Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sour Orange

This ugly little orange was sitting with other strange and exotic fruits in the produce section of Whole Foods so I was lead to believe that there had to be something particularly special about it. While not as grotesque as the ugli fruits sitting nearby, these little creatures are noticeably rougher than their navel orange brethren; marred with black spots and streaks like a mini orange model of the moon. They're also incredibly dense. If I'd been attacked in the parking lot on the way back to my car then I could probably have used this rock-like fruit to fight off my would-be-assailant.

sour orange

Being a native of Vietnam, I have a sneaking suspicion that the sour orange, also known as bitter orange, bigarade orange, or Seville orange, was developed as a weapon of war. Currently, however, it is used for its essential oil in perfumes and flavorings (one variety, bergamot, is used in the delectable Earl Grey tea) or as an ingredient in food items such as marmalade. More recently it has replaced the now-illegal ephedra as a dietary supplement because of its stimulant and appetite suppressing qualities. I can't find much information about the nutritional profile but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it has high levels of vitamin C.

sour orange peeled

In peeling the bitter orange, one can certainly begin to understand the value of the oil as a perfume or flavoring. The aroma is incredibly strong and distinct. At the same time, it is rather harsh and irritating to the skin, eyes, and passage ways; the sour orange does not like to be peeled and its tough exterior makes it an arduous task. Within the thick rind are very pulpy segments with a texture much like that of those found in grapefruit. In fact, much about the sour orange is similar to the grapefruit; particularly its texture, astringency, and taste. The sour orange, however, still has that distinctive "orange" scent and flavor that is responsible for its oil's popularity.

sour orange innards

The rind must be where most of the value is contained as the innards indeed smell sour, but more along the lines of sour as in rotten. The pulpy skin around the juicy flesh is incredibly bitter and not very nice at all. After eating two pieces I couldn't stand the taste of the skin any longer and resorted instead to chewing the pieces until I'd extracted all of the juice and then promptly spat the pulp out. The juice itself was pleasant but overbearing at times. If I were to buy another one of these then I would definitely forgo the hassle of peeling and sectioning. Instead I'd just slice it in twain, juice the two halves, and sip slowly. Being so sour, it's probably something that can't be enjoyed in isolation all too often but would work quite well as an ingredient in meals or cocktails.

While the experience of peeling and eating the sour orange was rather unpleasant in and of itself (the tender flesh under my fingernails burned for the rest of the day), I've quite enjoyed learning about them. Now I shall run to the store and pick up some Earl Grey tea because I've got a craving for the sour, citrus flavor.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Coconut Water

My first experience with coconut water came during a trip to the dark depths of the Everglades. And by dark depths I mean the tourist walkways in the Everglades National Park but it was overcast and there were alligators everywhere, one even tried to attack me. And by attack me I mean it swam towards me with a sinister look in its eye and then disappeared into the murky depths, preparing itself to pounce upon me at any moment for being too close to its precious baby gators. Seriously, here's a picture of the angry mother right before she turned towards me and sank; I imagine she's still there at the bottom of that roadside swamp, waiting for me to return.

mama gator is a hater

Anyway, seeing all of the coconut palms about, our foreign guests told us that you can drill a hole in the green ones and drink the water inside. Not only is it delicious but it's supposed to be highly nutritious as well. So being the adventurous types, we left the safety of the National Park and went straight to a roadside market called Robert Is Here to lawfully purchase our green coconut. The water wasn't that bad but it also wasn't very good either. Rather bland with a heavy consistency; not the crisp, mildly sweet, juice we had been expecting.

robert is here

The next day we decided to take it one step further with some real adventure and created a teetering tower of flesh in order to procure a coconut from a roadside palm in one of the Keys. This one turned out to be even more disappointing as there was no water in it at all and the flesh didn't taste very nice either. So the dream was dead and my curiosity about coconut water disappeared with the green flash of the setting sun in Key West.

liberated coconut

But then Whole Foods opened up nearby and they carry cartons of the stuff made by a company called O.N.E. (One Natural Experience) who also manufacture the Cashew Juice I previously wrote about.

coconut water container

Coconut water is the liquid from the innards of of a young, green coconut. The liquid and gelatinous meat eventual becomes the solid coconut meat we are all used to seeing and from with coconut milk is extracted. While mature coconut meat and coconut milk are high in oils, coconut water has no fat and it fairly low in calories despite its sweet flavor. It is also provides five essential electrolytes: calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, sodium, and potassium (of which it has more than a banana).

coconut water in glass

There's not much of an aroma beyond a faint smell of vegetation. The liquid is slightly cloudy but without coloration. It's easy to fathom why some countries offer this as a sports drink because it's quite crisp and refreshing. Despite the sweetness, it doesn't suck the moisture out of your mouth or burn as drinks high in sugar are likely to do. As for the taste, the typical coconut flavor is definitely noticeable but there is a more vegetative quality to it; I'm reminded of chewing on sugar cane or a mango peel. Overall a nice drink and something that could easily serve as a substitute or complement to other more common fruit juices.

You can go for the authentic, straight-from-the-coconut experience but, taste-wise, it seems to be the luck of the draw. I'd certainly like to try again but I'll keep a couple cartons of the prepackaged variety around in case of further disappointment.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Almond Butter

I never liked peanut butter much as a youth. It's not as popular in Australia and the formula is slightly different. During my time as a vegetarian I found the taste of America's number one spread growing on me and now I really like the stuff (the all-natural variety in particular).


