Archive for the ‘New Finds!’ Category

The Ajíes of Peru

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009
A mix of Fresh Rocoto (red) and Aji Amarillo (orange) with Limes (green)

A mix of Fresh Rocoto (red) and Aji Amarillo (orange) with Limes (green)

Peru is a remarkable country with various food products and ingredients to offer the culinary world.  Their unique geographic location as well as historical roots have all helped to produce a diverse array of flavours and dish selections.   From a diet rich in seafood, corn, potatoes, ancient grains and meat to a plethora of natural yet functional plants, fruits and herbs.  Ajies or Pepper varieties abound in Peru.  As other countries, the pepper varietals come in vibrant colours and range of pungency.  The more commonly used varieties are Rocoto, Amarillo, Mirasol, Limo and the Panca pepper.

Rocoto (Capsicum prubescens)

copia-de-img_0574-copia2This is a meaty pepper that comes in a variety of vibrant colours, from yellow to red.   It has plenty of shiny, black seeds.    It is one of the hottest peppers of Peru with scoville units ranging from 30,000 to 70,00o – it depends if the seeds are used in the recipe.

Aji Amarillo

The Amarillo pepper is most widely used in Peruvian cooking. Always orange in colour, even though it is called the green aji.  It is about 10 cm long.  Although not very spicy, this peper is normally seeded and deveined before it is used in cooking.   It is milder than the Rocoto and is a main component in making  Huancaina sauce.     Huancaina sauce is a creamy blend of goat’s cheese, evaporated milk, amarillo pepper paste, garlic and cumin.    The dried version of this Amarillo pepper is called Aji Mirasol.

The Aji Mirasol is often seeded, scraped and left to soak in water for 12 hours or more before it is pureed and used in a sauce.  It has a mild, smoked flavour and it is used to make Panca paste.

Limo Pepper

The Limo Pepper is very similar to the Aji Amarillo in shape, but its colour is almost always red.  It is used fresh in ceviches.

Fresh Limo Pepper

Fresh Limo Pepper

How Sweet It Is

Monday, August 10th, 2009

The World Health Organization reports that there are over a billion overweight adults worldwide.  Factors such as reduced physical activity, poor selection of foods (those that are high in sugar and fats); bot have contributed to this condition.

The risks to health from obesity range from diabetes, hypertension and certain forms of cancer.  It is also detrimental emotionally and psychologically.

Despite this alarming fact, consumers are still drawn to foods that provide that pleasant sweet taste.   To help assuage the situation, food manufacturers have tried and tested various solutions in their quest to “responsibly” satisfy the sweet tooth.

There came the artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-potassium, polydextrose, sucralose, thaumatin, alitame and sugar alcohols (polyols) like sorbitol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol.   These generally have a GI of zero.

Thaumatin, an intensely sweet tasting protein is derived from the membranours sac of the katemfe fruit in West Africa. It has traditionally been used as a source of flavour. In the 1970s, Tate & Lyle began extracting thaumatin from the fruit and has coined the brandname TALIN. TALIN stands for “Tate And Lyle INgredients”. It is commercialized by the Overseal company.

The use of these chemically synthesized sweeteners have resulted to some adverse effects in humans.  A number of individuals may be allergic or highly sensitive to the use these high-intensity sugar substitutes.  There is also the issue on carcinogens with regards to saccharin. In addition to a number of health controversies, stability may oftentimes be limited.  Aspartame for example in beverage applications would usually last only for about 6 months.    The lingering sweet taste may also be a deterring factor.  Often, the perceived intense sweetness of these products is longer than desired; leaving an unpleasant sensation in the taste buds.   However, an advantage of using these types of sweeteners in addition to less or no calories is their cost.   The level of usage is much lower when using these sweeteners compared to sugar.

There are other sweetness enhancing products available, which are natural.  These sugar alternatives have been in use for many centuries.  The common process to produce these types of sugar involves evaporating the water content thus concentrating the natural sugars that are inherently present.

Agave is made from the agave plant, this is also the major component in making tequila.  The controversy with Agave is if it can still be classified as “raw food” and if it is actually a “healthy” sweetener.  A thorough discussion can be found from Debra Lynn Dadd’s website.

Panela – a brownish block of sugar made from sugarcane but not refined or bleached.  Very popular in parts of Asia and in South America.  It has many variations to its name.

Maple syrup – Made from the sap of Maple trees.  It is also very high in fructose and very viscous.

Yacón Syrup is made from 100% Yacón root, a close relative of the Jerusalem artichoke.  The process to make yacon syrup involves juicing the yacon tubers and then concentrating the juice to about 50-60 Bx.  It is similar to Maple Syrup in colour, but 40% less calories than Maple Syrup and contains Soluble Fibre.  It is also considered to be Prebiotic.

Palm sugar is sometimes called coconut sugar.  However, there is a clear distinction between the two, based on where the sap was sourced.  By name, Palm sugar was originally made from the sugary sap of the Palmyra palm or the date palm. Now it is also made from the sap of the sago and coconut palms and labeled as “coconut sugar.”   It is not to be confused with sugar derived from the coconut fruit but rather from a palm tree variety called coconut palm.  The sugar is commonly used in Southeast Asian desserts.

Coconut Sugar or cocosugar is produced from the evaporation of coconut sap or sweet toddy through boiling in an open container, and then allowed to cool and solidify. It was tested to contain a low Glycemic index (GI) of 35 and a higher amount of nutrients compared to that of table sugar’s which is at 64-68.

Stevia has recently become very popular in North America.  In Asia particularly Japan, its use has been traced 30 years ago.   It is actually a member of the Chrysanthemum family.  It is remarkable since it is 300 times sweeter than sugar but does not provide any calories or carbohydrates therefore it does not cause blood sugar to rise.  The downside of stevia is that its perceived sweetness is much prolonged and there is also some bitterness detected.

The Glycemic Index (GI) of a particular food is a number that indicates how fast sugar is released into the blood after consumption or how fast a food is likely to raise your blood sugar.  The table below shows the various GI levels of these natural sweeteners, Gi levels at 55 and below are considered Low GI foods, High GI foods are 70 and above.

Natural Sweetener                           Average Glycemic Index (GI)
Yacon Syrup   1-3
Palm sugar   35
Coconut sugar from coconut fruit   35
Agave  11
Maple syrup   54-55
Glucose consumed with
15-20 grams of fiber  57-85
Panela  63
White refined sugar  68
Pure glucose    100