- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It’s rich and enhances whatever it touches. Yet it’s misunderstood and often gets a bad rap. No, it’s not gold or money. It’s milk.

“It’s the most misunderstood food in America,” says Anne Mendelson, author of “Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages.”

It’s vilified on the one hand and worshipped on the other, Ms. Mendelson says.

Vilified because it is high in fat and cholesterol.

“It’s true that it has a lot of saturated fat, but the connection between high cholesterol in food and high cholesterol in the human body is neither clear nor simple,” Ms. Mendelson says.

Worshipped because it has long been considered essential for human - particularly of the wee kind - health.

“It’s neither the greatest food in the world nor poison,” Ms. Mendelson says. “These kinds of misconceptions keep us from appreciating milk for what it is: one of many great foods.”

It is one food that is a little trickier to retrieve than an apple from a tree.

“Many thousands of years ago, somebody saw an animal nursing her young and had the eccentric, not to say dangerous, idea of getting in on the act,” Ms. Mendelson writes in her book.

That somebody probably lived in the Middle East - between the Anatolian plateau and the Zagros Mountains of southwestern Iran - sometime between 8000 and 6000 B.C.

Fast-forward a few thousand years to the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of mass-produced milk for city folk.

Milk was canned and shipped many miles by rail, and the idea of milk as big business started taking root. Milk production turned big-scale and increasingly efficient.

Milk routes, pasteurization and homogenization methods kept getting refined until we got to today’s dairy farms, where cows are hormonally manipulated (extra estrogen) to the point of being milkable for up to three years instead of the normal nine months.

The excess estrogen often leads to a shorter life span for milk cows.

“It’s a troubling story that I couldn’t leave out,” Ms. Mendelson says.

Still, she’s hopeful. With a recent increase in small dairy farms located close to urban areas and urbanites becoming increasingly interested in getting back to basics, things are looking up, she says.

Milk’s “reputation went steadily downhill until the mid-1990s,” she says. “But people who are interested in food (aka ‘foodies’) are realizing that milk tastes better when it’s produced on a small scale and when the animals are treated better,” she says. “I think there’s a pretty bright future for small-scale dairies.”

Once you’ve tasted milk - particularly of the non-homogenized kind (unbelievable creamy with a texture that is delightfully uneven: thicker on top, thinner in the middle) - you’re not likely to go back to store-bought milk (organic or not), she says.

Ms. Mendelson calls the non-homogenized, happy-cow variety “white magic.”

“You can turn a gallon of un-homogenized milk into so many different things,” she says. “You have the makings of butter and yogurt, cheese, skim milk and cream. All these things can be unlocked from inside the original milk by any ordinary cook.”

Here is Anne Mendelson’s favorite dairy recipe. It is from her book “Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages” (Knopf).

Zucchini-yogurt salad with fresh dill

Yogurt lends agreeable depth and verve to a vegetable that can be pretty one-dimensional. A combination of green and golden zucchini makes an especially attractive dish. For a richer, thicker consistency, strain the yogurt through a kitchen towel.

4 medium-small zucchini or similar tender summer squash (about 1 1/2 pounds)

2 teaspoons salt

10 to 12 scallions, cleaned and trimmed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup well-drained mild, creamy plain yogurt

Freshly ground black or white pepper

Plenty of fresh dill, snipped

Trim the ends of the zucchini and grate them on the coarse side of a box grater. Put the grated squash in a colander set over a bowl; add the salt and mix well with your hands. Let stand for 20 minutes to drain off some of the moisture.

Meanwhile, cut off the scallion tops where the green begins. Slice the white part into rounds and set aside; chop the tender part of the greens and reserve separately.

Firmly wring out as much liquid as you can from the salted zucchini. Heat the oil to rippling in a large lidded skillet over brisk heat, add the scallion whites and saute for a few minutes until translucent. Add the drained zucchini and cook, stirring and tossing to coat them well with the oil, for three to five minutes. Adjust the heat to medium-low. Add the reserved scallion greens, cover the pan, and cook for about five minutes or until the squash is slightly wilted. (Check occasionally for scorching.)

Remove the pan from the heat and let cool slightly, uncovered. (Too much heat will curdle the yogurt, though it won’t harm the flavor.) Add the yogurt, pepper and most of the dill. Toss to combine everything well and serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with the remaining dill. Makes about 6 servings.

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