Articles in Healthy Cooking

A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

A large plate bursting with colorful plants and topped with a zingy vinaigrette — a big salad — has been part of my regular dinner repertoire for years. Happily, this concept is finally getting the love it deserves as a result of today’s increased focus on plant-based diets. Forget the naked salads of the 1980s, cruelly deprived of dressing. Follow these five tips and get creative to make salad the star of tonight’s supper.

Build your base: Salad greens, your way

Begin building your salad base. Lettuces are low in calories, so you can pile them on; their fiber and water content will help you to feel full. Greens are also loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (health-promoting plant chemicals). Ditch iceberg, which lacks the bright flavors and myriad nutrients of other greens. There are so many fabulous lettuces out there — why not give some new ones a shot?

Romaine is a good starter, but there’s also spinach, arugula, mesclun, red leaf and beyond. Include cancer-fighting crucifers, too, like cabbage or kale, or fresh herbs. What’s in season? What works for you? Make it your own.

Top with veggies: Go for variety, color

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: the more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: The more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

You’ve got your salad base; now paint your palette with whatever veggies your heart desires. My salads feature whatever I have on hand: carrots, radishes, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, beets, sprouts, olives, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, onions — whatever. If you can find local veggies in season, your taste buds will thank you.

Personally, I’m obsessed with watermelon radishes and romanescu broccoli (aka, Roman cauliflower) — and don’t even get me started on sugar-sweet gold cherry tomatoes, which, come August, I pop into my mouth like candy. Variety and color are key: The more varied and brilliantly hued your veggies, the more nutrients you’re getting. (And, just for the record, while low-sugar veggies should appear most often on your salads, many big salads are wonderful with fresh fruits like citrus, pears, pomegranate and berries.)

Add protein power: Beans, pulses, legumes

It’s time to turn to the satiating power of protein. After all, you don’t want to finish your big salad still hungry and order a pizza. Most people jump to chicken, shrimp and steak to liven up their salads. As long as the meat doesn’t become the leading player, perhaps that’s what you’ll first choose to get a big salad into your dinner repertoire.

Yet soybeans (and their products, like tofu), lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans and the like are small packages with big nutrition. They include protein, as well as fiber, B vitamins, iron, calcium and potassium. They’re also low in calories and sodium — if you use canned, make sure to choose a no-salt brand — and are less pricey than animal protein.

Moreover, producing these plant foods is less taxing on our planet’s precious natural resources, and many enhance soil quality through nitrogen fixation. There’s a good reason it’s the International Year of Pulses, and most of us don’t eat the amount we should for optimal health.

Mix it up: Toss in whole grains

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts, and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Like pulses, whole grains are a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and fiber — and even some protein — and create a pleasing texture and toothsome bite to your salad. Brown rice is a favorite of mine, especially when included with black beans for a big salad with a Tex-Mex twist. There are many different grains — think barley, quinoa, farro, oats and amaranth — to add intrigue to your salad; experiment to learn what you prefer.

Tossing whole grains into a big dinner salad is also a terrific way to use up last night’s leftover rice or pasta, too. While whole grains aren’t a regular addition to my salads, which tend be loaded up with veggies, beans and greens, a handful can make a tasty difference — especially if I’m having a craving for toasty homemade rye croutons.

Bring on the fat: Salad dressing and toppings

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad -- use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad — use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It makes me sad when I think about everyone out there still shunning salad dressing, or opting for low-fat varieties, often packed with sugar. Yes, full-fat salad dressing is energy-dense: The main ingredient is oil, which has more than double the calories compared with carbs or protein (about 9 calories per gram versus 4).

So if you need to lose weight, you’ll want to keep the calorie content of dressings in mind — and save sumptuous dressings like blue cheese  and green goddess for special occasions.

Even so, science has shown clearly that certain types of fats are particularly beneficial to health. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats, like olives and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds and their oils, are both associated with decreased risk heart disease, especially when these foods supplant refined carbohydrates (like white bread, rice or pasta).

Moreover, the fat molecules in salad dressing help your body absorb the valuable (fat-soluble) nutrients in your meal. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar is my go-to dressing, but whipping up a simple vinaigrette at home is a cinch — try my maple-Dijon recipe — and can feature any combination of oil and vinegar that pleases. And, if your salad calls for crunch, scattering on a few nuts or seeds can take your big salad over the top.

Dinner’s ready. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and enjoy. With the first luscious vegetables of the season popping up in local farmers markets, now is the perfect time to celebrate the power of plant-based diets, your way.

Main photo: A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

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Cuisines from around the world can influence our vegetarian choices, such as in this Armenian-style salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

As a kid, my world of food revolved around my family’s Italian cooking: artichokes baked with crisp olive oil crumbs and prosciutto bits, my Nana’s soft pillowy ravioli made with passata di pomodoro from her backyard tomatoes, and piles of Mom’s crisp fried squash blossoms eaten like potato chips.

During college, Atlantic Avenue was walking distance from my campus in Brooklyn, seducing me with belly dancing, creamy feta cheese and wrinkly black olives. The travel bug propelled me to New Delhi, Kulala Lumpur, St. Petersurg, Casablanca, Cairo and points far beyond. Now, living in Eugene, Oregon, food carts expand my horizons as Juanita teaches me to make pupusas. A Mexican torta cart, manned by two adorable university students whom I pedal past on my morning bike ride, brings me back for lunch when hunger pangs hit, and adds a new recipe to my repertoire. At home, I hit my cookbooks for recipes from far-flung places, exotic ingredients and exciting new tastes.

A world of vegetarian

And I then I noticed: All this great food I’ve been tasting, craving and cooking — it’s vegetarian! My whole food world is vegetarian. Exciting!

