Posts tagged salads

Lunches by Melissa

There are many reasons why I admire my younger sister Melissa. Whenever she enters a room, her infectious laughter immediately brightens the mood. Extremely ambitious and capable, she has succeeded in her dream of working in the fashion business. She is intensely loyal and loving, and has always supported me in every endeavor I’ve pursued.

There’s one more seemingly small but very important reason why I am in awe of Melissa: No matter how busy or tired she is, she makes homemade lunches for herself and her husband Nedim to bring to work every day. Sometimes it’s leftover pasta, sometimes just a simple green salad. She’s also been known to cook a whole second meal after dinner for their lunches, just so she and Nedim don’t have to waste money on food during the workday.

What, you might say? Does packing lunch every day really deserve such admiration and praise? Absolutely, especially on afternoons when I’ve endured another mediocre serving of pad thai or overcooked pasta from a nondescript restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan office. For some reason, I cannot get my act together to bring my lunch to work on a consistent basis. And when I think about the waste of money and unnecessary plastic packaging involved with buying my lunch every day, I feel very upset and guilty about the food I am putting into my body. Plus, whatever I buy rarely tastes very good, and I know that I could make something ten times better at home.

Some weeks are certainly better than others; like Melissa, I’ll pour some extra pasta into the pot when I’m cooking dinner and bring the leftovers to the office the following day. On another night I’ll add an extra half-cup of brown rice to our dinner, transforming the leftovers into a mean and healthy salad. But rarely do I have the energy to make myself a separate meal for the following day’s lunch. That lovely pearl barley salad up there, filled with crunchy apples and electric pomegranate seeds, was an anomaly, a rare instance when I prepared a healthy meal specifically for my lunch. I need a system. Or maybe I just need my sister to make me lunch every day.

So for the second time in a week, I turn to you again, readers. Do you bring your lunch to work? What are your favorite, easy-to-prepare, lunch dishes?

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Lunch at Mimi’s Hummus

Most rainy days find me curled up on my couch, watching TV or flipping through the pages of a magazine in order to avoid the terrible weather outside. But during last Saturday’s torrential downpour, I actually left the apartment, for a very important reason: My dear friend Rachel was taking me out for a belated birthday lunch at Mimi’s Hummus in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. This tiny Israeli-inspired restaurant, with its warm orange walls and high ceilings, has received much positive attention lately, and I couldn’t wait to try it. Even the driving rain and high winds couldn’t keep me away.

We started with much-needed cups of hot mint and sage tea ($1.50), and snacked on complimentary olives and pickles while deciding what to order from chef Mimi Kitani’s varied menu. Five types of hummus with intriguing toppings such as mushrooms, tahini, and ground beef with pine nuts made it difficult to choose just one. But we finally settled on the fava bean version ($8), and ordered a basket of whole wheat and white pita bread to accompany it.

As soon as the hummus arrived, Rachel and I tore off bits of pita from the soft, pillowy rolls and eagerly scooped away at the spread. Creamy, light, and silky smooth, the hummus was simply amazing. The warm fava bean stew, nestled into the center of the spread, added an extra layer of richness, and I was so enthralled with the dish’s texture that I barely noticed the delicate lemon garlic dressing.

Next we split the shakshuka eggs, a piping hot, bubbling pan of eggs, tomatoes, red peppers, and spices such as turmeric and cumin ($9.50). It reminded me of a more fiery, Middle Eastern version of the Eggs in Purgatory I made a few weeks ago. Once again we put the pita bread to good use, swiping away at the sides of the cast iron pan so that none of the eggs or the deep, yolk-infused sauce went to waste. A crunchy Israeli salad, with cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs, added a cool freshness to our meal as well ($5).

As Rachel and I chatted and sipped more tea, our waitress asked if we’d like dessert. After a moment of surprise—we had been so engrossed in our food and conversation that we hadn’t considered it—we went with the mysterious punchim ($3). Crushed chocolate graham crackers coated with coconut, these punchim were soft, buttery balls of chocolate decadence.

We took a peek at Market, the adorable food shop next door that is also run by Mimi’s owners. A quick tour revealed Brooklyn favorites such as McClure’s Pickles and Brooklyn Brine Co., as well as an array of Middle Eastern ingredients, specialty cheeses, and cured meats. Later, as I walked to the subway in the growing storm, I realized I was already thinking about my next visit to Mimi’s. Even if it’s raining again, I have four more types of hummus to try.

