Passions and Berries

Saturday, April 27, 2013

   Hello, weekend. I love you.

   I read a lovely article the other day about the difference between having passion in your life and being passionate about your 9 to 5 job. We are fortunate to be living during a time in which finding your true passion in life and following it to a fulfilling and successful career is advertised as an achievable and admirable goal. While I don't dispute this, I think the message can be a bit of a double edged sword.

   I very much believe that most passions- writing, cooking, helping others, etc- can be turned into lucrative careers. But I also don't think it is a terrible thing if you chose a job that doesn't necessarily speak to your heart and soul on a daily basis. There was a time in my life when I was torn between medical school and culinary school, two careers that in many ways are polar opposites. The intensely creative part of me craved the endless combinations and possibilities that the kitchen offered. On the other hand, I had the tools and the ambition to become a doctor. Some of my family members were of the opinion that if you have the ability to do such a thing, you should. But one of the questions I often ask myself, especially since that major fork in my life, is this: just because you can, does it mean you should? Sometimes the answer is no.

   In the end, I put away my applications to culinary school and bought my first stethoscope. Now that all is said and done, I'm actually really happy that I didn't try to make one of my favorite hobbies into a career. I have the luxury of coming home at the end of the day and unwinding in front of the stove. My cookbooks, recipes and feelings about nutrition and flavors are all my own and I don't have to worry about what the world or my customers think of them. My pots and knives are a sanctuary from the demands of making my way in this world and I really love that.

   Steve and I both often talk about what it means to find your true calling in life and how exactly one deals with the occasionally frustrating and mindless tasks most work environments require. I liked the way the article distills such a discussion down to the simple fact that it is perfectly okay if your job sometimes just isn't the bees knees. It's your job plus everything else, in balance and perspective, that matters.

   I have come to love the analytical nature of my work. In a weird way, it's as though it serves as a catalyst for the other more creative parts of my life. It is a true relationship of yin and yang and I'm glad I happened upon it.

    I don't bake very much anymore, but this weekend the itch for a solid, just-this-side-of-sweet breakfast muffin hit me. I have been trying to think of a good way to use the slightly past their prime strawberries from our CSA this week (strawberry season is drawing to a close here in the south) when I stumbled across a recipe for roasted strawberry muffins. Roasting the berries sounds odd but it not only helps bring out the liquid- thereby making it easier to bake with this high water content fruit- it also concentrates and deepens their flavor. It perked the berries up in exactly the way I was looking for.

   These muffins are sweet enough to please but not so much that it feels like dessert. The cornmeal and whole wheat flour lend a sturdiness to them that is really delightful. Each piece of strawberry is like a berry jam explosion in your mouth and the lemon makes it all bright and fun with a hint of tang.

Corny Lemon Strawberry Muffins
Adapted from Annie's Eats.

1 pound strawberries, hulled and quartered (if large, they may need to be cut into 8ths- make the pieces about 1/2 inch)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup greek yogurt
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted
zest of 1/2 and organic lemon
Milk, if needed (almond or cow's)

   Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a sheet of tinfoil. Spread the strawberries over the tinfoil and sprinkle with the 1 tablespoon sugar. Fold the tin foil up to create a little open topped 'basket' for the berries (this will prevent the juices from running all over the sheet) and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and place the now softened berries and their juices in a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl. Allow to drain and cool.
   Meanwhile, reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Line your muffin tins with cupcake liners (this makes either 16 regular sized muffins or 12 regular sized and 12 mini muffins). In a medium sized bowl, sift the flours, cornmeal, sugar, salt and baking powder together. In another larger bowl, whisk together the yogurt, eggs and vanilla extract until smooth. Whisk in butter and lemon zest. Whisk in 1/3 cup drained juice from the strawberries (if you don't have enough juice, add in milk to make up the difference). Fold in dry ingredients until just incorporated. Fold in berries.
   Fill muffins tins nearly to the tops of the liners. Bake the mini muffins for 15 minutes and the regular sized muffins for 25 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Cool completely on wire racks.
   Makes 16 regular muffins or 12 regular and 12 mini muffins.

