a book review + watercress pluot salad with lime-nutmeg vinaigrette

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In one of my recent weekly visits to the blog Gluten Free Girl and the Chef I stumbled across an excellent review of a new book, Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. Shauna writes about Robinson’s dedication, research and passion for both wild plants and modern cultivars, and discusses the connection between plants of the past and our diets of the present. That was enough to pique my interest, and as soon as I could get to the library I picked up my own copy.

Early into the first chapter I knew this was going to be a great read. I started keeping a pen and a notebook with me while I read it to jot down interesting tidbits about vegetable varieties and how to make them more nutritious. With recipes, historical anecdotes (with one involving the nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, no less!), gardening advice and shopping tips, Robinson combines all of her knowledge, in a pleasant way, her gentle voice shining through the academic citations.

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Robinson breaks the book down into two parts – fruits and vegetables – and from there divides the categories into chapters for individual varieties. There is a chapter devoted to lettuces, to berries, to apples, to corn. She describes to history of each plant, tracing the modern lineage back to its ancient ancestor, and details how the varieties have developed through science or by accident.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Robinson ensures the reader comes away with an appreciation for a plant’s nutrition – it’s not all about color and flavor, although these usually play a key role in tapping into the nutrients. From this she offers ingenious ideas on ensuring we as consumers can choose the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and then learn how to enhance those nutrients through cooking and storage techniques.

The tip I’ve been remembering the most has to do with garlic. Studies crop up like weeds about the anti-cancer properties of garlic nowadays, and traditional remedies recommend choking down pungent concoctions with the stuff to stave off colds and the flu. Robinson reveals, however, that the disease-fighting properties of garlic are not so easily accessed as to swallow a clove whole. There are two enzymes contained in a clove of garlic, and it is only after the whole garlic has been processed somehow – by chopping, pressing, smashing – that the two enzymes can combine to create the cancer-fighting enzyme that is so often lauded in scientific studies. It is important, as Robinson reveals, to process the garlic and let it rest for 10 minutes to activate the production of the helpful and healthful enzyme before cooking. Through this, and only through this, will you extract the most nutrition and the most disease-fighting properties from your common garlic clove.

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This is just one of many amazing kitchen-nutrition tips that Robinson offers, like the fact that cooking beets with the skins on retains more of the nutrients, or cooking and then chilling potatoes overnight before serving reduces the glycemic load of the starchy tuber. Fascinating!

I kept a running list of interesting varieties of fruits and vegetables to plant in my someday garden, thanks to Robinson’s recommendations at the end of each chapter. From Carolina Ruby Sweet Potatoes to Brigadier broccoli, to Tuscan Kale and Hawaiian Currant Tomatoes, to French Gray Shallots and Merlot lettuce, to Spanish Roja Garlic and Detroit Dark Red Beets, I am inspired to reap the benefits of nutrition and flavor in my own plot of land someday.

Eating on the Wild Side also inspired me to try some new produce at the grocery store. Instead of my typical kale and spinach, I purchased two bundles of delicate watercress. Instead of apples or berries, I chose a handful of translucent-skinned pluots. With a homemade vinaigrette and some gently toasted pistachios, all I needed was that new and vibrant produce to create a new salad. I made this twice I liked it so much – something about the bitter greens, the sweet fruit, the crunch of the nuts and the acidic spice of the vinaigrette combined perfectly.

Truly, as Robinson writes, when the fruits and vegetables are fresh and nutritious, they need but a little dressing up to turn them into a good meal.

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Watercress Salad with Pluots, Toasted Pistachios and Lime-Nutmeg Vinaigrette

1 bunch fresh watercress, washed and trimmed

2 pluots

1 c. raw pistachios

1 lime, juiced

1/4 c. olive oil

1 egg yolk

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. sea salt

Arrange the washed and trimmed watercress in a large salad bowl, Slice and pit the pluots and arrange on the greens. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and toast pistachios with a pinch of sea salt and a splash of olive oil until fragrant, about 5 minutes, before sprinkling over salad.

Meanwhile, whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a bowl or in a food processor. Combine the lime juice with the olive oil, salt and nutmeg, and briskly stir in the egg yolk until the dressing emulsifies. Drizzle over salad and serve immediately.

The salad does not keep well dressed — if you are making this ahead of time or in a large batch, dress only what you’ll be eating immediately, and store the greens, fruit, nuts and vinaigrette in separate containers in the refrigerator to keep everything crisp.

abundance, a drought

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Every time I sit down to write lately I’ve been met with an empty brain, an empty heart. I tried to describe my feeling but only came up with a handful of symbols, a few words only close to the real thing: loneliness, boredom, busy-ness, impatience. A grab-bag of contradictions does my current state make.

