Breathing Greens

Fruits and vegetables, as I am sure you already knew, are living organisms. But rarely do we consider that our produce is actually breathing. Yes, breathing; or rather, respiring. Produce is taking in oxygen, breaking down the complex compounds into energy, water, and carbon dioxide. And unlike photosynthesis, in which carbon dioxide, along with sunlight and water,  is taken in by plants to produce sugar (food), respiration is the process in which plants take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide, much like muscular breathing.

So, you say, what does all this respiration talk have to do with my daily interaction with produce? Well, if you want to preserve your precious produce effectively, you need to slow down its respiration, or rather, its metabolic breakdown. When the respiration process is happening at a rapid pace, so is its deterioration. Keeping your produce cold and limiting its oxygen supply aids in slowing down the deterioration process. In other words, fruits and vegetables that have low respiration rates, such as potatoes, grapes, and apples, are able to keep well for longer periods of time than produce with high respiration rates, such as ripe bananas, lettuce, and green beans.

When you bring your produce and fresh herbs home from the market, be sure to wash them in cold water. This process not only removes any dirt or debris lingering on the stalks and leaves, but also allows the plants’ cells to fill with water. Plant cells begin to lose their water after picking, which causes wilting. Slowing this process, by keeping the humidity high and limiting air flow, is best achieved by spinning the produce in a salad spinner, wrapping a layer of paper towel around the produce, then placing it in a plastic bag. When stored in such a manner, it is possible to keep your produce for about one week in the fridge, sometimes slightly longer. Plus, whenever meal time comes along, you don’t have to worry about cleaning and drying your produce prior to cooking, saving you a bit of time.

Ever wonder why you are left with soggy, wilted greens when you dress your salad far in advance of serving dinner? Greens are somewhat water-proof, so the culprit of this mushy mess isn’t the vinegar in the dressing, but the oil and salt. Your best bet is to chop all the vegetable ingredients into a bowl, and save the actual dressing for a minute or so before you actually serve the salad.

1 Tbl. unsalted butter
1/4 c. raw pine nuts
1/2 shallot, peeled
1 Tbl. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbl. honey
1/2 c. canola, peanut, or mild olive oil
1 large bunch spinach, rinsed and dried
1 large navel orange, peeled and cut into 1/4″ slices
salt, pepper to taste

Melt the butter on low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast for about 2 minutes, being careful to stir and avoid burning the nuts. Transfer the nuts to a paper towel-lined  plate and sprinkle a bit of salt on top. Set aside. Add the vinegar, shallot, mustard, honey, salt, and pepper to a food processor. Slowly add the oil. Add 2 Tbl. toasted pine nuts and process the dressing until it is thoroughly puréed. Set aside.

With a sharp knife, remove the orange’s peel, following around the fruit’s contour. Slicing between each inside membrane of the orange, carefully slice 1/4″ slices. Arrange the slices onto a salad platter. Remove the spinach stems and finely chop the spinach leaves, placing them into a large mixing bowl. Toss with the dressing.

Pile the spinach into the center of the salad platter. Sprinkle with pine nuts and serve immediately.

Pineapple-Mango Salsa

On New Year’s Eve this past year, a friend brought over a chutney-like salsa that she had purchased at a deli. We were both so enamored by the product that I immediately vowed to recreate it at home, and this is what I came up with. This salsa is so fresh and flavorful, sweet yet tangy, that I just can’t get enough of it.

This salsa can be served with tortilla chips, used as a garnish over fish, or just eaten by the spoonful (which is what I like to do!)

1 ripe mango, peeled and diced (about 1 cup, measured)
1 c. diced pineapple
1/3 c. chopped red pepper
1/3 c. chopped red onion (rinsed under cold water after chopping)
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
juice from 1/2 lime
1 tsp. finely chopped jalapeño (optional)
a pinch of chili powder (optional)
Salt and pepper

Prep all the ingredients. Combine the mango, pineapple, red pepper, red onion, cilantro, garlic, and jalapeño (if using) in a medium-sized bowl. Sprinkle with the chili powder, a pinch or two of salt, and a twist of freshly ground pepper, then squeeze the lime juice over everything and stir to combine. Allow to sit for 1/2 hour before serving to allow the flavors to mix. Enjoy!

Cucumber Crunch Salad

I often shamelessly glean inspiration for new recipes from the prepared foods section at my local food stores. On a busy night, I’ll pick up a pound of something fresh from the deli, and if it’s good, I’ll try to recreate it at home. The recipe below is loosely based on something I bought from my local Whole Foods store called Mediterranean Crunch, but the version that I made is simpler and better (at least in my opinion). I’ve made it three times within one week (twice for eating at home and once for a larger family get-together), and each time it’s all been consumed right away.

