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.]

A Salad a Day

Eating healthfully does not have to be a difficult feat of strength and will. In fact, I encourage you to create a simple salad every day based solely on ingredients you have in your house or can easily grab at your local grocer and dump into a bowl.

I have been having so much fun with Mason jar salads lately. (Yes, food nerds like me think salads are fun.) Originally, my meal planning and prep work used to take up half a day every Sunday. I would divide all my ingredients into their own containers so I could mix and match and assemble a variety of veggie-friendly meals for myself during the week. But, lo and behold! I became a Mason jar salad convert.

Mason Jar Salad

My Mason jars are extra large (32 oz) and light green, but you could go for the clear, smaller version if you’re slowly working your way into the meal prep and veggie lifestyle. Assembly is easy, but requires some thought as you don’t want your fragile, leafy greens sitting in a puddle of dressing for three days. HurryTheFoodUp shows you how to properly structure your salad and TheMuse gives you lots of ideas about the kinds of foods you can integrate into your salads, so play around and experiment with different flavors each week. Try to always have a protein (chicken or chickpeas), a carb (sweet potatoes or carrots), and a fat (avocado or walnuts) in your combo. When you’re ready, you can simply shake up your salad and eat directly out of the jar or shake, dump everything into a bowl, and toss in a handful of croutons. Ta da!

Mason Jar Avocado

For more information and ideas about how to get lots of veggies and other yummy, good foods into your daily meals, check out my previous blog post “It’s Easy Being Green…” And please leave a comment below and share with us what’s been working for you or what you’re struggling with. We’re here to help make healthful eating as easy as possible!

Fishing for compliments

For the second year in a row, I shared kitchen duties with my mom for our family’s Christmas Eve dinner. My mom handled all the fish dishes (I’ve written about our Italian fish tradition previously here) and I was in charge of the rest, which included a variety of nutrient-dense, fancifully flavored, plant-based recipes. This year’s menu, like last year’s, combined old-world tradition with some new fusion fare:

  • Shrimp Cocktail (à la Costco)
  • Chard & White Bean Soup (I substituted sweet potatoes for new potatoes)
  • Wilted Greens Salad (I used plain, ol’ mesclun instead of mustard greens, but added Dijon to the dressing as a nod; I also threw in some chopped walnuts to add texture and offset the sweetness of the dressing)
  • Shrimp Scampi; Calamari en Brodo; Broiled Cod; and Linguine with King Crab legs (all recipes in Mom’s head)
  • Braised Kale and Carrot Stew (loosely inspired by this recipe)
  • Citrus Pound Cake w/Warm Citrus Salad (from the Dec ’14 issue of The Oprah Magazine)
  • Winter Warmer Cocktail (I don’t drink alcohol, but got everyone else nice and drunk on this)

I fare best when I eat vegetarian, but I don’t feel the need to make a show of it; I just like providing solidly healthful foods for people I love, especially when I know some of the day will include indulgences and sweets. Plus, it ensures that I’ll be getting my own fill of fruits and veggies…a true win-win.

What kind of foods do you eat and traditions do you follow for the holidays? Do you like to cook or share the cooking responsibilities with anyone in your family during special occasions? Feel free to post your comments below. I look forward to reading them!

Recipe: Leftovers Salad

The East Village is not exactly known for its spacious apartments. As a matter of fact, my building, much like many of the surrounding ones, is a renovated tenement, which once contained large, shared areas, often housing hundreds of residents at a time from the late 1860s through the early 1900s.

When the buildings were renovated, some of the new apartments inside couldn’t hold “normal”-sized items like stoves, refrigerators, and bathtubs, so, in ours, for example, we have a slim stove, an under-cabinet refrigerator and a stall shower.

All of this to say that, when we make a meal at home or order dinner in, we’d better eat everything right quick; otherwise, there’s not much room for us to store leftovers (our freezer is slightly larger than a shoebox). Unfortunately, sometimes we do end up with extras, but they don’t stay in the fridge for very long. When this happens, I clean out whatever leftovers have accumulated and incorporate them in some way into a second meal, usually in a salad, so I’ve named this post’s recipe “Leftovers Salad.”

For today’s salad (served 2), I had some leftover mujadara and string beans that I had made earlier in the week; you can use whatever dinner leftovers you have on hand, be it grilled chicken, shrimp, or even pasta salad.

Part 1

2 c Romaine lettuce, washed* and chopped
2 c kale, washed and chopped

Part 2

Leftovers

Part 3**

2 Tbsp sunflower seeds
1 tomato (plum/Roma, beefsteak, or whatever’s in season or your favorite), chopped
1/3 c pitted olives, any kind, drained, rinsed & chopped

Part 4***

juice of 1/2 lime (acid)
1 tsp Dijon mustard (emulsifier)
1 Tbsp olive oil (oil)
Salt & pepper to taste

Part 5

2 thick slices sourdough bread, grilled or toasted (a whole wheat baguette would work well, too)
4 Tbsp plain hummus

*the best way to wash lettuce/leafy greens is to peel the leaves from the bunch and drop them into a large bowl while running cold water on them, shaking them around and letting dirt fall to the bottom; then, lift out the leaves and place on a dry towel or paper towels
**the sprinkly part can be substituted by whatever goes best with your leftovers; for example, if you were using grilled chicken, you might want to use chopped walnuts and dried cranberries instead of the tomato and olives
***traditionally, a vinaigrette is made of one part acid, three parts oil, and an emulsifier like mustard, garlic, or egg yolk; so, if you’d rather use red wine vinegar instead of the lime juice or canola instead of olive oil, go right ahead

Toss together ingredients from Parts 1 and 2 in a large bowl; sprinkle with ingredients from Part 3.

For the dressing (Part 4), whisk the lime juice and mustard together in a small bowl, while you slowly drizzle in the oil until everything is emulsified (mixed well with no separation). Add salt & pepper to taste and whisk some more. Drizzle lightly over salad mixture. Serve salad up with the grilled bread, each slice topped with 2 Tbsp hummus (Part 5).

Quasi-recipe: Lovely lentils

Inspired by one of my favorite side dishes at LIC Market, I set off to incorporate lentils into my salad yesterday.  There are so many good things about lentils and they’re so simple to make, dressing them up or down as you like.  As a kid, I remember having homemade lentil soup all the time and they’ve always been a favorite of mine.  Here are the ingredients I used to make the dish in this photo:

Green lentils
Mesclun greens and baby spinach
Hard-boiled egg
Pitted Manzanilla olives
Dressing (olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard, salt & pepper)
French bread
Hummus