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The coming of autumn calls for harvest celebrations, so as part of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork events Sept. 13-28 local chef Scott Ostrander from Esquire Grill invited shoppers to accompany him through the Capitol Mall Farmers Market, which sets up on the median at Capitol Mall and 6th Streets each Thursday morning from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Chef Ostrander had a zucchini salad in mind, in honor of the cooking demonstration’s sponsorship by Kaiser Permanente and the Health Education Council. It’s important to test and smell produce before purchase, he said, selecting some firm zucchinis. “If the squash feels hollow it could have too many seeds,” he said, adding that he routinely asks the farmers about the location where the fruits and vegetables are grown.
“See these peaches? I know it’s the end of the season, so there’s probably not much sugar in them,” he said. But if the orchard is shaded or near water, that will affect the flavor, so Ostrander said he‘ll often call the farmer right while he’s standing at the farmers market stand and ask about growing conditions. Knowing more about the produce he uses is so important Ostrander says he often works with the same farmers week after week.
A fine selection of large pomegranates and still-young persimmons caught the chef’s attention, prompting him to share his routine at any farmers market: First, a loop around the entire market, looking for two things: prices and quality. For instance, the large pomegranates may grow near water and be very juicy, yet smaller fruits at another stand may be more flavorful. “But if I’m juicing them I can always add sugar,” he said. “It just depends on what trumps what.”
Gathering up some cherry tomatoes and New Zealand spinach (a member of the iceplant family that’s surprisingly salty and spicy), Chef Ostrander created tasty ribbon-cut salads accented with a zucchini dressing. See the recipe below.
Plant-based eating basics
Joining Chef Ostrander on the market tour was Kaiser’s Dr. Rajiv Misquitta, who extolled the benefits of plant-based eating. “It’s not just good for our health, it’s good for the environment,” he said. “I see more energy behind the movement now that people are seeing more of the benefits of plant-based eating.”
In fact, since the “Forks Over Knives” documentary (available on Netflix) brought to the masses the science and benefits of a diet that completely avoids animal products, “plant-based” diets have become somewhat of a buzzword among the health-conscious.
The trouble with the “plant-based” label, Dr. Misquitta said, is that there’s no clear definition of what that means. What often eludes those intending to switch to a plant-based diet is that many cooks still use too much oil, confused by the message that plant-based oils are healthy. “The studies are clear; oil is linked to heart disease,” Dr. Misquitta said, citing research by Drs. Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn of “Forks Over Knives” fame. Thus, foods may easily be vegan — like French fries — yet still be unhealthy, he said.
Does no-oil mean no flavor?
Disheartening? It need not be, the doctors insist, and a low-fat, truly plant-based diet is not a culinary death sentence.
Dr. Misquitta suggests adding flavor to your recipes with herbs and spices, lemon juice, or any of the gourmet vinegars now available. Try new ethnic foods and the seasonings that go with them, such as Indian curries, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, peppers, and the more familiar oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary and sage. “Just branch out — experiment with one or two foods at first and expand your palate,” he said.
Dr. Misquitta, who blogs at www.healthyhearthealthyplanet.com, published the “Healthy Heart, Healthy Planet” cookbook with his wife, Dr. Cathi Misquitta, confirms that converting to an authentic plant-based diet can actually reverse disease, reducing and eventually removing the need for many heart and cholesterol drugs. I asked him why the medical community was so late to the game on using diet to combat illness.
“There’s not enough nutrition training in medical education,” he admits. Doctors have been conditioned to respond to illness with surgery and drugs, like statins, for conditions like high cholesterol. Doctors like Misquitta, Ornish and Esselstyn, however, are part of a movement that’s working to convey the message that what we eat can either harm us or heal us.
Walking the talk
Now, not everyone will feel the need to reverse heart disease or lose weight with a plant-based diet (although the good doctors would insist it’s best for everyone!), but I’m supposed to be walking the talk. So, chastened, I set out to reduce or remove as much oil as I could from Chef Ostrander’s yummy zucchini dressing. The oil is needed to emulsify the dressing, the chef said, but suggested trying avocado as a natural plant oil to replace the olive oil.
I’ve used flaxseed to replace eggs in baking, so I tried it here — to great success! But since the flaxseed-only option lacked some of the substance and flavor I think the chef would demand, I tried a combination of the two. I hope this plant-based variation is enough to satisfy our chef while keeping the doctor at bay.
Here’s Chef Ostrander’s original recipe, along with my plant-based alternatives.
Zucchini (summer squash) dressing
2 medium to large zucchini
2 cups olive oil (Plant-based option: 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed + 1 cup warm water; ½ avocado)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
6 mint leaves
4 basil leaves
1 tablespoon of champagne or white wine vinegar
(Plant-based option: Soak flaxseed in warm water for 15 minutes before you prepare vegetables.)
Cut ends from zucchini and cut in half lengthwise. Remove seeds from center with a spoon and discard seeds. Once hollow, cut the zucchini into small pieces. Place zucchini in blender. Add salt, vinegar and herbs. (Plant-based option: Also add avocado at this time.)
Begin to puree in blender while slowly adding oil. Once the zucchini is broken up and beginning to become smooth, continue slowly pouring the rest of the oil until there is no more. (Plant-based option: Add flaxseed-water mixture a tablespoon at a time, adding only enough to achieve a creamy consistency. You may not use all the mixture.)
The blender will finish emulsifying the squash into the consistency of a creamy dressing, such as caesar. Apply to any salad.