Whole World Vegetarian

"Whole World Vegetarian"

By Marie Simmons,

Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 320 pages

» Click here to buy the book

The alchemy was in the ingenuity of the cooks and the agrarian-based cooking and eating of cooks around the world. Meat, even consumed in moderation, is often expensive, and so vegetarian dishes are often a more affordable daily staple — especially for those with a green thumb.

Take, for instance, leafy greens. Any leafy green. Magically, almost every patch of dirt on earth grows green leaves. Freshly harvested, they can be melted into curried coconut milk in India, wilted in oil, butter or ghee with dill and mint and topped with garlic walnuts in Armenia, or tossed with ras el hanout and preserved lemons in Casablanca.

Cooking vegetables from the backyard or garden plot adjacent to the kitchen is cheap, nutritious and lends a palate for the local flavors and seasonings readily available to home cooks worldwide. Consider a garam masala available to every cook in New Delhi, preserved lemons on the shelf from Casablanca to Marrakesh, and chile, cumin and Mexican oregano in every pantry in Mexico — all of these enhance vegetarian dishes. Yes, not all whole world kitchens are vegetarian, but creative vegetable dishes are spilling out of kitchens and onto family tables. From my traveling fork to my home kitchen, from the taste memories that poured from the souls of cooks I met on the road, was born my book “Whole World Vegetarian.” I cooked and tasted and fed my friends, who finally said, “Enough!”

Moroccan Greens with Preserved Lemons

Moroccan greens are made with caramelized red onions, a Moroccan spice blend and preserved lemons. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

Moroccan greens are made with caramelized red onions, a Moroccan spice blend and preserved lemons. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 large bunch (about 1 pound) rainbow Swiss chard

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 teaspoon ras el hanout, or Moroccan spice blend

1 tablespoon finely diced rind from Moroccan Preserved Lemons (recipe follows)

Directions

1. Rinse the chard and, while still wet, pull the leafy greens from the stems. Reserve the stems for other use. Tear or coarsely chop up the greens. You should have about 8 cups loosely packed.

2. In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until hot enough to gently sizzle a slice of onion. Add the onion and cook, stirring with tongs, until the onion begins to brown and caramelize, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the ras el hanout.

3. Add the wet greens to the onion all at once and toss with tongs to blend. Cook, covered, until the greens are wilted, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring with tongs once or twice.

4. Sprinkle with the preserved lemon and toss to blend. Serve hot.

Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Prep time: 10 minutes

Standing time: 3 to 4 weeks

Yield: 1/2 pint

Ingredients

2 to 3 small lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed clean

2 tablespoons coarse salt

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Directions

1. Trim the ends from the lemons and partially cut into 8 wedges, leaving the wedges attached at one end. Rub the cut surface of the wedges with the salt. Press the lemons back into their original shape. Pack into a clean half-pint canning jar. Add enough of the lemon juice to cover the lemons. Wipe off the rim of the jar. Top with the lid and fasten the screw band to secure. Store in the jar in a dark place for 3 to 4 weeks, turning the jar upside down every few days so the salt is distributed evenly.

2. Store the opened jar in the refrigerator. They will keep for at least 6 months.

3. To use the lemons, lift from the brine and separate the pulp from the rind. Finely chop the rind and sprinkle on vegetables, salad, soup or stew. Finely chop the pulp and add it to salad dressing, mayonnaise or other sauces.

New Delhi-Style Curried Spinach  

A New Delhi-style curried spinach has coconut milk, tomatoes and fried onions. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

A New Delhi-style curried spinach has coconut milk, tomatoes and fried onions. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

Sturdy, large-leaf (or winter) bunch spinach is the better choice for this recipe than the bagged leaves of baby spinach. The large leaves are more flavorful and retain their texture as they gently cook.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 26 minutes

Total time: 41 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Coconut or vegetable oil, as needed

2 cups slivered (1/8 inch thick lengthwise pieces) onion

1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder

1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk

1 pound large-leaf spinach, rinsed, thick stems coarsely chopped

1/2 cup seeded and diced fresh or canned tomatoes

Directions

1. Heat about 1/2 inch oil in a deep 9-inch skillet until hot enough to sizzle a piece of onion. Gradually stir in the onions, adjusting between low and medium low as the onion sizzles. Cook the onions until well browned, but not black, 15 to 20 minutes. Lift onions from the oil with a slotted spoon and place in a strainer set over a bowl. Do not use paper for draining the onions as the paper will make them soggy. Let stand until ready to serve. Reserve the onion-infused oil for future onion frying or to season other dishes.

2. In a large, wide saucepan or deep skillet, heat the curry powder over medium-low heat, stirring, until it becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the coconut milk and boil. Add the spinach all at once. Toss to coat. Cook, covered, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Spoon into a serving dish. Serve at once garnished with the diced tomatoes and fried onions.

Main photo: Cuisines from around the world can influence our vegetarian choices, such as in this Armenian-style salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

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Black kale with vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Although vegetables — especially dark leafy greens — are often treated as a side dish, they also can be served as an appetizer; as a bed for other foods; a dish on their own if made in quantity; or just cold as a kind of tapas.

The attribute I like most about dark leafy greens, perhaps excepting spinach, is that they are rugged vegetables that can handle a variety of cooking methods including long cooking times.

These three simple recipes each result in a surprisingly delicious dish, but also in three quite appropriate appetizers for a follow-up dish the next day should you have leftovers. The recipes for the kale and the dandelion are Italian-style, sweet-and-sour preparations, which I find work particularly well (as the Italians discovered long ago) with bitter greens.

Black kale and vinegar

Kale is a bitter cruciferous plant and the so-called black kale, also known as Russian or Tuscan kale, is a particular cultivar that has very dark green, oak-like and crinkly leaves. The following is an Italian method of cooking, and it also makes the preparation very nice served at room temperature.

Prep and cooking time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 side dish servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

One 1/8-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into strips

10 ounces Russian or black kale, rinsed

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic and pancetta over medium-high heat, stirring, and once the pancetta is slightly crispy in about 4 minutes, add the kale.

