Spinach with Currants & Walnuts

makes 2 cups

cost $6.00

serves 4

150 calories per serving

This complex richly flavored dish is best balanced against a simple braised protein like fish or served on its own as an appetizer.  A robust, loose leaf spinach works best, but sometimes this spinach can be hard to find.  I am lucky enough to have a local grocer who carries the real thing all year round.  And since I live in New York City, that means shipping spinach in from California or Texas when local product is not available.  Alternatives are bagged, pre-washed, or hydroponically grown spinach.  For me the taste and texture of the real thing are worth it, but it is a personal decision.  Waiting for local product would have reduced the cost, but what can I say.  I was impatient!

Spinach grows best in sandy soil and each leaf requires washing several times to remove any little pieces of grit that may have lodged in the crevices.  So spinach whether transported or grown locally can be time consuming.  My first encounter with the combination of spinach, nuts, and fruit was in Claudia Rodin’s wonderful book The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  Her version calls for pine nuts but I use walnuts.  I always have a few walnuts on hand and I prefer the taste.

RECIPE

1 ⅓ pound spinach as purchased fresh and untrimmed (600g)

1 whole shallot (65g) peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (15ml)

¼ teaspoon flake salt

4 tablespoons chopped walnuts (30g), about 6 walnuts as purchased in shell

2  tablespoons currants (30g)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (15ml)

2 teaspoon first cold pressed olive oil (10ml)

Trim stems and roots from the spinach, wash thoroughly, chop into large pieces, and spin dry in a salad spinner.  Remove walnuts from shell and chop.  Refresh currants by covering with hot water and letting them soften for about 10 minutes.  Assemble other ingredients.

Sauté scallions in olive oil using a sauté pan that comes with a cover and is large enough to hold all the spinach.  When the shallots have softened and turned translucent, add balsamic vinegar and let most of it evaporate.  Then add the chopped walnuts, softened currants, and finally the spinach, pressing the spinach down into the pan.  Do not add any additional water.  Cover and leave over low heat until the spinach softens into a mass.  Incorporate the walnuts and currant evenly into the spinach and finish with remaining cold pressed olive oil.  Tastes as good at room temperature as it does served hot.

METRICS

The experts agree that spinach is a healthy food.  A dark green vegetable as per MyPyramid.   A source of essential micro-nutrients as per Nutrition Facts Label.  The experts however do not agree about fat.  Using olive oil in classic proportions will always exceed the austere requirement of 3 grams per serving* required by the FDA to label a preparation “healthy.”  The role of fat in the diet, especially unsaturated fats and oils, is becoming controversial and consensus has not been reached yet.

My friends and family take a liberalized approach to fats and olive oil and devour my spinach faster as I can wash the leaves with comments like “I can eat this all day!”  If good cooking is the art of creating food people love to eat, than smart cooking is using those skills to encourage people to eat healthy food.  So wouldn’t that mean that olive oil is serving a noble purpose?  But there I go again – me and my simplistic mind!

 

Per Serving  (114g):  Calories 150, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 1.5g, Sodium 125mg, Carbohydrate 12g, Fiber 3g, Protein 4g.
Excellent source  vitamin A as beta-carotene, folate, magnesium.
Good source fiber, vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, vitamin E, potassium.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

Black Kale

As with so many of life’s important decisions, the choice of red, curly, or black kale comes down to your taste, your personal preference, and your pocketbook

Curly kale has broad based deep green leaves and a robust, pungent, fully developed favor.  It is cultivated all year long and is easy to pick up in most supermarket chains.  Some cooks blanch the leaves first, while others add a grated carrot to the pan to soften and sweeten the somewhat bitter taste.

makes about 2 cups (500ml)

cost $6.00 for black kale / $3.00 for curly kale

calories 320

serves 2

160 calories per serving

More exotic and expensive are red kale (pictured on the right) and black kale (pictured on the left).  A little milder and a little less pungent, these kales can be found in green markets starting in fall through early winter and in specialty supermarkets all year long. My favorite is cavolo nero or black kale.  Alternatively called dinosaur or laciniato kale, this blackish-green leafy kale is favored by the Tuscans who have developed a special affection for its distinctive taste and gnarled appearance.  Chicken stock enhances flavor and a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice before serving sharpens the flavor.  Check to be sure that excess stock or water has been completely evaporated so the final dish does not weep.

An excellent choice of greens to accompany a ham, a rack of pork, or a roast beef, keep kale in mind as you plan for the upcoming holidays.  Each pound (½ kilo) kale as purchased yields 2 to 2½ cups cooked.