I’m doing all I can to prepare for the months ahead, but there’s only so much packing and researching I can do in advance. I’m trying to enjoy living here, living now, but it’s a daily struggle when my friends are states and countries away, and part of me is already acting out the adventure in Hawaii. I’m already nostalgic for this place I call home, even though we’re nowhere close to leaving yet. I can feel my health and the state of my body declining is barely perceptible ways as I spend more and more time in my head and less time on my feet, taking care of movement, feeling, nourishment.

(What is more frustrating is that whenever I write here it always comes back to moving. My horizons need expanding.)

It’s funny how we can get so good at living, so good at doing all of the right things at the right times, and then a season of abnormality can shake us out of our orbit and send us spinning out of control. (And by us I mean me.)

This is as reflected in my daily routine as it is in my writing. How can I stir up meaningful representations of life lessons, sift through them to create coherent thoughts and put them on a page when I can hardly sit still enough to write an email? When I feel the anxiety of not-writing rise up within me my first inclination is to read something by someone else; this may or may not be a healthy coping mechanism. The range of emotion when I click through favorite blogs or skim a favorite passage in a favorite book runs from inspiration to self-dispair — how am I ever going to make it when everyone else is writing like this? Am I not deep enough? Is my life so shallow as to not even warrant artistic interpretation?

All this, in my brain, all at once, is too much. Sometimes I am just too much. So.

The next few weeks are going to be spent taking care of mind and body, heart and soul. I will be present, take deep breaths, stretch, listen, engage, savor. I will stop being so hard on myself and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I will get out and explore, because it is the very act of seeing new things that keeps my life from feeling too small. I will keep it simple.

And so, a simple recipe. There may be more of these popping up: beautiful, easy dishes to share without the pressure of a story alongside, while life goes on being lived abundantly.

Maybe this will bring back my inspiration. Let’s hope so.

Kale Caesar Salad with Lemon Chicken

I large bunch kale, washed and trimmed

assorted vegetables – carrot ribbons, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, radishes…

parmesan cheese, freshly grated (optional)

2 chicken breasts

juice and zest of a lemon

1 Tbsp. coconut oil

1 tsp. mustard

1 clove garlic

salt + black pepper

dash of fish sauce

1 Tbsp. coconut aminos

1 ½ tsp. anchovy paste

¼ c. olive oil

Roughly chop kale and reserve in a large bowl. Massage olive oil into raw kale until the leaves begin to soften and the volume of the greens decreases. Chop, dice and peel assorted veggies and toss to combine with kale.

In a small bowl, mash together anchovy paste, garlic, mustard, fish sauce, coconut aminos, salt and pepper (and parmesan cheese, if that’s your thing). Stir to combine and pour over salad.

Salt and pepper chicken breasts and sear in a hot pan with melted coconut oil. Reduce heat, pour lemon juice and zest over each side and cover to steam/poach. Cook for 5-10 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Slice on the bias and plate over tossed kale Caesar salad.

To this you could add more grated parmesan, or some toasted sunflower seeds, or even a drizzle of fragrant olive oil. This makes for a light dinner or a vegetable-laden lunch with enough salad for leftovers the next day. Serves two comfortably.

summer salad, take two

SONY DSCI made this for lunch last week, with more produce from the farmers market and plenty of inspiration from this salad. Those tiny new potatoes were boiled until just tender, then tossed in a knob of ghee and some of that smoky spiced salt blend. Onto a bed of arugula they went, along with leftover smoky roasted corn, some chopped toasted almonds, half an avocado and lemon zest. It was filling and fresh and immensely satisfying all at once.

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the first day of summer

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A few summer things happening lately: the farmers market has started to sell more than plants and cups of coffee. This week I picked up ears of corn, a bag of arugula, a bunch of carrots, pecans, and the teensiest new potatoes I’ve ever seen.

I spotted my first miniature watermelon on display at the grocery store.

Sno-cone stands have popped up like mushrooms all around town.

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Sunsets are getting lustier.

Mosquitoes are emerging.

Our air conditioning unit is getting a daily workout.

I’m craving iced coffee and ice cream.

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A few “new” pairs of thrifted shorts were totally justified.

I’m antsy to get out of the house every morning for a daily dose of sunshine.

Freshly polished toes are the best dress code.

Heaping salads are plenty for dinner.

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If I could celebrate the first day of summer in any way I could, I would cancel work and delete deadlines, pack a picnic and find the nearest creek. Mandatory naps would be taken under shade trees, beers would be drunk with cold pork tacos, guacamole and a big salad. We’d cut into a watermelon and eat it with the juices dripping down our arms. There would be books and hats and maybe a campfire in the evening, and then there would be stars.