2. Cover and cook on low until the kale is somewhat tender, about 30 minutes. Add the vinegar with the sugar dissolved in it to the pan, cover, and continue cooking 10 minutes.

3. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm or at room temperature.

Sweet and sour dandelion

Sweet and sour dandelion. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Sweet and sour dandelion. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

In Italian they would call this kind of dish agrodolce or sweet and sour. The sweetness added to the bitter taste of dandelion is a contrast that many gourmets swoon over.

Prep and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 side dish servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 ounce pancetta, diced small or cut into thin strips

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Four 1/4-inch thick slices onion

1 bunch dandelion (about 3/4 pound), bottom quarter of stems removed, washed

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat with the pancetta, garlic and onion and cook until softened, stirring, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the dandelion and mint and cook until they wilt, tossing frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar then pour over the dandelion and cook until evaporated, about 3 minutes.

3. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Drowned mustard greens

Drowned mustard greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Drowned mustard greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

This Sicilian-inspired recipe is derived from a recipe originally for broccoli, but it works spectacularly with mustard greens. The Sicilians call this kind of dish affucati, ”drowned,” because it’s smothered in wine. It’s terrific as a room-temperature appetizer the next day too. If serving the next day as a room temperature antipasto, let the Parmigiano-Reggiano melt and then drizzle some olive oil to serve.

Prep and cooking time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 side dish servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

1 pound mustard greens, heavier stems removed and discarded, leaves washed and shredded

3/4 cup dry red wine

8 imported black olives, pitted and chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion and garlic until soft, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn’t burn, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the anchovies and once they have melted add the shredded mustard greens, cover, and cook until they wilt, about 5 minutes.

2. Pour the red wine into the sauce with the olives, salt and pepper. Cover again, reduce the heat to medium and cook 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter with a slotted spoon and sprinkle on the Parmigiano.

Main photo: Black kale with vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes, dried baby fish -- some of these rather small amounts. I give it a score 10 item including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

An official slogan for improving the nutrition of the Japanese population was issued by the Japanese government in 1985: “Consume Thirty Different Food Items Each Day.”

The food items were divided into six categories, and we were advised to choose evenly from each category. Each ingredient, it was said — meat, poultry and fish, soybeans, grains, vegetables and fruits, milk products, and sea vegetables — contains its own nutritional properties, so following this slogan will help to create balanced meals.

Even before this public announcement, there was a growing awareness that the Japanese diet since the turn of the 20th century had succumbed to influence from the West. It was thought that we must return to our own traditional diet to achieve optimum nutrition.

Just for fun, from time to time I still count how many different food items I have consumed in a single day.

A realistic goal?

A high-scoring lunch at home of kinpira ( flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba buckwheat noodles, fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg). Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

A high-scoring lunch of kinpira (flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba (buckwheat noodles) with fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This practice was instilled in me by my mother. Recently I made the count for all three meals, and found I’d consumed 21 separate foods on that day; far short of the government’s recommendation. This caused me to think. How and why did this government recommendation come about? Is it still a realistic guiding principle?

Here is what I found.

Until 1868, Japan lagged far behind Western countries in technology, science and engineering because of the closure of the country to foreign trade for 260 years. Even the small physical stature of the Japanese population was blamed on a poor, very limited Japanese diet that was based on small quantities of rice, fish, soybean products, with some vegetables and seaweeds.

The Meiji Emperor encouraged the population to begin consuming beef, a food item previously banned for ordinary citizens. Newly imported Western ingredients included meat, meat products, milk and butter, and new preparation techniques led to the creation of new “Japanese” dishes that were called “yo-shoku” (Japanized Western dishes).

Yo-shoku dishes with their rich flavors and large servings instantly became national favorites: beef steak, pork cutlet, curry and rice, “omu-rice” (stir-fried morsels of chicken and rice, seasoned with tomato ketchup and wrapped in an omelet), to name a few.

Dietary changes brought risks

Chikuzen-ni: This dish features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil -- a 9-item dish.

This dish (Chikuzen-ni) features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil — a nine-item dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

During the heyday of Japanese boom-times in 1970-1990, even more varieties of Western foods became available and popular (provided by the major Western fast-food companies). And Japanese began consuming increasing quantities of rare cheeses, foie gras and expensive wines.

These dietary changes came with hefty penalties: Diabetes became more widespread. Heart disease became the number No. 2 killer in Japan. And — this was formerly unthinkable — morbid obesity is now present in the country.

Meals dominated by fat, meat, meat products, egg, sugar and milk products push up calorie consumption but not the number of daily food items. The broad categories of foods of the traditional complete Japanese diet such as seafood, seaweed, vegetables and more fruits are lacking. So the 1985 rule was an attempt to bring variety back to the everyday diet.

Want to try eating 30 different foods in a day? Choose at least two items from each of the six food categories. Since consuming vegetables and fruits is good for our health, add two additional items from categories 3 and 4. If you do this, you will easily approach 20 separate food items — a good start for reaching the goal of 30 items that the Japanese government recommended.

By following this practice, you can change the way you plan and prepare meals to the benefit of your health.

Six categories of food items

This Japanese style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger, Blue Moon, which sets up their store at Union Square Market, New York City, from spring through early winter. Also onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth -- an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

This Japanese-style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger Blue Moon, which sets up at Union Square Market in New York City from spring through early winter. Also, onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth — an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

The six categories of food items and what they provide:

1. Meat, fish, poultry, egg, tofu products (protein).

2. Small fish that can be eaten whole with bones, milk and milk products (calcium).

3. Green and yellow vegetables (carotene, plus other vitamins and minerals).

4. Other vegetables and fruits (vitamin C, plus other vitamins and minerals).

5. Grains, potato, bread/cakes/cookies (carbohydrates).

6. Cooking oil, nut and seed oils, nuts and seeds (fat).

Rules to follow

I taught 3-5 years old kids at Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York City to eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The little audience was very curious about the colors of beautiful vegetables. Credit 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I taught 3- to 5-year-old kids at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York City about the value of eating vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The young audience was curious about the beautiful colors of vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

As you begin your “Thirty Different Food Items Each Day” project, please observe the following rules. Do not count the same ingredient twice. Do not count ingredients used for garnishes in soups, salads and the like; they have minimal nutritional and caloric value. You can, however, count ketchup, mayonnaise and sauces, which have substantial caloric content.

