Does Your Cookware Affect Your Cooking?

seeman_morguefileOrdering a complete set of cookware sounded like a good deal when I was in college. The gleaming pots and pans looked great in the advertisement, and the price was reasonable, especially with the money-back guarantee.

When the large box arrived, I thought I would strain my back picking it up at the post office. I took a good hold and lifted hard, almost throwing the box over my shoulder in the process. That lightweight box should have been my first clue about the value of my purchase.

I decided to cook a meal for my friends. No matter how much oil I used or what the setting was on the burners, everything burned to the bottom. Our dinner was not my best culinary effort. I avoided the burned part, and we ate it anyway.

When cleaning up, I remembered the pans were supposed to be dishwasher safe, so I washed them in the pot and pan cycle. The handles partially melted and the screws came loose. Disgruntled by this point, I checked on sending the cookware back and found the cost of mailing it back was not refundable. I wasn’t convinced the company would send my money back anyway. I learned a valuable lesson about bargain cookware.

Many types of cookware materials are available. Copper cookware is the best in terms of energy conduction. Copper cookware generally is lined with another metal, such as stainless steel, because copper can leach into foods and could pose a toxicity hazard. Because copper is attractive, many people use copper pots as kitchen decorations, although they usually require polishing.

Aluminum pots also are excellent heat conductors. On the downside, aluminum pots, unless anodized, may become dented, scratched or discolored. Try to avoid cooking acidic foods, such as tomatoes, in aluminum pots because aluminum can be leached into the food and the pans may discolor. If aluminum pots become old and pitted, you probably will want to retire them.

Stainless steel is an old standby cooking material because it’s easy to clean and durable. However, the pots may have hot spots. Some people are allergic to nickel, one of the components of stainless steel, but for the majority, stainless steel works well.

Pans with nonstick coatings have been popular for years. Considered nontoxic, the coatings are safe, although they may wear out through time. Your best option is to hand wash nonstick cookware unless the manufacturer says the pans are dishwasher safe.

Cast iron pots are worth the muscle power you need to lift them out of storage. While heavy, they do retain heat once they reach a desired temperature. Chefs like them for frying, browning and slow cooking.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, using iron pots can increase the amount of iron in food. Researchers cooked three different cabbage recipes in iron or aluminum pots and measured the foods’ iron content and the iron’s ability to be absorbed by the body. All the foods cooked in the cast iron pots had more iron available for absorption. Sauerkraut cooked in an iron pot had the highest iron level because the acidic food leached additional iron from the pot.

Here’s a tasty soup recipe. To get some extra iron, consider using a cast iron pot.

Taco Soup

1 lb. lean ground beef
1 tsp. chopped garlic
1 medium onion, chopped
1 15‐oz. can tomato sauce
1 can water
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 15‐oz. can diced tomatoes
1 envelope taco seasoning
Optional toppings: crushed taco chips, shredded cheese, light sour cream

Brown ground beef with garlic and onion. Drain well. Mix together tomato sauce, water, kidney beans, tomatoes and taco seasoning. Add to ground beef mixture. Cook until heated to at least 165 F. If desired, serve with crushed taco chips, shredded cheese and sour cream.

Makes six servings. Each serving (without added toppings) has 320 calories, 14 grams (g) fat, 42 g carbohydrate and 9 g fiber.

Does Your Plate Match the Fall Colors?

file0001606484563“Incorporating colorful fruits and vegetables into a daily eating plan may be the best defensive strategy for fending off many diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease and dementia,” according to James A. Joseph, Ph.D., the co-author of the book “The Color Code.”

As autumn arrives with its cooler weather, nature’s pallet becomes colored by different hues. The colors of nature are more than cosmetic. The colorful plants we eat have health benefits that scientists are just beginning to understand. Now more than ever, we have reasons to fill our plates with a variety of naturally colored plant foods.

The study of phytochemicals (“phyto” means plant) is a continuing area of research. Phytochemicals are not the same as vitamins and minerals, and they don’t provide calories, protein or other nutrients. Thousands of plant chemicals exist, providing color and flavor, among other things. Phytochemicals protect the plant from sun, wind and insects.

