resounding yes to that question - does it taste good - the majority of the time.

Now, why am I'm putting myself through this? Shouldn't I leave my thirty something year old tastebuds alone? It's because I really believe there's more to eating then the intitial "yum" factor. I've already proven to myself that eating differently has had a huge impact on my health. In fact, 2007 was the first year in a decade that I didn't visit my doctor once.

Okay, enough of the build up already...here's what you've been waiting for...

Lamb Curry was the meal of choice for Superbowl Sunday. I've been fascinated by both Chinese and Indian cuisines for a while now. There's a great deal of health benefits found in many of their dishes including curry. Turmeric, the bright yellow spice that gives curry it's vibrant color, is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.

According to Wikipedia, " In the Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is thought to have many medicinal properties and many in India use it as a readily available antiseptic for cuts and burns. Whenever there is a cut or a bruise, the home remedy is to reach for turmeric powder. Ayurvedic doctors say it has fluoride which is thought to be essential for teeth. It is also used as an antibacterial agent. It is taken in some Asian countries as a dietary supplement, which allegedly helps with stomach problems and other ailments. It is popular as a tea in Okinawa, Japan. It is currently being investigated for possible benefits in Alzheimer's disease, cancer and liver disorders."

Learn more about the health benefits from turmeric here: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=78

Lamb Curry & Cucumber Raita from Earthbound Farm's Organic Cookbook, "Foods to Live By"

1 lb boneless lamb stew meat, cut into 1 inch cubes

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1/4 cup of canola or olive oil

1 medium size yellow onion, 1/4 inch dice (about 1 cup)

1/2 t of turmeric

1 t ground cinnamon

1/2 t ground cardamom

1/2 t ground cumin

1/2 t ground coriander

1/4 t ground clovees

1/2 t ground cayenne pepper

2 T minced peeled fresh ginger

1 T minced garlic

1 can (15 oz) diced tomatoes with their juice

3 medium size (about 1 lb) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice (about 2 cups)

1 cup of fresh or frozen (unthawed) green peas

Season lamb with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy large pot over med-high heat. Working in batches if needed to avoid overcrowding the pot, add the lamb and brown well on all sides. 5 to 8 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the lamb to a bowl and set aside.

Reduce heat to med-low and add the onion and tumeric and stir. Then add the cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, corainder, cloves, cayenne pepper, and 1 t of salt to the pot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook. Stirring constantly until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Return the lamb to the pot. Add 2 cups of water and the tomatoes with their juice, increase the heat to med-high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the potatoes and cook, covered until the lamb and potatoes are tender, 20-30 minutes. Add the peas and cook until the peas are heated through, about 5 min. Taste for seasoning.

Cucumber Raita (to be served as a cooling flavor to offset the spicy heat of the curry)

2 cups of nonfat or low fat plain yogurt

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and coarsely grated

3/4 t salt

3/4 t cumin

Dash of cayenne pepper

Place all ingredients in a medium size bowl and stir to combine. Refrigerate the raita, covered until the flavors meld, at least 15 minutes. Serve with curry.

This was a surprisingly easy recipe to make. The hardest work is measuring out the spices. I did it all before I even started cooking so I wouldn't forget which spice I had already added to the pot (yes, I've done that a million times before.)

The lamb browned easily on each side. For me it was much faster than the recipe indicated. It took me a total of 5 minutes for the entire package of stew meat. In the end, the lamb was very tender. I think this is my favorite way of cooking it over broiling or grilling. By the way, I'm looking for ideas on how to remain out of harm's way when cooking with hot oil. Does anyone ever use safety goggles?

I used seedless organic cucumbers for the raita. I could skip the step of seeding them and it took no time at all to grate them. Definitely a great addition to the curry.

I originally made a saffron couscous with green onions to serve alongside the curry and raita. However, I found it to be too flavorful. It just competed too much with the maindish. So, I got rid of it and just made plain whole wheat couscous. I'm kicking myself for wasting precious saffron threads, but oh well.

My hands and the kitchen counters were very yellow after I finished preparing this dish. Next time I'll wear latex gloves and cover my counters with plastic wrap!

Are you wondering yet if I thought it tasted good? Let me just say this. I have not been exposed to curry much in my life. When I'm eating it I know it has a very unique flavor profile. Not one I'm used to at all. For now, I can appreciate it. In time, I think I will like it a lot. I just need to keep trying it and give my tastebuds some time to play catch up. The lamb was excellent.

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