Finding Our Food Identity

Thursday, April 25, 2013

   There are more diets out there than you can throw a stone at. It can be very confusing and even more frustrating if you're trying to find your way to healthier living, lose weight or simply feel better.

   For me, any changes in diet or lifestyle that I've undertaken have fallen into the last category. Most of the time I'm happy with how I look and I feel as though I've fortunately never had what I would categorize as very unhealthy habits. But who doesn't want to feel just a touch more energetic, clear minded or peaceful? My mission as far as personal eating habits go have always been to feel my absolute best and also to know in my soul that I've done the best I can to make sure I spend as many active, healthy years on this planet as possible. I love life and I don't want to give up a single day if I can help it.

   Perhaps because I approach eating and exercising this way, I've never labeled my eating habits in any particular way. Steve and I have been eating a mostly vegan diet for several months now, but we are by no means 100% vegan. Although he tried giving them up for a while, Steve feels his best and most energetic when he has eggs for breakfast several times a week. Sometimes when we eat out, the local fish call my name and I don't feel that one serving of fish every week or two is going to harm me or the planet in any irreparable way- so I go for it.

   Mark Bittman, one of my all time favorite food writers, is publishing a book called VB6 which is his abbreviation for Vegan Before 6. He has adopted a vegan diet before 6 o'clock, or the dinner hour, for the past several years and was very pleased with his weight loss and overall boost in well being. I was very excited to hear that a well known name in the food writing world has happened upon this formula because it is essentially exactly what Steve and I have discovered and adopted. I personally don't feel compelled to eat animal products on a daily basis as Mr. Bittman does; I prefer to reserve animal sources of food for a single meal per week or less. But I think his general message is valuable and I deeply believe everyone can stand to incorporate more fruits and veggies in their diet; the weekly or daily ratio is up to each person individually.

   I can't emphasize the power of experimenting with vegan and whole foods enough. One of the most frustrating things for me, especially as someone in the health care industry, are the abundance of 'quick fixes' and temporary solutions available to people who are confused or dissatisfied with their health or weight. Throwing pills, synthetic concoctions and surgery at the problem is absolutely not the solution.

     Because, and I say this with conviction, it works. Steve and I both feel better today- more energy, clear mindedness and endurance- than we ever have. For those interested in weight loss, Steve definitely didn't complain when he suddenly realized he once again weighed what he did in his lean late teenage years. For me, I was already satisfied with my weight and more interested in the other benefits- like clearer skin and more stamina during my long work days. No matter your goal, there is something in this for everyone.

   The power to feel better inside and out is found in your kitchen and the produce aisle of your grocery store- not in a bottle or on a surgeons table.

   "Let food be thy medicine." -Hippocrates.

   This is a very popular quote, but I think it bears repeating because I find it to be so simple and yet profound. Perhaps our medical education and the reimbursement structure of healthcare hasn't caught up to this ancient belief, but I believe it will one day. And I hope by then most of us will already be ahead of the curve, healing our bodies one meal at a time.

   Today's medicine comes in the form of the humble legume. Nutrient and energy dense, beans of all types are one of my go to components when building a meal. Chickpeas inhabit a dear place in my heart as they are the first bean I remember eating as a child. Even at four years old, I knew chicken soup wasn't complete without them, partly because it made phonetic sense to my child's mind, and partly because I liked them better than the chicken! Thankfully, I had a mom who knew the power of the bean, and always accommodated my request for a can or two to be added to the pot.

Spicy Roasted Chickpeas
Inspired by Choosing Raw

   After their stay in the oven these chickpeas become a rich russet brown and adopt a slightly crunchy texture. The roasting deepens their flavor- it almost remind me of spicy roasted peanuts. We enjoyed them as a complete meal, sprinkled over my favorite salad base, which I added thinly sliced raw kale to.

2 cans chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 scallions, thinly sliced

   Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with tinfoil. Line a shallow bowl with paper towels and roll your chickpeas around in the towels until they are quite dry. Pour them into the tinfoil lined baking sheet. Drizzle over the olive oil and the spices. Roll around with your hands or a spatula until the chickpeas are evenly coated with the spices.
   Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Pull the sheet out, use your spatula to move the chickpeas around a bit. Sprinkle the thinly sliced scallions on top. Place back in the oven for another 15 minutes.
   Serve warm over your favorite salad or allow to cool and package up for a convenient snack.

