Do You Like Your Salads Well Dressed?

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Summer is the season for salads.

The northeast is hot and humid during July and August and the last thing anyone feels like doing is spending hours in a hot kitchen. We want cool and refreshing. And we want it now.

Local farmers markets provide a variety of fresh greens. After that, it depends on what is available, seasonal, and handy.

But whatever you decide to throw in, please don’t be stingy with the salad dressing. Salads don’t make it to my table unless they’re well dressed.

Pictured above is a salad I put together recently. Red leaf Boston lettuce, small tender inner leaves of an escarole, some avocado, a couple of hydroponic tomato, a scallion, one whole chopped cucumber, a hard cooked egg, some nice canned tonnino, some chickpeas, and one of my favorite Italian imports, Roman artichokes that still have their stems intact.

For the vinaigrette, I make my own with California cold pressed Arbequina olive oil, imported sherry or wine vinegar (7 – 8% acidity), and salt. And I used a very generous tablespoon of my artisan vinaigrette for each 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) salad.

Wait a minute! You’re a dietitian aren’t you?  Isn’t your job to remind us not to use too much oil and to cut back on salt?

My more zealous colleagues do just that. Especially those who work in weight loss or food addiction. Other colleagues separate healthy fats from unhealthy fats but will still recommend restraint. But not me. So I’m the first to admit that what I’m about to say is controversial.

Because flavor reigns supreme at my table, I use LOTS of vinaigrette because my well dressed salads tastes better than a salad topped a skimpy amount of dressing or worse some of that fat free stuff.

Putting an irresistibly delicious salad on the table makes it easy for folks to eat more vegetables. And getting folks to eat more vegetables is what we want right?

Found a wonderful quote in my facsimile edition of The Original Picayune Creole Cookbook originally published in 1901. The book says it is an old Spanish proverb. Who knows? Whatever the source it’s makes good culinary sense.

To make a perfect salad there should be a miser for vinegar, a spendthrift for oil, a wise man for salt and a madcap to stir all these ingredients, and mix them well together.

So please unless you’re committed to a low fat diet or limited fats to promote weight loss, don’t worry about olive oil. The fats in olive oil are mostly unsaturated and have a favorable fatty acid ratio.

Salad greens and vegetables are rich in potassium, fibers, and phytonutrients. Plus carotenoids are better absorbed in the presence of fat. Add some protein to your well dressed salad as I did with a locator mix of tuna, egg, and chickpeas. Serve with crusty whole grain bread and voilá a complete meal.

We normally eat about 2 1/2 cups or so for a meal or roughly 500 calories per plate not counting bread.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Heres how the conventional nutrition facts label looks for 1 cup of my well dressed salad:  16g total fat, 250mg sodium, 300 mg potassium, 6g total carbohydrate, 2g fibers, 0g added sugars, 10g protein.

We used to obsess about calories from fat and I’m so relieved the FDA has finally agreed to update the label. This well dressed salad clocks in at 68% calories from fat with a fat profile that reflects predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Many of my zealous colleagues still obsess about sodium and, don’t get me wrong, for some sodium restriction is critically important. For most of us however it’s probably more important to take a look at how we’re using salt.

 

 

Healthy versus Healthy.

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Most of us agree now that healthy eating is important. This is new. Just a few years ago, labeling something healthy was the kiss of death. But times have changed.

Is it a seismic shift? Time will tell on that one, but observers agree that it’s big and important and requires attention.

The good news is we all want to eat healthy. The bad news is we can’t agree on what exactly healthy is.

Take supermarkets. The average supermarket has 45,000 individual items. At least that was what the Food Marketing Institute estimated when they did the count for 2013. And every one of those products has a label and many have additional certifications.

Or farmer’s markets. Plenty of good stuff to buy at least in the summer. But the produce is dirty and untrimmed and needs to be stored correctly and cooked. Not easy tasks without a good kitchen set up and lots of time to shop.

Or restaurants. Cooking not required. But you still have to make choices and decide what to order.

Now imagine how much harder all this is if you never took a home economics course or learned cooking skills? Or if you had never seen a farm or had a home garden? Or if you never met anyone who stocked a root cellar or made cheese or baked bread? We have a situation where one to two generations comes to the marketplace without these basic skills.

What to eat is a tough decision. And sometimes all you have to go on is an image or a label.