When you reach 21 food items in a day, please send me photos and a description of the meals. I will share them with my audience.

Before then, please enjoy this stir-fried rice recipe, which gives you a 7 score for the dish.

Seven Score Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here - carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil - can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish anytime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here — carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil — can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish any time. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 minutes

Total time: 49 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

Sea salt

1 cup chopped carrot

1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb or celery

3 1/2 ounces kale; leaves, cut into thin slices crosswise; stems, cut into thin slices slanted

4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (preferably made a day in advance)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons butter

1 to 2 teaspoons shoyu

Freshly ground black pepper corn

Directions

Heat a wok or deep skillet over medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion along with pinch of salt and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add the carrot, fennel bulb and kale stem along with pinch of sea salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the kale leaves, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Move the vegetables to one end of the wok (or transfer to a temporary bowl). Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in the empty space of the wok.

When the oil is hot, add the rice and cook, over medium heat, stirring, until the rice is fully heated up, or about 2 minutes. Then combine and toss the rice with the cooked vegetables. Add the pine nuts and give several large stirs. Add the butter, soy sauce and freshly ground black pepper and toss the mixture thoroughly. Divide the rice among 4 plates and serve hot.

Main photo: This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes and dried baby fish. Since some are rather small amounts, I give it a score of 10, including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

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Yotam Ottolenghi's yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Credit: Reprinted with permission from NOPI: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

Yogurt is not for just breakfast or smoothies anymore. While the dairy cases in supermarkets across the nation populate with more brands, tubs and tubes of yogurt — including novel flavors like sriricha-mango and carrot — a parallel trend is making it a star ingredient in cooking. Beyond its compatibility with granola or fruit blends, yogurt is becoming a foundational ingredient in dips, soups and sauces for roasted vegetables and meats in American restaurants and home kitchens.

The recent adoration for cooking with yogurt is not the result of some new flavor or formulation. This is plain (old) yogurt, an ancient staple food in many cultures of the world. Yogurt’s natural creaminess and acidity, coupled with its versatility, are feeding 21st-century culinary inspiration.

Why, over 70 years since yogurt’s introduction to the United States, has its moment arrived now?

Groundbreaking yogurt

There’s no doubt that Americans have claimed the world’s favorite cultured dairy product as our own. In  fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing food groups of all time. Although nearly all of the yogurt sold in the United States is sweetened, the natural tang no longer puts people off as it did when the Dannon company introduced its brand in 1942.

The sea change came with Greek yogurt. Since 2005, domestic sales have doubled each year, and today over half of all yogurt sold here is Greek-style. With more liquid whey strained, this thicker, creamier product won consumers over, despite costing nearly twice as much. Yogurt’s alluring halo as a low-fat, high-protein, calcium-rich health product with the benefit of probiotics has made it the go-to breakfast choice and snack alternative.

At the same time, the DIY culture has inspired a renaissance in age-old cooking traditions, including food preservation and fermentation. Since yogurt is the product of fermenting milk with bacteria cultures that preserve and thicken, it has helped inspire the pickle-, sauerkraut- and jam-making crowd and has kicked off an online wave of homemade yogurt machines, how-to recipes and Pinterest posts.

Yogurt infatuation

Long before yogurt became the one of hottest-selling foods ever, I encountered the concept of cooking with yogurt in two landmark vegetarian cookbooks, “The Moosewood Cookbook” and Deborah Madison’s “Greens.” Drawing on world cuisines, both featured soups with yogurt, yogurt sauce and raita, the Indian side dish often made with cucumber or other vegetables.

“Yogurt isn’t new. Not even a little,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in her 2015 cookbook “Yogurt Culture.” In many cultures throughout the world, yogurt is more than a healthful substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream but “is enjoyed globally in countless incarnations and preparations, both savory and sweet, across every meal.”

While it is common in Turkey to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt, for example, it’s only recently that such savory notions have enjoyed broad appeal here. It took a slow shift toward vegetarianism (even among meat eaters); world cuisines, especially those of India and the Middle East; and wholesome cooking to win this ancient staple newfound status. It is also due, in no small part, to the singular influence of an Israeli-born, London-based chef named Yotam Ottolenghi.

The Ottolenghi effect

With five cookbooks published in the past four years, Ottolenghi is wildly popular among professional and home cooks alike. His influence on American cooking is so widespread it is impossible not to encounter his mark in food magazines and popular blogs. Several of his recipes, including roasted butternut squash drizzled with yogurt, have become iconic.

Pairing yogurt with meats and fish, grains and legumes, herbs and spices, vegetables from eggplant to zucchini and even eggs, Ottolenghi has helped to transform our basic conception of the ingredient. In “NOPI: The Cookbook,” his most recent release based on his London restaurant, Ottolenghi again translates the idiom with another dozen yogurt-centric recipes using beets, chickpeas, lamb meatballs and more.

In falling so hard for its nutritional values, we’ve finally come to recognize yogurt’s vast culinary assets.

Yogurt’s bounty

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

“Yogurt Culture” is one of two cookbooks devoted to the subject of cooking with yogurt released last year. Amid recipes for smoothies and fro-yo, the bulk of the book explores yogurt’s savory side. Poring over appetizer, lunch and dinner recipes, I discovered yogurt in marinara sauce for pasta, tangy mashed potatoes and a more stable whipped cream. Under the book’s spell, I served Rule’s yogurt dip of blood orange, Kalamata olive and red onion with pita breads when a friend came over for a glass of wine. A first.

“Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press) is akin, presenting a globally inspired collection of yogurt-centered recipes. Salted yogurt creates a bed for a farro and vegetable salad; it is a marinade for chicken and a topping on pizza. No fan of fusion, Fletcher nonetheless blends boundaries via an irresistible cumin-spiced raita with red onion to accompany grilled steak or lamb burgers. That’s a new one for cookout season.

Together, these cookbooks expand our understanding of plain yogurt in all its current forms, from organic and grass-fed to Australian (whole milk, unstrained) and Icelandic (even thicker than Greek) to homemade. Grounded in its history, they inspire some serious and fun exploration through cooking.

“As a cook, I love where yogurt has taken me,” writes Fletcher. I heartily agree. From here on out, yogurt — spiced, herbed, smoked and, yes, even sweetened (lightly, with fresh fruits and preserves) — promises to be anything but plain.

Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Blood Orange, Kalamata and Red Onion Dip

Note: Excerpted from “Yogurt Culture” copyright 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: Approximately 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: Approximately 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 2

Ingredients

3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought

Kosher salt

1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Car, or navel orange if blood oranges are unavailable)

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)

Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving

Directions

1. If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don’t salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.

2. Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.

Grilled Red-Onion Raita for Hanger Steak

Note: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Prep time: Approximately 20 minutes

Cooking time: Approximately 25 minutes

Total time: Approximately 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large red onion (10-12 ounces)

Vegetable oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1 clove garlic, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro or 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint

1 ⁄ 4 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds

1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon mustard seeds

Directions

1. Prepare a moderate charcoal fire in the center of your grill, leaving the outer rim devoid of coals so you can grill the red onions over indirect heat. Alternatively, preheat a gas grill to medium, leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.

2. Peel the onion and slice neatly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Carefully thread a thin bamboo skewer through each slice to hold the rings together. Brush the slices with oil on each side, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Grill over indirect heat — not directly over the coals or gas flame — turning once, until the onions are soft and slightly charred, about 25 minutes. Do not rush them or they will blacken before they are fully cooked. Transfer to a cutting board and pull out the skewers. If the outer ring of the onion slices is dry and papery, discard it. Chop the remainder of the onion coarsely.

3. In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, cilantro or mint and cumin. In a small skillet or butter warmer, warm 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Have the skillet lid handy. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Protecting your face with the lid, cook until the mustard seeds pop and become fragrant, 1 minute or less. Pour the hot oil and mustard seeds over the yogurt and stir in. Fold in the grilled onion. Season the raita with salt.

Main photo: Yotam Ottolenghi’s yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Reprinted with permission from “NOPI: The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin. Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

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Create a ginger tea with tumeric, cayenne pepper, lemon, cinnamon and honey to keep colds away. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

Winter is making its presence chillingly known, and when the bitter winds and icy storms appear, so do the runny noses and sore throats. I’ve discovered that a key friend in these situations is also one of my favorite ingredients: ginger. The spicy root, while better known for curing nausea, also has secret anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting powers that make it a handy natural defense against winter germs. With its subtle heat, ginger even gives that extra warmth needed to sustain you in the frigid months. Luckily, there are several easy and delicious ways to incorporate ginger into your diet, so you can give both your immune system and your tastebuds that warm fuzzy feeling.

Ginger Immuni-Tea

Create a ginger tea with tumeric, cayenne pepper, lemon and cinnamon to keep colds away. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

A ginger tea will warm up your immune system. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

Try this bright tea to warm up your immune system and clear up your sinuses. Add several pieces of peeled sliced ginger (or a teaspoon of ground ginger) to three cups of water. Bring the water to boil and simmer 5 minutes. Add a teaspoon of turmeric (another anti-inflammatory immune booster), a pinch of cayenne pepper (decongestant), a tablespoon of lemon juice (vitamin C infusion) and a cinnamon stick (anti-inflammatory, bacteria-fighting, and antioxidant-rich). Simmer 5 more minutes, then strain into a mug and add a spoonful of honey (sweetens the spice). You can adjust measurements — just err on the careful side with cayenne and turmeric, which pack a strong punch. Prefer a shortcut? Combine the ingredients in a mug and pour boiled water over them, stirring well. Looking to really heat things up? Add rum or whiskey — it’s a Ginger Hot Toddy! A bit of a cheat on the health front, but will definitely help you stay warm.

Ginger Smoothie

Add ginger to your smoothie for a tasty immunity boost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

Add ginger to your smoothie for a tasty immunity boost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

This is a great option for when you’re on the run. Fresh ginger infuses refreshingly tart spice into any smoothie. Options include: mixed berries, milk, honey and banana; pineapple, coconut water, yogurt and cinnamon; mango, orange juice, ice and banana; strawberries, banana, milk and honey; carrot (juice), lemon juice, banana and mint; or kale, apple, lemon juice, blueberries, cinnamon, banana, milk and honey. Go wild with variations. I use frozen berries or banana to thicken, but you can add ice if using fresh fruit. Pick your preferred milk or yogurt — I go with almond and goat, respectively — and same goes for greens (like substituting spinach for kale). Toss it all in the blender with a few peeled slices of fresh ginger for a smooth and tasty immunity boost.

Ginger-Miso Marinade/Dressing

This Asian-inspired paste, made with ginger, is good for salads or sauces. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

This Asian-inspired paste, made with ginger, is good for salads or sauces. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

Here’s a zesty way to incorporate ginger into your lunch or dinner. Combine several peeled slices of ginger in a blender with a few tablespoons of miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar and about 1/4 cup olive or canola oil, a scant teaspoon of sesame oil, a clove of crushed garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice and/or orange juice, and salt and pepper to taste (and chopped scallions or fresh cilantro if desired). After a few minutes you have a mouthwatering, immune-empowering, Asian-inspired paste that can be used as a marinade for meat and veggies, a dressing for your favorite salad, or even a sauce for stir-fry.

