Cool as a Cucumber

Summer in northeast U.S.A. is the go-to season for healthful, colorful, and delicious fruits and vegetables and a time when families and friends tend to gather regularly for graduations, weddings, picnics, and backyard barbecues. What better way to celebrate being in the company of people you love and feeding yourself well than planning a party of your own?

Living Room Picnic

Creating a menu doesn’t have to be stressful or sinful when you dish out whole, fresh ingredients—served buffet-style—with homemade dressings and dips on the side. Not only will your plates be visually appealing and packed with high-quality nutrients, but you won’t have to break a sweat putting everything together.

Much like designing any healthful meal, the same rules apply: more variety and colors mean more vitamins and nutrients. Include a mix of animal- and/or plant-based proteins (skinless chicken breast, tenderloin, lentils, black beans, and tofu are great options), carbohydrates (brown rice, corn, and quinoa are versatile grains; Swiss chard, beet greens, and eggplant are nutrient-rich vegetables), and healthy fats (think walnuts, ground flaxseed, and olive oil).

Avoid heavy sauces and let the natural goodness of your bounty speak for itself. To start, make a light, but flavorful, marinade or rub for your protein dishes from a complementary blend of dried and fresh herbs and spices like cumin-chili-cilantro or dill-mustard-yogurt. Next, toss up a simple salad of different colored veggies like thinly sliced summer squash and heirloom tomato over leafy greens. Whisk together a light dressing of lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. For dessert, consider macerated fruit like peaches and blueberries drizzled with honey and white balsamic vinegar. (Check out Foodily or Yummly for other great recipe ideas.) This entire combination of foods alone offers a beneficial dose of many vitamins and minerals—like manganese, vitamins C, K, and A, dietary fiber, iron, and antioxidants—to support your body systems.

Consider the following:

  • Plan and prepare accordingly by asking your guests or estimating of the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians attending your party.
  • Serve ingredients separately to accommodate those who may have special diet requirements so they can build their own meals. Label each dish so guests don’t have to guess or ask, “What’s in this?”
  • Provide take-home items. Leftover containers will encourage your guests to continue eating healthfully after they’ve left your party. Stack printouts of your recipes on the buffet table so they can try their hands at creating their own versions at home or include recipe links in a thank-you e-mail a few days after the event.

When the party’s over, revel in the fact that, quite possibly for the first time for many of your guests, nothing was off-limits. Not only will you have enjoyed great company, but you will have served healthful fare to your grateful guests who may want to know when they can come back for more!

[Versions of this article were written for and published on YoffieLife.com on September 1, 2014 and DishWithDina.com on August 13, 2015.]

Quasi-recipe: That’s bananas.

I’m trying my darnedest to chill out with the overconsumption of sweets these days for so many reasons, one of which that, now that I’m unemployed, I don’t have money to buy pants the next size up.

Enter: homemade banana “ice cream.”

Banana ice cream

I like mixing up the add-ins and encourage you to do so, too, when you try out this incredibly easy recipe (serves two):

Cut up 2 bananas in chunks and freeze. Place frozen chunks in a blender (this is my new go-to, btw). Add 1/4 c almond milk—or whatever kind of milk you prefer—or water. Add in 1 Tbsp ea cacao nibs and ground flax seeds1. Pulse until smooth, but not liquid. Serve with 1 Tbsp chopped pecans or your favorite nuts/toppings.

1I added these for a little power boost and they’re not awesome tasting on their own, so this is the time to hide some nutritional ingredients in your version: consider wheat germ or maybe even spirulina, although if you’re going with the latter, you might want to also toss in 1 tsp maple syrup.

Quasi-recipe: Aw, sugar, sugar.

For a reason that is of no business to you, yesterday, I had a major craving for a chocolate-layered hunk of chocolate sprinkled with chocolate-covered chocolate.  So, naturally, I plugged in my panini press and made this:

S'mores Panini

If you would like to make one of these, but don’t have a panini press, you can use a pan/grill pan instead. Just make sure it’s very hot and well-coated in oil or butter.  You only need to leave the sandwich on the pan for a few minutes (until everything melts and makes a disastrous, but oh-so-yummy mess), pressing down lightly on it with a large spatula, and turning it over once to crisp both sides.  When done, wait until the pan cools down before trying to lift it to your face to lick the mess off.

Here’s how I made my “S’mores Panini,” but, as always, you can use whatever ingredients work best for you:

I took 2 slices of whole wheat sourdough bread and brushed the “outside” of each slice lightly with grapeseed oil. Then, I smeared 1 Tbsp of my awesome, homemade almond butter on the “inside” of one slice, topped that with 1/2 of a Vivani dark chocolate bar broken into bits, then placed 4 marshmallows on top of the bar, then placed the second bread slice on top of the whole thing—oiled side up—and jammed it into my panini press (that’s what she said) for about 6 minutes.

It’s a very decadent dessert (or, in this case, lunch…who am I kidding?), topping out at about 600 calories and 30-plus grams of sugar.  I normally try to limit my daily intake of all sugars to 5% of my total calories, so this little treat definitely put me over, but it doesn’t happen often and it’s better than me punching a hole in a wall, which is what I was about to do before deciding to eat this instead.

Just writing about this is making me want to go make another one, but I’m too tired to burn off the calories, so enjoy yours without me and let me know how you liked it.

Pie.

Last Sunday, Marc & I felt motivated during a wonderfully sunny day and took a long, leisurely stroll from our apartment to the West Side Highway and Chelsea Piers. There’s something about the sun gleaming off the tops of the buildings and along the water that really makes New York City look sparkling clean and inviting.