Instead, it’s just another Friday, and later we’ll be heading into the big city to see family and lounge in a nice hotel. Not quite my first day of summer fantasy, but I’ll take it.

I made this salad for a dinner with friends, served alongside roasted pork, bacon-mushroom-onion gravy and mashed cauliflower. If you can recreate that entire meal, I would certainly recommend you do so.

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Smoky Roasted Corn + Kale Salad with Basil-Avocado Dressing

3 ears fresh sweet corn, husked and cut from the cobb

1 Tbsp. ghee

1-2 Tbsp. smoky spiced salt blend

2 bunches curly kale, washed and torn

extra-virgin olive oil

handful of fresh basil leaves

1 large ripe avocado

1 lemon

sea salt

For the spiced salt blend: In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbsp. chipotle powder, 1 Tbsp. smoked paprika, 1 Tbsp. garlic powder, 1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon and ground black pepper, and 1 Tbsp. sea salt. Whisk to combine.

For the dressing: In a food processor, combine the flesh of an avocado, the juice of a lemon, a small handful of fresh basil and a generous pinch of salt. Process until smooth, adding a bit of water to thin.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a large baking dish, melt ghee and toss in corn. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until charred and slightly crisp. Stir in 1-2 Tbsp. of smoky spice mix and set aside.

In a large bowl, massage a hefty drizzle of EVOO into the kale, working the oil into the leaves until the kale begins to soften and decrease in volume. Pour dressing over and top with warm smoky roasted corn.

a fresh perspective, a new season

SONY DSCMaybe, like me, you’ve been wondering about direction lately. Maybe you’ve lost your focus or your inspired spark. Maybe you’re questioning the choices you’ve made to become a certain type of person, to cultivate a certain set of skills. Maybe you’re having a hard time connecting the dots between who you are now and who you were a year ago.

I recently took some time off from blogging to do a little figuring out on my own, apart from this white space where I felt pressure to do and be a certain thing a certain way. There’s so much noise all around, so many things happening a million miles a minute. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the tiny world we create for ourselves within our own head, and to go crazy from it.

But the questions and uncertainties are something to be thankful for. Just as the seasons change from one extreme to the next, just as a hyacinth up and blooms and then returns to the ground for another little lifetime, we are always shedding old skins for new.

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I know some folks who are terrified of a blip in their routine. Perhaps, in their minds, change signifies death. The steady comfort of the same cup of coffee every morning, the same errands to run, the same social engagements on Saturdays may seem like a talisman. Keep practicing in kind and the pattern of living will out-smart the uncertainty of death.

I love habit, but I am also growing to love change. I think I enjoy it so much because I like to look back and see life in hindsight. The paths that seemed so twisty and difficult are revealed as a gentle curve, and I can see with clarity how one path led to another. Change in the past is what led me to my present, and change in the present is what will lead me to my future.

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Just as I couldn’t imagine what the next year would bring last year, so too is the year that stretches ahead a mystery. We will move – maybe across the country, maybe to another continent – and with that will come all sorts of struggles. We will get new jobs, make new friends, travel to new spots and develop different hobbies. None of this is terrifying. But it can be unsettling.

In this in-between time, when I’m looking at the future but trying to stay firmly planted in the present, I’m relishing this unsettled feeling. I have the luxury right now to challenge what is normal for myself, to break down the expectations I made for my life and rebuild something more in line with my passions. Thus, a change in this space, a change in my voice, a change in my direction.

I spent the last month thinking about why I do the things I do and want the things I want — in many instances, it was the hypnotic pattern of routine that kept me going in a direction, not the driving force of my passions. And it was the cathartic confrontation of change that helped me to realize that.

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It’s in the magic of change that we become more of who we are supposed to be. Or, as my friend says, it is often in the tight spaces where it hurts that we have more of an opportunity for growth.

SONY DSCSo embrace it. Let go of fear and cultivate anew. Stretch and scratch and seek because there is something good waiting just below the surface.

There’s a chance that a change is just what we need.

SONY DSCChopped Asparagus Salad

1 bunch asparagus, washed + trimmed

1/4 c. almonds, chopped

small sprig of fresh thyme

zest of a lemon

coarse sea salt + black pepper

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

2 tsp. red wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar)

parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Wash asparagus and trim off woody stems – hold one end of a stalk in each hand and gently bend until it naturally snaps. In a large saucepan, heat a half cup of salted water until boiling. Lay woody stems directly in water and arrange asparagus on top so that there is no contact with the water. Cover and steam until tender, about five minutes.

