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.

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Cherry Almond Mini Muffins

I’ve noticed a recent rise in the availability of virgin coconut oil in my local supermarkets. Even Trader Joe’s offers a jar of this sweet tasting stuff for an equally sweet price of $5.99. I started experimenting with the addition of coconut oil in numerous sweets I enjoy baking. It adds a lovely, gentle coconut taste and moisture to whatever it’s incorporated into. It also has numerous health benefits, some of which you can read here. Plus it tastes amazing on homemade popcorn!

I came across a lovely recipe for muffins with dried cherries and almond paste. It was Saturday morning, and I really wanted to churn out something for breakfast. Since I didn’t have any almond paste on hand, I decided to substitute some of the required butter with coconut oil and a small portion of the required amount of flour with some almond flour. I added a splash of almond extract, and I was left with an irresistible almond paste substitute. (Well, at least I thought so!) I was in the mood for something mini, so I decided to opt for downsizing the muffin. My children love mini muffins for their cute size, and I love them because they are the perfect portion size, allowing you to indulge in some sweetness without going overboard.

Yield: 24 mini muffins (12 regular size)

juice from one orange (about 6 Tbl.)
3/4 c. dried cherries, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp. almond extract
3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 c. plus 2 Tbl. almond flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. coconut oil
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. grated orange peel

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two mini muffin tins with muffin liners. (If you prefer, you can exclude the muffin liners and just oil the tin, but I tend to have better luck removing the muffins once they are baked with liners.) In a small sauce pan, or butter warmer, add the orange juice, cherries, and almond extract. Slowly bring the liquid mixture to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow the cherries to seep in the liquid until softened, about 10 minutes.

Whisk the flours, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the stand mixer running on low, add the eggs one at a time. Add the coconut oil and orange zest. Add the cherry liquid mixture. Continue to keep mixing until all ingredients are incorporated. Spoon the batter evenly between all the muffin cups. The batter should be even with the top of the liners. Place the muffin tins onto the middle oven rack and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the muffin tops are nicely golden. Allow the muffins to cool on a wire rack. The muffins can be kept in a cake dome for 2-3 days, but it’s highly unlikely that will happen. Usually, in my home, all 24 are consumed by evening!

Marcona Almonds

It’s that time of year, when I get excited to come up with numerous appetizers to lay out for guests during the holiday season. Recently my family was invited over to a friend’s house, where we were served some toasted rosemary Marcona almonds in garlic oil. They were absolutely delicious! I somehow situated myself on the corner of the table where those lovely, round delights lay, popping one after another. I didn’t eat the entire plate, but without some personal restraint, I most likely would have.

Originating from Spain, Marcona almonds are shorter, rounder, and sweeter than the almond variety you most likely are familiar with. It is possible to purchase raw Marcona almonds, with the shell removed, but the seedcoat still attached. However, it is more likely that you will find at your local grocer Marcona almonds that have been blanched, which is the process of soaking the nut in hot water to soften the dark seedcoat to facilitate its removal,  exposing the white embryo.

This dish is perfect for a cocktail party, or in a medley of appetizers, much like mezze, prior to a dinner party. I like the addition of rosemary and garlic oil, however, you could simply sauté the almonds lightly in plain olive oil with equally delicious results.

6-8 oz. Marcona almonds, blanched
1/4 c. garlic oil
1  sprig rosemary (about 4″ in length)
salt to taste

In a small sauté pan, on low heat, add the oil and rosemary sprig. Allow the rosemary to infuse into the oil for about 4-5 minutes. Remove the rosemary; set aside. Add the almonds and allow them to toast until they have a nice golden color. Remove the almonds and place them on a piece of paper towel to soak up any extra oil. Sprinkle a small amount of salt over the almonds and arrange on a plate with the rosemary sprig as a garnish.

Cranberry Slaw (An Alternative Salad for Turkey Day)

Can it really be that Thanksgiving is only a few short days away?? I checked my calendar yesterday, and realized that indeed, it is. Luckily, this year we are invited over to a friend’s home for the big Turkey Day, so I won’t be stuck roasting, basting, blanching, and baking solely. (Ok, enough crudité, which will be my addition for the planned fiesta, for about 36 people is quite a bit of work, but at least it only requires peeling and chopping!) For those of you who may not want to go the traditional route, I thought I would offer a healthy and extremely tasty salad, which incorporates that quintessential Thanksgiving ingredient: cranberries.

During the winter months, when cabbage is plentiful, I usually make a cabbage salad, with grated carrots, chopped parsley, and fresh lemon juice. But one day, my father, who tends to call me when he’s come across an exciting recipe, was itching to tell me his latest find. Apparently he stopped in for a quick lunch at his local deli, and they were serving a cranberry slaw alongside their sandwiches. My dad enjoyed it so much that he went home and recreated it for a dinner one night. (Hmmm, maybe that’s where I get my obsession with food.) He sometimes adds baked strips of chicken, on occasion, to turn this salad into a main course. However, it could be a welcomed side to just about any main dish.

Whether you end up making this slaw for Thanksgiving, a lunch, or dinner, I hope you enjoy it as much as my father and I do. Thanks for checking in with us. We hope you all have a healthy, happy Thanksgiving. And if you have a few moments to spare, share some time and food with someone you know who may need it. Happy Eating!

Cranberry Slaw

1/2 head of cabbage chopped (red or green)
1/2 c. dried cranberries, or orange flavored cranberries
1/2 c. unsalted peanuts
1/4 c. raw sunflower seeds
1 large carrot, peeled and grated (optional)
3/4 cup sweet and sour salad dressing *
salt, pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

*Sweet & Sour Dressing Recipe:
1/2 c. olive oil
1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, or liquid measuring cup with a spout. Whisk and chill in the refrigerator. Tweak the ingredients to your liking. I have seen recipes that include celery seed and use dry mustard powder instead of Dijon.

This salad can easily be prepared hours before your meal or event. Just place it in the refrigerator and allow the dressing to nicely blend with the cabbage. Because you don’t have to worry about any of the ingredients wilting, this salad also makes for some fantastic leftovers!

Rice, Nut, and Seed Loaf

This is a nice meat-alternative dish that is hearty enough to please even the meat and potatoes crowd.  In fact, my very carnivorous husband sometimes even requests this!  Served like a meatloaf, it does well as the centerpiece of a meal, or as an accompaniment to pasta and veggies.  It also freezes well, uncooked, so if you have a large enough mixing bowl, consider doubling the ingredients for an easy meal another day.

This is also a great recipe for the novice cook – it simply requires a bit of chopping and shredding, and if you have a food processor, those steps are a snap.

We realize that this is not the most visually appetizing dish, but it does taste good!

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups shredded cheese (more or less depending on your taste) — cheddar or mozzarella, or a combination of the two
  • 4 lightly beaten eggs
  • 1 medium chopped onion
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped sunflower kernels
  • 1/8 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/8 cup flax seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of Italian seasoning, or 1/2 teaspoon of each of the following dried herbs: thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, parsley

Combine all the ingredients and pack into a greased 9″ loaf pan.  Bake at 350°F for 50-60 minutes or until firm.  Let cool in pan for 10 minutes.  Serve in slices and top with warm marinara sauce.

Mexican flavor variation — instead of Italian seasoning, use chili seasoning (cumin, paprika, chili powder, and oregano) and replace some of the cheese with shredded Pepper Jack or Monterey Jack.  Top with your choice of traditional red tomato salsa or salsa verde.