On Meditation and New Life

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

   Steve and I recently got back from a much needed long weekend away from work and home. We dropped the dog off at her favorite doggy camp (she dislikes the word 'kennel') and hit the road to the more mountainous region of western North Carolina, a town called Asheville. Let's just say the beautiful landscape, fresh mountain air, delightful local micro brews and out of this world Indian food can expect to see us again, very soon.

   Taking time away from work always gives me a physical and mental energy boost. I suddenly feel inspired to complete projects, start new creative endeavors and my yoga practice is infused with new life. Many people, and I think especially people in medicine, can lose track of the importance of unplugging every once in a while. Leave the cell phones, iPads and lap tops behind and allow yourself time to focus on the things that really matter to you. It's amazing what we end up pondering or discussing when we don't have a news article distracting us every other 5 seconds. For me, these kinds of weekends (or longer if you can!) feel like one long stretch of meditation. The quiet and sense of calm achieved is practically narcotic.

    Meanwhile, here in the south, late winter's chilly breath has reached us once again. It seems almost fortuitous, seeing as I had a grocery bag filled with leftover root vegetables that needed to be used. I came up with this hearty quinoa dish that was so colorful and tasty we made it two nights in a row! Roasting brings out the peppery bite of the turnips and the deep caramelization that develops on the carrots is like candy- only better tasting and prettier. The confetti like nature of this meal seems fitting seeing as one of my closest friends had her first baby over the weekend...! It seems impossible to me that we've reached an age where bringing new life into the world is on the menu, but here we are. I couldn't be happier or more in awe of her and the beautiful family she's created. As we shed these last few days of light jackets and cozy winter blankets, celebrating new life in every way, I hope this dish graces your dinner table.

Quinoa with Swiss Chard and Roasted Root Vegetables

2 large turnips, scrubbed clean
6 carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 3/4 cup plus 1/2 cup vegetable broth
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 bunch rainbow swiss chard, thoroughly rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 cups spinach

   Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with tin foil. Cut the carrots and turnips into 1 inch chunks, spread them on the lined baking sheet and toss with the olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bake for 40 - 45 minutes until very soft and caramelized.
   Meanwhile, prepare the quinoa (make sure you rinse it well in a fine mesh sieve to remove any silt). Place quinoa in a small saucepan and stir in 1 3/4 cups veggie broth, the parsley, several dashes (no more than 1/4 teaspoon) turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reuce to a bare simmer, cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Without taking the cover off, turn the heat off. Let it sit, covered, while you prepare the rest of the dish.
   When there is 15 minutes to go on the turnips and carrots, trim and discard the dried ends of the rainbow swiss chard.  Slice the chard into 1/2 inch ribbons, including the stalks. In a saute pan, bring 1/2 cup veggie broth and the minced garlic to a simmer. Add the swiss chard and cook, tossing occasionally, until just tender and wilted. Turn heat off.
   Place spinach in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Scoop the hot quinoa on top of the spinach. Add the swiss chard, turnips and carrots and toss everything together, allowing the hot components to lightly wilt the spinach. Taste, add additional salt if desired.
   Serves 4.

This Week's Bounty

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

   In light of the terrifying events in Boston this week, all I can do is focus on life and thank the heavens my Boston dwelling friends and family are well and safe. My heart and thoughts are with everyone in my favorite city in the North.  

Last week I promised you CSA photos and today I'm here to deliver.


 It comes all packaged up in this pretty blue bag.

That bag contains a bag of spinach....

 .... and a bag of baby salad greens.

 Two quarts of these ruby hued beauties.

 Asparagus and rainbow swiss chard.

Curly leafed kale, so dark and dusky green.

Spring onions- very sweet and tender.

"And what the heck is this thing?" I wondered. "Some kind of weird, leafy cabbage...?"
And I was almost right....

... teeny baby brussels sprouts, nestled close to the stalk and hiding amongst the leaves.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a snack needs tending to- sometimes the best recipes aren't recipes at all!