Red plant foods, for example, may contain the natural pigments lycopene or anthocyanins. Lycopenes are found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon. The health benefits of lycopenes include reducing the risk of cancer, especially prostate cancer. Lycopenes are better absorbed in cooked form than raw. A tomato-based recipe containing fat helps the body absorb lycopenes.

Anthocyanins are red or blue pigments found in foods such as strawberries, red apples, chokecherries, blueberries, eggplants and purple grapes. They act as antioxidants and may reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and possibly aging. Nutrition research using rats has shown that blueberry extract helped improve motor skills and reversed short-term memory loss associated with aging.

Orange and yellow produce may contain beta-carotene or zeaxanthin. Beta-carotene is found in foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkins. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A and helps promote healthy skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Zeaxanthin is found in corn and is linked with healthy eyes and the prevention of macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

Some green vegetables such as spinach contain the chemical lutein, which may reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Other phytochemicals in green cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts help fight against breast, prostate and stomach cancer.

White produce such as onions and garlic contain phytochemicals that may protect us from heart disease.

Taste the rainbow of produce colors. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season. To preserve nutrients in cooked vegetables, steam, microwave or cook them in a small amount of water. Boiling for a prolonged time can break down phytochemicals and lead to a loss of nutrients. Serve them quickly to avoid standing time and nutrient loss.

Try this healthful one-pot recipe from the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Herbed Couscous With Chicken

1 c. thinly sliced leeks
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 c. quartered brussels sprouts
2 c. peeled, bite-size cubes of butternut squash
2 Tbsp. olive oil
8 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size chunks
1 1/2 c. fat-free chicken broth, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
1 c. whole-wheat couscous
2 to 4 Tbsp. minced herb blend of fresh sage, thyme and marjoram (or use 1/4 tsp. of each herb, dried)
1/4 c. minced parsley

Saute leeks, garlic, brussels sprouts and butternut squash in olive oil for about five minutes. Add chicken and 1/4 c. chicken broth. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer five to 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked and veggies are tender. Stir in couscous. Add remaining 1 1/4 c. broth along with sage, thyme and marjoram. Cover and simmer five more minutes or until liquid is completely absorbed. Adjust seasonings to taste. Stir in parsley.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 350 calories, 9 grams (g) fat, 20 g protein, 48 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber and 270 milligrams sodium.

How About Some Cabbage?

Photo courtesy of green finger and

Photo courtesy of green finger and

I was perusing a community garden the other day and noticed some good-looking cabbages. Cabbage is kind of unique in that it has a bland flavor when raw and a pronounced flavor when cooked.

When a pot of cabbage is simmering on the stove, you don’t have to ask what’s for dinner. Your nose knows.

According to an ancient Greek saying, “Cabbage twice cooked is death.” A member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, cabbage contains sulfur compounds that form hydrogen sulfide gas during cooking. Hydrogen sulfide is the chemical responsible for the scent of rotten eggs.

Some chefs have suggested dropping a whole walnut into the cooking water to help decrease the typical cabbage scent. Leaving the pot partially uncovered also helps dispel the fragrance of cooking vegetables.

Scent aside, you have several reasons to enjoy more cruciferous vegetables. They’re economical and nutritious, and you have an array of choices. The cruciferous vegetable family tree includes numerous types of cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, watercress and kohlrabi. They all look a little different but have similar nutritional properties. For example, Savoy cabbage has curly leaves. Napa, or Chinese cabbage, is lighter in color and more elongated, and has a milder flavor than other varieties.

Chemicals in cabbage and its relatives are linked to health benefits. Cabbage is a good source of vitamin C, and it is low in calories at about 15 calories per half cup of raw cabbage. Isothiocyanates, sulfur-containing compounds common in the cruciferous family, are responsible for at least some of the health benefits. In a study of more than 18,000 Chinese males ranging in age from 45 to 64, eating more cruciferous vegetables was associated with a lower risk of lung cancer.

Cruciferous vegetables are linked with reducing the risk of prostate cancer, too. Researchers studied 600 men with prostate cancer. Men who ate three servings of cruciferous vegetables weekly were half as likely to get prostate cancer. Tomatoes, green vegetables and cooked dry beans also play a protective role against prostate cancer. In addition, cruciferous vegetables are linked with reducing the risk of stomach cancer.

