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Exploring superfoods

Eating something that’s good for your innards is downright empowering — more about what you can have than what you must do without. In their unadorned state, “superfoods” deliver high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or phytochemicals; so says the International Food Information Council. They have been described by health-food guru David Wolfe as a way “to get more nutrition with less eating.”

Eating something that’s good for your innards is downright empowering — more about what you can have than what you must do without. In their unadorned state, “superfoods” deliver high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or phytochemicals; so says the International Food Information Council. They have been described by health-food guru David Wolfe as a way “to get more nutrition with less eating.”

Unless you don’t buy into the hype.

“I don’t believe there is such a thing as a superfood,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “All plant foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains — have useful nutrients. The whole point about diets is to vary food intake, because the nutrient contents of various foods differ and complement each other.”

The European Union even banned general use of the term “superfood” on labels in 2007, requiring scientific evidence to back up specific health claims — helps protect against heart disease! — for food and drink products made or sold within its member nations.

And yet, lists of what’s best and worst and in and out make 21st-century citizens feel plugged in. So a basic lineup of superfoods has morphed from a d’oh-inspiring, sensible 10 (salmon, beans, yogurt, sweet potatoes, broccoli, kiwis, quinoa, nuts, eggs, berries) to an annual forecast of trending ingredients.

Canary seeds, salsify and the Japanese spice blend known as schichimi togarashi showed up on Prevention magazine’s superfoods list for 2014. How many of us have those on hand?

“I like to look at nutrients and find foods that are different,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, author of said list. She’s a media-savvy registered dietitian in Cleveland who heads nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Her 2012 prediction about chia seeds, the fiber-rific staple of the Aztec and Mayan Indians, is right on track.

Once the institute’s executive chef figured out that chia seeds soaked in wine or water created a moist, Omega-3 fatty acid-rich binder for turkey meatballs, Kirkpatrick relayed the technique to her patients and shared the recipe with millions via The Dr. Oz Show.


Nick Palermo, of Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac, Md., describes himself as someone who likes to cook in his own castle and likes to modernize classic American comfort food, without going “crazy or super-chemical” in the kitchen. We found the boyish-looking, 32-year-old executive chef was already interested in incorporating a few superfoods into the inn’s specials — a somewhat undercover mission.

“You don’t really come to Old Angler’s to eat ‘healthy,’ “ he admits. “But you don’t really need a steak to feel fulfilled.” Palermo is especially keen on quinoa, lentils and greens: “I like the flavors of all that stuff.” He’s also on a buddy plan to lose 20 pounds, along with pal Luis Santiago, the inn’s general manager.

The chef went with avocado and turkey.

The fruit makes the grade, of course, because it’s high in monounsatured fats, antioxidants and essential amino acids. It’s plentiful and often on sale in the runup to Super Bowl-guacamole fests, but Palermo was inspired first by a crisp, refreshing salad from Santiago that has been on the inn’s menu: hearts of palm, celery and chunks of luscious avocado dressed simply with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil.

The chef then applied the kind of two-star thinking that we were looking for. He roasted avocado quarters and used them to fill the side of the plate where a starchy carb might otherwise reside. The combination of a well-executed pork chop — which could just as well be a roasted chicken breast or piece of fish, he says — sauteed broccoli and a sherry vinaigrette that graces all of the components could seriously upgrade a weeknight meal without much fuss.

Turkey was not an obvious choice for him. “I don’t even really eat the stuff,” he says. The lean protein contains heart-healthy minerals that are said to aid our immune system and metabolism. Palermo managed to make it a flavor bomb in his turkey curry, bolstered by a quick-ish broth and brief infusion of kaffir lime leaves. The dark meat cooks just long enough to become pull-apart tender. His turkey cassoulet fits the season; leaner and less daunting than a three-page Julia Child rendition, it still manages to evoke the richness of the French casserole. He’d rather we use home-cooked beans than canned, but he appreciates the nod to convenience.

A chef’s deft touches, joining forces with the power of superfoods. We could get used to that.

EXAMPLES OF SUPERFOODS

Apples

Avocados

Amaranth

Beans

Blueberries

Chia seeds

Cinnamon

Dark chocolate

Dried superfruits (organic, unsweetened cranberries, figs, apricots, currants, cherries)

Fermented foods

Garlic

Honey

Kiwi

Pomegranates

Pumpkin

Soy

Spinach

Tea

Tomatoes

Turkey

Walnuts

Whey (powdered)

Wild salmon

Yogurt (low- or nonfat)

Chilean-Style Avocado Salad

MAKES: 4 or 5 servings

PREPARATION: The salad components can be prepped and refrigerated several hours in advance. Dress the salad just before serving.

