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!

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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!

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!

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.

The Florida Tomato Industry and The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Immokalee tomato pickers -- Thanks to Scott Robertson for the use of this photo.

***The following piece was written for Two Dancing Buckeyes by a guest blogger named Margaret Gleeson who worked with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, a partner organization to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, from 2008 to 2011. She’s also related to one of the dancing buckeyes.  An important part of reclaiming our food is understanding where our food is from and how it’s produced.  We appreciate the work that Margaret has done to impact the tomato industry and her willingness to share what she has learned.***

It’s November, which means tomato season is just starting up— in Florida that is. Thousands of farmworkers who have spent the summer months harvesting produce in northern states are now making their way back to Immokalee, Florida, the country’s tomato production hub from November to May.

While many of us have had the pleasant experience of picking fresh tomatoes in our backyards, Florida farmworkers find a very different atmosphere in the fields. Immokalee tomato pickers are paid piece-rate wages—they receive an average of 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick, meaning they have to pick approximately 2.25 TONS of tomatoes to make minimum wage in a 10-hour work day. Lacking traditional work-place protections, they are denied shade and water, endure dangerous pesticide exposure, suffer from sexual harassment, and have no right to report abuses for fear of being fired. In the worst cases, farmworkers are forced into modern-day slavery— Florida’s fields have seen nine federally prosecuted slavery cases in the past thirteen years involving over 1,200 workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots farmworker organization is working to change this situation—and they’re succeeding!

In 2001 the CIW launched the Campaign for Fair Food—a farmworker led effort to improve wages and working conditions in the fields. Focusing on Yum! Brands (parent company of Taco Bell and a major buyer of Florida tomatoes), the farmworkers called on the fast-food giant to pay one penny more per pound for their tomatoes to directly increase farmworker wages, and to support a stringent code-of-conduct in the fields. People of faith and students across the country joined with the farmworkers in this campaign, and four years later Taco Bell signed the first Fair Food Accord.

Now nine major corporations, including the leaders of the fast-food and food-service industries (and a single supermarket – Whole Foods), have signed agreements with the CIW. As a result, almost exactly one year ago, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE – representing 90% of the tomato growers in Florida) signed a groundbreaking agreement with the CIW! This season farmworkers throughout Florida will begin to receive the penny-per-pound wage increase from participating buyers as a bonus in their pay checks. Even more importantly, 90% of the Florida tomato industry is committed to implementing the worker-designed code-of-conduct which guarantees workplace rights for those who pick our produce. Workers now have access to shade and clean drinking water in the hot Florida sun, the right to form health and safety committees, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and forced labor, and a reliable complaint-resolution system to report workplace abuses.

While these exciting changes give us hope for a more humane, more sustainable agricultural industry, they are still new and therefore very fragile. With the commitment of fast-food and food-service leaders, the last remaining sector of the food industry to put its support (and purchasing power) behind the Campaign for Fair Food is the Supermarket Industry. At this critical point in Florida Agriculture, it is vitally important that the supermarket industry commit to fair wages and working conditions for those who work in their supply chains.

Therefore, this harvest season, the CIW will push forward with their Supermarket Campaign—in particular, calling on Trader Joe’s to be a leader in the industry, live up to its ethical reputation, and support Florida farmworkers. This Thanksgiving, if you’d like to honor those who work to bring produce to tables across America, consider delivering a manager letter to your local TJ’s calling on the grocery store to sign a Fair Food Accord. (You can find a letter here: http://www.ciw-online.org/Resources/tools/manager%20letters/TJLTR.pdf).

If you’d like to learn more about Florida tomatoes check out the fantastic book by Barry Estabrook, TomatoLand. To learn more about the CIW and get involved in the Supermarket Campaign visit http://www.ciw-online.org or feel free to e-mail me via Two Dancing Buckeyes at twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com.