Add more cruciferous vegetables to your menu. When selecting cabbage, look for solid heads that are heavy in relation to size. Avoid cabbage with yellowish or brownish leaves. Red cabbage should be a deep purple-red.

When properly stored, cabbage can last several weeks in the refrigerator. To store cabbage, remove the outside leaves and cut out the core. Wash well under running water, place in a plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap, and place in the vegetable crisper.

A versatile ingredient, cabbage goes beyond its traditional roles in sauerkraut and coleslaw. Shred cabbage and add to tossed salads, soups or stir-fry. Stuff cabbage leaves with cooked rice and meat, and simmer in spaghetti sauce. Cooking cabbage too long, however, can leave you with an olive green side dish. The color reaction occurs when natural acids in cabbage react with chlorophyll, the green pigment in cabbage. Cook cabbage quickly in as little water as possible.

Here’s a colorful and tasty recipe that makes use of red cabbage.

Red Cabbage With Apples

2 medium tart apples, sliced
3 Tbsp. margarine
1 medium head red cabbage, coarsely shredded
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. vinegar
2 Tbsp. sugar

In a large pan, cook and stir apples in margarine over medium heat for five minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until cabbage is tender, about 40 minutes. Serve red cabbage with apples as a side dish.

Make six servings. Each serving has 140 calories, 6 grams (g) fat, 2 g protein, 23 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber and 90 milligrams sodium.


Have You Had an Encounter with Eggplant?

eggplant_szafirek_morguefileThe other night I was looking at a very productive community garden led by an enthusiastic tour guide, who happened to be the 11-year-old daughter of a friend. She showed us the watermelons, a variety of herbs and egg plants. My youngest daughter studied the eggplant intently.

The experience made me remember the first time I brought home an eggplant. I probably would have gotten similar attention if I brought a Martian home for dinner. I experienced again the importance of parental modeling.

“Anything as weird as eggplant has to be nutritious,” my husband commented.

“It doesn’t look like an egg,” our son remarked. He was 7 at the time.

“I think it’s pretty and shiny,” our then-4-year-old daughter added.

“It’s supposed to be purple, not almost black,” our son reminded her.

When I finally was able to extricate my family from staring at the intact eggplant, I prepared it in a way I thought they might enjoy – or at least taste. I dipped eggplant slices in beaten eggs, rolled them in crushed crackers and herbs, and fried them.

I gave my husband a pile of eggplant to eat. He ate it all with no further comments.

My daughter ate a small piece. My son wrinkled his nose as though an alien had landed on his plate. He looked at me and said, “This is too weird.”

Echoing in my brain was the advice of nutritionists who say a new food may take 10 or more exposures before a child will try it. I decided to be patient.

Eggplants have been eaten – and assumingly enjoyed – for centuries. Spaniards called it “Berenganias” or the apple of love. They thought eggplant contained a love potion. In the United States, eggplant was first used as an ornamental plant.

Eggplant is very low in calories, unless you bread it and fry it. A half-cup serving of plain eggplant contains about 20 calories and is a source of dietary fiber and some vitamin C.

Eggplants are very perishable so they should be used quickly after purchase or harvest. Look for eggplants with a smooth, even-colored dark purple skin. Avoid eggplants with any sunken dark areas. Store them in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator because the higher humidity helps keep them fresh.

Eggplant can be sautéed, baked, broiled, grilled or stuffed. Extra eggplant can be frozen. To freeze, slice or cube eggplant, dip in a solution of 1 tablespoon lemon juice to 1 quart water, and blanch in boiling water for 4 minutes. Cool promptly in cold water. After cooling, dip again in the lemon juice solution. Drain well and package in air-tight containers leaving 1/2-inch headspace.

Here’s a tasty recipe that makes good use of autumn produce, including eggplant.


1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, sliced
1 green pepper, seeded and cut in strips
3 medium unpared zucchini, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 medium eggplant, pared and cut into cubes
2 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
3 tomatoes, peeled and cut in wedges

Heat oil in large skillet; add garlic, onion, green pepper and zucchini; cook about 3 minutes or until onion is tender, stirring frequently. Add eggplant, herbs and seasonings; cover and cook over medium heat 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato wedges; cover and cook 5 minutes longer or until tomatoes are heated. Serve hot or cold. (Note: to remove skins from tomatoes, plunge tomatoes one at a time in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Skins will then slip off easily.)