Also being a great fan of the almond, another not-technically-a-nut-but-called-a-nut-anyway, I have been interested in trying almond butter ever since encountering it a few years ago but the price tag had put me off. Now that there are some generic offerings, the price has come down a bit but it's still exponentially higher than peanut butter. This is understandable though as almonds come from trees and the crops yield far less than a typical peanut crop of similar size, naturally making it a more expensive commodity. I was surprised to find that California is the world's largest producer of almonds with most others coming from the Mediterranean countries of Europe and Africa.

almond butter

Almonds are often touted as nutritional super-foods as they are packed with vitamin E, good fats, protein, and dietary fiber. They have also been shown to aid in lowering LDL cholesterol levels. These nutritional qualities and the fact that they're not peanuts so won't kill you if you have a peanut allergy has made almond butter a viable alternative to peanut butter.

almond butter and knife on crisp bread

In terms of consistency and texture, there's really no difference between the additive-free peanut butter and the additive-free almond butter. Both have some oil separation and a similar viscosity. Like peanuts in peanut butter, the almonds are roasted before being made into a paste. Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of roasted almonds and much prefer to them "raw" (apparently they're often pasteurized using steam, so not technically raw). That being so, I wasn't as enamored by this spread as I had hoped. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad at all; definitely enjoyable and satisfying, just not as nice for me as a handful of raw almonds.

almond butter on crisp bread macro

That being said, I don't foresee shelling out six or seven bucks for another small jar and will happily stick to the big jars of all-natural, additive-free peanut butter which is more befitting my palate and budget.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bee Pollen

Naturopaths and deluded peddlers of pseudoscience claim that bee pollen, also called bee bread, is nature's most perfect and complete food. Many purport that it rejuvenates, invigorates, prolongs life, heals organs, enhances athletic and sexual performance, fights infection, and inoculates against allergic reactions. That's quite an impressive array of medicinal properties packed into such tiny little balls of pollen. But there's a flaw to even the most basic claims about the nutritional profile of this supplement. Because bees don't typically stick to one flower, the composition of the pollen can be very hard to ascertain. Therefore, the proclamations that any container of bee pollen contains all of the essential amino acids along with high values of vitamins and minerals cannot be completely verifiable. And because the pollen sources are not known, those with allergies to any specific type of pollen run the risk of suffering a severe allergic reaction by consuming the stuff.

bee pollen on spoon

Anyway, there's a great article here by an actual doctor debunking the erroneous claims put forth by the promoters of bee pollen (which can be found en masse with a simple google search). So, crap aside, let's get down to the food stuff itself. I'm sure you've seen these little balls of spit and honey dangling from the hind quarters of a bee making daily nectar rounds in the garden. These are brought back to the hive used to manufacture honey, fueling the colony and the future generations of bees... that is if they're not stolen by some malicious supplement salesmen as the poor, unsuspecting bee arrives home from a hard day in the fields.

bee pollen

I was taken back at first upon opening my bottle and smelling the contents and even more surprised by the taste. The pollen balls smelled sweet and, get this, honey-like so, logically, my reaction didn't make much sense. But I could detect no distinct flowery scents nor any other aromas one associates with the pollen storms of spring. Noting the smell, the flavor and texture should have come as no surprise but this dry, chalky honey still caught me off guard. Illogical, yes, but it's hard to divorce honey's sweet and pungent flavor from the syrupy texture, as if some particular quality of the bee spit is responsible for the characteristic taste. But no, here it was in near-raw form. Surprisingly nice but not something that remains pleasant after the first couple teaspoons.

bee pollen

Don't believe the hype. If you're interested in trying some bee pollen, approach it as food and not some miraculous panacea. I could definitely see myself sprinkling it over some ice cream or adding it to the foamy top of a fancy coffee concoction. But one must take great care if they are prone to pollen allergies. There are cases of people dying after having a severe reaction to this food/supplement and there's no guaranteeing the composition of the pollen. Proceed with caution and skepticism.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cashew Juice

Our aspiring city recently took another small step forward in modernity with the opening of the region's very first Whole Foods. Organic produce, healthy meals, and weird foods galore. One late night trip resulted in enough bounty to satisfy my penchant for the strange for the next couple months... or at least it will have to considering these uneasy economic times.

cashew juice

My first sampling from the lot was a carton of cashew juice. Cashews, like almonds, are the seeds of a drupe and not actually a nut although they are commonly often referred to as such. This juice is made from the fruit part of the cashew which, with the seed dangling down from its nether regions, is a strange looking beast indeed. The fruit is high in tannins and rather astringent so it requires a bit of processing prior to consumption. As a result it is rarely consumed in this part of the world.

cashew juice in cup

The cashew fruit contains a high levels of vitamin C and therefore the juice box goes on to list a variety of health claims linked to the indigenous use of the cashew fruit in South America and vitamin C in general.

Poured into a glass, the juice looks strikingly similar to commercially available grapefruit juice but expresses no distinct odor. Upon my first sip I actually yelled out in surprise. This stuff is incredibly acidic, like a very tart orange juice, an effect which is exacerbated by the addition of citric acid.

cashew juice in cup

Beyond the first mouthful, the taste starts to mellow out a bit and begins to take on the characteristics of a poor quality orange juice with an aftertaste of nuts. This aftertaste is quite unsettling at first but gets better with time. Still, it gives one the sensation of having a mouthful of nuts and can remain a little unpleasant.

I know, it sounds bad, but the overall combination of the strange qualities makes for interesting experience and I'm far from dreading drinking the second one I purchased in a buy-one-get-one-free deal.

Addendum: This stuff gets better every time I drink it. I'm at a point where I'd be willing to alternate my daily intake of orange juice with cashew juice. Shocking at first but an easy taste to acquire and enjoy.