(Yields 4-6 servings)

Salad Ingredients
one cucumber, peeled, de-seeded, and diced
1/2 c. chopped red onion, rinsed under cold water
1/2 c. chopped bell pepper (red, yellow, or orange)
1/2 pint grape tomatoes (about 1 c., measured)
1/2 c. Kalamata olives, halved or sliced
1 c. cooked garbanzo beans
1/3 -1/2 c. chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. chopped dill

Dressing Ingredients
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 c. olive oil
splash of red wine vinegar (optional)
salt and pepper

Prep all the salad ingredients and combine them in a large bowl. In a separate bowl or a spouted measuring cup, combine the dressing ingredients, then drizzle it over the salad and stir to combine. Add the salt and pepper to taste (very little is needed).

I love this salad because it is easy, fresh, tasty, and healthy, and the garbanzo beans make it very hearty. It’s great served alone, but to truly make it a meal, it can also be served atop lettuce or a grain, such as bulgur, along with some crumbled feta cheese. Enjoy!

Golden Lentil Stew

By the ends of winter, I am most definitely in need of some color in my life. That’s why I love this recipe, with all its warm yellow and orange hues. It’s not only healthy, but extremely easy on the eyes and the wallet, for that matter. Turmeric lends a rich color to your food and is considered to have numerous potential health benefits from its anti-inflammatory properties, which may include inhibited growth of certain cancers and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Feel free to include some orzo, or some other small shaped pasta to this stew if you desire, but it’s certainly hearty enough without it. If you are unable to find yellow lentils, which are usually sold in specialty Italian and Middle Eastern markets, you could substitute red or orange lentils, however, the consistency of the stew will change slightly. If you prefer to keep this dish strictly vegan, you could always substitute the chicken stock with vegetable stock. Serve with a dollop of thick yogurt and some crusty bread.

Yield: 6-8 servings

5 Tbl. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled, halved, and chopped into small pieces
1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained
2 c. chicken stock
6 c. water
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbl. finely chopped fresh cilantro, plus 1 Tbl. coarsely chopped
1 c. yellow lentils
2 Tbl. tomato paste
1- 2″ piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 Tbl. fresh lemon juice (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. ground coriander seeds
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cloves
1/2 c. pitted dates, chopped (optional)
salt, pepper to taste
2 Tbl. parsley, chopped coarsely

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or medium stock pot on medium heat. Add the spices and allow them to simmer in the oil for 1-2 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, and ginger. Allow the vegetables to sautée for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, with a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic and chopped cilantro with a sprinkle of salt into a thick paste. Add the paste and cinnamon stick to the pot, along with the lentils, and give everything a good stir or two. Add the tomato paste, stock, and water. Stir and cover. Allow the stew to cook for about 20 minutes before adding the canned chickpeas. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another 15-20 minutes. If you so choose, add the chopped dates and lemon juice, and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Add the finely chopped cilantro and parsley. Serve and enjoy! As always, happy eating!

Taco Layer Dip

I often see this dip sold in the prepared foods section of grocery stores. It’s very easy to make and can be prepared with higher quality ingredients at less than half the cost of the store version. So with 30 minutes of time, why not make it yourself? It’s also a bit healthier than many typical cheesy chip dips, and I’ve watched this disappear in a matter of minutes at quite a few parties. There are as many versions for this dip as there are people who prepare it, so feel free to customize it to your taste.

4 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 oz. sour cream
1/2 t. chili powder
1/4 t. garlic powder
1/4 t. cumin
1 can re-fried beans
1/2 c. your favorite homemade or jarred salsa
4 oz. finely shredded cheddar or monterey jack cheese (or a combination of the two)
1 c. diced tomatoes
1 1/2 c. chopped lettuce
1/4 c. chopped green onion
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
1/4 c. sliced olives (your choice of black or green)
1 avocado, sliced and coated with a squeeze of lime juice (about 1/4 lime)

Choose a serving dish with straight side walls at least two inches high, such as a 9×13 Pyrex pan or a more decorative deep-walled pie dish. In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and sour cream until smooth. Mix in the chili powder, garlic powder, and cumin. Spread the mixture as your bottom layer in your chosen dish. Next mix the re-fried beans with the salsa, adjusting the amount of salsa to your taste.  Spread it on top of the cream cheese mixture. Next, sprinkle the cheese and then the tomatoes. Toss the lettuce, green onions, and cilantro together and spread it over the tomatoes. Then drop the olives evenly over the top. Lay the avocado slices on top just before serving (so they don’t have enough time to discolor too much). Serve with your choice of fresh tortilla chips, and enjoy!

