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Celebrating the indulgence of pure peanut butter

So today is Peanut Butter Day. (National Peanut Butter Day again, in fact, but you know… there really seems to be so few International days in January…)

Anyway, let’s go with peanut butter, and peanuts, for that matter, for today. Certainly an interesting snack. For starters, it’s made from the peanut (Arachis hypogaea) which, despite being called a nut is in fact a member of the legume or bean family. So they’re called nuts (and you sometimes even get them when you buy mixed nuts), but they’re not nuts. That’s just nuts!

Pure peanut butter on a slice of freshly baked bread - comfort food delux.(© All Rights Reserved)
Pure peanut butter on a slice of freshly baked bread – comfort food delux.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Peanuts are used in many ways (eaten raw, roasted, made into peanut oil or flour, used in medicines), but none more rich and indulgent than good old peanut butter – a comfort food if ever there was one. Peanut butter is a rich source of protein, dietary fibre, vitamins B3 and E, magnesium, potassium and folic acid. It is also high in antioxidants and, though fatty, It has high levels of good, monounsaturated fat. The peanut oil in peanut butter has been reported to lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol without reducing HDL (‘good’) cholesterol.

And it contains high levels of niacin – a nutrient found to play an important role in the prevention of cognitive decline.

Not a bad mouthful, as such.

Aside from the obvious issue of peanut allergy, the downsides of peanut butter are not generic to peanuts, but rather concern the processing and additives involved in some brands. Some peanut butter brands, for example, contain added hydrogenated vegetable oils that are high in bad trans fatty acids, but this can be avoided by making sure you get freshly ground peanut butter made from peanuts, and peanuts only. Peanut butter is also said to have the potential to harbor Salmonella, but again I believe this is really only applicable to product that has not been properly handled during production, so it isn’t a generic problem either.

Thus, as long as you source responsibly produced, pure peanut butter, it seems you can pretty much snack worry-free (in moderation, of course).

Talking about worry-free snacking – people are always worried that peanut butter will make you fat. And sure enough, eating it by the tubfull certainly is likely to add up, but there are arguments that, eaten in moderation, it can actually help in weight management, as it’s rich taste and texture has been found to keep you fuller for longer than many other snacks.

Convinced? Then why not celebrate Peanut Butter Day with a chocolate-peanut butter-banana smoothie – if you can restrain yourself to a small serving (not easy!) it’s probably the simplest, most indulgent “good snack” you will taste in a while!

Celebrating exploding food on Popcorn Day

Today, 19 January, is Popcorn Day, a day to celebrate one of nature’s fun foods – those crazy little corn kernels that, when exposed to heat, explode violently and morph into cushiony white snacks many times their original size.

We’ve all enjoyed popcorn, but have you ever wondered what makes ’em pop?

Exploding starch frozen in action. (© All Rights Reserved)
Each piece of popped popcorn is a totally unique example of exploding starch frozen in action.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The secret to popcorn’s popping ability lies in the composition of the kernel. The popcorn kernel consists of a hard, watertight outer shell, containing starch and a small amount of water and oil.

When the kernel is heated, the water inside tries to expand to steam, but the hard shell prevents this. The heat also gelatinizes the starch inside the shell. Once sufficient pressure has built up (to an incredible 930 kPa), the kernel bursts open in a violent explosion, freeing the steam and starch.

As the hot starch bursts out of the shell, it expands rapidly to as much as 50 times its original size. At the same time it experiences rapid cooling as it comes into contact with the air outside the shell.   It is this rapid cooling that sets the gelatinized starch into the familiar foamy popcorn puff.

So a popped popcorn is basically a starch explosion frozen in action!

Getting hot under the collar on International Hot and Spicy Food Day

Today is International Hot and Spicy Food Day, so are you ready for a meal that gets the heart racing and the perspiration pumping?

This year, I am spending this special day enjoying our first home made Mexican salsa verde, authentically made with the decidedly strange tomatillo fruit (home grown, of course!). Somewhere between a tomato and a cape gooseberry, the tomatillo is essentially a tomato-like fruit wrapped in an inedible, papery husk. Eaten when fully grown but still green of colour and full of flavour, the tomatillo is the key ingredient in Mexican cuisine, including the hot and spicy salsa verde – a green sauce made from tomatillo with chili peppers, garlic, onion, coriander and a touch of lemon or lime juice. Hot, spicy, bursting with flavour, and great with some cheesy nachos!

