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.

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!

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. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703779704576074270033185288.html) 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.

Beet Salad

Beets are a welcome sight in the farmer’s market during the long winter months. They certainly add a splash of color to the endless tones of greens. Beets, despite being simply delicious, are very good for your health, particularly in women. There is a widely held misconception that calcium is best obtained from dairy products and the mostly awful, chalk-like substances bottled as calcium supplements. Sorry to tell you, but the most effective way to absorb more calcium into your body is through vegetable consumption. You might as well stop paying out the nose for expensive calcium supplements and start including more vegetables, such as cabbage, dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens), carrots, broccoli, and yes, beets. And don’t throw the stems away before you cook them! They are delicious and packed with calcium, too.

There are quite a number of ways to prepare beets, but this recipe is how I usually end up preparing them for dinner. Beets, although a little messy in preparation, are simply divine. I love tasting their deep, earthiness in every bite. They just make you feel good while you’re eating them! Thank god for bleach, because usually once my children are done with dinner, my white table cloth could use some love…..

Separate the beets from their stalks and leaves, reserving leaves for later use.

1 bunch beets; rinsed, trimmed, and halved

2 Tbl. butter

1 clove garlic; pressed through garlic press, or smashed and finely diced

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 c. olive oil

splash of balsamic vinegar

small handful of chopped parsley, or dried oregano for garnish

In a medium-sized pan, place the beets and cover with water. Cover pan; bring to boil; reduce heat to low and allow the pan’s cover to open slightly. Depending on their size, the beets should cook through in about 45 minutes. You may need to add some more water, so check back from time to time. Test with a fork to see if beets are cooked. The fork should easily slide into the beet if it’s done. Drain and run under cold water to aid in removing the skins. **I wear plastic gloves to remove the skins because the beets will stain your hands.** Once the beets are peeled, chop into sizes of your preference.

Quickly rinse out the pan you used to cook the beets in, and add the butter. Chop your reserved beet leaves and stalks into small pieces and add to the pan. Cover and allow to sauté on low heat until the leaves become soft; about 8 minutes. Add the chopped beet roots, garlic, salt and pepper, oil and vinegar. Carefully combine ingredients with a spoon and transfer to a serving bowl; garnish with chopped parsley. May be eaten warm or at room temperature.

Forbidden Rice Salad

If you ever come across a black or deep purple-hued rice called Forbidden Rice, buy it, immediately.
Here’s what to do with it:
Rinse one cup of the rice with cold water, then cook it according to the packaging directions, adding 1 T. of chopped ginger to the water.  After the rice is cooked but still hot, add one cup of frozen corn and 1/2 c. of chopped red pepper (about 1/2 of a pepper).  The residual heat from the rice will thaw the corn and soften the pepper without over-cooking it.  Let it sit for 5 minutes, then add 1/4 c. of chopped green onion, 1 T. of sesame oil, 1 T. lemon or lime juice, and a few splashes of soy sauce.  Salt it to taste, although it might not need any because of the soy sauce.

I like to make this ahead of time and serve it at room temperature.  This is great any time of year, but especially for summer picnics and barbecues.  It goes great with just about everything.  Every time I make this I get rave reviews, and it’s so healthy!  This rice is high in iron and other nutrients and has a nice nutty flavor.  Not all stores carry it, but I have bought it from Whole Foods.  I’ve also found it at some Asian markets and other natural food stores.  In fact, this dish was inspired by something I once tried at the deli counter of one of my favorite grocery stores in Pittsburgh called Right By Nature.  Try it, and you’ll become a fan!