Tips and alternatives:

  • You can use a prepared taco seasoning instead of chili powder, garlic powder, and cumin. Start out with 1/2 tablespoon of the mixture, taste, then add more to suit your preference.
  • You can keep the beans and salsa as separate layers, or even omit the beans altogether if a bean dip isn’t your thing.
  • Instead of avocado slices, you can spread 1 cup of prepared guacamole as a layer on top of the beans and salsa.

TDB Homemade: Guacamole

Super Bowl weekend is rapidly approaching, and for some, that means hosting a party and making numerous appetizers to stave off hunger during the hours it takes to watch the game. With ballet in our blood, the Dancing Buckeyes are more at home in the theater than the stadium. But considering that the NY Giants will be playing, I’m sure my New York City household will at least watch some highlights from the game, and guacamole is certain to be gracing our menu that day!

Guacamole is one of those beloved accompaniments to the ubiquitous game-watching tortilla chip. You can tweak it to your liking, adding more or less spice, plus it’s extremely healthy, which you can’t claim about numerous other chip dips. So whether or not you will be watching the Super Bowl this weekend, you may eventually have a need to enjoy a dip or two of guacamole.

1  ripe avocado
4-5 grape tomatoes
1 Tbl. finely diced onion (red or white)
1 clove garlic, pressed
small handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
twist of lime (about 1 tsp.)
1 small dried chile, crushed (optional)
salt to taste

Slice lengthwise through the avocado , around the seed, to divide the avocado in half. With a spoon, scoop out the flesh from the shell. Remove the avocado seed by hitting a knife into its center, then twisting clockwise. The seed should easily be removed if the avocado is fully ripe. If, for some reason, the knife won’t remove the seed, you should be able to push it out with a spoon.

Place the avocado flesh in a medium bowl and mash with a fork until you have a smooth, silky texture. If you prefer, leave a few medium size chunks of avocado for a slightly different texture. Add the onion and garlic. Squeeze the juice and seeds from the tomatoes and chop them into quarters. Add to the bowl. Add the cilantro, dried chili (optional), and salt. Add the twist of lime. You may also add some lime zest if you choose, which adds another level of zesty citrus. Combine all the ingredients together. Taste and add more salt if you need. If you choose not to add the dried chili, you may want to add a good grind of fresh pepper. Serve with some blue corn chips (my favorite brand is, Xochitl) for an added burst of color. Go team…..and go guacamole!!!!

Tips and variations:

  • Guacamole is very versatile and should be made to taste. Feel free to adjust the amounts on any of the ingredients.
  • Add a bit of finely diced jalapeñ0 or a pinch of chili powder for another dimension of flavor.
  • This recipe can easily be doubled (or tripled!) depending on your crowd and appetites.
  • Guacamole is best when made fresh because it oxidizes very quickly. If yours must be made a few hours ahead of time, or if you have any leftovers, preserve its freshness by covering it with a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the guacamole to prevent air contact.
  • Guacamole makes a great spread on sandwiches, by itself or mixed with a just a bit of mayo.

Cilantro-Tomato Sauce Over Chicken

This recipe came about when trying to concoct something for dinner that would use up several random items hanging out in my fridge. And, as luck would have it that night, my family loved it! The cilantro-tomato sauce works very well with chicken, but it can be served over rice, vegetables, tofu, potatoes, eggs, or fish, as well.  In fact, this is a wonderful recipe for when you are cooking for vegetarians and meat eaters in the same meal because you can keep the sauce and meat separate until the very end. This also makes a great weeknight meal — with a little prep work, your entire dinner can easily come together in 20-30 minutes.

2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
3/4 cup buttermilk (for marinating the chicken — optional)
olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 cups or 1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 Tbl. tomato paste
zest from one lemon
1/4 c. plain Greek yogurt (can be substituted with sour cream or buttermilk)
coarse salt
freshly ground pepper

Either in the morning or the night before you plan to make this (8-24 hours prior), prepare your chicken by trimming the fat and cutting the breasts into small serving sizes, about 4 pieces per breast. The small size makes the cooking go fast, and it also gives a lot of surface area to be coated with sauce later on. Place the chicken in a well-sealed container with the buttermilk and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Let sit in the refrigerator until ready to cook.  You can omit this step, if you want, but the buttermilk makes the meat super moist and tender.