Meanwhile, coarsely chop almonds and toast them in a pan over medium to low heat. Keep an eye on this, shaking the pan often to keep the nuts from scorching. When the kitchen starts to smell like browned butter, remove from heat and reserve.

Whisk together a simple vinaigrette: combine mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small jar and shake to combine.

Once asparagus is steamed to desired tenderness, throw away (or compost!) woody stems and roughly chop the asparagus. Toss with toasted almonds, lemon zest, thyme and the vinaigrette. Shave parmesan over the top and serve warm.

avocado, grapefruit + fennel salad

Winter is slowly but surely turning into spring. I can smell it in the early mornings, when the air is still cool but the sun is shining. I can feel it in the weak warmth of sunlight through our curtains, glowing throughout the house just a little bit longer now with daylight savings.

This light little salad celebrates the in-between time of seasonal transition, the time when jackets are necessary but sandals are a possibility. The time in which meals enjoyed al fresco are a little too chilly to really enjoy but the lengthening days speak of the promise of cook-outs and picnics to come.

Bright, juicy grapefruit pairs with crisp, herbal fennel for sweetness, and both are balanced by the mellow cream of a ripe avocado. Freshly ground black pepper adds bite while flaky kosher salt ties the flavors together with a savory ribbon. It’s a special little salad, enjoyed in small bits as an appetizer to a larger meal or served alongside fish or grilled meats. It’s a dish that welcomes spring and allows winter her final days in the sun.

Avocado, Grapefruit + Fennel Salad

2 grapefruits

1 ripe avocado

1 small fennel bulb

1 tsp. kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

a light oil, like high-quality olive oil, macadamia nut oil or avocado oil

This recipe really isn’t even a recipe – all I’m telling you to do is to cut the ingredients in a certain way. Halve the grapefruit and cut out the sections as if you were eating it with a spoon for breakfast. Reserve in a bowl with extra juice squeezed from the rinds. Halve an avocado, discard the pit, and cut the meat in cross-sections. This way, the avocado can be squeezed from its sheath in neat, firm squares. Gently combine with the grapefruit. Trim a small fennel bulb and shave thinly with a sharp knife or a mandolin slicer. Fold into grapefruit and avocado, drizzle with oil of choice, and sprinkle with shavings of black pepper and coarse salt.

Enjoy in the last rays of winter sunshine for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

greek goddess dressing

SONY DSCI love anything green. Kale, spinach, Granny Smith apples, spirulina and wheatgrass. Celery, avocado, butter lettuce, cucumbers, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini…affection for the verdant-hued foods abound in my heart and on my plate. Some green friends that I have often overlooked, however, are herbs.

I had an herb garden last summer, one that I kept on the patio of our little apartment and water semi-diligently throughout the scorching heat of July and August. I always joked that Andrew was the better herb-parent, as he would routinely come to the rescue of my shriveled cilantro and wilted basil with a jug of cold water, but survive they did despite my inattention. Although I wasn’t the best at remembering to water my herbs I did remember to cook with them — with gusto! Having a bunch of fresh dill just a few steps away from my kitchen was a blessing that I too often took for granted. One that now, in winter, I wish I could return to.

Before we moved I clipped all of the remaining leaves from my plants and hung them to dry in our laundry room, saving every last bud from the mint and the basil. Cooking with dried herbs that I grew myself is almost as satisfying as stepping out on the porch to pick the fresh variety, but when that just won’t satisfy I pick up a bunch or two of Italian parsley or coriander at the grocery store, for old time’s sake.SONY DSCThis salad dressing was born out of a desire for something green, pungent and savory to make a simple romaine salad something special. A quick whizz in the food processor yielded this incredible emerald dressing — one worthy of a divine title and a fancy salad. I tossed this with chopped romaine, cucumber, kalamata olives, red and green bell peppers and some feta cheese from a local goat farm just outside the city limits. Topped with a sprinkling of dried oregano, the salad glowed of health — hello, GREEN! — but managed to fool a houseful of single soldiers into gobbling it up. Seriously, if you can pass off a salad to a bunch of beer pong-playing boys, you know you’ve found a winner.

Greek Goddess Dressing

1 large bunch Italian parsley

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

about 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

salt + pepper

5 cloves roasted garlic

1 Tbsp. dried oregano

water to thin

Wash the parsley and pick the leaves from the stems. Pulse in a food processor with other ingredients, adding water to thin as necessary, until the dressing reaches the desired consistency. Mine ended up a little thicker than a normal, store-bought dressing would be — it had more of a “spoonable” consistency.

Serve with a fresh green salad, stir into chopped roasted veggies or a savory soup, or use in place of pesto if you’re feeling indulgent.