Routinely Beautiful

Friday, April 12, 2013

   I would like to say first that I love daily routines. I love the comfort they offer and that they often keep me from making mistakes or forgetting important things.

   I love that if you look a little deeper, most routines have much greater meaning than it may seem on cursory observation. For instance, every morning I pour my coffee into one particular bright yellow mug; it is old and has a hairline crack in its side that (knock on wood) doesn't leak. But I don't drink from it every single morning because of its cheery color, although I also love that; I drink from it because my sister gave it to me and it always reminds me of her. Despite being the closest of friends, we've had to live very far from each other for the past six years and this small ritual makes me feel just a touch closer to her.

   But when abused, routine can rob us of possibilities for excitement, improvement and adventure. Steve and I have three restaurants that we absolutely adore and could happily spend the rest of our lives rotating through. But ironically, some of my fondest memories are of date nights we stepped away from our usual stomping grounds, tried a new restaurant and hated the food! This happened once on our anniversary and although the night could have been a complete disaster, I've never laughed harder as I watched Steve make fun of the fussy plates, ridiculously small portions and bland food.

   I invite you to remove a little routine from your meal sometime in your near Tex-Mex future: walk right past the tortilla and taco aisle and head straight to the leafy greens. Instead of baked flour and cornmeal, pick out the prettiest, leafiest bunch of collards you can find.

   Collards and other hearty leafy green wraps are pretty popular in the plant based eating world and you can find many variations on this beautiful, crunchy, fresh theme. After some experimentation, these little 'tacos' are our favorite invention so far. Superior flavor and texture aside, this is also an excellent way to remove a bit of refined grains from your diet.

   I hope you deviate slightly from your usual taco routine and give these a try. While you're at it, take a moment to appreciate how, when pressed next to each other on a serving platter, they look like lovely green collard flowers, all fancy and frilled. And I promise, unlike the occasional terrible restaurant, these you will love.

Collard Green 'Tacos'

6 small to medium sized collard green leaves (leafy parts about 5 inches long)
1 large onion, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups spinach, packed tight for accurate measurement
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups vegetable broth
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (less if you don't like your tacos spicy)
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup salsa

   To prepare the collards: wash each leaf thoroughly. Trim the bottom 2 inches or so of woody stem off. Set the leaves aside on towels to dry (you may need to dab the water droplets off later once ready to fill the tacos).
   In a medium sized fry pan, add the beans, broth, spices, salt and salsa. Turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Once it begins simmering, mash the beans with a fork until most of them are coarsely broken apart. Simmer, mixing every once in a while, until enough broth evaporates that a thick 'refried bean' texture is achieved. Turn heat off, taste and add additional salt if needed.
   Meanwhile, in another fry pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and a few pinches of salt and cook until very tender, brown and caramelized (takes 10-15 minutes). Add the spinach and cook just until the spinach is barely wilted.
   To assemble: cradle a collard leaf in your hand; spoon about 1/3 cup bean mixture down the center. Place some of the onion/spinach saute on top. Optional: top with guacamole (recipe to follow) Squeeze the sides gently to create a 'taco' shape. Continue with the rest until the ingredients are used up.
   Serves two.

Variation: Collard Quesadillas

6 collard green leaves
Beans, prepared as above
Onions/Spinach saute, prepared as above
Guacamole, see recipe below

   Lay down a collard, spread a layer of the beans on top, then spread a layer of onions/spinach on top of the beans. Lay down another collard, spread a layer of guacamole on top and finish with a final collard leaf. It's a fork and knife sort of thing and just as tasty as the tacos.
   Makes two.

And don't forget burritos...

The One and Only Guacamole

2 avocados
Juice from 1 lime
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (adjust according to your desired level of heat)
1/4 teaspoon onion powder

   Place all ingredients in a bowl. Mash with a fork until a smooth to slightly chunky texture is achieved.



Monday, April 8, 2013

   Spring has come slowly to us here in the south. I'm not so far removed from my years in New York that I'm not very thankful for 50 degree days in March and early April, but still, enough is enough! This weekend finally brought the sun out and the thermometer on our porch crept above 70. Heaven.