The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), also known as a husk tomato or Mexican tomato.(© All Rights Reserved)
The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), also known as a husk tomato or Mexican tomato.
(© All Rights Reserved)
Hot and spicy Mexican salsa verde goes down a treat with corn chips and cheese.(© All Rights Reserved)
Hot and spicy Mexican salsa verde goes down a treat with corn chips and cheese.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Speaking of hot and spicy – we (my wife, actually) recently decided to plant some Bhut Jolokia chili peppers. They’re still babies, so it will be a while still before we have the ‘privilege’ of tasting one of the hottest chili peppers in the world, but I will be sure to report back on the experience (if I’m still able to think straight after the fact).

One of our Bhut Joloika babies.  Considering the punch of the adult fruit (with a Scoville rating of over 1 000 000 units), the baby plant looks deceivingly innocent.(© All Rights Reserved)
One of our Bhut Joloika babies. Considering the punch of the adult fruit (with a Scoville rating of over 1 000 000 units), the baby plant looks deceivingly innocent.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course chili peppers aren’t just a great slap across the taste buds; filled to the brim with vitamin C, most B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and iron, they are also really good for you. And it is said that when your body is hit by the sensation of a hot chili, it releases endorphins and serotonin – a great feel-good boost resulting in a natural high similar to the ‘runners high’ experienced after intense exercise. Chili peppers also increase your metabolism, reduce hypertension, fight inflammation and have been found to lower bad cholesterol.

The chili pepper - from the genus Capsicum, and members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. With a taste that stands out from the crowd, and packed with health benefits, the chili pepper is one of the true celebrities among the edible plants. (© All Rights Reserved)
The chili pepper – from the genus Capsicum, and member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. With a taste that stands out from the crowd, and packed with health benefits, the chili pepper is one of the true celebrities among the edible plants.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now if that’s not enough reason to try out some new chili-based recipes on International Hot and Spicy Food Day, I don’t know what is. Have fun, and if you find a good hot and spicy recipe, let me know!

Milk Day, celebrating milk as a source of human nutrition

Today, according to various food blogs and holiday sites, is Milk Day. Rumour has it that this day is celebrated as Milk Day because milk was first delivered in bottles on this day, 11 January, way back in 1878. I did some searching to confirm this, but was unable to do so – it seems there was a patent for a milk container issued in 1878, but the exact issue date for that patent was 29 January.

While I cannot confirm the milk bottle fact, I don’t see any reason why we should not celebrate Milk Day. Internationally, milk is an important source of human nutrition, and in New Zealand in particular, the milk industry forms the backbone of our country’s economy.

A hanging milker device used in a rotary milking parlor.(© All Rights Reserved)
A hanging milker device used in a rotary milking parlor.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The New Zealand milk industry was started nearly two centuries ago in 1814 when the first cows arrived in New Zealand after being imported by early European settlers. New Zealand milk exports started in 1846, and in 1871 the first dairy co-operative was created in the Otago region. From these early initiatives, the New Zealand dairy industry has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2001, the Fonterra company was formed from an amalgamation of existing co-ops, representing the majority of the country’s dairy farmers. Wholly owned by the more than 10 000 farmers who supply milk to it, Fonterra is currently the world’s largest dairy exporter, exporting to more than 100 countries. It is responsible for about 30% of the world’s dairy exports with revenue of close to NZ$ 20 billion (approx US$ 16.8 billion).

While New Zealand leads world milk exports, India is the biggest producer and consumer of milk. India does not, however, import or export milk – it solely produces milk for domestic consumption.

Beyond being a direct source of human nutrition, milk is also processed into a wide range of dairy products – cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter, ice cream, chocolate and more. While the majority of the milk consumed by humans come from cows, the milk from buffalo (esp in India), goats and sheep are also consumed in significant volumes, especially in processed form.