Makes six servings. Each serving contains 136 calories, 9.5 grams fat, 12.5 grams carbohydrates and 4 grams fiber.

Oodles of Tomatoes? Here’s How to Preserve Salsa Safely

SDRandCo (17)As I was pondering the large, ripening tomatoes in our garden the other day, I recalled a “bad tomato” year we had.

That year, I was really hoping for a bumper crop of tomatoes and peppers. My kids and I planted tomato seeds in tiny starter pots in early spring. Our plants grew sturdy and tall.

When summer arrived, we planted them outside in a nice, sunny spot. We watered them and weeded around them. The rabbits even left them alone. I was hopeful. But the tomato plants didn’t grow. The plants didn’t die, either. They just stood there like dormant house plants that didn’t bear fruit. Maybe they were not tomato seeds.

Since then, we moved to a different home and my Mother’s Day gift one year was a large load of soil. I was fine with that because the fertile soil has produced many delicious meals for us and our friends. We needed to invest in some food preservation equipment.

Whether you grow your own produce or buy it, preserving food has many advantages. You have control over the quality of your starting ingredients, and you have a sense of pride that comes with preserving your garden’s bounty. And maybe we’re preserving some family traditions, too.

Creativity is often the mark of a good cook, but creativity has no role in home canning. Home canning is a science. The good news is that U.S. Department of Agriculture research-tested recipes are readily available.

The bad news is that Great-grandma’s pickled beet recipe isn’t necessarily considered safe by today’s standards, even if you ate it all your life without getting sick. Maybe you’ve been lucky. Botulism, a potentially deadly form of foodborne illness, can result from improperly home-canned foods.

Remember some basic rules when canning. Make sure your equipment is functional and, if processing vegetables or meats, be sure your pressure gauge has been tested for accuracy within the past year. Many Extension Service offices provide this service for a small fee. Obtain research-tested recipes and follow them closely.

Acidic foods such as pickles, jellies, jams, fruits and tomatoes should be processed in a boiling-water bath for the recommended amount of time. Tomatoes should be acidified with lemon juice or citric acid. Low-acid food such as vegetables, meat and most mixtures of foods should be processed in a pressure canner following current recommendations.

Salsa is one of the most popular home-canned foods. If your garden produced salsa ingredients such as tomatoes, peppers and onions in abundance, consider these salsa-making tips:

  • Follow the formulation exactly and measure/weigh ingredients carefully. Use bottled lemon or lime juice or vinegar as indicated.
  • Handle hot peppers carefully; wear plastic gloves and wash your hands before touching your face.
  • In canning recipes calling for spices, you may decrease the amount of spice safely, but do not increase the spice amounts.
  • To alter the heat in salsa, you can substitute one type of pepper for another safely, but keep the total amount of pepper the same.
  • Do not thicken salsas with cornstarch or other thickeners before canning. After opening the jars, if the salsa appears thin, it can be heated and thickened later, or the excess juice may be strained.

Here’s a recipe that was a big hit with a salsa class I taught. It’s so tasty it might be eaten before it gets into the canning jars. For more information about food preservation, visit and click on “Food Preservation.” If you have a bumper crop of tomatoes, see “Canning and Freezing Tomatoes and Making Salsa” (available at

Tomato Paste Salsa

3 quarts tomatoes, peeled and chopped
4 c. green peppers, chopped (about 2 large bell peppers)
1 (12-ounce) jar jalapeno peppers (in vinegar, drained)
1 c. long green chilies, seeded and chopped (about 3 chilies)
3 c. onions, chopped (about 3 medium)
3 c. celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 (12-ounce) cans tomato paste
2 c. bottled lemon juice
1 Tbsp. salt
1 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. ground cumin

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and continue boiling for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle hot salsa into hot pint jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Wipe jar rims. Cap with properly pretreated lids. Adjust lids and process in a boiling-water canner for 20 minutes.

Makes about 16 pints. Each 2-tablespoon serving contains about 15 calories, no fat and 3 grams carbohydrate.

Which Flowers Are Edible?