Prepare a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to grease the bottom. Drain and pat dry your chicken breast pieces; season them on both sides with a little salt and pepper. Lightly brown the chicken in a single layer in the pan, about 3-4 minutes per side, depending on the heat and size of your cuts. When lightly browned and fully cooked, remove the chicken from the heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet or sauce pan over medium heat and add a quarter cup of olive oil — the oil should be hot, but not smoking. Add the garlic, ginger, and cumin. Season with a little salt and pepper and cook for a few minutes while the mixture becomes fragrant. Stir in one cup of the chopped cilantro leaves, the tomato paste, the diced tomatoes, and the lemon zest and bring to a slow simmer. If necessary, add 1/4-1/2 cup of water to prevent the sauce from becoming too thick. Taste, and add more salt, pepper, or cilantro, if desired. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and, using a standing blender or immersion blender, purée the sauce until smooth (just be very careful if you have to transfer the sauce out of the pan to do this!) Return the sauce to the pan and stir in the yogurt. At this point, the sauce is ready to be served over vegetables, rice, eggs, etc.  However, when serving chicken, add the browned chicken to your pan and cook over low heat for just a few more minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

I like to serve this dish with simple brown rice and steamed vegetables. Fresh green beans pair very nicely, as does a light, citrusy white wine. Feel free to garnish your meal with any remaining chopped cilantro. Quick, healthy, versatile, and delicious – enjoy!

An Easy Borscht

Beets are a lovely addition to your winter diet. There is something about their bright hue that seems to add a touch of color to a dreary, grey day. And usually anything with color is a welcome addition to a child’s diet. My toddler daughter likes to call borscht “strawberry soup.” Beets are rich sources of potassium, iron, and vitamin-C. Their lovely red juice can be a blood purifier, may lower high blood pressure, and can aid in the breakdown of kidney stones. In fact, beet juice has been touted to counteract anemia and iron deficiency, and has even been credited to help defeat cancer in some patients.

There are numerous versions of borscht; some with meat and some completely vegetarian. But I think I could safely say I prefer a vegetarian borscht, that is, unless I have some leftover roast lingering in the fridge. If at all possible, buy organic beets, since they are root vegetables and readily soak up pesticides from the ground, as well as from above ground, exposing your body to more chemicals that I’m sure you would like to keep far, far away. This soup is fairly easy to make and extremely uncomplicated. Just be sure to wear an apron and a set of gloves while preparing the beets, or you may just become bright red from head to toe!

4 medium beets, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into small pieces
2 c. chicken stock
6 c. water
2 Tbl. fresh dill, finely chopped (plus more for garnish)
1 tsp. sugar
salt, pepper to taste
Greek yogurt, or sour cream
olive oil

Prepare the beets and other vegetables, separately; set aside. In a large saucepan or small stock pot, heat some olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped vegetables and then the grated beets. Sprinkle the sugar on top. Season with salt and pepper and stir. Allow the mixture to cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the 2 Tbl. of dill, chicken stock, and water. Stir everything together. Turn down the heat to low and cover. Be sure that your soup does not boil too rigorously, or else you will have little spouts of beet juice just about every where on your stove top and over your floor. Allow the soup to cook for about 45 minutes. Taste and season accordingly.

Serve warm with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt or sour cream, and a small handful of freshly chopped dill. (The cooked dill will become dull in color, and adding some fresh dill boosts the soup’s overall appearance.) Alternatively, you could serve this soup chilled for lunch.

Oven Roasted Tomato & Pepper Pasta

For one reason or another, I have been on a veggie roasting spree. I came up with this recipe one afternoon, when I saw that the bowl of cherry tomatoes sitting on my kitchen counter looked like they didn’t have more than a day left in their life span, and I recalled that red pepper sitting in my fridge that could use a culinary rescue asap. Once you’ve assembled your vegetables together and placed them in the oven, you can sit back and relax- ok, or clean the house, do the laundry, bathe the children, etc- until they’re done roasting. Chop some basil, boil some water, cook your pasta, and you are good to go. During the winter months, when summer heirloom tomatoes are a distant memory, grape and cherry tomatoes tend to be sweet and ripe, which is why I tend to have them on hand to use in salads and just as snacks. This dish is quite easy on the pocket with fabulously delicious results. Then, again, it’s usually the simpler things in life that are (and taste!) better.

1 lb. (box) of pasta, whatever shape you prefer
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves or quarters
1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in halves
1 red pepper, seeds removed, chopped roughly
10-12 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
medium handful of fresh thyme stalks (optional)
1 large handful of fresh basil, torn in pieces by hand
1/2 c. olive oil
1/3-1/2 c. chicken stock
2 Tbl. butter (optional)
salt, pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, for grating

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Meanwhile, in a large roasting pan, place all your sliced tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and thyme (if using). Add the olive oil and sprinkle the vegetables with salt and pepper. With your hands, toss the vegetables, making sure everything is coated nicely with oil. Pour the chicken stock into the pan from one corner, as you just want the liquid to remain at the bottom of the pan and not remove all the spices and oil from your vegetables. Place the pan into the preheated oven and allow the vegetables to roast for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until the tomatoes and peppers’ skins are wrinkled and browned nicely, and you begin to smell that lovely roasted smell wafting from your oven. From time to time, while the veggies roast, check to see if you need to shake the pan a bit to loosen any pieces that may be sticking to the pan, or if you need to add any more oil or liquid.

