Add spice to your life

Chili peppers add heat to food in many cultures.

Chili peppers add heat to food in many cultures.

Can you add years to your life by adding spice to your food?

I hate drawing conclusions from inconclusive research, but this was irresistible. The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in August published results of an observational study that examined the diets of almost a half-million people in China over seven years.

The study observed that the risk of death for those who ate spicy foods one or two days a week was 10 percent lower compared to those who ate spicy meals less than once a week. Those who ate spicy foods three to seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of death.

It’s a correlational, not a causational, relationship.

chili pepper 2 wikimediaChili peppers have health benefits

While the journal warned that the study shouldn’t prompt anyone to change their diet, Nita Fourouhi from Cambridge University, in an editorial accompanying the article said there have been other indications the chili pepper and its bioactive compound, capsaicin, have health benefits that include anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

“Future research is needed to establish whether spicy food consumption has the potential to improve health and reduce mortality directly, or if it is merely a marker of other dietary and lifestyle factors,” she wrote.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales, said spicy foods are known to be more satisfying. People who eat bland food are more likely to overeat.

Another British professor, Kevin McConway from the Open University, warned against using the study to justify the great English pastime of going out for a few pints and a hot curry. The relationship between eating spicy food and a lower death rate was apparent only in people who didn’t drink alcohol at all, he said.

As for me, this just makes me happy about my love of spicy foods of all kinds: Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian.

Indian curries have come to epitomize spicy food.

Indian curries have come to epitomize spicy food.

Don’t be a wimp!

When I go out for Thai food with a group of friends and they all order it “mild” or even (gasp!) “no spice,” I think to myself, “What a bunch of wimps!”

Though I must say it’s an acquired taste. I remember my first curry, when I was a freshman in college. A friend invited me to dinner at the home of some people who had spent some time in India, so their dish was pretty authentic. I thought I was an adventurous eater and I was very much looking forward to the meal, but to my untrained palate, it was ghastly — though I don’t think it was the heat so much as the flavor.

I really came to like curry when I lived in England for two years during and after college, and Indian/Pakistani food was about the cheapest meal you could get aside from fish and chips.

We started out with mild dishes, then graduated to more spice. How proud I was of my husband (then fiancé) when he ordered a “vindaloo,” which can be roughly translated as “set you on fire.”

Here’s a recipe for a Malaysian dish called mee goring that comes from the cookbook Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. The spice in it comes from sambal oelek, a chili paste easily found in Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, use another garlic chili paste or Sriracha, which is becoming very easy to find these days. You might need a little more Sriracha to get the same heat as you would from sambal oelek or garlic chile paste.

 

Bread and Wine; The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: Serving up good books … and good recipes!

two interesting books about food have caught my eye and I’m happy to recommend them to you. Both include recipes, but they’re not cookbooks.

Shauna Nyquist

Shauna Niequist

The first is Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, by Shauna Niequist whose website tells more about her life. Bread & Wine is similar in many ways to Feed The Spirit: It’s a collection of essays about family, faith, values–and food!

The second book is The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone. It’s a fascinating tale of the author’s search for her  culinary roots.

I will call these authors by their first names, because after reading their books, I feel I know so much about them and their lives.

Life’s “beautiful and broken moments”

In Bread & Wine, Shauna writes about “the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life–friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God.”

Each essay is followed by a recipe. Shauna says she likes nothing better than gathering family and friends around her table and feeding them. She’s a devout Christian, and the title refers to the bread and wine used sacramentally in the church as well as the food and spirits that sustain us on a daily basis. Shauna says the moments she feels God’s presence most profoundly take place around a table.

Although she has developed into an excellent cook, she stresses that she didn’t start out that way. She frequently reminds us that the complexity and sophistication of the food have little to do with the quality of the experience of sharing food. “Some of my most sacred meals have been eaten out of travel mugs on camping trips or on benches on the street in Europe,” she says.

Shauna advises anyone unused to cooking for guests to “start where you are.” If entertaining is not something you’re used to, invite people over and serve pizza with a salad and bottled dressing, on paper plates if necessary. As you get comfortable with the idea of being a host or hostess, you can become a little more adventurous and start experimenting.

Laura Schenone

Laura Schenone

A search for culinary roots

Award-winning food writer Laura Schenone has a mixed ethnic heritage that includes Croatian, Irish, German and Italian great-grandmothers.

In her early 40s, living in suburban New Jersey with a husband and two young sons, she found herself yearning to be able to cook something that could span generations and tell a story. She wanted, she says, “a recipe I could trace from my family, back into history, further and further back, into an ancient past. Even more importantly – a recipe that could take me to a landscape more beautiful than postindustrial New Jersey….I wanted nothing more and nothing less than an authentic old family recipe.”

She turned to her father’s Italian family to find it. Her Italian great-grandmother, Adalgiza, had come to America – to Hoboken, New Jersey – from Genoa, where ravioli is an essential component of the cuisine. Adalgiza’s ravioli, Laura says, were “the real deal.”

Laura sets out not only to find the “original” recipe but to learn how to make ravioli the old way, rolling and flipping the dough until it is so thin it’s translucent and crimping the filled squares with an ancient ravioli press. It took a lot of practice, often testing the patience of her husband and sons. Armed with Adalgiza’s ravioli recipe – passed down to an aunt, who wrote it out, and then to a cousin – Laura sets off to visit Genoa, on Italy’s Ligurian coast. She also visits Recco, the small mountain town where her great-grandfather was born.

By Ewan Munro from London, UK (La Barca, Waterloo, London  Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ewan Munro from London, UK (La Barca, Waterloo, London Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

She discovers that Ligurian cuisine is quite different from the southern Italian foods most of us are familiar with. She learns that poverty, more than anything else, drove millions of Italians from their homeland to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The mountain folk were so poor that they could rarely afford wheat for pasta and olive oil, now considered staples of Italian cuisine. They were nourished by the chestnut trees that grew around them, using the wood for furniture and the dried nuts to make flour. They flavored their dishes with mushrooms and herbs found in the chestnut forests.

Prepare all the ingredients before cooking.

Prepare all the ingredients before cooking.

A fancy but not-too-difficult recipe

Laura’s recipes are really complex and look daunting even for an experienced cook like me. But she includes detailed instructions and lots of photos. Shauna’s recipes are less intimidating. Here is one that she adapted from Sally Sampson’s book The $50 Dinner Party. Shauna says it may look difficult because of the long list of ingredients, but it’s mostly just chopping and throwing things into the pot. I recommend mixing up the spices and getting everything chopped before you start cooking.

The recipe says it serves six. Shauna says she often doubles the recipe to serve 10 to 12 and serves it with a simple green salad and pita or naan. And I halved it for my husband and me. Half the recipe made enough for two generous dinners and two lunches. It tastes great left over!

If you think you don’t like Indian food, this might change your mind. It’s spicy-flavorful, not spicy-hot. If you don’t like hot, leave out the cayenne pepper. If you like heat, add a little more.