People may know the words they want but they need help translating the words to the table. Now this is good for those of us in the translation business. We can plate healthy to fit what the person says they want. And that’s good for business.

But labels are like metaphors. They stand for something in the real world. Think about it this way. In Ireland, grass-fed isn’t used as a marketing label. It’s simply the way it’s done. At least for now.

Accessible, normal things don’t need labels. But today’s consumers don’t bring basic cooking and food skills to the table and so they depend on labels.  Healthy is defined by so many different labels today that I could not find room to fit them all in the infograph. Like I say, it’s good for those of us in the translation business.

Confusion continues and labels sell products and marketing works.

And the bright shiny silver lining to the dark cloud of confusion is most people may actually really be eating healthier today. The competition between contenders for the best healthy diet is fierce, but as long as it uses real food and more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, at least the essentials will be in place.

Why count when it all tastes so good?

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Beautiful. Delicious. Let’s Eat.

The perfect late spring supper for our north east coast growing season. Planting has started but only asparagus and ramps are coming in right now so I’m still dependent on California, Texas, and Florida. The arrangement on my plate is what the French call a Salade Composée. Call me a thwarted graphic designer, but I have always loved making stylized plate designs.

Simple ingredients:  greens, vegetables (tomato, cucumber, legumes, red cabbage), grains preferable whole grain, protein, and dressing.

Homemade vinaigrette is always on hand because I make my own and we eat salads all the time.  Basic extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt.

Legumes are always on hand too because I buy dry beans in bulk and cook batches as needed. The only component that requires cooking is the grain.  The one I used for this salad is freekeh, an ancient grain with roots in the Middle East. Traditionally, it’s made from wheat so freekeh is not gluten free. The berries are harvested while still green or yellow, then roasting during processing. Smoky. Nutty. Chewy. Freekeh is a perfect grain for a savory salad. But it needs to be cooked first and that takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the grain is cooking, I wash and trim all the vegetables. I don’t measure when I’m doing a quick supper like I did the night I made this salad. But I know from past scrutiny I want about 16 ounces (450 grams) on the plate and look for a distribution by weigh of 40% vegetables, 20% legume, 20% protein, 10% grain, and 10% dressing.

Once everything is washed, peeled, chopped, drained, cooked, and ready to go, the fun begins.

The plate starts with a bed of arugula and green leaf lettuce.

Then portion the protein. That is canned tuna you see up there in the upper right. A couple of tablespoons of a Spanish line caught tuna packed in olive oil. Tonnino Ventresca. Really delicious but on the expensive side.

Next in line going clockwise is the grain. My personal choice is freehka, but farro or buckwheat or quinoa work just as well.

Now some chopped red cabbage. Cabbages are good keepers and help to bridge the gap between the end of the last year’s harvest and the green shoots of spring.

Next are some Kirby cucumbers.

For legumes, I used chickpeas because that is what I had on hand.  Use what you like or use what’s sitting on the shelf or in the frig. Home cooked tastes better, but canned is more convenient when time is a factor.

The final touches are a hard cooked egg cut in six pieces, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and a scallion for garnish. With a couple of generous tablespoons of vinaigrette, the salad is dressed and ready to go.

So at this point you may be asking me why mess up the meal with counting?

I don’t disagree. But I feel a responsible. A cook needs to know what the people they feed are eating. Pleasure and good company is key to healthy eating. But so are healthy food choices. And that means you count, even if it’s only miles travelled between farm to table. Here are some good examples of the kind of counting I do.

  • Portioning the Protein.  Prep cooks in restaurants portion protein for the line cooks for two reasons. The chef needs to manage costs and the customer needs to feel the portion is good value. Some of us, chefs and eaters alike, check for sustainability. But nutritionists like me portion protein for other reasons. We like to know the grams and we like to know the distribution between animal (egg and tuna) and plant (legumes and grain).
  • Salt and Sodium.  Whichever side you take as the salt wars rage on, knowing how much you use and where it comes from is required for baseline.
  • Balance the Plate. The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate get criticized from both sides of the food spectrum. Manufacturers and producers don’t want to count anything that can be perceived as a negative. The healthy eating crew has for understandable reasons lost faith in the government’s ability to provide valid advice. But here are some observations. Using 16 ounces (450 grams) as the reference amount, my salad provides 3 cups of vegetables, 2 ounces of protein, and 1 ounce of grain. Bonus points for fish, plant protein, leafy greens, and whole grains.