Mimi’s Hummus, 1209 Cortelyou Road between Westminster Road and East 13th Street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. T: 718-284-4444. Market is located right next door, at 1211 Cortelyou Road.

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On My Own for Dinner

lentil-salad

This past week was insane, with Jim out of town for business and me working like crazy. My dear husband finally staggered back home yesterday on the red-eye, just in time for me to leave for Italy today. I’m bleary-eyed, run-down, and can’t remember anything beyond what I ate for dinner during the past few days, so this will be a quick post before the blog goes on hiatus for a week. 

When Jim’s away I usually indulge in some of my favorite quick comfort foods for dinner. Spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, hot pepper flakes, and copious amounts of grated parmesan is a must. So is steamed broccoli, drizzled with freshly squeezed lemon juice and sprinkled lightly with salt. I try to cook dishes that involve a minimum of effort, using ingredients that Jim wouldn’t normally eat (unless I force him to, of course). 

During this past week on my own I focused on two of his least favorite foods: lentils and brussels sprouts. While lentils have been a staple in my pantry for years, I’m a recent convert to the wonders of brussels sprouts. I finally bought into the hype about a year ago, when my friends were eating them all the time and certain restaurants were earning raves for their treatments of this vegetable.

On Tuesday I cooked some green lentils with carrots, celery, onion, and garlic. Then I threw in some sautéed brussels sprouts leaves and raw cherry tomatoes for a warm winter salad. Lentils are so versatile; I love tossing them with a jumble of cooked and raw vegetables, just to see if the contrast of textures and flavors will work. This one wasn’t perfect—next time I’ll forgo cooking the lentils with vegetables and use plain water as I usually do—but I thoroughly enjoyed it on two nights this week. A few days later I halved the remaining brussels sprouts and roasted them in the oven, pairing them with some brown rice for a simple and comforting dinner for one. 

While I always prefer to eat dinner with Jim, I bet he’s happy he missed my week of lentils and brussels sprouts. I wonder what foods he’ll enjoy while I’m gone this week. (Actually, maybe I’m better off not knowing.) What are some of your favorite comfort foods, things you cook only when you’re on your own? 

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More Than Just Risotto: Cooking with Arborio Rice

Arborio rice is a staple in my pantry, but for years I used it sparingly, only hauling it out every once in a while to make risotto. And by “once in a while” I mean once or twice a year. Don’t get me wrong—I love risotto, but my poor arms can handle only so many upper body workouts, and all that stirring can be rather taxing on the biceps.

But in the past year I’ve started cooking with this short-grain Italian rice more often, for several reasons. First of all, it’s easier to prepare than longer-grain kernels, which I often seem to undercook or burn. With the Arborio variety, I just cover the rice with water, simmer it for 15 minutes, and finally drain it for whatever recipe I’m working with. Perhaps best of all, its high-starch content produces a creamy, moist texture that elevates simple dishes to divine. 

If you don’t believe me, take a look back at my Easter torta di riso or my stuffed Swiss chard leaves for proof. Or you can try cookbook author Viana La Place’s recipe for Lemony Rice-Parsley Salad that I found in Food & Wine a few months ago. I made it on Friday night, and my winning streak continued: As a dessert or main dish, Arborio rice has yet to fail me. 

La Place’s simple salad came together in under half an hour, perfect for a quick and healthy weeknight meal. While the rice cooked on the stovetop, I quickly chopped some parsley and pitted some briny black olives. After draining the cooked rice, I tossed everything together with olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of green pepper, and capers.

It was so easy I almost felt guilty calling it dinner. Luckily this sentiment was fleeting, as Jim and I enjoyed every bite of the supple, silky salad. It simply burst with the flavors of tangy capers, springy parsley, and lemon juice, all enhanced by the creamy texture of the rice and oil-cured olives.

As a result of these rice-related successes, a box of Arborio rice always sits towards the front of my pantry shelves. It is no longer relegated to the back of the cupboard, hiding out until a special occasion risotto dinner. I’m already planning on using it for Mark Bittman’s amazing Paella with Tomatoes later this week. That reminds me, I need to check and make sure that I have enough rice.

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The Raw and the Cooked

Sometimes I am struck by how easy cooking can be. Or rather, how easy it should be. 