Over the years, human consumption of animal milk has been linked to a variety of health benefits and risks. On the positive side, milk has been found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and it promotes muscle growth and post-exercise recovery. Other reported benefits include improved immune function and relief of hypertension. On the negative side, there has been reports of the casein in milk causing autism spectrum disorders, and excessive consumption of milk has been linked to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and potentially prostate cancer.

While there will probably forever be debates about the benefits and risks of milk consumption, as a source of fat, protein, carbohydrates, salts, minerals and vitamins, it continues to hold significant promise in addressing malnutrition and poverty, particularly as livestock management improves in the developing world.

Walter Diemer, the accountant who gave the world bubble gum.

Today we celebrate the birthday of Walter E Diemer, who was born on this day in 1905 and, incidentally, also died on this day 93 years later. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Diemer is the guy who gave the world (wait for it…) bubble gum!

He never set out to invent bubble gum, to be honest. Working as an accountant for the Freer Chewing Gum Company, he experimented in his spare time with different recipes for new chewing gum bases. During one of his attempts, in 1928, he accidentally managed to create a base that was less sticky and much more elastic than typical chewing gum.

Bubble gum - creating a whole new way to play with your food.(© All Rights Reserved)
Bubble gum – creating a whole new way to play with your food.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Realising he had something quite unique on his hands, he decided to try his invention in the market. He sold a batch to a local grocery store, where it was sold out in the first afternoon. Leveraging Freer’s distribution networks, he started marketing his bubble gum nationally, using salesmen who were specially taught how to blow bubbles with the gum, so they could serve as product demonstrators when they sold the new Freers bubble gum (named ‘Dubble Bubble’) to stores.

Diemer eventually became Senior Vice-President of Freer, thanks largely to his bubble gum invention. Many years later, he still found it amazing that his five pound batch of gum started a global craze, becoming one of the most popular confections in the world.

Diemer’s original batch of bubble gum was pink in colour, mainly because this was the only food colouring he had available at the time, and after almost a century, this still remains the standard colour for bubble gum.

Celebrating your favourite brew on International Tea Day

Today, 15 December, is International Tea Day, observed mainly in the world’s tea producing countries in the East (Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India) and Africa (Kenya, Malaysia, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi) . This is the day when even the coffee lovers among us should acknowledge that other beverage that many, many people enjoy so much.

In fact, after water, tea is said to be the most widely consumed beverage in the world. While its exact origins are unknown, tea drinking was first recorded in China, as early as the 10th century BC. It remained an oriental delicacy until it was first imported to Europe by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. The habit of tea drinking hit Great Britain around 1660, but only gained widespread popularity with the Brits around the 19th century, from which point they pretty much claimed it as part of their national culture.

Have a cup of green tea, and drink to your health.(© All Rights Reserved)
Have a cup of green tea, and drink to your health.
(© All Rights Reserved)

One of the great things about tea is the wide range available. ‘Standard’ tea, made from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is available as green tea (made with the unfermented tea leaves) or black tea (made by post-fermented leaves). The tea plant is also used to produce white tea, oolong tea and pu-erh tea. Then there are all the so-called herbal teas – chamomile, mint, rooibos, rosehip and more. All teas have distinctive flavours; different types of tea can be blended together, and all the teas can be blended with various other additives – herbs, citrus skin, and much, much more.

Chemically, tea is filled with bioactive chemicals – amino acids, vitamins, caffeine, flavinoids, polysaccharides – which have been associated with a range of health benefits, including protection against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Green tea, in particular, appear to have significant protective effects against a range of cancers.

Tea may also boost your immune system and increase your metabolism.

Pretty impressive – maybe I should swop more of my daily coffee shots for some health-boosting tea beverages!

Lyle’s golden syrup – turning waste into gold

Today we celebrate the birthday of Abram Lyle (14 Dec 1820 – 30 Apr 1891), Scottish ship owner, sugar refiner, and the man who gave the world Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Starting his career in the shipping industry, Lyle later started supplying casks to ship Caribbean sugar and molasses. This got him into the sugar business, starting the Glebe Sugar Refinery with some partners. One of the by-products of the sugar cane refining process was a treacle-like syrup that usually goes to waste, but with the help of chemist Charles Eastick, Lyle found a way to refine it further to make a preserve, called golden syrup.