RECIPE

2 bunches (15 ounces/430g) curly, red, or black kale, washed, stemmed, and chopped into medium sized pieces

2 tablespoons (25g) extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves (10g) fresh garlic, peeled and crushed

1 – 2 cups (250ml – 500ml) low sodium chicken stock

¼ teaspoon (.7g) flake salt

Lemon juice or Balsamic vinegar

Warm oil in sauté pan and soften crushed garlic.  Add kale a handful or two at a time using medium heat and stirring as you add each handful.  Sauté the kale until the pieces start to wilt and the oil is evenly distributed, usually about 5 minutes.  Add the salt and start adding stock or water a half cup (100ml) at a time.  Keep adding the stock until the kale is softened.  Keep heat high enough to evaporate each addition of stock.  If more liquid is required, use water.  Braise the kale for another 20 minutes.   Reduce the heat when the kale is softened and all liquid is absorbed or evaporated.  Adjust seasonings and finish with some lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.  At this point, the kale will hold nicely for at least 30 minutes.  Check before serving to be sure that excess stock or water has been completely evaporated so the final dish does not weep.

Note:  Both piece size and cooking time effect the texture of the final product.  The smaller the pieces or the longer the cooking time, the softer and smoother the kale.  Start with medium sized pieces and about 20 minutes, then adjust according to taste.

METRICS

Kale is not cheap, but it is incredible healthy. MyPyramid classifies kale as a dark green vegetable and recommends 2 cups dark greens per week.   Whole Foods uses the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) to numerically rate foods and kale is on top with a score of 1000.  For those of you like me who love kale and are willing to pay the price, we get both flavor and nutrition with each bite.  The question I wrestle with is how to make this incredibly healthy vegetable appealing and acceptable to those of you who do not share my taste for slightly bitter greens.  I can’t guarantee success, but I know where to start.  A judicious amount of salt, a generous amount of fat, some acid, some culinary expertise, and a few discretionary dollars to invest in healthy greens.

Encouraging more people to eat and enjoy a healthy vegetable like kale is the best kind of healthy eating.  So I choose to focus more on the sourcing and cooking end and less on the limits to sodium and fat end.  To my simplistic mind, flexing a little on olive oil and salt makes good nutrition sense as long as more people eat more kale.

 

Per Serving (130g):  Calories 160, Fat 13g, Saturated Fat  2.0g, Sodium 240mg, Carbohydrate  8g, Fiber  2g, Protein  3g.  
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

Thanksgiving 2010

THE MEAL

Everyone loves Thanksgiving.  It is our national family social get together and our yearly communal sit down.  Probably the only American meal where we actually sit down and eat the same basic set of items.  Roast turkey and gravy.  Cranberries.  Stuffing.  Mashed potatoes.  Squash or pumpkin.  Checking my facsimile edition of The Original Boston School Cooking Book published in 1896, the menu items are pretty much the same.  The notable exception is oyster soup.  Does anyone serve that anymore?  Certainly not me.  I have made many Thanksgiving dinners for family and friends over the years because the tradition deserves to be honored.  But turkey is not my favorite.  A little too bland.  And sometimes a little too dry.   Do I love the day any less?  Absolutely not!  It just means I put aside my taste for a really gamey bird and cook to please the less adventurous who come to my table to indulge.

Looking at a whole meal has always fascinated me.  Eating is holistic.  People eat meals as opposed to individual items and since Americans eat pretty much the same set of items, Thanksgiving is a perfect meal to look at.  Using recipes from my software data base, prices from various local markets, and some off the shelf preparations, here is the menu board for a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Onion Soup, ¾ cup (180ml)

Roast Turkey with Skin, 6 ounces (170g)

Turkey Gravy, ¼ cup (60ml)

Bread Stuffing, ½ cup (100g)

Cranberry Sauce, 2 Tablespoons (35g)

Mashed Potato, ½ cup (105g)

Green Beans with Almonds, ½ cup (120g)

Sparkling Apple Cider, 8 fl oz (230ml)

Pumpkin Pie, 1 piece (155g)

THE METRICS

total cost  $7.40   ●   total calories 1240 per serving

Let’s talk dollars first.   Any foodie worth his salt can drive the cost up by sourcing specialty items.  Free range grain fed turkeys.  Even better heirloom wild turkeys (my personal choice).  Maybe a bottle of vintage wine…  But Thanksgiving is not complex and perhaps it is more in keeping with tradition to keep the meal simple.  Besides, many people prefer the taste of turkey, not the more gamey flavor of a heirloom bird.  My first surprise was how reasonably priced a traditional Thanksgiving could be.

