The enduring power of paleo

Judging by book releases in the last several years, home cooks and foodies still love the paleolithic diet — grain-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free. The diet’s based on the premise that modern humans would do well by eating like our ancient ancestors did rather than subsisting on refined food products that come in boxes, packages and fast-food wrappers.

Proponents of the paleo diet point to the fact that early humans foraged for seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables and honey, and with the development of stone tools, meat became a significant part of the diet. You may recall a few weeks ago archaeologists announcing stone tools found along with butchered mastodon bones in a Florida riverbed are 14,500 years old.

But the paleo diet is an idealized interpretation of what our ancestors ate. Mastadons are extinct, today’s fruits and vegetables bear little resemblance to the small and often unpalatable undomesticated plants they come from, and research indicates ferns, cattails, grasses and bugs were also part of the early human diet.

In a modern culture heavily dependent on dairy, highly processed grains and refined sugar, sticking to a diet of unprocessed meats, vegetables and fruits is very challenging. Nevertheless, many adherents of the paleo lifestyle swear that it whittles their waistlines and makes them feel great. To stay on the diet takes planning as well as resolve; plus, I personally find that using flavorful sauces and fresh herbs helps greatly by adding dimension to a dish.

Balsamic vinegar, which has been around since the Middle Ages, is almost velvety and offers a perfect sweet-tart balance to fruits and vegetables. As for herbs, I like all kinds, including cilantro (also known as coriander), which has a clean and lemon-like flavor. Some people agree with my description, while others who have inherited specific genetic variants say cilantro tastes like soap. If you don’t like cilantro, try rosemary, chives, scallions, lavender, lemongrass or mint.

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PROSCIUTTO & PAPAYA WITH SPICED BALSAMIC GLAZE

½ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ teaspoon five-spice powder

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

Half of a medium papaya

8 cilantro sprigs

4 prosciutto slices, halved lengthwise

1. Whisk together the balsamic vinegar, five-spice powder, and ginger in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and very syrupy, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Scoop the seeds out of the papaya half and slice it lengthwise into 4 wedges. Use a sharp paring knife to slice the peel off each wedge, and then cut each wedge in half crosswise so that you have 8 pieces of papaya.

3. Place a sprig of cilantro on top of each piece of papaya and wrap a slice of prosciutto around it. Serve at room temperature with the spiced balsamic on the side or dipping, or dolloped on top.

Our assessment: A twist on the classic Italian appetizer prosciutto e melone, this dish makes a visually stunning and flavorful appetizer that you can put together in minutes. The vinegar, herb and spices adds flavor. If you can’t find five-spice powder at your grocery store, make your own by grinding together 1 teaspoon anise seeds, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns and a pinch each of fennel seeds and cloves.

From the book: “Paleo Planet: Primal Foods from the Global Kitchen with More than 125 Recipes” by Becky Winkler; 288 pages, $24.95. Published by Harvard Common Press, 2015.

What you get: This book will teach you how to stock a paleo pantry, make spice blends and expand your culinary repertoire with creative and flavorful recipes inspired by travels across the globe.

In her own words: “You may be wondering if you have to be fiercely devoted to a paleo lifestyle to benefit from this book, and the answer is no. The recipes in this book will help anyone enjoy delicious and varied meals at home.” — Becky Winkler

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