Ginger-Spiced Granola

Incorporate ginger into granola with berries for a healthy snack. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

Incorporate ginger into granola with berries for a healthy snack. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

Granola is the perfect snack: portable, versatile and filling, with lots of protein and flavor. If you’re a granola addict like myself, it just makes sense to create your own. It’s easy and enables you to add all your favorite elements — including ginger!

Here’s a good starting recipe:

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 50 minutes

Total time: 65 minutes

Yield: 6 cups

Ingredients

4 cups oats (substitute other grains, like oat bran or quinoa)

1/4 cup each of your favorite nuts, roughly chopped (I use almonds, walnuts and pecans)

1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger

1/4 cup each of dried fruit (figs, raisins, cranberries, apples, cherries — or a combination)

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup molasses (optional)

1/3 cup maple syrup (substitute agave or honey)

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

1. Combine oats, nuts, coconut, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, salt, ginger and dried fruit in a large bowl.

2. On medium-low heat, combine coconut oil, molasses, maple syrup, brown sugar, vanilla and 1 teaspoon cinnamon in a saucepan. Stir until sugar dissolves. Pour sauce over dry ingredients and combine.

3. Lay out granola on parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 275 F for 20 minutes; turn the pan; bake 20 to 30 minutes more until golden brown.

Again, feel free to personalize! Don’t like granola too sweet? Scratch the maple syrup and sugar. Wild for luscious clusters? Don’t stir while baking. And if you still need more ginger: Add 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger to the dry ingredients or shave fresh ginger into the saucepan mixture.

Main photo: Create a ginger tea with tumeric, cayenne pepper, lemon, cinnamon and honey to keep colds away. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rose Winer

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Prepare festive fruits for your holiday table, such as wine poached pears with blackberries. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

There are so many people writing “Eat this!” and “Don’t eat that!” when it comes to the holiday season, it feels like a bit of a buzzkill. After all, food is at the heart of our best-loved holiday traditions and culture, whether baking cookies, shaking cocktails or hosting feasts for friends and family. I would never encourage you to deny these most simple and beautiful of life’s pleasures. I’m a nutrition scientist, not a nutrition Grinch.

Forget denial! Instead, follow these science-based strategies to help your body naturally consume less. Enjoy the season healthfully without making that tired resolution to lose those holiday pounds come the first of the year.

Select smaller plates and cups

Behavioral research conducted at Cornell University and elsewhere has found that selecting smaller plates and cups leads to less food and drink consumed. There’s simply not as much room on your plate for food, which helps manage portions. You can help yourself, and others, by setting your holiday table with smaller place settings. Choosing smaller plates is especially important in a buffet situation, which is a recipe for overindulgence given all of the tasty choices for the taking. This strategy is especially important when consuming calorie-laden foods like cheese and desserts. Another benefit of this tip is that going for smaller portions means you’re more likely to eat what’s on your plate, which means less food waste.

Swap water for wine (sometimes)

Choose water rather than an alcoholic or sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during your evening. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

Choose water rather than an alcoholic or sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during your evening. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

If you’re anything like me, you enjoy festive holiday libations as much as that overflowing platter of sumptuous sweets. Liquid calories contribute heavily to our daily energy intake. And, whether alcoholic or not, our bodies aren’t good at recognizing calories in liquid form, so we tend to just pack them on as extra. Why not swap water for wine (or nonalcoholic punch, or soda) now and again? Keeping hydrated is always a good idea, especially when there is a lot of drinking happening. Choosing water rather than an alcoholic or sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during your evening out means you’re consuming that many fewer calories. Extra-added bonus: you’re less likely to be “that person” at the office holiday party. (You’re welcome.)

Savor every delectable bite

If you’re taking smaller portions then you’ll definitely want to make sure you are enjoying every single bite. The advice to chew slowly and consume mindfully is never more important than during the holidays. There are so many good reasons to do so. First of all, it takes time for your brain to respond to satiety signals that tell you “Stop eating! I’m full!” We often don’t hear these signals, either because they are drowned out by our desire for more or because we are not giving our body the chance to react. Further, the holiday season in all its succulence is meant to be savored. Enjoy each moment, including the hedonic pleasures that eating evokes. In so doing, you’ll likely consume less food and have fewer stomachaches from over consumption.

Go for green

A beautiful beet salad can be healthy, as well as festive. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

A beautiful beet salad can be healthy, as well as festive. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

Holiday treats tend to be rich in calories. Baked brie, iced sugar cookies, boozy eggnog… Where was I? Yet nutrition scientists recommend that you fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits daily. We are lucky that the increased awareness of consuming plant-based foods for optimal health and weight means that restaurants and businesses are increasingly featuring veggies and fruits on their menus. I encourage you to do the same when you’re planning a meal at your own home. This tip may sound tired, but the dishes needn’t be. There are so many festive ways to prepare vegetables for your holiday table. Think: spinach salad with ruby-red pomegranates and crunchy toasted almonds; roasted butternut squash with crimson cranberries and caramelized onions; or herbaceous arugula with figs, pine nuts and a zesty vinaigrette. And why not feature fruit for dessert, like red wine-poached pears with blackberries? Don’t neglect these superfoods this holiday season.

Hara hachi bu at home

Holiday schedules quickly become packed with cheerful gatherings and epic nights on the town. But every night isn’t a party, and there are still times when you’re spending a quiet evening at home. Thinking about what you’re eating and drinking during those days are just as important as your noshing habits when you’re out. “Hara hachi bu” is an adage of the Okinawans, one of the longest-living populations in the world. It roughly means “eat to when you’re 80% full.” It’s outstanding advice for every day and any occasion, given research has shown that limiting calories throughout your life is related to longevity. But the recommendation is even more critical during this most wonderful time of the year. We all know what to expect when attending holiday parties: food, and lots of it. You’ll help balance your overall calorie intake if you can eat less and make healthier choices when at home.