My second surprise was how much time the analysis took.  What I thought would be a straightforward exercise ended up getting complex.  Some items have incomplete data and due diligence is required every step of the way to determine a reasonably accurate calorie count.  That may be one of the reasons why so few meals seem to get analyzed.

Besides the time commitment, however, there may be another reason meals, especially great meals, do not get analyzed.  Companionship, cooking, setting, sharing, savoring – the magic of a great meal is what my fellow foodies love and cherish.  The risk of analysis is that it can break the magic of the moment.  And that is a valid observation.

But let’s just try a bit of analysis by putting the calories into the context of who may be sitting at table.  Aunt Sally is over 50, never exercises, sometimes indulges in sweets but otherwise eats like a bird – miniscule portions, no skin, no dark meat, no gravy, and a whole piece of pumpkin pie.  Makes sense because her daily requirement is about 1600 calories.  She will also get full benefit of the only deep orange vegetable on the table.  Then there is cousin Jeremy.   On the move, physically active, into sports, early twenties, always hungry.  He eats double portions of everything in sight.  Makes sense because his daily requirement is about 3000 calories.  And then there is everyone else in between, but that is enough for now.  A little bit of analysis goes a long way and I need to get cooking …

Happy Thanksgiving.  Enjoy the meal!

Green Split Pea Soup

October is the month to pull out the soup pot.  Mine is made of bonded stainless steel, holds about 3 quarts (3 liters), and has been on the shelf since spring.  October days in New York are cool, crisp, and can be spectacularly beautiful.  Except when it rains.  And sometimes it rains a lot.  Either way makes good soup weather.  Bean based soups are easy to make but time consuming because beans require soaking time.  Quicker and just as satisfying are lentil and split pea soup.  Today it is going to be green split peas.  October is a good month for roots, bulbs, and tubers and no split pea soup would be complete without carrot, onion, and potato.  Some recipes call for ham hocks, pancetta, or bacon.  These are delicious, but my recipe works with just vegetables.  A freshly chopped garnish at the end, aromatics added during the cooking, and the right amount of salt are my flavoring agents of choice.   Yes, I use salt and I am going to tell you why.  But first the recipe.

THE RECIPE

1 pound (450g) dry split peas, rinsed, drained

2 small or 1 large yellow onion (250g) peeled, chopped

2 medium or 1 really big carrot (170g) peeled, chopped

1 potato (160g) scrubbed, quartered, eyes removed, skin intact

4 cups (1 liter) low sodium chicken stock, brick pack is fine

4 – 6 cups  (1 – 1 ½ liter) additional water

2 teaspoons Kosher style flake salt (7g)

Aromatics – thyme, oregano, garlic (optional)

Garnish – fresh scallion, fresh parsley, freshly ground black pepper

Put split peas into the soup pot, add potato, carrot, onion, stock, and water.  Bring to boil, partially cover, and gently simmer over low heat for about an hour or until the peas are completely soft.   Add salt and aromatics about half way through the cooking process.  Pass the soup through food mill.  Alternatively, blend using an immersion blender or an old fashioned stainless steel egg beater.  Add more water for a thinner soup and adjust seasoning.  Garnish with fresh cilantro, parsley, scallions, and black pepper.

THE METRICS

makes about 12 cups (3 liters)   ●   total cost $5.00   ●   $1.70 per liter

portioning information   ●   150 calories per cup   ●   230 calories per bowl 

On to salt now.   Nothing is new about salt being controversial.  What is different this time around is the substance of debate.  Salt the mineral is tangible, visible, tactile, and real.  Sodium the element is elusive, conceptual, and measureable only by calculation or laboratory analysis.   Leaving aside the legitimate debate over health consequences of too much sodium, the measurement logistics are challenging.      

When the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are finally released later on this year, sodium recommendations will probably be set lower than under previous guidelines.  New York City formed a partnership at the beginning of 2010, the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), to guide a voluntary reduction of sodium levels in packaged and restaurant food by 2014.   Meanwhile, the restaurant and food industries continue the search for culinary salvation – a sodium free substitute  for salt.

As a cook, I love salt.  Powerful, robust, an exceptionally effective flavor enhancer, salt does the job.  Because of its strength, salt easily overwhelms other more delicate flavors so I have always used a light hand and treated salt with respect. 

