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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Spinach Salad – Nutrition Made Simple

So how does one emerge from the holidays and their aftermath without completely running the nutrition tank on empty? With party after party, it’s certainly easy enough to overdo it on rich foods that are full of sugar, fats, and salt…and within days the effects on our bodies can be felt inside and out. I know that many families, like mine, use the holidays to indulge in some of their less healthy, but favorite family recipes. Well, after a couple days (or weeks) of those rich foods, I found myself going a little crazy on a spinach salad at my sister-in-law’s house the other day instead of filling up on the various tasty, high-fat and carb-heavy offerings available. Now, being pregnant and vegetarian, I am well aware of my daily nutritional needs, and when I go to fill my plate, I’m not happy unless there is a fair amount of green covering it. But this salad was so delicious and so simple that I was thinking about it well into the next day. (Luckily, there were leftovers!)

So here’s the recipe:  baby spinach leaves, chopped roasted red pepper (in olive oil), and some crumbled feta cheese. That’s it! Add a vinaigrette, if you so desire, but, honestly, the oil from the roasted red peppers is more than enough to dress it up, especially if you buy (or make) the kind that is seasoned with a couple garlic cloves.

Granted, I am a huge lover of spinach, and I use it in salads all the time, incorporating all kinds of things, like hard-boiled eggs, onions, tomatoes, berries, sunflower seeds, walnuts, etc. But this one is simple, pretty, and delicious, and it will likely become a new staple on my table.

Tips on fresh spinach:

  1. Unless you can get locally-grown spinach, go for the pre-washed bagged kind. It’s so easy to just pull a handful of it out anytime you want a quick salad.
  2. If you are already a big fan of spinach (like me), don’t bother splurging on the baby variety. The full-grown version is not quite as sweet and tender, but it’s delicious, nutritious, and much more affordable. But if spinach is a new flavor that you are acquiring, or if you are serving it to guests, the baby leaves are probably worth the extra cost.
  3. Baby spinach requires little preparation, but you may want to remove the stems and thick spines from some of the larger leaves of other varieties.
  4. Buy organic, if possible. There’s a lot of surface area on those leaves for pesticides and other chemicals to penetrate.
  5. Never let your spinach go bad. It’s a nutritional powerhouse, and there are so many other uses for fresh spinach that there’s no reason to let it spoil. You can add it to soups, dips, pasta sauces, etc. Just be careful when adding it to something like eggs — a lot of moisture is held in the leaves, which needs to be removed before cooking anything with a delicate moisture balance.
  6. Nutritional information of raw spinach – this food is low in Saturated Fat, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Niacin and Zinc, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.*

Spring Fever: a quick recipe to maximize your outdoor enjoyment!

It’s that time of year again, when (finally!) the trees have blossomed, the sun shines, I no longer have to wear a down winter coat, and all I want is to be outside. I extend the afternoon at the playground as late as possible before I drag my feet to go home, start the baths, and begin dinner. I yearn for dining on the sidewalk, alfresco style. Of course, I usually regret making the decision to go out for dinner as soon as the water starts to slop all over the table, while small hands grab for ice cubes; crayons roll along the floor, landing under a neighboring table; and I have to scarf down my entire entrée in about 4 minutes flat, after the kids have been fed and before the check lands on our table. Hahaha! Yes, I do longingly admire neighboring tables, where couples leisurely sip at glasses of white wine and take their good old time to enjoy their food. Then, again, there’s nothing better than a sloppy kiss of marinara sauce from my two-year-old!

All right, I got a little off track there…… I was trying to admit that when spring fever hits, I want some dinner options at my fingertips that don’t require a good deal of time to prepare. I want to stay outside in the park for an extra hour, come home, quickly chop some produce, throw it all together, and have it on the table in about 30 minutes flat.

The following recipe is one I threw together in my head while walking home from the playground. And it definitely fits under the “spring fever” recipe category. I used turkey sausage, but if you don’t have it readily available to you, feel free to substitute pork or beef sausage. If you happen to live in the New York area, there’s a a lovely company, DiPaolo Turkey Farms from Hamilton, New Jersery, which sells really delicious sweet and spicy sausage. My favorite is the bag of sweet turkey sausage. And since turkey sausage has less fat than its pork counterpart, it gives whatever dish it’s incorporated into a slightly lighter feel.

Yield: 6 main course portions

1/2 box of pasta (farfalle, campanelle, fusilli, or gemelli all work nicely)
12 c. water (more or less depending on the size of your stock pot)
3 Tbl. olive oil
1/2 bag organic, frozen spinach, thawed
1/2 lg. yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 lb. ground turkey sausage
2 Tbl. butter
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
salt, pepper, to taste
lg. handful of chopped parsley

In a large, covered stockpot, bring the water to a rolling boil. Just before you are ready to add your pasta, throw in a few good shakes of salt. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Make sure not to overcook the pasta. You want it to be al dente, meaning that the pasta still has a slight bit of firmness when you bite into it. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat the olive oil on medium heat and add the onion and garlic. After just about a minute, add your sausage. While the sausage begins to cook, break it into smaller pieces with a large spoon. Give the pan some good twists of pepper and some dashes of salt. Add the thawed spinach (you could use fresh spinach, but the frozen variety takes less time to cook, allowing you more outdoor time!), give the dish a nice stir, cover, and allow ingredients to cook until your pasta is done cooking.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it from the water, being sure to reserve about 1/2 c. of pasta water. Add the pasta and reserved cooking liquid to the turkey and spinach. Stir in the butter, Parmesan, and chopped parsley. Adjust seasonings to your liking. Plate the pasta and sprinkle any additional cheese, parsley, and / or pepper you may desire.

And there you have it — dinner done quickly. Toss up a quick salad of chopped cucumbers, Kalamata olives, red peppers, and some feta cheese, and you are good to go. (And perhaps even squeeze in another post-dinner walk!)