IMG_7415The blooming flowers at this time of the year look good enough to eat. Some actually are.

Many flower varieties are edible, but before you munch on the centerpiece, you need to do your homework. Some flower varieties are poisonous, or at least could cause allergic reactions or stomach upset.

For example, apple blossoms should be tasted in moderation because the flowers contain chemicals related to cyanide. Chamomile commonly used in teas can cause allergic reactions among people with ragweed allergies. Too many daylilies can have a laxative effect.

Flowers have been used as food throughout history, from the use of squash blossoms in Asian culture to roses in Italian culture. More recently, chefs and cake decorators have used flowers as garnishes.

Edible flowers can be floated on soups or in punch bowls. They can be frozen in ice cubes or ice rings. Brightly colored edible petals can be sprinkled over salads. Besides serving as the finishing touch, flowers have made their way into the main course or side dishes.

Some of the common edible flower varieties are the petals of roses, begonias, chrysanthemums, daisies, pansies, violets, nasturtiums, impatiens and daylilies. Not only can flowers add color, they also can add flavor. Flowers differ in taste from mintlike to peppery.

Here are some tips to consider before eating the bouquet:

  • Know your flower varieties. Consult with an expert or use a reputable plant identification guide. Remember that flowers used as plate garnishes aren’t necessarily edible.
  • Be aware that people affected by allergies, hay fever or asthma could react to flowers used in food preparation.
  • Avoid flowers that have been exposed to pesticides unless the pesticides are labeled for use on edible flowers and the label directions have been followed. Avoid using flowers grown by the roadside because they may have been exposed to pesticides. Flowers from florists or garden centers also likely have been treated with pesticides and are best left off the menu.
  • Pick fully open edible flowers after morning dew has evaporated. Use right away or refrigerate between layers of damp paper toweling.
  • Remove pollen-containing stamens and pistils from flowers. Pollen can detract from flavor. Pollen also can cause allergic reactions.
  • Gently wash flower petals right before use.

Slowly introduce edible flowers into your menu to avoid potential stomach upset.

For further information, the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Service has an online publication with information about growing edible flowers and the flavors of edible flowers. It is available at

Here’s a tasty veggie dip. Try it with or without added nasturtium petals. The light versions of cream cheese and mayonnaise cut calories and fat.

Veggie Dip

1/4 c. hot water
2 tsp. beef bouillon powder
1 8-oz. package light cream cheese
1/2 c. light mayonnaise
4 large green onions, chopped
1/3 c. chopped red, orange and yellow nasturtium petals, chopped (optional)

Dissolve beef powder in hot water. Chop onions, tops included. Mix ingredients and chill. Before serving, mix in chopped flowers if desired. Be sure flowers have not been in contact with pesticides, and wash carefully. Garnish with additional flowers if desired. Serve with assorted fresh vegetables.

Makes 16 servings. Each serving has 50 calories, 4.5 grams (g) fat, 2 g carbohydrate, 1 g protein and 230 milligrams sodium.

Be Good Food Role Model for Your Kids

Photo by Kakisky courtesy of

Photo by Kakisky courtesy of

Whenever September rolls around, I recall being stranded in Dallas during the time of the 9/11 attack in 2001. I was unable to get a flight home for several days. My husband was at home caring for our two energetic young children.

I had been at a nutrition conference that ended abruptly for all practical purposes. Like the rest of the country, nearly all of us attendees were glued to our TV sets in our hotel rooms.

When I finally was able to get a flight home, I was met at the airport as usual by my husband, our then-6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, who was carrying a jumbo bag of potato chips about half her size. Her mouth was surrounded by melted chocolate. Our son was lobbying for control of the chips, but she was being feisty.

My harried husband looked at me a little sheepishly. “The soda pop is in the car,” he said, then added,  “but it’s diet pop.”

“OK,” I replied as I picked up my chocolate-faced little daughter. I almost burst out laughing for the first time in a week.

I was so tired after being stranded in Dallas, and so thankful to be home, that we left it at that. I reminded myself that there’s room in the diet for occasional treats, but the important thing is that the overall diet remain healthful.

When providing food for children, parents and children have a division of responsibility, according to child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter. The caregiver’s responsibilities for young children include selecting and buying food, preparing the meals, presenting the food, ensuring pleasant meal times and defining appropriate behavior for meals.