Get out and play (often)

Get more activity into your holiday plans, such as ice skating. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Get more activity into your holiday plans, such as ice skating. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Weight gain is, ultimately, a simple equation: consuming more calories than you’re burning will lead to storage of energy in the form of body fat. Yet maintaining a fitness routine is a real challenge when there are more stresses on our schedules than ever. But the frustrating fact remains that we should actually increase our activity to compensate for the extra calories we’re consuming. I share your pain in the difficulty in making this happen, but I’d be remiss if the other side of energy balance — physical activity –wasn’t on my list. Hate running? Then how about walking to and from work or taking the stairs rather than the escalator when shopping at the mall? Perhaps ice-skating or a family football game? Jump rope? Hula hoop? Figure out what works for you –and stick to it. And if stuff gets in the way, don’t beat yourself up; just get back out there when you can.

Watch your weight (literally)

Weight gain occurs incrementally, and detecting small changes are best observed numerically. Monitoring your weight by stepping on a scale is the best way to tell whether your holiday feasting has gone awry. You might also consider measuring your overall body composition by calculating your body mass index, which is as important as measuring other physiological parameters such as blood pressure and blood lipids; all of these impact your risk of chronic disease. Weight gain around the waist is especially harmful because of its inflammatory effect, so keeping track of how your clothes are fitting throughout the season is also key. If you don’t own a scale, you might consider asking for one as a gift. Better yet, buy this present for yourself today.

 Main photo: Prepare festive fruits for your holiday table, such as wine poached pears with blackberries. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

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Chef Nicole Heaney shows her sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooking for dinner parties should be fun. If the occasion is a holiday, a birthday or a personal landmark, celebrating at home with a meal cements relationships with friends and family. But when preparing the meal is too much work, the fun goes away.

With relative ease, chef Nicole Heaney shows how to create a flavorful dish featuring a filet of fish that is perfect for entertaining. The key for a dinner party, as she demonstrates, is a little planning.

In the kitchen at Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in Monterey, California, chef de cuisine Heaney shows how to prepare sablefish with crispy skin in a brown butter sauce. Adding flavor, Heaney pairs the rich, fatty fish with al dente Brussels sprouts, creamy farro cooked risotto-style and savory apple puree to add acid and sweetness.

Key to making the festive plate is the combination of four elements, each of which takes very little effort to create. And of the four, three can be made ahead. The Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree can be made hours ahead of the dinner or even the day before. Then, just before serving, reheat the three components and cook the sablefish as your guests are sitting down ready for a celebration.

For a delicious vegan and vegetarian meal, leave out the fish and serve the Brussels sprouts, farro and apple puree.

A kitchen with a view

Chef Nicole Heaney preparing sable fish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts & farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Chef Nicole Heaney preparing sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar is the main restaurant at the Monterey Plaza Hotel on Cannery Row. Working with executive chef James Waller, Heaney cooks in a kitchen with a view of Monterey Bay. Growing up in Wyoming and working in Colorado and New Mexico, Heaney was an adult before she saw the Pacific Ocean.

She confesses that, even after a year at the restaurant, when baby humpback whales swim close to the restaurant, she joins the other kitchen staff members to rush outside for a closer look from the dining patio. There they watch as the whales breach for a long moment before disappearing in the cold blue water.

Her cooking is influenced by the time she spent in Sedona at Mii amo Café. Preparing meals for health-conscious guests of the resort and spa, Heaney learned the importance of clean, fresh flavors. Fats were kept to a minimum. The kitchen did not use butter or cream. Asian ingredients and techniques were frequently used.

The regime is not as strict at Schooners, but Heaney still creates dishes with distinctive flavors and innovative ingredients like the kelp noodles she uses to make her version of pad thai.

An avid reader of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” she knows that the more you understand the chemistry of cooking, the better you can control the results. In her video demonstration, she points out the importance of using acid to round out flavors, as in the savory apple puree and farro risotto.

Apple Puree

Apples and onions poaching in apple juice and apple vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Apples and onions poaching in apple juice and apple vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

The apples Heaney uses are grown locally on the Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville, California. She recommends using Gala apples in the recipe. Heaney leaves on the peels to add flavor and color. Because the apples will be pureed, there is no need to cut them precisely.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 3 cups sauce

Ingredients

4 large Gala apples, washed, pat dried, peels on

1 yellow onion, washed, peeled and trimmed, roughly chopped

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup bourbon (optional)

Unsweetened apple juice to cover

Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste

Kosher salt to taste

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Directions

1. Heat a large saucepan on a medium flame.

2. Cut open the apples. Remove and discard the core and seeds. Do not peel the apples. Cut the apples into large pieces.

3. Drizzle olive oil into saucepan, add onion and apples and sauté together until translucent.

4. Add bourbon (optional). Cook off the alcohol, which may catch fire. Be careful not to singe your eyebrows as chef Heaney once did.

5. Cover with unsweetened apple juice. Simmer on medium heat until reduced by half and the apples soften and begin to break down.

6. Puree in a large blender. Start blending on a low speed and progress to a higher speed until the puree is smooth.

7. Taste and season with lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and kosher salt.

8. If preparing ahead, store refrigerated in a sealed container.

9. Just before serving, reheat. Taste and adjust the seasoning and, if the puree is too thin, continue reducing on a medium flame to thicken.

Farro Risotto Fit for a Dinner Party

Farro risotto with mirepoix of minced carrots, onions and celery. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Farro risotto with mirepoix of minced carrots, onions and celery. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Cooking farro risotto-style means heating and hydrating the grain as if it were Arborio rice. Substituting farro for rice adds a nutty flavor. Heaney prefers her farro al dente but that choice is entirely personal. Many people prefer their risotto softer rather than al dente.

