February 2011

In This Edition

  • Where The Green Grapes Grow
  • February Is Heart Month
  • Be My Valentine, February 14

Health & Nutrition

More News from California Raisins

Where The Green Grapes Grow

Raisins and other dried fruits have been staples of the Mediterranean diet for millennia. Originating in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, what we know as Iran, Iraq, Syria, parts of Turkey and Egypt, drying and dehydration was one of the earliest forms of food preservation. As grapes, dates and figs fell from the vines and trees, it did not take long for the early hunter-gatherers to recognize the food value and storability of these hot-sand and sun-dried sweets.

Recorded history from about 1700 B.C. notes that grapes and their dried counterpart, raisins, found their way from Mesopotamia via Armenia and the eastern Mediterranean to northern Africa, Egypt and ancient Rome, and thence, to the New World along with the Spanish conquistadors, where they soon became well established at the missions up and down the Pacific Coast.

It was only a matter of time before it became apparent that the hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters of the Mediterranean climate in the Central San Joaquin Valley would be ideal for growing grapes and raisins. As early as 1872, Francis T. Eisin planted 240 acres of wine grapes east of Fresno and discovered that the very hot summers were capable of drying the grapes right on the vines. In 1876, William Thompson introduced a grape variety that was very thin-skinned, seedless, sweet and tasty. Today, that natural seedless grape accounts for a large part of the 8 pounds of fresh grapes each of us consumes every year and about 95% of the nearly 300,000 tons of raisins produced by 3,500 raisin growers within a 60-mile radius of Fresno, California. This California raisin production accounts for about 90% of the raisins consumed in the US and 45% of the world crop, all of it produced in small, average 40-acre, vineyards on family-owned farms.

The local newspaper, this morning, reports, “High pressure over the state will bring more sunny and warm conditions to most areas. However, the Central Valley will see more patchy morning fog clearing throughout the day.” With temperatures ranging from lows in the mid 30s and highs reaching only to the mid 50s, that is a good forecast for California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, this time of the year. California’s raisin growers are busy pruning their vineyards anticipating a good year ahead, bolstered by reports of adequate annual rainfall and snowpack in the mountains.

From late December to early March, the season when the grape vines have finally lost all their leaves and are dormant, is the best time to prune the vines. This renews and shapes the vines and limits the number of fruiting buds to produce the best quality fruit. Grapes are produced on the new growth each year with the best fruit coming from the new shoots formed on the canes from the previous year. So, the older growth is removed every year. These prunings are shredded, composted and returned to the vineyard as mulch, restoring nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

Very soon after the pruning is finished – and the rains have stopped, it is time to plant new vineyards, if that is planned for this year. However, grape vines are long-lived and may continue to produce for close to 100 years. So, replanting is not often necessary, and depends mostly on issues other than failure of the vines to produce. Developing a new vineyard begins in the spring of the prior year when the nursery layers cuttings of dormant stems in planting soil and carefully waters and tends them so they grow and develop roots. These rooted cuttings are planted about 6 to 7 feet apart and will perform better in fertile, sandy soils, high in organic content with good drainage that have been carefully tilled and prepared. Grapes need little or no fertilizer but must have full sun to provide the ample heat that ripens the fruit.

THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE: The vine rows in a raisin vineyard are generally planted so they run east to west to provide the most exposure to the sun on the south for maximum growth and production, and to facilitate drying the raisins.

New vineyards are trellised to maximize sun exposure, provide a lot of air circulation to prevent spoilage, and to keep the grapes off the ground. At planting, the vines are trained onto a stake to form a straight main stem or trunk and the second year the growth is trained onto one of several different kinds of wire trellises. For the first two summers after planting while the vine is getting established, blossoms and fruit may be stripped from the vines. To assure the best crop in the third year, the fruiting arms are pruned to leave between 6 and 10 buds each and all other lateral canes are removed.

As spring unfolds, raisin farmers are busy with cultural and irrigation activities that lay a foundation for production of the best quality grapes possible. Bloom, set and fruit development are constantly being monitored this time of year because, as the old timers say, “If you don’t produce good grapes, you can’t make great raisins!”

Check back next month for more about How The Green Grape Grows.

February Is Heart Month

February is Heart Month and it is a good time to focus on the fat in your diet. Most of us need to cut back on saturated and trans-fats, and make smarter choices about the heart-healthy fats in our diets. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are known to lower risk for heart disease.

This is a good time to remember that, no matter whether it is one of the heart-healthy fats or one of those saturated ones, every gram of fat adds 9 calories to the food you eat. Just 1 teaspoon of butter, margarine, shortening and most oils will weigh in at 5 grams or at least 40 calories. Better to choose the heart-healthy ones and restrict all fats to less that 35% of the calories in your diet.

Recent research says that a particular polyunsaturated fat, the omega-3 fatty acid, reduces the risk of coronary artery disease. Flaxseed, walnuts and salmon are excellent sources of this nutrient, and sardines, as well as vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, spinach, winter squash and beans are very good to good sources. That is another great reason for eating 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, everyday.

Just 1/4 cup of California raisins, not only counts as a serving of fruit, but can do wonders for those vegetables and meats. Bean Salad with Artichokes is an overall lowfat dish featuring those sweet and tangy raisins and it is dressed with olive oil, a monounsaturated fat. Thai Glass Noodle Salad is showy and so good that you will want to serve this ethnic version often — to family, as well as guest. And for dessert, we recommend a citrus-flavored, low-fat bread casserole, Orange and Raisin Bread Pudding, to serve, again and again.

Be My Valentine, February 14

Founded in love, Valentine’s Day is always celebrated with hearts and roses to remember Saint Valentine who, a long time ago, continued to perform secret marriages even after they were outlawed because the Emperor believed that young single men made better soldiers.

Carry on the tradition of love, this February 14 with creativity and romance. Impress that special someone with a home cooked meal of Crunchy Raisin Rice paired with our Recipe of the Month, Grilled Tuna with California Golden Raisin Chutney (Muchee Kismis). Almonds add pizzazz to the brown rice and it works perfectly with the East Indian inspired tuna fillet.

End the meal with an elegant, light dessert like Honey Poached Pears with Amaretti Raisin Topping a tantalizing confection of pears simmered in red wine, honey, and lemon. Impressed will not even begin to cover your date’s reaction!

Remember 1/4 cup, just about 1-1/2 ounces (40 grams) of California Raisins counts as a serving of fruit. Make Wise Choices every time and eat 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, everyday.

Also, don’t forget to enter the “What’s Your Red Carpet Moment?” Sweepstakes to win a trip to Hollywood. March 15 is the deadline!