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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Recap of February 2013 Potluck Dinner Meeting - Eastern European Night!

Last night’s potluck dinner brought together some traditional Eastern European favorites, including 2 types of goulash with a variety of meats, veggies, herbs and spices, buckwheat kasha with butter, cool crispy sauerkraut, freshly-roasted and fermented red beet and sour cream salad, hardboiled eggs stuffed with dill-mayonnaise yolks topped with salmon roe, rice pudding of raw milk and cultured cream, chilled homemade rhubarb-and-raw-honey tea, and of course some vodka!    We all enjoyed dining in good company to the sounds of some playful retro Russian music.  Then everyone took turns sharing anecdotes about Eastern European culinary traditions.

We learned that the official composition of "Eastern Europe" depends on whose definition you use, the UN’s the CIA’s, or the countries’ themselves!  We learned that there are 3 major cultural influences in Eastern Europe:  Islamic, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic.  We learned that cabbage, whose wild ancestor is originally from the Mediterranean, is common to all Eastern European nations, due to its preference for growing in cooler climates, its high vitamin C content, and its versatility.  Several of us spoke about how buckwheat figures prominently in traditional Russian diets, and one Russian guest taught us all about kasha.   Aaron Zober contributed a recipe for buckwheat kasha, courtesy of Stanley Fishman, author of Tender Grassfed Meat.

We even had a thoughtful discussion comparing our modern American diet to the traditional Eastern European diet.  Our Russian guest explained that even though Russians ate plenty of meats, roots, buckwheat, dairy, and fermented foods and beverages, and even though the babushkas (grandmas) were known for making everyone “eat, eat, and eat some more,” no one ever got fat.  Typical urban families in Russia supported their diets with fresh homegrown produce from their own gardens cultivated at their family dachas or country cottages.  Mothers and babushkas always used fresh or fermented produce for preparing meals, whether from their own gardens or local farmers markets.  The food was always nutritious and homemade from scratch, and the people were healthy.  But now, over the years of continued urbanization, expansion of industrial agriculture, and the growth of the processed food industry, Eastern Europeans are slowly seeing a degradation of their traditional diets and increasing obesity and other related modern health problems. 

To sum it up, even though we did not have a scheduled speaker for the evening, our group was able to share information and learn from each other at yet another successful potluck dinner meeting.

Don’t forget to check our Meeting Schedule regularly for updates.  In March we'll enjoy another potluck dinner of traditional foods, and learn all about biodynamic composting with Jack MacAndrew.

Have a great month!

Your Chapter Leader,

~ Karen

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Recap of January 2013 Potluck Dinner Meeting - The Wonders (and Politics!) of Palm Oil with Jolie Assina

Our January potluck dinner meeting featured Jolie Assina of Coconut Cow telling us all about Palm Oil.  We learned that palm oil comes from a type of palm that bears the palm fruit.  It is a tree that is indigenous to West Africa, whose products are primarily exported from Ghana.  Nutritionally speaking, in addition to having all the health benefits of coconut oil, it also contains lots of Vitamin E, and is even used to make Vitamin E supplements.  It has a very healthy fatty acid profile with plenty of heat-stable fats, making it a great and flavorful cooking oil.  Palm oil comes in a variety of different types, ranging in color from gold to dark orange.  

When selecting a palm oil, Jolie advised us to be aware of both where it comes from and the methods of processing.  Being from West Africa herself, Jolie prefers the palm oil from Ghana, and suggests that the palm oils from Mexico or Southeast Asia, where the plant is not native, tend to be less flavorful.  This may be an advantage for western palates if the native flavor is too strong, but if you want to taste the oil in its pure original form, try the one from Ghana. 

Another factor to consider when purchasing palm oil is the type and location of the plantation where it was grown.  Some plantations, especially the newer ones in tropical areas where the plant is not native, may be endangering the natural local environment when imposed as a cash crop.  If you choose to eat in harmony with nature, then it's always important to consider the environmental impact of the products you buy.  When selecting your palm oil, be sure to choose one from a sustainable grower.

As far as processing, the traditional cold and chemical-free methods of obtaining the oil yield the most healthy and nutrient-dense products.   You can generally find the processing information on the label, but you can also tell by appearance:  When minimally processed, the palm oil separates into distinct beads in its solid state.  Like coconut oil, palm oil alternately hardens and liquifies with changes in ambient temperature.  This is normal and natural and does not effect the quality or nutritional value of the oil.  

Palm oil, like coconut oil, comes from the fruit of the tree.  Before extracting the oil, the palm fruit is first made into a pulp, butter, or cream.  This lovely cream is also a wonderful culinary and health product by itself.  To give us an idea of the epicurean applications of palm cream, Jolie passed around a small sample of plain warm tomato sauce followed by another sample enhanced with the palm cream.  The difference was amazing and delectable!  The palm cream added a thickness, richness, and savory flavor to the sauce.  Tasting the sauce made me want to go stock up on palm cream right away!

Jolie also enlightened us about another product that comes from the same tree:  Palm sugar.  Like maple sugar, palm sugar is derived from the sap of the tree, after it has been tapped from the trunk.  When properly processed to maintain minerals and enzymes, palm sugar makes a great choice for a healthy sweetener.

About half way through her presentation, for all those who donated, Jolie offered a plate of traditional West African food, including soaked fava beans, chicken on the bone stewed in the tomato sauce with palm cream, and some freshly prepared African yam.  While the group was enjoying this traditional West African dinner, Jolie also took the opportunity to tell us about the African yam and discuss another important tuber, the cassava root.  Cassava is just another name for that popular Central American and Caribbean food, the yucca.   This famous tuber is in fact known by many different names, depending on the area where it's grown.  Most notably, cassava is used to make tapioca, a product that is rapidly gaining in popularity due to the rising demand for gluten-free products.  For comparison, Jolie held up cassava/yucca root next to the African yam, and you could see the similarities.  

By the end of her presentation, our group of full and happy diners enjoyed several interesting discussions including one on gluten-free products, another on eating locally, and another on eating in harmony with your ancestry.

Many thanks to Jolie for an inspiring and tasty presentation!  It's great to learn as much as we can about traditional foods and preparation methods from all over the world!  For more information on palm oil, see the links I've posted below, and be sure to check back in a few days for Jolie's tropical fruits & oils shopping list.

See you next month!  And until we meet again, try adding some palm oil or palm cream to your cooking! 

Your Chapter Leader,

~ Karen