All Hallows' Eve heralds the culinary witches hauling out their rusty cauldrons to start brewing magical elixirs of spider heads, bloody bat wings and other gross things. But in the real gustatory world, we must beware of dangers lurking both as foragers in fields and shoppers in markets, as well as in our own kitchens and gardens. Here's a spine-chilling food list to keep you and yours healthy.
1. The vibrant bay leaf that adds an earthy essence to soups, stews and sauces alas has a piercing sharp stem that can scratch or cut the mouth, throat or other parts. Always remove the leaves before serving, and where possible wrap them in gauzy cheesecloth prior to cooking to make it easier to fish out of the pot. Easier yet to use ground bay leaves instead of whole ones.
2. Go green, except when eating potatoes. Green spots on spuds indicate an over exposure to light and high temps, forming a concentration of solanine and chlorophyll in the root. Solanine poisoning can cause gastrointestinal problems of all manners, so carve away green spots or discard the potato completely.
3. The leaves and stems of tomato plants also contain solanine, along with an alkaloid toxin called tomatine. Carefully remove all greenery from the fruit before slicing, dicing, pureeing or cooking, especially with vine-ripened varieties.
4. There is a seedy side to apples (never mind about Adam and Eve), along with stone fruits, including cherries, peaches and plums as they harbor cyanide in their seeds and pits, while the divine tropical cherimoya with a creamy sweet pulp is laced with glossy black seeds containing a dangerous neurotoxin. Enjoy the fruits, but steer clear of their hazards.
5. Intrepid foragers beware of poisonous mushroom doppelgangers known as toadstools sprouting in woodlands, fields and forests. These usually have white gills and pointy caps, sometimes dotted with pigments, but others can closely resemble edible mushrooms.
6. Chestnuts, the darling fruit of the holiday season are downright unpalatable when eaten raw. This can be quickly remedied by following Nat King Cole's suggestion by roasting them on an open fire. Still, remove all brown shells that are laced with bitter acidic tannins.
7. Alphabetically speaking, avoid buying products containing BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) that are designed to extend shelf life with the collateral effect of shortening human life; MSG (monosodium glutamate), a neurotoxin that amps up the flavor of everything from artichokes to zucchini while (some people say) triggering jack-hammer migraines and vision impairment; BPA, the industrial chemical bisphenol A used in the 1960s to prevent food contamination is still found in the linings of aluminum cans, plastic bottles and other food storage containers.
The venerable Mayo Clinic advises consumers to buy BPA-free products to avoid ingesting the chemical — which tends to leach into foods and liquids, especially when they have acidic content, such as tomatoes, pickles, etc. BPA has been found to elevate blood pressure, increase risk for Alzheimer's disease, breast and other cancers; and GMOs or genetically modified Frankenstein crops, particularly soy, corn and canola oil.
8. Save the electric shades of green, red, blue and yellow food coloring for Halloween décor and science experiments. Artificial dyes, including Blue #1 and #2, Green #3, Red #40, and Yellow #5 and #6 (laced into snacks, cake frostings, candies, soft drinks and sugary cereals) have been linked to various health risks from neurological and behavioral problems to certain cancers.
If you still want to add vibrant eye candy to special confections or desserts (such as red velvet cupcakes) use natural food colorings extracted from red berries or beets for ruby hues, elderberries for striking purples and turmeric for bright golden tones.
••• Recipe: Tipsy Chestnut Puree
• Ingredients: 2 pounds raw chestnuts; 1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar (adjust to taste); 1/2 cup dark honey; 2 cups filtered water; 2 tablespoons dark rum, brandy or Grand Marnier; 1/2 teaspoon almond extract.
• Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. With a sharp knife score chestnuts. Place on parchment-lined cookiesheet and bake for 20 minutes, until shells open. Cool, and remove shells.
In a saucepan, bring to boil all ingredients. Simmer for 30 minutes until water becomes a thick syrup and chestnuts are tender.
Strain chestnuts into food processor or blender, and process until smooth, adding syrup until the puree reaches desired consistency. Serve warm or cold. slather on French toast or pancakes, drizzle on ice creams and gelatos, biscotti, quick breads or even root vegetables and other savory dishes.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org