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.

Arugula Salad with Pomegranate Dressing

I love to eat pomegranate, so I always become excited when the winter holidays roll around and pomegranates are in season. There’s a certain hidden beauty about pomegranates. When you cut through their unassuming leathery skin, luscious seeds, just waiting to explode with dark red juice, reveal themselves. I have fond childhood memories of myself spurting red juice all over the kitchen while I attempted to remove the seeds from their membrane casings. The intensity of each little pomegranate seed’s juice, followed by the crunchy inner core will forever remain one of my cherished holiday memories.

The spicy, peppery taste of the arugula pairs nicely with the sweetness of the pomegranate. If you don’t have any garlic oil on hand, don’t feel that it is absolutely necessary to run out and buy some. Making your own is ridiculously easy. All you need are 4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut into fourths. Heat about 1 cup of olive oil in a small butter pan on low heat. Add the garlic and allow its flavor to infuse into the oil. Make sure that you keep the flame as low as possible, or else the garlic will burn too quickly. Continue cooking the oil for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the oil to cool. Strain the oil into a glass container and toss the leftover garlic.

7 oz. baby arugula, cleaned and dried
1/2 a pomegranate
1/3 c. garlic oil
2 tsp. fig balsamic vinegar
2 Tbl. pomegranate seeds
2 Tbl. toasted pine nuts
salt and pepper to taste

Remove about 2 Tbl. of the pomegranate’s seeds; set aside. In a small bowl, gently squeeze the sliced half of pomegranate, allowing the juices to flow. It’s ok if a few loose seeds fall out into the bowl as well. *Please wear an apron while squeezing the pomegranate. No matter how “careful” I think I will be, I almost always end up squirting bright red juice someplace!* Add the fig balsamic vinegar. While whisking, slowly pour the garlic oil into the bowl. When the dressing is mixed together completely, taste and adjust ingredients according to your taste. Set aside.

Place the arugula greens into a large salad bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Pour over the dressing. Toss to coat. Serve immediately. If you would like to dress up this salad even further, feel free to add some small pieces of chopped orange, or even turn the salad into a main course by including some pan fried potatoes with rosemary.

Winter Greens

It is true that winter can become dull after a while. And that tends to include the vegetable options available to you during the winter growing season. Farmer’s Markets tend to be overrun with heaps of dark, leafy greens, such as kale, collards, swiss chard, and mustard greens. A couple of weeks ago, I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, discussing this very topic: what to do with all those winter greens. (You may read the full article here, if you wish. Surprisingly, there are quite a number of different ways to incorporate these various greens into your winter menu.

You just need to experiment a bit, but many of the dishes you already have in your cooking repertoire could be altered slightly to include some winter greens. For instance, I enjoy cooking soups throughout the fall and winter for some of my family’s meals. Winter greens, when wilted into various soups, add a lovely taste dimension to the broth. In regards to the WSJ I mentioned above, I decided to try the recipe for “Parmesan Broth With Swiss Chard and White Beans.” It was delicious, and the best part of all, was that both my children ate an entire bowl! I must say the results were not only yummy, but very healthy, too. Soups are a wonderful meal by themselves, served with some crusty bread and cheese. Not only are soups easy to make, they’re also pretty quick, making them a perfect option for those of us strapped for time.

Another dish I like to make, incorporates lacinato, or dinosaur kale. Its leaves have a delicate texture, making it a suitable choice to be eaten raw in a salad. My neighbor once made this dish for a dinner she hosted, and since it was so delicious, I’ve been making it ever since. Presentation-wise, this salad looks great, making it a nice choice to serve if you are having guests over for dinner. It also keeps rather nicely in the fridge, so you can eat any leftovers you may have for lunch the following day.

1 bunch lacinato kale; rinsed and dried

1/4-1/3 c. dried cranberries (amt. to your liking)

1/4 c. chopped raw cashew nuts

salt, freshly ground pepper (to taste)

Once the kale is cleaned and dried, remove the thick stalks with a knife. Slice the leaves into 1 ” strips length-wise, and then chop the strips into thin pieces, or however wide you prefer to eat them in your salad. Toss the cut leaves, cranberries, and nuts into a large salad bowl. Add the salt and pepper to your liking. Make a balsamic vinaigrette by adding 1/8 c. balsamic vinegar with a small spoon of Dijon mustard. Mix the mustard into the vinegar with a whisk and add 1 tsp. sugar. Slowly drizzle some olive oil into your liquid mix, constantly whisking until you have incorporated about 1/3 c. of oil. Pour dressing over salad and toss to coat.

Orzo pasta is another lovely base to mix winter greens into, as well as any other vegetables you may have floating around in your fridge. I needed to make a starch-based dish for dinner one night. Luckily I had a bag of orzo, some left-over collard greens and three mushrooms. I thinly sliced the collard greens and finely chopped the mushrooms; melted about 2 Tbl. of butter in a large saucepan and added the cut veggies. After adding some salt and freshly ground pepper, I covered the pan and allowed the greens and shrooms to cook for about 4-5 minutes. (You could always add onion and garlic, but it tasted fine without it.) I then poured about 2 cups of boiling water to the pan, added 1 cup of orzo, and gave it a nice stir. Allowing the pan to simmer nicely on medium heat, the dish is ready once the pasta is cooked; about 8 minutes. After adjusting the seasonings to my liking, I was good to go! Honestly, this is a nice dish served entirely by itself, and because of the added vegetables, you won’t feel too guilty if you don’t make a salad with dinner.