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Valentine's Day Feast: Honey for Your Honey

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A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in Better Nutrition Magazine for February. Check it out!

"Honey, I'm home!" That refrain has undoubtedly been heard in domestic dwellings since ancient times. In modern times, it has been immortalized on-screen in 1950's sit-coms and tweaked in movies like Pleasantville. This golden liquid, created and stored by some of the smallest and most industrious members of the natural kingdom, has come to stand for all that is sweet and desirable in the world. As a food-stuff, beauty treatment, medicine and metaphor, its efficacy and deliciousness is pervasive throughout centuries and cultures.

HONEY IN HISTORY

Apiculture, or bee-keeping, has been shown to date back at least to 700 BC, but man's desire for the bee's precious nectar goes back much further than that -- a 10,000-year-old rock painting in Spain depicts two women on a ladder collecting honey from a wild nest. As far back as 2100 BC, honey was mentioned in the sacred writings of Egypt and India; in the Old Testament, the Promised Land is described as "the land of milk and honey". And its reported uses in many cultures were varied and sometimes a little scary: in the Roman Empire, honey was used to pay taxes; in Greece, a bride blessed herself with honey-dipped fingers to ensure amity with her new mother-in-law; and in the Ottoman Empire, the head of Vlad Tepes, the original Dracula, was preserved in a jar of honey!

Honey is found as well in the rituals and literature of many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. And mythological rumor has it that Cupid dipped the tips of his "love arrows" in honey before sending them flying toward his unsuspecting but soon-to-be-enamored victims...

HONEY AND HEALTH

The amazing benefits to be found in honey have less to do with nutritional values and more to do with antioxidant and anti-microbial properties that are unique to this natural sweetener. Honey is not a significant source of vitamins and minerals, but it contains several compounds that are thought to function as antioxidants, including two specific phytonutrients that have been shown to shut down the activity of colon cancer-causing enzymes.

It appears that a strange and wonderful synergy is created by the combination of the nectar from the flowers, enzymes in the bees' saliva, and propolis or "bee glue", which produces results greater than the sum of its parts. The First International Symposium of Honey & Human Health in January of 2008 presented research papers that included findings that suggested that large amounts of "friendly bacteria" may account for honey's therapeutic properties, that honey may improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, and that honey is a more effective cough suppressant in children than the widely-used popular medicine dextromethorphan.

[Important Note: honey should never be given to infants under one year of age; botulism spores may be present, causing bacterial infections in the intestinal tract.]

Another traditional use of honey is as a dressing for wounds, and research is now figuring out exactly why it is so incredibly effective - again, a unique combination of ingredients that dry out the wound and provide anti-bacterial and antiseptic benefits. Honey reduces odors, swelling, and scarring; in fact, a recent study in India involving burn patients found that honey was vastly superior to conventional treatments in suppressing infection and speeding healing. Sweet indeed!

And let us not neglect to mention that honey has been used for centuries as a natural, fragrant and wholly pleasing beauty treatment, due to its humectant qualities and silky feel. It is said that Cleopatra herself owed much of her legendary beauty to a daily infusion of golden honey...

HONEY IN THE HOME

There are over 300 unique flavors of honey across the world today, reflecting the wide array of plants from which the bees do their harvesting. So a few general rules, as follows:

1. Always try to find organic, untreated honey; non-organic beekeepers use chemicals in the hives, and of course if the flowers the bees visit have pesticides on them, then the honey may contain those same pesticides.
2. Color is usually an indication of flavor concentration - the darker the honey, the more robust the flavor.
3. Store in a cool dry place, in an airtight container.

There are so many daily uses for honey, I wouldn't know where to begin - from tea and other beverages, to breakfast foods and breads, to entrees and desserts and almost anything that would benefit from the sweet kiss of honey. Let your imagination take you to the proverbial "land of milk and honey"!

FYI: Honey has an indefinite shelf life, but may become "cloudy" or crystallized. No problem - just gently heat the jar in a pan of hot water and stir, and it will be restored to its liquid state. Be careful not to overheat - the sugars may caramelize and alter the flavor and color.

Here are a couple of recipes to create a perfect Valentine's Day Feast -- starting with the dessert first, of course!

Valentine's Red Heart Phyllo Tart

This romantic sweet will surely capture your sweetie's heart!

1 package phyllo dough, defrosted
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) organic unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon Italian chestnut honey*
1 tablespoon tangerine fruit syrup*
1 teaspoon Cointreau liqueur (optional)

1 quart organic strawberries, hulled and sliced in half lengthwise
12 ounces raspberries
1/2 cup currant jelly
1 tablespoon orange blossom honey

* available at health food stores, specialty stores or on-line

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine butter with chestnut honey, tangerine syrup, and Cointreau; microwave until butter is melted, and stir together.

Open out stack of phyllo dough, and keep it covered while working with a damp tea towel to prevent it from drying out. With a pastry brush, moisten the parchment lightly with the butter mixture. Lay two sheets of phyllo dough on it, then brush the top one with the butter mix. Lay down two more sheets, brush again. Repeat 5 more times until you have 14 layers of phyllo. Brush the top generously.

Now the fun part - cut the phyllo stack, using your best freeform style, into the shape of a heart. Remove the excess phyllo from the baking sheet. Bake the heart for 15 minutes, until the top is golden and it puffs up slightly. Remove from oven, press down lightly with a spatula to flatten, and let it cool slightly. (Can be prepared up to this point several hours in advance.)

Heat the currant jelly with the orange blossom honey until liquid. With your pastry brush, moisten the top of the tart with some of the jelly mixture. Place a row of strawberry halves all around the edge of the tart, slightly overlapping; place two rows of raspberries inside that, then another row of strawberries, then fill the center with raspberries - make it look pretty! Lightly dab the berries with more of the jelly - just enough to glaze them, don't drown them...

Heat the tart in the oven for about ten minutes, just until the berries are heated through. Serve warm, with a mound of organic whipped cream on the side.

Serves six, but perfect for two!

Roast Asian Salmon

As a prelude to your lavish Valentine's Heart Tart, this simple elegant dinner will be a definite winner...

2 6-ounce filets of wild-caught salmon, skin on
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced green onion

Whisk together soy sauce, sake, sesame oil, honey, ginger & green onion. Place salmon filets in a Ziploc bag, pour in marinade, refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place salmon filets, skin-side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for about 13-17 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets and how well-done you like your salmon.

Slide a spatula between the salmon and the skin - the skin will stick to the foil, and the salmon will lift away beautifully. Serve with a wedge of lime, organic brown rice and a quick stir-fry of asparagus and mushrooms. Simple perfection!

Serves two.