On the way back home, I had a serious jones for a piece of quiche and, thankfully, we happened on Little Pie Company on W. 14th Street (one of three locations). The moment we stepped in the establishment, I knew we found the perfect place to quell my appetite. The aroma wafting from the kitchen located in the back of the restaurant made me want to skip the quiche altogether and dive right into one of the luscious pieces of pie. Marc & I agreed to split a ham, onion & cheese quiche (which was served with a small, mixed green salad) and then anxiously awaited our piece of Sour Cream Apple Walnut pie.

Since 1985, the Little Pie Company has been delighting the palates of New Yorkers and visitors alike, bringing home-baked country goodness to the heart of the city. The savory, unforgettable desserts have inspired a passionate following not only among local residents and tourists, but also fine restaurants and specialty food shops. The Little Pie Company is where mouth-watering magic is worked over regional recipes from mom’s kitchen, straight out of the oven, straight from the heart. Each delicious dessert is created from scratch (no mixes), using only the finest, purest, freshest ingredients (nothing artificial, nothing chemical).

Now, I’ve built this up quite a bit and, yes, all in all, the pie was heavenly: the thinly sliced apples were wonderfully nestled between an even thinner crust and then topped with a chunky, buttery, crumby layer that I could have eaten on its own. However, I have to say that I was disappointed that the servers used a (gulp) microwave to warm up the pieces of pie served at the restaurant. Had I known this before placing my order, I would have opted to take a slice home with us and properly oven-warmed it like it should have been, like it was born to be warmed. I’m sorry, piece of pie, that I unknowingly allowed these people to treat you so poorly. Next time, little piece of pie. Next time…

Frosting on the (cup)cake!

I’m the first in line when it comes to free food. I will push grannies out of the way at the supermarket when I spot a “free samples” table. I’m almost always poor and hungry, so don’t judge me.

This week at work, we celebrated not just one, but two birthdays with some of the fanciest of all cupcakes from Crumbs. So, of course, this was the best week ever.

Crumbs Bake Shop first opened its doors in March of 2003 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by Mia & Jason Bauer. The menu is an irresistible blend of comfort-oriented classics and elegant baked goods but the speciality of the house is cupcakes. There are more than 25 varieties baked fresh daily and every Monday you can find a new cupake of the week. The stores are inspired by old-time candy shops and are warm and inviting with wood cases, tiled floors, and wall-to-wall treats.

Cupcakes are ordered in increments of six. You can choose individual cupcakes or a package filled with one type of cupcake. Prices range from $2.75-$3.75 each.

The cupcakes brought in for the birthdays ranged from Caramel Apple (moist vanilla cake with apples baked right in the batter and frosted with vanilla buttercream swirled with apples and topped with drizzled caramel) to Red Velvet (frosted with vanilla cream cheese frosting and drizzled with chocolate with red sprinkles around the edge and a cherry to finish it off) to Key Lime (vanilla cupcake filled and frosted with key lime buttercream and then rolled in white sprinkles). I’ve been on a sugar high for the past three days and it is awesome!

Mascarpone. How cheesy.

Welcome, class, to today’s Fresh Pick: MASCARPONE

Hailing from Italy’s Lombardy region, mascarpone [mas-kahr-POH-nay] is a buttery-rich double- to triple-cream cheese made from cow’s milk. It is ivory-colored, soft and delicate, and ranges in texture from that of a light clotted cream to that of room-temperature butter. It’s versatile enough to be blended with other flavors and is sometimes sold sweetened with fruit. In Italy’s Friuli region, a favorite blend is mascarpone mixed with anchovies, mustard and spices (so not Dina’s favorite blend). But in truth, this delicately flavored cheese needs little embellishment other than being topped with fruit.

In processing, the cow’s milk is allowed to stand, and after rising naturally to the milk surface, the cream is skimmed off, poured into metal containers, and heated in a double boiler. Once it reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 Celcius), tartaric acid blended in water is added; the mixture thickens shortly, becoming very dense. Afterward, It is allowed to rest refrigerated for twelve hours in special containers, where the whey separates. The mascarpone (minus the whey) is placed in cloth bags and allowed to further purge its whey for 24 additional hours.

If mascarpone isn’t available at your neighborhood supermarket, check with gourmet shops, large chain grocery store delicatessens, cheese shops, or Italian delicatessens and markets.

For some great recipes, click here or here or try your hand at tiramisu, a fancy favorite dessert:

8 eggs, separated
1/3 c sugar
i lb mascarpone cheese
1 c heavy cream
2 c brewed espresso coffee, cooled
2/3 c brandy or other sweet liqueur
30 lady finger cookies
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, grated
2 Tbsp Dutch process cocoa powder, sifted, for garnish

Mix the sugar into the egg yolks, blending well. Add a little mascarpone at a time to the egg yolk mixture, and mix until smooth. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Set this aside as well.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the beaten egg whites. Spread about 1/3 of the cream mixture of a 4-6 quart glass baking dish or serving bowl.

Place expresso coffee in a large mixing bowl, and combine with the brandy. Dip a lady finger into the expresso, lay it in baking dish on cream mixture. Top with grated chocolate. Continue in this manner, laying lady fingers side by side to cover the bottom. Place another 1/3 of cream mixture on top of soaked lady fingers. Cover this with another layer of expresso-soaked lady fingers and top with remaining cream mixture and grated chocolate. Dust final layer with grated chocolate and cocoa powder.

Chill 2 hours to set.