   For us, the best part of spring is all the amazing vegetables that suddenly begin popping up in the farmers markets scattered across town. Truth time: expecting me to get out of bed early enough on a Saturday to get to the farmers market before everything is picked over and the remains are sad and wilted is like expecting New York spring in January. It just ain't gonna happen.

   Knowing this about myself, Steve and I signed up for a spring CSA (community sponsored agriculture) share this year. When you buy a CSA share you get a weekly delivery of locally grown vegetables (we chose a farm that is also organic) to enjoy, grocery store and farmers market free. We got our first box this past Wednesday and I. Am. In. Love. We're talking rainbow swiss chard, collard greens, dinosaur kale, spring onions, asparagus, baby spinach, turnips and carrots so orange I think I see better in the dark just from handling them.

   I was so excited to unload my bounty and whisk it away to the fridge that I forgot to take a photo. I will be sure to snap a shot of this week's share- the beauty and convenience of buying into a CSA is just too fantastic not to share.

   Spring vegetables are tender and sweet, like delicate promises of what is to come. They are everything that the large, dense plethora of winter root vegetables are not. I think spring veggies come just in time to remind us that the sun will be warm once more and the breezes again gentle and refreshing.

   If I could package spring into some kind of elixir and infuse that into a pasta dish, the following recipe would be the result. It is infinitely green, sweet and delicate but at the same time very rich and satisfying on every possible gustatory level.

   In these last few weeks which bridge that time between cold and hot, I hope this dish strikes just the right balance of lightness and comfort on your dinner plate. It sure did on ours.

Spring Avocado Pesto Pasta (Vegan)
Adapted from Chloe's Kitchen

10 ounces linguine pasta
Kosher salt
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted walnuts
2 small avocados
2 cups basil leaves (pack them down into the measuring cup to get an accurate amount)
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice from 1 lime
Freshly ground pepper
3 cups frozen sweet peas
1 bunch asparagus, cupped into 1 inch pieces
3 cups firmly packed baby spinach, roughly chopped

   Start heating a large pot of salted water on the stove. While you wait for the water to boil, place the garlic, walnuts, avocado flesh (just cut them in half, remove the pit and scrape out the flesh with a spoon), basil, olive oil, lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper (around 1/8 teaspoon) in a food processor. Process until very smooth, scraping down the sides a few times if needed. Taste and add additional salt if desired.
   When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until it has nearly reached its desired tenderness. At this point, add the peas and asparagus to the pasta pot. Cook until the asparagus is very green and just tender when pierced with a fork, about 2 minutes. Turn heat off. Before draining, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
   Drain pasta/peas/asparagus. Place the spinach in the now empty pasta pot and pour the drained pasta on top. Wait a few minutes to allow the retained heat in the pasta to wilt the spinach. Scrape all of the avocado pesto on top of the pasta and toss everything together with two spoons or a pair of tongs until thoroughly incorporated. If you need, add in the reserved pasta water two tablespoons at a time to help the pesto coat everything (I find I end up using about 1/3 cup of the reserved water).
   Serves 4.


Monsters Under the Bed

Thursday, April 4, 2013

   As kids, when my siblings or I had a bad dream or were just feeling uneasy about the night, my dad would sit down with us, take a pen and piece of paper and ask us to describe the monster to him. It wasn't always a monster that was scaring us, but I know for me it felt good to describe whatever was bothering me as though it were a physical being. It taught me how to really describe and characterize what may only be an idea or feeling- not easy for most adults let alone a little kid. With his prompting ("Did it have teeth? What about scales? How many eyes did it have?") we invariably ended up with a respectably terrifying monster. After admiring his work and getting comfortable with the idea that whatever was bothering me was now confined to the piece of paper, we would go to the stove and burn it.

   I love that he figured out a way not only to allow our young minds to articulate our emotions, but that he knew something as simple as burning the image of that fear had the power to comfort us and ease our anxiety. It worked every time and I always slept like a baby after our ritual make shift fire.