Salt added in the proportions noted above meets current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) criteria for low sodium and falls below the proposed 2014 target set by the NSRI guidelines for soup.  In fact the amount could be increased to just under 2 ¾ teaspoons flaked Kosher style salt and still meet both standards.  Serious cooks know that salting to taste is more a matter of personal preference than a function of software analysis.   Those of us who salt intuitively may need to be more attentive to tracking our use.  As sodium comes under increased scrutiny, our approach to measurement may benefit from analysis.  More to come on salt and sodium …

 

Nutrition Facts per 1 cup serving*  (240g):  Calories 140, Fat 0g, Saturated Fat  0g, Trans Fat  0g, Cholesterol  0mg, Sodium  230mg, Carbohydrate  24g, Fiber  8g, Protein  10g.  Vitamin A 40%, Vitamin C 10%, Calcium 2%, Iron 8%.  Excellent Source:  vitamin A as beta-carotene, fiber.  Good Source protein, thiamine, folate.
*Serving sizes are reference amounts defined and regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).  A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

Salmon Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing

Summer is coming to an end.  The days are getting shorter.  A chill in the evening air means an end to summer salad suppers and the beginning of more robust meals.  But while summer is still here, a large salad is satisfying, refreshing, and takes about 30 minutes to put together as long as the greens are washed and ready to go.  For protein, I use both legumes and canned salmon.  Grilled chicken or canned tuna are good substitutes for the salmon.  Vegetable ingredients vary depending on what comes in and out of the market during the growing season, but my base always starts with mesclun.  I buy weekly from a vendor who lets me mix my own from the many offerings of multi colored, multi textured, slightly bitter leaves.  Proportions are for two people.  For robust appetites, serve with crusty bread.

THE RECIPE

½ cup (125 ml) olive oil and yogurt dressing, as per proportions below

7 tablespoons (100 g) canned chickpeas, rinsed, drained

¾ cup (50 g) red cabbage, washed, coarsely shredded

3 ½ cups (100 g) washed mesclun or assorted greens

1 medium (150 g) tomato, washed, cored, coarsely chopped

½ each (75 g) Haas avocado, peeled, seeded, sliced

1 – 6 ounce can (170 g) wild Alaskan pink salmon, canned, drained

Using a bowl with a 2 quart (2 liter) capacity, make a dressing in the bottom of the bowl with 4 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar, 2 tablespoons 0% Greek yogurt, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, oregano, basil, pepper, and about 1/4 teaspoon flake salt.  Put chickpeas and cabbage in first, then mesclun, then tomato and avocado.  Other vegetable options are peppers, fennel, carrots, and cucumbers.  Arrange drained salmon on top.  Mix salad just before serving.

THE METRICS

makes about 6 ½ cups  ●  cost $12.20  ●  1070 calories

portioning information:   540 calories for 2 people  ●  270 calories for 4 people  ●  180 calories for 6 people

This salad delivers phytonutrient and fiber rich vegetables, mixed proteins, and oleic acid rich, omega-3 rich, vitamin E rich unsaturated fats.  Moreover, I used clean sustainable salmon and a seasonal heirloom tomato.  Despite these benefits, the salad cannot be labeled healthy because total fat exceeds acceptable parameters established by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Sodium and saturated fat also exceed acceptable parameters, but are easier to adjust in accordance with current regulations.

Before going back to school, I always made classic vinaigrette – three parts oil to one part vinegar.  My studies progressed, I learned about too much fat, and I stopped.  Experimenting with other combinations and substitutions became the goal.   For example, some variations on classic vinaigrette call for some crème fraîche and yogurt works really well.   I even tried fat free salad dressing once …   But the classic version kept calling me back because it makes such an elegant delicious product.

Let’s call it the olive oil dilemma.   The cook in me says enjoy the salad!  Just be careful the cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is what the label says it is.  The dietitian in me says maybe it is not quite that simple. The nutrient benefit is significant.  The three fat sources in question come from “good” fats and other options are out there.  I can run the numbers again adding bread with the meal or fruit and yogurt after the meal.    I can manage the impact over the day and plan according.  The dietician in me also knows that nutrition research is ongoing so I can continue to scan the literature for new perspectives on total fat in the diet and the value of good fats …

This summer I went classic and kept an eye on my daily calorie count.  And with summer coming to an end, I will not have to wrestle with the dilemma again until next year.

 

Nutrition Facts per ½ cup serving*  (g):  Calories 160, Fat 12g, Saturated Fat  1.5g, Trans Fat  0g, Cholesterol  10mg, Sodium  180mg, Carbohydrate  7g, Fiber  3g, Protein  7g.  Vitamin A 30%, Vitamin C 15%, Calcium 2%, Iron 6%.  Excellent Source vitamin A, vitamin B12.  Good Source vitamin C, protein, fiber, niacin, folate.  Natural Source omega-3 fatty acids.
*Serving sizes are reference amounts defined and regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).  A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.