Weather-wise, Spring has been a crapshoot. Yet, the ground broke and tulips pushed through to make us smile. My herb garden miraculously survived the lashes of the Middle Atlantic winter. Chives and oregano fought and won the ravishing battle of winter 2003. Mint, the great survivor, rallied intrepidly. Fennel, scurrying about in middle earth during the cold months, peeked its feathery fronds to blush in the Spring air. Faith in a seed prevailed for another season. Even sunny California celebrates the season with favorites, allium sativum, prickly thistle, and jicama.
No, they are not Shakespearean characters. They are artichokes, garlic, Mexican potato, all good friends of diabetes. When it comes to making choices in the foods we eat as diabetics, there is often a certain reserve in choosing the unfamiliar. Vegetables such as artichokes and jicama (pronounced Hee-ka-ma) fall into that category. We see them on produce shelves and wonder about them, but resist putting them in the basket and taking them home to try. Be assured that both are healthy, tasty vegetables that fit very nicely into a good diet.
Artichokes, with their sharp intimidating leaves attached to a club-like stem, might be Paleolithic weapons, if we didn’t know they are only immature perennial prickly thistle plants with tender hearts. Thankfully, there were brave pioneers, centuries ago, who discovered the way and passed down the ritual, of preparing and eating artichokes. Today we find 2 sizes readily available in markets, large globes and baby artichokes. The average large globe weighs 12 oz., but by the time it is peeled and trimmed, the edible yield is only 30 % of that weight. Baby artichokes weigh about 12 to the pound. Whichever size you buy, make sure the leaves cling tightly to the center. When leaves are open and turned out, it means the vegetables are old and have lost their wonderful silken texture and meaty flavor. Check for brown or black spots, too, as they indicate rot. Once you buy the perfect artichokes, store them loosely in the fridge, preferably in a humidity drawer. Artichokes do not like plastic, it holds too much moisture for them. If you don’t enjoy peeling, trimming and turning artichokes, go right to the freezer case in your neighborhood market, where 1 box of frozen artichoke hearts will provide approximately 20 cleaned and prepped hearts, ready for cooking. Nutritionally, artichokes contain vitamins A, C, iron, and potassium as well as being a good protein source. Spring is a high season and yield the fullest flavored fresh artichokes.
Artichokes are easy to cook if you apply a few simple rules. Be sure they are totally immersed in cold water in a non-aluminum pot when using the boiling method. To help with the immersion, place a small lid over the artichokes at the start of the cooking process. Always add a drop of oil to the water to protect them from air entering, Add a piece of fresh lemon to keep beautiful green color stabilized. Bring water to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Test for doneness by pulling off a leaf and tasting meat at bottom of the leaf. It should be the consistency of a baked potato. Drain artichokes upside down in a colander to release water that has tucked into valleys in the leaves. Many artichoke lovers prefer the steaming method because of less waterlogging. Steaming requires the same preparation as boiling. but uses little water and a steaming basket. Place artichokes in a steamer, bottoms up. Steam over bubbling water, covered, for 20 – 30 minutes, checking the water level and testing for doneness along the way. Very easy, indeed. Artichokes can also be baked, stuffed, fried, even microwaved.
The workload comes in the preparation before cooking. For large artichokes, slice the stem off at the base of the thistle. Peel stem to cook later, with artichoke. It is very tasty. Pull off any small bottom leaves, and, with scissors, snip away the sharp pointed tips of remaining leaves. These tips will soften when cooked, so it is not imperative that you snip, but it looks nicer and makes plucking and dipping the cooked leaves a little easier. Rub cut ends with a lemon to prevent discoloration.
How To Eat An Artichoke: If it’s your first artichoke experience, don’t be shy. Artichokes are meant to have fun with. Artichokes are a slow food, to enjoy leaf by leaf. Pluck one off, dip in sauce, and holding by narrow end, grab midway between front teeth and pull out the pulp. Continue until leaves have dwindled to a small pale purplish cone. With a spoon, scoop the contents of a cone, which are the bristly needle-like hairs, called the “choke”. The choke poses no danger, but if you eat it, you’ll get an uncomfortable “choking” sensation and you’ll be careful with your next artichoke. Under the choke lies the bottom, which is the succulent, meaty “heart” of the artichoke. This tender heart is the reward for your efforts. Enjoy artichokes with any variety of dips or sauces, such as saffron, curry or garlic mayonnaise, browned butter, or, the one I prefer, a simple elegant olive oil and fresh lemon juice drizzle.
APPROXIMATE NUTRITIONAL VALUE: 1 large globe artichoke with 5.7 oz. (75 cal, 5.3 grams protein, 17 carb grams, 2 grams fat, 8.9 grams fiber.)