   There is a lot to be said of fear. Fear can motivate us to make important changes, or warn us that a chosen path may not be such a good choice after all. It can bring us closer to each other- when I was contemplating getting out of the specialty of pediatrics I was very paralyzed by a multitude of fears. What if I irreparably derailed my career? What if I tried a new specialty and it made me equally unhappy? What if medicine wasn't for me at all and here I was after 8 years of higher education and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt with nothing to show for myself? With Steve's help I took the leap and I'm happier and more inspired by my job than I ever thought was possible. I also couldn't be more thankful to have someone so brave and supportive in my life. Conquering our fears and limitations by ourselves can be quite rewarding, but I think approaching things with a true partner is infinitely better.

   I'd like to help you conquer a fear, albeit quite minor compared to monsters under the bed or major career choices, but an important one nonetheless. That fear is tofu.

   Tofu gets a lot of mixed press. There are people out there who will tell you tofu will flood you with estrogen- a scary idea for our macho menfolk or women who may have estrogen sensitive illnesses.  In reality, the phytoestrogen (which is just a plant molecule structurally similar to the estrogen we produce in our bodies- but not identical) present in tofu is an extremely small, ineffective molecule compared to human estrogen. There are many plants that have phytoestrogens and all of them would have to be consumed in massive quantities before having any sort of effect on our physiology.

   Unless you plan on consuming several pounds of this stuff for days on end, it's a perfectly safe and very healthy food to include in your kitchen arsenal. Look for organic brands- there is very limited information on the long term health effects of consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs). At this point, it is best to avoid them wherever you can. One of the benefits of purchasing certified organic foods is the guarantee that all components are non GMO.

   This lasagna is layered pasta heaven. I defy you to miss the ricotta- the tofu 'cheese' is tangy, complex, herbal and creamy. The myriad vegetables in the veggie layer are fresh and meaty at the same time. This colorful dish also makes superior leftovers- I have to keep myself from breaking into my lunch bag too early when I have a square of this waiting for me!


Vegetable Lasagna
Liberally adapted from Oh She Glows

For the tofu ricotta:  
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 celery stalks, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 (14oz) package extra-firm or firm tofu
3 tbsp nutritional yeast
3/4-1 tsp kosher, or to taste
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, minced
1/2 cup packed fresh parsley, minced

For the vegetable layer
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large portobello mushrooms, diced 
1 zucchini, diced
5 ounces baby spinach
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt 

To assemble:
9 sheets no boil lasagna noodles (also called 'oven ready')
5 cups marinara sauce
   To press the tofu: remove it from its packages, rinse under cold water. Blot the tofu dry with paper towels. Stack 3-4 dish towels on the counter, place the tofu on the towels and fold towels over the top of the tofu block. Place 2-3 heavy cookbooks on top and let sit for 10-15 minutes. If it soaks through the towels just move it to a dry area and replace the cookbooks.
   Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. When hot, add the onion and celery. Cook over medium-low heat until translucent and tender- the goal is to sweat them, not get tons of color. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds until very fragrant. Turn heat off.
   Crumble the tofu block into the food processor and process until very smooth. Add the processed tofu to the skillet with the onions and celery. Add salt, cayenne, lemon juice, nutritional yeast and fresh herbs. Stir to evenly combine. Taste and add more salt if desired.
   In another skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add mushrooms and zucchini. Sprinkle with the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add spinach and cook until just wilted and the excess water has mostly cooked off.
   Assemble the lasagna: spread 2 cups marinara sauce in the bottom of a 13 X 9 inch baking pan. Use 3 lasagna sheets to make the first pasta layer. On top of the pasta, spread all of the sauteed mushroom veggie mixture. Make another 3 pasta sheet layer. Spread all of the tofu ricotta on top of this pasta layer. Make the final 3 pasta sheet layer on top of the tofu ricotta. Spread the remaining 2 cups marinara sauce over this.
   Bake at 375 for 35 minutes until bubbling and a knife passes easily through the pasta sheets. Allow to sit for 15 minutes before serving (this helps the noodles absorb the extra liquids and all the layers to set up a bit).
   Serves 6 generously.



Roasted, Baby

Monday, April 1, 2013

   I am the first to admit this: salad can sort of be a bummer. Just saying that you're going to order the salad elicits what I call the 'self deprivation reflex.' I'm sure some of you must experience this too. It's out of our hands and just the way we feel about it, okay? No judgement.

