Saying No to Synthetic Flavors

Did you notice there were Concord grapes at the Market last week?

I was thrilled to see them, since we rarely see grapes at farmers markets on our side of the mountains. And, while Washington grows plenty of wine grapes, most table (and other) grapes are grown in California. Moreover, if you've ever had "grape juice" or grape-flavored cough syrup or grape-flavored what-have-you, the grape flavor chemists were imitating was that of the Concord grape. So, in clever reverse-marketing, I asked my twelve-year-old Sherpa daughter if she wanted to taste some grapes that tasted like fake grape flavoring. Of course she did.

Here is what we learned about eating Concord grapes:

  1. They're addictive, once you figure out the proper way to eat them.
  2. Concord grapes have both seeds and a bitter skin, rather like plums. Popping the whole grape in your mouth and chewing it up is not a pleasant experience.
  3. My trick was to let them get nice and ripe on the counter. Then I "squirted" the grape into my mouth (minus the skin), being sure to get the juice, key to the "fake" grape flavor. You then chew up the pulp and spit out the seeds.
After going through the trouble of eating these grapes, I see why chemists zeroed in on an easier way to produce the flavor. But I want to argue that the process involved in eating them increases your enjoyment. Rather like having to shell pistachios. It also slows consumption.
And anyhow, ever since I read Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect, I've been on a personal crusade to avoid synthetic flavorings and to enjoy the real deal, with all its attendant health benefits.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there's good evidence that flavor in nature is linked to that voodoo that real food does so well. When we recreate those flavors in a chemistry lab, we decouple them from their benefits. Synthetic flavors (which include both "natural" and artificial flavors) encourage us to eat bland, nutritionally bankrupt food we would otherwise get bored with, thus robbing ourselves of the nutritional variety and the satiety indicators that an array of real food, full of real flavors, provides.
So skip the grape-flavored candy and "fruit snacks" and try everyone out on the real McCoy.
Genuine flavors abound, this time of year. Check out this recipe for stuffed tomatoes we've already had twice this week, and which I've also managed to burn twice because I had to leave them on an oven timer while I ran carpool. The good news is, they still taste wonderful with burnt topping! (An asterisk * indicates ingredients available at the Market.)
Tomatoes Provençalish
(adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

4 medium or 8 small, ripe tomatoes*
3 garlic cloves*
1/2 c chopped fresh parsley or cilantro*
2-3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil*
3/4 c bread crumbs from torn-up bread*
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Butter a dish large enough to hold all the halved tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half around the equator and dig out the seeds with your finger. Chop the garlic and herbs and mix them with the bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Top the tomato halves and set them in the buttered dish. Drizzle some olive oil over their tops. Bake for 30-35 minutes, depending on the size of the tomatoes.

Serve carefully, and remember these suckers are hot when they come out of the oven!

Here's what you'll find if you leave them in an extra ten minutes and then come rushing in to rescue dinner:

Have no fear. Still tasty and so flavorful! We'll see you this Thursday or Saturday at the Market, where real food and real flavors abound.