Better quality ingredients yield a better result. With risotto, that means using quality rice or, in this case, farro. The stock is as important. Canned stocks are available, but they are high in sodium content and can have an off-putting aroma. Homemade stocks are preferable. Any good quality stock can be used — beef, pork, chicken or seafood. For vegetarians and vegans, the farro can be prepared with vegetable broth and without the butter or Asiago cheese.

The cooking time may vary depending on the farro.

Like other whole spices, pepper has volatile oils. To preserve the freshness of its flavor, Heaney prefers to grind the peppercorns just before using.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 45 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 40 to 55 minutes

Yield: serves 4

Ingredients

64 ounces hot stock, preferably homemade, can be vegetable, beef, pork, chicken or seafood

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice

1 large carrot, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice

2 large celery stalks, washed, peeled, trimmed, small dice

3 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, rimmed, minced (optional)

16 ounces farro

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves chopped fine

1 tablespoon chives, washed, chopped fine

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, washed, chopped fine

1 cup shredded Asiago cheese (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Kosher salt to taste

Black peppercorns, freshly ground, to taste

Directions

1. In a saucepan, heat stock on a low flame.

2. Heat a separate medium saucepan over a medium flame. When hot, add olive oil and sauté onions, carrots and celery until the vegetables are translucent.

3. Add farro. Stir well and sauté until lightly toasted.

4. Add garlic (optional) and sauté until translucent but do not brown.

5. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Cook until alcohol is fully cooked out.

6. Add hot stock in 6- to 8-ounce portion. Stir well.

7. As stock is absorbed, add more stock and stir well. Do not scald the farro.

8. Each time the stock is absorbed, add more stock until the liquid becomes cloudy and the farro softens.

9. If the farro is being made ahead, when the farro is soft but not yet soft enough to eat, or 75 percent cooked, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in a sealed container.

10. If continuing to cook or if reheating, taste and continue cooking the farro until it is al dente or to your liking. Set aside until the fish is cooked.

11. Just before serving, to finish, add sweet butter (optional) and stir into the heated farro until melted.

12. Add Asiago cheese (optional) and stir well to melt.

13. Taste and season with fresh lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

14. Just before plating, sprinkle in chopped fine parsley, chives and thyme and stir well.

15. Serve hot and plate as described below.

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts

Caramelized halved Brussels sprouts. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Caramelized halved Brussels sprouts. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Heaney prefers her Brussels sprouts al dente. Some people like them softer, in which case, after the Brussels sprouts are washed, trimmed and halved, blanch them in salted boiling water for two minutes, drain and then sauté as directed below.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: serves 4

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound medium-sized Brussels sprouts, washed, discolored leaves removed, ends trimmed, halved

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black peppercorns to taste

Directions

1. Heat a large sauté pan.

2. Add extra virgin olive oil and halved Brussels sprouts.

3. Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper.

4. Stir well to prevent burning. Sauté until Brussels sprouts are caramelized on both sides.

5. If the sprouts are to be served later or the next day, when they are cooked 75 percent, remove from the burner, allow to cool and refrigerate in an airtight container.

6. When the fish is cooking, heat the sauté pan with a small amount of olive oil. Add the cooked Brussels sprouts to reheat and plate with the fish, farro risotto and apple puree.

Crispy-Skin Sablefish in a Brown Butter Sauce

Also called black cod, sablefish is not actually cod. Heaney uses sablefish caught in nearby Morro Bay. She likes cooking the fish because it is almost “bulletproof.” The flesh is difficult to overcook and is almost always moist, flavorful and delicate.

In order to achieve a crispy skin, Heaney has developed a simple technique described in the directions. She recommends buying a wooden-handled fish spatula with a beveled edge, which helps remove the fish from the pan. The spatula is preferable to tongs, which tend to break apart the filets.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 to 10 minutes

Final assembly time: 5 minutes

Total time: 15-20 minutes

Yield: serves 4

Ingredients

4 6-ounce skin-on filets of sablefish or black cod, washed, pat dried

1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sweet butter

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, pat dried, leaves only, finely chopped

Directions

1. Season each filet with kosher salt and black pepper on both sides.

2. Heat a large sauté pan on a medium-high flame. When the pan is hot, reduce the flame to medium-low.

3. Add the olive oil. Allow the oil to heat.

4. Place the filets into the pan, skin side down. Do not overcrowd the pan, allowing space between each filet. If the filets are crowded together, the skin will not crisp.

Sear but do not burn the skin.

Jiggle the pan. That will help prevent the filets from sticking to the pan. If they do stick, use the fish spatula to gently release them from the bottom of the pan.

5. Add sweet butter to the pan and swirl around the filets.

6. Let the filets cook without fussing too much. The fish is cooked when the flesh is opaque.

7. Using the fish spatula, gently flip each filet over. Swirl the filets into the melted butter, being careful to brown but not burn the butter.

After 30 seconds, use a spoon to baste the filets with the melted butter.

8. At this point, the fish is cooked. Add parsley for color and season with lemon juice.

Put the saucepan to the side.

Assembling the dish:

Plate the fish when everyone is seated at the table.

All of the elements — fish, apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto — should be hot and ready to serve.

Select a large plate. Using the back of a soup spoon, spread a tablespoon of the apple puree across the plate. Add a good portion of the farro risotto in the middle of the plate, then the caramelized Brussels sprouts.

Gently add the sablefish filet, crispy skin side up. Spoon a little bit of the brown butter on top of the filet, farro and Brussels sprouts. And as chef Heaney says, “That is it.”

Serve the dish hot with a crisp white wine and let the festivities begin.

Main photo: Chef Nicole Heaney shows her sablefish with apple puree, Brussels sprouts and farro risotto. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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