Artichokes love microwaves, prep large artichokes and cut stems so they can sit balanced without toppling. Set in microwave-safe dish, add a little chicken broth, cover with plastic wrap and cook on HIGH for 5 minutes. Rest a few minutes, then, with tongs, turn artichokes upside down and cook another 5 minutes. They will come out with very fresh tasting using this method.
Artichoke trivia: Castroville, California has been known as the “green globe” capital of the USA since 1922. Each year an artichoke festival is held with blue ribbon recipes, floats, even an Artichoke Queen. In 1949 the queen was a young aspiring actress named Marilyn Monroe. The USA grows about 12,000 acres of artichokes annually. Italy grows 150,000 acres. There are 50 different varieties of artichokes ranging in color from blanched white to deep purple and from 1″ diameter to 5″. Artichokes are a great treat in the diabetic diet, especially when trying to lose a few pounds. They are low in calories, carbs and high in fiber.
Allium Sativum, show me a kitchen without garlic and I’ll show you a kitchen in despair. Garlic, the odoriferous member of the lily family, brings life, enchantment, and excitement to the most humble dish. Its history is long and colorful. It is supposed to have been the nourishment that fed slaves during the building of the great pyramid of Giza. Garlic is said to have made fierce and brave soldiers of the Roman legions. It has properties that cure everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. It lowers blood pressure and bad (LDL) cholesterol and raises good (HDL) cholesterol. Garlic inhibits blood clots and is a powerful antiseptic, stunting the growth of bacteria and fungi that cause disease. Oh, and did I mention it wards off vampires when worn around the neck.
Garlic has been called “a stinking rose” and even in today’s sophisticated food world, it remains controversial. People love it or hate it. It ordinarily plays a supporting role in spicing up a major dish, but lately, it has stepped onto center stage and a sweet, roasted garlic clove does very nicely in replacing a pat of butter or a dip in the olive oil saucer. Nutritionally, 3 garlic cloves yield 13 calories. 6 protein grams, 3 carb grams, and .1 fat grams, vitamins C, E, and B, plus a sprinkling of minerals.
Garlic is readily available year-round, but Spring is its season. It is when bulbs are firm, hard, and tight with delicate papery skin. Now is the time to get to a farmers’ market and buy fresh Spring garlic. It has a powerful hypnotic perfume. Store it in a dry cool spot. Do not refrigerate. When you are ready to use a head of garlic, there is a sort of ritual that works very well. Place a garlic bulb on the counter and press down firmly with the wrist to separate cloves. To peel cloves, place the side of the heavy knife handle on clove and whack it with your fist. The clove should slip right out. Another method of peeling is to immerse garlic cloves in very hot water or boiling water for 30 seconds. Skin will slip right off. When using garlic to flavor a dish, remember it is in your hands. Raw garlic is a strong medicine. Cooking causes it to yield and mix with the other flavors of a dish. For a mild garlic flavor use unpeeled cloves. Peeled whole cloves increase the strength. Sliced garlic brings a definite garlic presence to a dish, and mashed or minced takes you all the to garlic heaven.
Garlic tips: crush a clove and rub it in salad bowl before adding salad greens. Peeled cloves immersed in olive oil and stored in a glass jar will keep fresh for 3 -4 months. There are 300 varieties of garlic grown worldwide. Never freeze garlic, as freezing destroys the flavor. To make garlic oil or vinegar simply place 2 or 3 cloves in a clean bottle and add liquid. Let stand 2 to 3 weeks before using.
Is it a potato? A pear? A water chestnut? It’s Jicama. It looks like a flattened oddball cross between potato and turnip. It tastes likes a Bosc pear and a Chinese water chestnut. Jicama is a tuber that is grown in Central America and Mexico. Under its thin tan colored skin is sweet white flesh. Taste is crunchy and refreshing. It is low in calories and high in fiber. Buy small sized jicama, as large ones can be woody in texture. The humble vegetable has many uses in cooking that are easy feats to accomplish. Simply peel and slice, sprinkle with fresh lime juice and a dash of salt and you have a healthy bite. Spice it us with a dash of hot chili powder. Use in fruit or vegetable salads. Grate, dice or slice into matchsticks. Add to crudities baskets. Use as an alternative to calorie and fat-laden potato or tortilla chips, to scoop up guacamole or salsa. Better yet, use jicama to make salsa.
Vege-Head Vegetables are so important to a healthy diet. Besides abundant nutritional benefits, they add fresh and lively taste, vibrant color, interesting texture, whimsy and inspiration to our daily lives. Vegetables enjoy the reputation of vitality, lightness, energy, earthiness, and zest. They’re a good bunch to hang out with. Become a vege-head. You’ll feel great and so will your diabetes!