Yummy pancakes, made that little bit extra special with the compliments of Abram Lyle and his wonderful golden syrup. (© All Rights Reserved)
Yummy pancakes, made that little bit extra special thanks to Abram Lyle and his wonderful golden syrup.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Lyle’s golden syrup was sold in tins featuring a drawing of a rotting lion carcass with a swarm of bees, referring to the bible story where Samson was traveling in the land of the Philistines to find a wife. During his journey he killed a lion, and when he later passed the same way he noticed a swarm of bees had started a hive in the carcass, producing honey inside the lion. From this, Samson created the riddle “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness”, and the last bit of this riddle, “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”, became the slogan for Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Golden syrup, being made from those sugars that did not crystalise during refinement, consists mostly of glucose and fructose. It is more water soluble than sucrose, and as a result less likely to form crystals, remaining syrupy under normal room temperatures. It is also sweeter than sucrose, so when using golden syrup as a sugar replacement in cooking etc, about 25% less golden syrup is needed to match the sweetness of sugar.

I am always endlessly impressed by people like Abram Lyle: those individuals who look at something that others see as a problem, or as waste – in this case the treacle waste – and instead see it as an opportunity to create something new and original.

With Lyle’s end product being golden syrup, I guess this really is a case of turning waste into gold.

David Marine, pioneer of salt iodisation

Our subject for today is table salt, or more specifically, iodised table salt. We are commemorating the work of David Marine, an American pathologist who died on this day back in 1976.

Marine did research on the treatment of goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck) with iodine. Between 1917 and 1922 he ran medical trials on a large sample of school girls, showing that iodine supplementation significantly reduced the incidence of goiter. Recognising the potential health benefits of iodine supplementation, Marine worked on the World Health Organisation’s salt iodisation programme.

When you do use salt, opting for an iodised variety cannot hurt.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Adding trace amounts of various iodine salts to regular table salt is an easy and effective way of preventing iodine deficiency in people. Worldwide, iodine deficiency is said to affect almost 2 billion people, causing mental retardation and various thyroid problems including goiter. While people in some regions, for example near the coast, can potentially get enough iodine from their general diet, the majority of the world has low natural iodine levels, resulting in the need for artificial supplementation.

Over the years there has been some opposition to iodisation of salt, mainly from fringe groups such as small salt producers concerned about the added production expense, manufacturers of iodine supplements who are obviously at risk of losing their market, and health groups concerned that the promotion of iodised salt will lead to excessive salt intake. Of course there will always be lobbies (rightly) promoting foods and food products that are as ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ as possible, and who would prefer to rather get their iodine in some more natural way. For this reason, most countries allow both iodised and non-iodised salt to be sold to consumers.

While the iodisation of salt has contributed a great deal to improve global iodine deficiency levels, there are indications in many countries, including new Zealand, of a re-emergence of iodine deficiency. This is due in part to the increased consumption of commercially prepared foods made with cheaper, non-iodised salt, and because of decreased general use of salt (iodised and not) as a response to health programmes recommending reduced salt intake.

Of course using less salt, iodised or not, is a good thing, as we discussed previously. But the key message from most health bodies, in terms of iodine intake, is to opt for iodised salt when we do use salt, and to generally give preference to freshly prepared, non-processed foods. Non-vegetarians can boost their iodine intake with iodine rich foodsources like seafood, milk, eggs and meat, but vegetarians may well consider an iodine supplement.

Just remember that the iodine in iodised salt disappears over time due to evaporation and oxidation, so even when you do use iodised salt, that bag of salt that’s been sitting in the cupboard for years may not be of much use as an iodine supplement anymore.

Learning to live off the land on Wild Foods Day

Today, 28 October, is Wild Foods Day, a day to celebrate edible wild plants. Wild-growing fruits and vegetables have through the ages been a key food source for many people, and these foods are now starting to get their time to shine, with more and more gourmet chefs introducing unique twists on their menus through the incorporation of wild fruits, root crops etc.

Being unprocessed and thus free from pesticides and other interventions, wild fruits and vegetables are also an eco-friendly choice, and many argue that fruits and veges grown without intervention has an intensity of flavour not found in more cultivated varieties – hence the wonderful wine made from free-growing bushvine grapes, for example.