The caregiver is not responsible for how much – or even if – the child eats. Children need to have some latitude to make their own decisions about food choices, so be sure that healthful food choices are available.

When preparing food for children, remember they’re not mini-adults. Remember, too, that they’re more likely to follow what you do, rather than what you say. If you’re extolling the virtues of fresh vegetables while chomping on a brownie, they’ll likely go for the chocolate at the next opportunity.

Children do, however, need the same variety of foods based on “,” but their portion sizes are generally smaller. Children can be overwhelmed by adult-size portions.

Overweight among children continues to be an issue in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that adult diets should be imposed upon children. Children under age 2 should not follow a low-fat eating plan because fat in the diet is needed for the development of their nervous systems and body cells.

Between ages 2 and 5, the fat intake in children’s diets may be reduced gradually. This can be accomplished in part by switching from whole to low-fat milk and by incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the diet. To help moderate calories in the diets of anyone over age 2, try these strategies:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat.
  • Choose low-fat or nonfat versions of dairy products.
  • Read and compare Nutrition Facts labels.
  • Instead of solid fats, use oils.
  • When preparing food, trim visible fat from meat.
  • Use cooking methods such as broiling, roasting, baking, steaming or grilling to cook foods.
  • Spoon fat from soups or meats after they have been chilled.
  • Substitute low-fat yogurt, sour cream or cottage cheese for sour cream and mayonnaise.

Here’s a health-promoting twist on a kids’ favorite, macaroni and cheese.

Make-over Macaroni and Cheese

1 box macaroni and cheese (with the powdered cheese sauce)
2 tablespoons skim milk
2 ounces grated mozzarella cheese

Cook the noodles according to the package directions, omitting salt. Drain, then add milk and cheese instead of butter or margarine called for on the package. Mix well to coat evenly. Add contents of the cheese sauce packet; mix well. Serve immediately.

Makes four 1/2-cup servings. Each serving contains 230 calories, 5 grams (g) fat, 35 g carbohydrate, 12 g protein and 500 milligrams of sodium.

Seven Ways to Use Zucchini

Lock your car doors. Post a guard by your front steps. Keep a close eye on your purse or briefcase at work. Zucchini are back. If you don’t take some precautions, your car, front steps or bag might be filled with some of the long-necked green guests.

That prolific summer squash can make people snicker at the mere mention of its name. Although it’s the recipient of countless wisecracks at this time of the year, zucchini are quite versatile on the menu. They can’t help that they grow so well.

Zucchini brings out creativity in chefs. Hundreds of recipes – and even entire cookbooks – are devoted to this relative of cucumbers and melons. Zucchini can be eaten raw or cooked. Salads, side dishes, breads and even cakes make use of this mild-tasting fruit (so designated because of its seeds) that’s used as a vegetable.

“Zucchini” comes from the Italian word “zucchino,” which means “small squash.” Some trace its history back to Mexican origins in 7000 B.C. Zucchini probably was part of the “three sisters” diet mainstays: corn, beans and squash. Early explorers found it interesting and brought it back to Europe.

Nutritionally, zucchini are very low in calories, mainly because they are composed of about 95 percent water. A serving, about half of a medium-size zucchini (approximately 3.5 ounces), contains only 20 calories, no fat, 1 gram of fiber and no sodium. A serving also provides one-fourth of the daily recommendation for vitamin C, plus some compounds the body can convert to vitamin A.

When choosing zucchini, look for a smooth squash with a dark green, shiny rind and no signs of injury. Smaller zucchini will be more tender than larger zucchini. Store zucchini in the refrigerator.

So, what can you do with the bushel of zucchini you suspect your neighbor generously left in your driveway? Here are six ways to use zucchini and a recipe for a seventh way.

  • Make an orange and green salad from shredded carrots and zucchini. Add your favorite dressing.
  • Make zucchini sticks and serve with low-calorie dip.
  • Place chunks of zucchini on skewers, along with your favorite meat and vegetables, and grill.
  • Peel and slice zucchini; saute with chopped onions in olive oil or vegetable broth for a tasty side dish.
  • Hollow out zucchini and stuff with chopped mushrooms, peppers, onions and tomatoes. Add your favorite herbs and bake for about 45 minutes.
  • Make zucchini quick bread or muffins.