While the vegetables are roasting in the oven, bring a large stock pot of salted water to a rolling boil. About 10 minutes before your veggies finish roasting, begin to cook your pasta. When the pasta is cooked al dente, drain it, making sure to reserve a bit of the cooking water (about a cup or so). Toss in everything from your roasting pan, making sure to remove any of the thyme stalks, if you chose to include this ingredient. Add the butter and torn basil. Give everything a few good stirs. Adjust the seasonings, and if you need some more liquid in the sauce, add some of the reserved pasta cooking water. This dish is fantastic on its own, but if you crave something heartier, you could always include a few meatballs on the side.

Weekend Fried Rice

On the weekends, you may have to throw a fabulously complicated dinner party. However, most weekends are my time to “relax” a bit and not worry about getting the dishwasher unloaded from the night before, a load of laundry started, and escorting my son to school, all before 8:15 am! A leisure morning of pancakes and eggs, along with a late morning shower are all in order. I also don’t enjoy grocery shopping on the weekends. (Well, except for going to the farmer’s market!) And that usually leaves my fridge full of fantastic left-overs for lunch and a number of odd ingredients to throw together for an early evening weekend meal.

After an unusually warm January day in New York, filled with train rides downtown and afternoons spent in the playground, I was left with little time to throw together something for dinner. Luckily I had a few ingredients in my fridge, which allowed me to create a fantastic fried rice. It’s always a good idea to try to stock your pantry with a few items you enjoy, so when you are pinched with time, or mere idleness, you have the ability to whip up something easily that, at the very least, tastes fantastic.

I tend to stock my fridge with sweet peppers and fresh herbs and my pantry with coconut milk, soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, and various spices, such as cumin, curry, turmeric, and coriander. Most likely you have some left-over meat in your fridge, just waiting to be incorporated into a new dish. And if you don’t, no worries! You could always make a strictly vegetarian fried rice. The following recipe is what I had on hand today, but they are simply a guideline. Feel free to incorporate whatever you may have lying around your kitchen. And by all means, feel free to alter the amounts of each ingredient to your liking. I tend to put a splash of something here and there while cooking fried rice, without exactly measuring, so if you happen not to have a certain ingredient, you can always exclude or substitute it with another.

Yield: 4 adult dinner portions

1 1/2 c. jasmine or basmati rice
1 c. chicken stock
2 c. water
1 Tbl. butter, or oil
2 strips of bacon, heritage breed/organic preferred, chopped into very fine pieces
3 green onions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 2-inch piece of ginger, grated
1 red bell pepper, preferably organic
1/4 c. frozen (or fresh) peas
8 oz. coconut milk
1 egg, beaten
1/3 c. peanut oil
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. whole corianer seeds, ground
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce
2 Tbl. organic, low-sodium soy sauce
splash of rice vinegar
small squirt of rooster sauce
large handful of fresh coriander, chopped finely

Cook the rice with the chicken stock and butter. You may omit the chicken stock if you prefer, however it does give the rice another nice element of flavor, which the water can not provide. Keep covered; set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare each of the above ingredients, setting them aside until you are ready to heat your pan. Preferably, use a wok, however, if you don’t own one, you can still prepare a delicious stir fry with a large skillet. Add about 1/3 c. of peanut oil, or other vegetable oil, to your prepared, hot pan. Once hot, add the bacon (Note: if you are using another type of meat, such as a left-over steak or chicken, add the meat in at the end, just to heat through.) and allow to cook on medium-high heat. After about 2 minutes, add the onion, garlic, ginger, and dry spices. Add the chopped red pepper and allow it to cook for 1-2 mintues. Add the coconut milk, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fish, oyster, and rooster sauce. Once you begin to smell the aromas of the spices, after about 2-3 minutes, add the beaten egg, being careful to contanstantly stir it until it has incorporated nicely. Add the peas and green onions, and give the dish a good stir or two. Add the cooked rice and soy sauce. Stir to combine. Take a taste and add whatever seems to be missing.

And that’s it! A nice, simple, tasty dish to satisfy just about anyone after a busy weekend afternoon. Enjoy the weekend and happy eating!