A few weeks ago after work, I spent about 2 hours shucking, cooking, puréeing, and straining my CSA-delivered corn for what I hoped would be a creamy and flavorful dinner of curried corn soup. I was excited to prepare this sweet vegetable in a new way; usually I just boil it on the cob, or sauté it for my favorite salad. But for this soup I used a recipe I picked up at the farmers’ market last year and had been wanting to try.

Well, after all that effort—and several dirty pots and pans—I expected to be thrilled and satisfied with my dinner. But instead I was disappointed. Maybe it was just a bland recipe, or the fact that I’m not a huge fan of soup in general. Whatever the reason, as I lifted spoonful after spoonful of the broth to my mouth, I didn’t taste the sweet freshness I look forward to when eating summer corn. I missed biting into its firm and juicy kernels, their skins exploding with flavor between my teeth. All the reasons why I love this summer vegetable were absent once it was cooked and puréed into a porridge-like gruel. 

The very next night I got home late from work, and I didn’t have much time or energy to prepare dinner. I wound up tossing hefty chunks of raw, juicy tomatoes with slices of cool cucumber, red onion, basil, and some day-old bread left over from our meal the night before. Quickly drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and sprinkled with salt and pepper, this improvised panzanella salad exploited each ingredient’s flavor potential. With minimal effort and no actual cooking, I created one of best dishes I’ve made all summer.

What I am trying to say is that with summer fruits and vegetables, sometimes less is more. Summertime seasonal produce doesn’t need much handling in order to make a tasty, successful meal. And getting back to that corn, on the same night I made the panzanella, I also boiled some corn on the cob and got my flavor fix. As I said, cooking should always be this easy.

Recipe for Quick Panzanella Salad

  • 4 or 5 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced into chunks
  • 1/2 red onion, cut into thick slices
  • 1 medium cucumber, sliced into rounds and then halved
  • 1/2 loaf of day-old bread, sliced into thick chunks (if you like, you can toast the bread)
  • 1 garlic clove, very finely minced
  • a handful of fresh basil, leaves torn
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper

Combine the tomatoes, onion, cucumber, bread, and garlic in a large bowl. Gently toss the ingredients with your hands. Add two or three generous glugs of olive oil, and a splash of the balsamic vinegar. Add the basil leaves, and a few dashes of salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Gently combine the ingredients together with your hands. Season to taste. Serves 4 as a side dish. This recipe is very flexible, so feel free to alter it as you wish. Enjoy!

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Summer Salads

For some people, summer begins with fireworks on the 4th of July. For others, it happens with that first trip to the beach. Sometimes it’s celebrated when breaking out the open-toed sandals or by stirring up a pitcher of iced tea.

For me, the warmest of seasons has arrived when I can eat outside, whether it is at a friend’s barbeque, a picnic, or a stroll down Court Street with an ice cream cone in hand. This past weekend offered an ideal opportunity for outdoor dining, as Saturday night was breezy and beautiful in Brooklyn. Jim and I grabbed a blanket and joined our friends for a picnic in Prospect Park while Beth Orton sang to us from the stage nearby.

We had whipped up a few salads that afternoon, a combination of our CSA stash and a few store-bought items. Mark Bittman threw a bunch of picnic ideas our way last week, but I decided to go out on my own and make the most of the vegetables I had on hand.

When we arrived at the park we spread out our blanket and set up our spread. Empty patches of green grass grew smaller while our fellow concertgoers and picnickers settled in around us. Ignoring them all, we dug into our salads. Cooked orzo tossed with raw zucchini, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, chopped fresh basil, and olive oil exuded freshness and summertime. Soft boiled potatoes coated in a lemony mustard dressing flirted with peppery arugula, while our final salad of cucumber, red onion, and feta cheese tingled under a swirl of white wine vinegar and olive oil.

I don’t think I need to post proper recipes for these salads. All I did was mix different vegetables, pasta, and cheese together until they tasted right. Rules relax in the summertime; food can be casual. The only tips I have are about the dressings: I mixed the orzo salad with olive oil, salt, and pepper a few hours before we left the apartment, just to help the flavors settle in and come together. We added the dressings to the potato and cucumber salads at the park so they wouldn’t get soggy beforehand.

Briny olives, more cheese, fresh fruit, and a crusty baguette rounded out our fresh air feast. Summer is here. All it took was a few salads, the park, and a summertime breeze.

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