Here’s an eighth way:  If you have ample zucchini left at season’s end, remember, they make great compost. Also, save some seeds. Plant them next spring and be generous to your friends and neighbors this time next year.

Here’s a vegetable side dish that makes good use of summer’s bounty, whether you grew it or not.

Lean and Easy Ratatouille

1 medium onion, chopped
1 tsp. olive oil
1 small eggplant, peeled and cubed
2 small zucchini, cubed
3 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1/4 c. fresh parsley, minced
3 Tbsp. tomato paste 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

Combine the onion and oil in a 3-quart casserole dish. Cover with plastic wrap, venting on the sides, and microwave on high for 1 1/2 minutes, or until the onions are tender. Stir in the eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, pepper, parsley, tomato paste, garlic, basil and thyme. Cover again and microwave on high, stirring occasionally for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the vinegar. Let stand about five minutes.

Makes six servings. Each serving has 90 calories, 1 gram (g) fat, 3 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber and 25 milligrams sodium.


Making Jelly at Home Stirs Memories

One of my older daughter’s favorite children’s books featured Frances, a finicky little badger who prefers bread and jam over most foods. Her parents offer eggs and all sorts of other foods to entice her, but Frances only wants bread and jam for most of the book.

Most of us can relate to this imaginary character. We like certain foods more than others, and we may even get on an occasional “food jag,” where we eat a fairly monotonous diet. Most often, people are “repeat customers” for foods because they like the taste of the food.

Food is more than flavor, though. It has many meanings. Some foods bring us comfort and stir vivid memories. You might remember grandma or mom opening a jar of homemade jelly or jam to serve with homemade, bread fresh out of the oven. Maybe you almost can smell the aroma of the bread and taste the sweetness of the jam.

In recent years, many people have renewed their interest in home food preservation. Salsas, jams and jellies are some of the popular items that people preserve at home. Jams and jellies are a good starting point if you want to explore food preservation.

Let’s start with some terminology. Jams and jellies are not the same, nor are marmalades and preserves. Jellies are thickened, sweetened fruit juices without chunks of fruit. Jams are thick spreads that contain some crushed or chopped fruit. Marmalades are somewhat of a combination of jellies and jams, with uniform-size pieces of fruit or fruit peel evenly suspended in a transparent jelly. Preserves are small chunks of fruit in slightly gelled syrup.

Making jams and jellies does not require a lot of equipment or ingredients, and many research-tested recipes are available to get you started. A note of caution: Great-grandma’s method of using paraffin wax to seal jelly jars is no longer recommended. As a safety and quality precaution, jams and jellies should be heat-treated in a boiling water-bath canner for five to 10 minutes, too.

To make jelly, you will need fruit, sugar and sometimes pectin, depending on the fruit. Pectin is a carbohydrate naturally present in many fruits and acts as a gelling agent in jellies and jams. In general, the riper the fruit, the less pectin it contains. Commercial pectin is available in stores in dry and syrup forms. Sometimes the jelly requires an added acid, such as lemon juice, for gelling to occur.

As a rule of thumb, use a mixture of about three-quarters ripe and one-quarter underripe fruit when making jelly without added pectin. If the jelly recipe calls for a particular type of pectin, use the kind that’s recommended or you may end up with pancake syrup.

If you have a lot of apples this year, consider making some into jelly. This recipe is from one of our food preservation publications, “Jams and Jellies from North Dakota Fruits.” Other recipes in the publication include wild plum jam, chokecherry jelly, gooseberry jam and wild grape jelly. It’s online at (click on “Food Preservation” and then “Jams and Jellies”).

Apple or Crab Apple Jelly

 4 c. crab apple juice (about 3 pounds crab apples and 3 c. water)
4 c. sugar

To prepare juice, select firm, crisp crab apples, about one-quarter firm to ripe and three-quarters fully ripe. Sort, wash and remove stem and blossom ends, but do not pare or core. Cut crab apples into small pieces. Add water, cover and bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until crab apples are soft. Extract juice and pour into jelly bag (available where canning supplies are sold). To make jelly, sterilize canning jars and measure juice into saucepot. Add sugar and stir well. Boil over high heat to 8 degrees above the boiling point of water (approximately 220 degrees, depending on where you live) or until jelly mixture sheets from spoon. Remove from heat and quickly skim off foam. Pour jelly immediately into hot canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe jar rims and adjust lids. Adjust lids and process in a boiling water-bath canner for five minutes for pints at altitudes from 0 to 1,000 feet or for 10 minutes for altitudes from 1,001 to 6,000 feet. Yields four to five half-pints.