INGREDIENTS

Kosher salt

1 pound asparagus (woody ends trimmed off), peeled

Flesh of 2 ripe avocados, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup canned hearts of palm (about 7 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 medium ribs celery, cut into small dice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

STEPS

Fill a mixing bowl with ice water.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, then the asparagus. Blanch for no more than 2 minutes, then drain and transfer to the ice-water bath to stop the cooking. Cool, then drain and dry thoroughly. The asparagus should be tender but not mushy or crunchy. Cut each asparagus spear crosswise in half; cut only the trimmed-end halves crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces.

Combine the 1/2-inch asparagus pieces, avocados, hearts of palm and celery in a mixing bowl. Drizzle the oil and lemon juice over the mixture, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Toss gently to incorporate.

Arrange 3 or 4 asparagus-spear halves at the center of each plate. Divide the dressed salad mixture on top.

Pan-Seared Pork Chops With Roasted Avocado, Broccoli and Sherry Vinaigrette

MAKES: 4 or 5 servings

PREPARATION: This recipe calls for something you can find all too easily in the produce department: a firm avocado. The complete meal takes less than an hour to prepare, start to finish.

INGREDIENTS

Kosher salt

2 cups broccoli florets

4 or 5 thick-cut boneless or bone-in pork chops (6 to 8 ounces each)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Flesh of 2 or 2 1/2 firm Hass avocados, cut lengthwise into quarters

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the avocados

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

2 teaspoons minced shallot

STEPS

Fill a mixing bowl with ice water.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, then the broccoli florets. Blanch for no more than 3 minutes, then drain and transfer to the ice-water bath to stop the cooking. Cool, then drain and dry thoroughly.

Season the pork chops lightly with salt and pepper.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the pork chops; sear until golden brown in spots, 4 to 6 minutes for each side. The chops will be medium-rare; transfer to the oven for further cooking, if desired. The internal temperature of the meat should be no higher than 145 degrees; let the chops rest for at least 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, season the avocado quarters lightly with salt and pepper, then drizzle sparingly with olive oil and rub to coat. Arrange them cut side up on the baking sheet and roast for 15 to 20 minutes; the edges will be lightly browned.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the garlic; cook for 30 seconds, then add the blanched broccoli florets and stir to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper; cook just until warmed through, then remove from the heat.

Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, the vinegar and shallot in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Whisk to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

Place a chop at the center of each plate, then arrange the broccoli and 2 roasted avocado quarters alongside.Drizzle all components with the vinaigrette. Serve warm.

Turkey Cassoulet

MAKES: 4 or 5 servings

PREPARATION: A homemade turkey broth is preferable to boost the turkey flavor in this dish, but a good store-bought brand may be used instead.

INGREDIENTS

2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably European (with a higher butterfat content)

6 to 8 ounces slab bacon, preferably applewood-smoked (may substitute thick-cut pieces of turkey bacon or a flavorful turkey sausage, casings removed), cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless turkey thighs (fat trimmed off), cut into bite-size chunks

1/4 cup diced yellow onion or white onion

2 tablespoons diced carrot (carrot first well scrubbed)

2 tablespoons diced celery

2 tablespoons minced garlic

14 or 15 ounces canned, crushed no-salt-added tomatoes (optional)

15 ounces (about 2 cups) canned low-sodium cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 cup homemade or low-sodium turkey broth

1/2 cup plain panko bread crumbs

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

STEPS

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large stove-top casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the bacon (to taste) and stir to coat. Cook until the bacon starts to crisp and brown on the edges and its fat has rendered, then add the turkey and stir to coat, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook just until it loses its raw look, then add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic, stirring to coat. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables are softened and fragrant. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, if using.

Add the beans, stirring to incorporate. Season lightly with salt and pepper, then stir in the parsley and the remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter (to taste). Once the butter has been completely incorporated, stir in the broth. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. The mixture should look like a thin stew at this point.

Cover and transfer to the oven, or divide among 4 or 5 individual gratin dishes; bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the turkey is quite tender. (Baking may take less time in the small gratin dishes.) The mixture should be thickened.

Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Sprinkle the surface of the cassoulet with the panko and cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Serve hot.

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