Everything and the Kitchen Shrink: Answers to your questions about nightshades, pluots

As the Kitchen Shrink, I am frequently asked fascinating questions - everything from how to perform damage control on a NASCAR-tire-textured Thanksgiving bird to advice about hosting a migraine and Prozac-free dinner party for impossible to please guests. To me every question is brilliant as it takes a lot of courage and curiosity to ask it.

Question: What are nightshades and are they safe to eat?

Answer: Nightshades or the family of plants in the genus Solanum have many members including tomatoes, potatoes, sweet and hot peppers, pimentos, paprika, cayenne and eggplant along with their poisonous cousins (belladonna and tobacco) and weedy plant siblings. Of course, you should only consume the edible nightshades not the toxic herbs and shrubs. The bipolar tomato, which is actually a fruit but has a vegetable lifestyle, is loaded with lycopene. Sweet peppers are packed with more vitamin C than an orange, while cayenne pepper is a powerful antioxidant. My fave, the eggplant or "aubergine" contains an alphabet of vitamins including A, B, C, E and K along with folate, calcium, iron and potassium.

Now the bad news. A nitrogen-based substance has been found in all nightshades. These alkaloids are a natural insect repellent for the plants, but can affect the nerve-muscle and joint function in sensitive people. Although cooking lowers the alkaloid content by about 50 percent, those folks with arthritis, I'm sorry to say, should steer clear or moderate their intake of nightshades.

Do you have any tips for saving money at the supermarket?

Leave your hubby (and kids) at home. Also, be committed to taking along a shopping list and follow it religiously. Don't get seduced by tempting demo samples and treats at the checkout. And never go to the market hungry.

I'm going on vacation for a month. Can I freeze my canned foods?

Canned foods are already in a vacuumed and preserved environment and have long shelf lives. The contents are safe for a year or more as long as the can is not badly dinged or bulging. No need to freeze. My husband has put Coke cans in the freezer for a quick chill and has sometimes forgotten about them. The next day I have a frozen Coke shrapnel surprise from the exploded can. Don't try this stunt at home. Cans live in dry, dark and cool cupboards - not freezers.

I've seen a lot of new fruits and vegetables at the supermarket like "pluots" and "aspiration." Are these real or man-made?

Old MacDonald has converted into Dr. Frankenstein. Weird cousin fruits and vegetables are the product of crossbreeding by professional plant breeders. When seeds from two different fruits or veggies are paired and bred, a hybrid is created. The marriage of asparagus and broccoli produced "aspiration." Broccolini is not an immature broccoli, rather the product of blending broccoli and Chinese kale. The pluot is the cross-pollinating of three-quarters plum with one-quarter apricot, resulting in a super-sweet, glabrous complexioned hybrid. Seed companies are having a field day with oranges too. The blood orange, so called because of its ruby pulp, is a cross between an orange and a pomegranate. The Cara Cara is a double-cross - a navel orange/blood orange combo.

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