One tablespoon of jelly has about 50 calories, 13 grams of carbohydrate and no fat.


What’s Your Favorite Comfort Food?

When you are angry, bored or frustrated, what kinds of food do you seek? If you’re like some of the people who’ve been in studies, you’d reach for foods that are crunchy. Maybe you feel like biting something.

While potato chips fit in the crunchy food category, a healthier option would be baby carrots or a crisp apple.

When you’re feeling sad or lonely, what foods would you pursue? Research subjects often want soups or other warm foods that remind them of the cozy feelings of home. Maybe that means Mom’s recipe for meatballs and gravy.

Interestingly, people may crave sweet foods and cereal-based foods when they are feeling amused, or on the other side of the spectrum, depressed.

People respond differently to stress. Some find their hearts racing and their palms sweaty. Others become irritable or experience headaches, body aches or sleepless nights. Appetite often is affected when people are feeling anxious or upset. Many people lose their appetites and may find their favorite foods unappealing. They may have to remind themselves to eat.

Others seek out certain foods that bring them psychological comfort. Maybe that means bowls of ice cream, sweet, chewy brownies, doughnuts, bags of chips or other foods that they usually limit in their daily diet. In these cases, eating becomes a distraction – something to keep their hands busy – but not necessarily something that brings enjoyment.

Psychologists have found that food has many more meanings than simply satisfying hunger pangs. People vary greatly in what brings them comfort in stressful times.

Supplement manufacturers may tempt us with special stress formulas high in certain B vitamins, but most experts agree you don’t really need them if you are eating foods.

When confronted with stressful times, try to eat a variety of foods from all the food groups. Because we’re all unique, choose textures and temperatures that bring you comfort, whether that is crunchy, smooth, warm or cold.

While some people may crave mashed potatoes when they’re stressed, one thing’s for sure: Don’t be a couch potato. Regular physical activity can help reduce feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. Physical activity also can help you sleep better and improve your feelings of self- confidence and self-control.

If that’s not motivating evidence, consider that regular physical activity also helps control weight, strengthens bones, reduces risk of colon cancer and heart disease, and helps control blood sugar levels among diabetics.

No time for fitness, you say? Try sneaking more activity into your day with these tips. You might find that you are no longer reaching for a comforting food item:

  • Enjoy a walk instead of a doughnut during breaks at work.
  • Walk while you talk on your phone.
  • Hide the remote control so you have to get off the couch to change the channel.
  • Play with your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or your pets.
  • Exercise during TV commercials.
  • Ignore the elevator and opt for the steps.
  • Go dancing, or just turn on the radio and move.

If you’re feeling that nothing but mashed potatoes will take the edge off your stress, try this tasty recipe. Potatoes are notable sources of the mineral potassium and several other vitamins and minerals. I shaved some calories from the original recipe by using fat-free cream cheese and reduced-fat sour cream, and nipped the sodium by swapping some onion powder for the onion salt. Small recipe changes add up to big nutritional changes.

Make-ahead Mashed Potatoes

5 pounds potatoes, peeled and cooked
6 ounces cream cheese, fat-free
1 c. sour cream, reduced fat
1 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. onion salt
1 tsp. onion powder
1/4 c. milk (or to desired consistency)

Crumb topping: 3/4 cup fine bread crumbs tossed with 1 1/2 Tbsp. melted butter

Combine potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, butter, salt and milk. Whip until light and fluffy. Put into a well-greased casserole dish. Cover with crumb topping. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. This dish can be prepared the night before and refrigerated. If you make it ahead, allow about 1 1/4 hours of cooking time.

Makes 16 servings. Each serving has 150 calories, 4 grams (g) fat, 24 g carbohydrate, 4 g protein, 2 g fiber and 330 milligrams sodium.