A bowl of freshly picked wild blackberries, ready to be made into a wonderful blackberry and port jam.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On this day, you are encouraged to learn about, and find, wild fruits that grow in your area. It is amazing how much edible stuff there is freely available around us if we just know what to look for – from herbs to edible flowers and leaves to all kinds of berries and other fruits. Just remember that not all pleasant-looking berries etc are edible – some will leave you with a pretty sore tummy, or much worse. It is definitely recommended that you do your homework before setting off to ‘live off the land’!

On the section of land where we live, we have a huge crop of wild blackberries growing freely against a hill. While the aggressively spreading plants can be a pest most of the year, berry season is a exciting, fun, thorny time – you have to be very careful to avoid some rather painful stings from the thorny bramble shoots when harvesting the intensely sour-sweet black fruit. The thorns are definitely not enough to deter the children of the area, hence the common sight during this time of year of kids walking around with reddish-black stained faces and hands.

Melt in the mouth homemade scones with fresh cream and tart blackberry jam.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While these berries are great to eat as is, their abundance mean that you’re better off processing some for later use. A personal favourite solution to this ‘problem’ is blackberry jam – an absolute winner served with cream on a homemade scone.

Do you have any interesting wild food growing where you live? Have you eaten it, or processed it for later consumption?  Any interesting tales to share?

Singing the praises of pasta

Fettuccine, ravioli, lasagne, tortellini, cannelloni, spaghetti, macaroni… If (like me) the mere mention of these words make your mouth water, you’ll be happy to know that today, 25 October, is World Pasta Day.

And this is not just some willy-nilly food day like Chocolate Milkshake Day or Hamburger Day, this is serious stuff. The idea for a World Pasta Day was born out of the World Pasta Congress held in Rome on this day back in 1995. To quote the Union of Organisations of Manufactures of Pasta Products of the EU (UN.A.F.P.A. – believe it or not, there actually is such an organisation):

“Account was taken and stress was laid on the importance of spreading to the utmost the knowledge of pasta among consumers throughout the world by means of collective initiatives of promotional nature and institutional information campaigns. 

The countries with greatest experience in this field made available their know-how for the benefit of those countries which have only recently come to realise the virtues and merits of pasta.”

It all sounds terribly formal, but basically the idea of the day is to organise annual events around the world to promote the benefits of pasta and show that it is “appropriate for a dynamic and healthy life style capable of meeting both primary food requirements and those of high-level gastronomy.”

Lasagne with homemade pasta – that’ll hit the spot!
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m all for it, of course. If I had pick a favourite category of food, pasta would definitely be at or near the top. Its versatility makes it ideal for everything from a quick snack to a hearty home meal to a gastronomic feast.  And I know many people share this passion – quite amazing for a simple dough made from only flour and egg. But of course the magic doesn’t lie in the pasta itself, but in the way it serves as the perfect base for anything from a basic sauce or pesto to a mouthwatering combination of vegetables, meats or seafood.

And the best part of it is that pasta can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. Pasta is a good source of complex carbohydrates, low in sodium, cholesterol free and (in the case of whole wheat pasta) a good source of fibre. And of course it works well with other healthy foods – to quote the Pasta Fits website, it is the perfect partner for “fiber-filled vegetables and beans, heart-healthy fish and vegetable oils, antioxidant-rich tomato sauce and protein-packed cheese, poultry and lean meats.”

While pasta may be traditionally Italian cuisine, the rest of the world has certainly caught on to its appeal. The Italians still eat by far the most pasta (26 kg per capita per year, according the the International Pasta Organisation’s 2010 consumption figures), but Venezuela, Tunisia and Greece also consume more than 10 kg per person, while Switzerland (9.7kg), USA (9.0kg), France (8.1kg), Germany (7.7kg) aren’t too far behind. Australia is a bit down the list, at 4kg per capita, and I have no idea what the figure for New Zealand is. (While the USA may not top the per capita list, they consume the most pasta in total – almost a quarter of the global consumption!)

But wait, enough talking – I’m ready for a good hearty lasagne. Buon appetito!