Friday, April 22, 2011

The healthiest recipe I know

When it comes to food, I’m a traditionalist. I tend to go for more tried and true foods when I cook, foods that our ancestors enjoyed and passed down. Thus, while I enjoy colcannon, a British standard that can include kale, cabbage, or any number of other cruciferous veggies, I tend to avoid odd combinations of quinoa, kale and tofu. Our ancestors cooked based on taste, and since then, we’ve learned that these foods were healthy – in modern times, people sometimes go the other direction, from healthy to tasty, which produces some strange culinary results. Here’s a great recipe that’s delicious, and is probably the single healthiest recipe I know.

This recipe comes from Claudia Roden’s excellent cookbook, The New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, which is chock-full of excellent recipes that are healthy nearly across the board. Muhammara comes to us from the cooking tradition of Syria and Turkey, and combines four foods which science has since proven to be ‘superfoods’, foods with extremely high nutritional value. Multiple recipes for muhammara exist, ranging from spicy red pepper dips, to this, a tangy pomegranate/walnut dip.

One of the great superfoods, walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, specifically ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is one of the healthiest, but hardest to find compounds in nature. The search for vegetarian-source omega-3 fatty acids has driven people to some sources not traditionally viewed as food. As I’ve discussed in blog post upon blog post, omega-3 fats are extremely healthy, decreasing inflammation and promoting cardiovascular health. The humble walnut is an understated, but uniquely healthy food.

Tomatoes are near ubiquitous in American food, but are often eaten as colorless, warehouse-ripened fruits, with no more nutrition content than iceberg lettuce. Vine-ripened tomatoes, especially in the form of tomato paste, are rich in a variety of carotenoids, specifically the much-lauded lycopene. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant that has shown some benefit for a variety of conditions, including several types of cancer (including prostate cancer) and cardiovascular conditions.

Olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, is featured here as well. Olive oil’s main role in a healthy diet is as a healthy alternative to butter, due to its healthier fat profile. Olive oil is rich in unsaturated fats, as opposed to butter’s inflammation-producing saturated fats. Additionally, there is some evidence that the antioxidants in olive oil may provide some of it’s beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.

Finally, we come to that all-important, antioxidant-rich powerhouse, pomegranate. Pomegranate is full of vitamin C, a well-known antioxidant, but also a number of other antioxidants, like ellagic acid, anthocyanidins, and catechins. A food revered across the world since ancient times, pomegranate is mentioned in the Bible, the Qu’ran, and the Homeric Hymns.

Put these all together, and you’ve got a potent blend of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory unsaturated fats. This really is a massively healthy recipe, although I know I’ll get some flack from the gluten-intolerant – just leave the bread out!

Ok, here’s the recipe:

1 ¼ cups of chopped walnuts
1 ½ - 2 tablespoons of tomato paste (see note below)
Bread crumbs from one slice of bread, crust removed, lightly toasted
½ cup of olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate (also called syrup or molasses)
1 tsp red pepper flakes, or a pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt to taste

Combine the ingredients in a food processor and blend to a coarse grind.

This is very enjoyable on its own with pita, or as a condiment for traditional foods like kefta, fish, or other meats.

There are a number of pomegranate concentrates out there, with varying flavors –as a result, the recipe can vary in taste significantly, from tangy and sweet to mild and tomato-y. You may have to go to ethnic markets to find pomegranate concentrate, depending on where you live. Additionally, pomegranate concentrates made by health supplement companies are often very different than those made by ethnic food companies - just so you're aware of it!

Hope you enjoy this delectable dish, which has become a favorite of mine.

Note: Thanks to my friend Darren for pointing out to use tomato paste packaged in glass, rather than cans, unless the cans are specifically labelled that they aren't lined with BPA (bisphenol A). BPA is about as nasty as a compound can get, and the acids in tomato products leech it from the can lining into the food itself. Maybe I should post about this in the future. . .