   My whole life I've been unable to handle large amounts of raw greens simply because I found the flavor overwhelming and a bit bitter. I also have never particularly enjoyed traditional salad dressings. They are either too sweet and chemical laden or the vinaigrette after slick of olive oil leaves me with a desire to brush my teeth ASAP. Between the bitter greens and the funky dressings, I gave up on being a salad person long ago.

   To be sure, my paltry leafy greens consumption was not for lack of effort on my mother's part. For the first half of my life, she earnestly and unsuccessfully tried to convince my limited palate that greens were fun and tasty. I've spent the latter half evilly rubbing my hands together in glee because I no longer had anyone controlling the landscape of my dinner plate.

   Now, I look back on all those greenless years and feel a profound sense of loss. Oh, the wasted opportunity!

   The fact that I now consider a big ol' salad to be just the thing for dinner is huge. The trick is finding what makes the greens sing for your tastebuds, and I will tell you right now: the answer cannot be found in a bottle with an exhaustive ingredient list on the shelf of your local grocery store.

   I remember the trend several years ago of complicated mixed salads involving different nuts, pickled this and that, cheese, beans, meats and fishes... it was an edible frenzy and never particularly appetizing to me. However, instead of ditching the trend altogether, I should have taken the moral of that story and run with it. The moral is this: there are absolutely no rules regarding what you get to put in your salad! For me, the trick is a combination of either caramelized or lightly cooked vegetables and fresh, raw greens. Also: avocados make everything better.

   A very hot oven or skillet are truly transformative things. I now have a whole lexicon of delicious salads with roasted or pan crisped components that never escape hungry mouths for long. This roasted baby potato salad is just one example and I will be sure to post some of the others soon (such as roasted beet salad- a rosy cheeked gem worth the wait). The avocado is creamy and just this side of sweet, the acidic vinegar gives it a shot in the rump and the herbacious parsley allows the greens to really stand up and smile.

  Steve and I made this dish for our Easter dinner this year. We enjoyed it on the porch, soaked in fledgling spring sunshine and soft fresh air. Just wonderful.

    The first photo is version two. 

Roasted Baby Potato Salad

Remember how your mother told you potatoes will explode if you don't poke holes in them first? Well she was right and I have various potato body parts sticking to my oven wall to prove it. Even though they look small and harmless, give those suckers a good poke.

For the potatoes:
3 cups small fingerling potatoes, each one poked once or twice with a fork
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt

For the salad base:
10 ounces mixed baby greens (I like a combination of baby romaines and baby kale)
1 scallion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
2  small carrots, peeled into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
1 small avocado
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

   Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the potatoes in a 13 X 9 inch baking pan and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle with several pinches salt and shake them around so they are coated evenly with oil. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender and their skins are beginning to turn golden brown and crisp.
   Remove from the oven assemble your salad: in a very large mixing bowl, combine the greens, scallion, parsley and carrot. Cut your avocado in half, remove the pit, score the flesh into cubes and use a spoon to scoop it out into the salad bowl. Add the vinegar and sprinkle with a pinch or two of salt. Using your hands, massage the avocado into the greens until the avocado and vinegar combine to make a thick, creamy dressing which coats the greens, leaving a few chunks of avocado whole.
   Plate your greens, spoon the warm potatoes on top.
   Serves 2 generously for dinner or 6 as a starter. 

Version Two: Crispy Pan "Fried" Bean Salad

1 can great northern white beans, rinsed and drained
Kosher salt
Chili powder
Cayenne pepper
Onion powder
Olive oil cooking spray

Green salad base, prepared as directed in the recipe above

  In a bowl, sprinkle the beans with a few pinches salt and several dashes of each spice; toss to coat. If you like your dishes on the hot side, don't be shy with the cayenne! Spray a heavy bottomed skillet with a few spritzes of olive oil (I highly recommend this ceramic skillet as an inert non stick alternative to the toxic cephalon varieties) and place over medium heat. When hot, add the beans and allow them to heat through and begin to brown. Toss them around a few times so most sides are browned. Spoon over your salad.
   Serves 2 generously for dinner or 6 as a starter.