The calorie count for the 16 ounce (450 gram) salad which includes 3 generous tablespoons dressingis 590 calories. As for the other nutrients:  26 grams protein, 41 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fiber. The largest contributor to those 16 ounces is the water weight from the vegetables which accounts for 74% or about 10 1/2 ounces.

And for the usual suspects:  720 mg sodium, 6 grams saturated fat, no added sugar.

Salt sources in descending order:   vinaigrette, chickpeas, tuna, freekeh, egg, vegetables.

Saturated fat in descending order:  vinaigrette, egg, tuna, chickpea.

So why bother counting when it all tastes so good? Because the cook need to know. The people at table don’t necessarily need to know. And it’s important to keep in mind that too much obsession with eating healthy can be as detrimental to good health as too little. But the cook still needs to know that nutrition bases are covered and that salt and fats have been put to good culinary use.

My romance with broccoli.

organic broccoli
organic broccoli

 

Pictured above is the broccoli that came in this week’s CSA box. Pristine, lovely, organic, and ready to use. And not a worm or an aberrant insect to be seen.

I love broccoli. We eat seasonal and local which here in the north east means mid-summer into late fall. Seasonal and local also means organic broccoli from a CSA or greenmarket.

My broccoli is usually braised in olive oil, garlic, and a pinch of salt. More than al dente but never over-cooked. I cut the flowered heads off from the stem, removing the tough fibrous skin from the stalks, and cut the stems into bite sized pieces. No need to get too fancy with broccoli because it tastes so good on its own.

We eat broccoli in season, but in the depths of a north east winter, that vibrant green California crop looks pretty good. So not being a purist, we also eat broccoli out of season. I’m okay with conventional during the winter when my local grocer has a good selection.

I used to get romantic about broccoli. Especially a broccoli that I picked myself right off the stalk. But I learned a harsh lesson during that first year I cooked in Garches. And I have looked at broccoli with a realistic eye ever since.

My friend Isabelle has a beautiful house and property in this little suburb half way between Paris and Versailles. She had an arrangement with a local gardener. He could grow whatever vegetable he wanted to and sell them in return for making the garden available to us. And we ate marvelously well from that garden!

I would just go out and pick whatever I wanted each day. Broccoli came in that fall and I was there to pick some for supper. But just once.

Being young and romantic I believed all that was natural was good. Now a farmer knows that when you grow broccoli, you have to deal with worms. Organic or conventional, worms love broccoli. However the farmer decides to farm it, worms are part of the calculation. But I grew up in the suburbs so how was I supposed to know?

Conventional farmers use conventional pesticides; organic farmers use USDA organically approved pesticides. I don’t think this guy used anything. The broccoli was completely natural and completely full of worms.

I put up a valiant battle. But the worms outnumbered and out gunned me. There were so many I gave up trying and ended up dumping everything back out somewhere behind a bush. I could not look at broccoli again for a long time.

My love of broccoli did return but I lost my romanticism. And I still find myself checking for little nasty critters. So God Bless whatever my organic farmer / conventional farmer needs to so I don’t have to deal with worms.

Do more words on the label make it healthy?

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Don’t get me wrong. This veggie patty is a is fine product and with the addition of some avocado, tomato, a healthy amount of BBQ sauce, and two slices of robust whole grain bread, my lunch yesterday was very good.

But take a look at the package. Being the prototypical nutrition nerd, I read the whole package as I ate my lunch.

Gluten Free. Dairy Free. Soy Free. Made with organic vegetables, quinoa & walnuts. No GMOs.

Turning the box on its side, I found more. 0g Trans Fat. No added MSG. No Preservatives. Vegan. All this plus the now familiar Nutrition Facts and allergy disclaimers.

I finished up my lunch, was enjoying a slim can of Perrier, and I got to thinking. There is a lot of data on that package. I counted up 11 food related terms / product verifications and 12 ingredients.

There is no doubt in my mind that every statement on that package is honest and accurate. And since I had a little extra time yesterday, I went back and checked the items I added to enhance my lunch. Here is what I found.

The avocado comes from Mexico. Period. I always choose California when I have the option, but that’s only because I’m a native and believe in supporting your own. Mexican avocados taste just as good. The BBQ sauce is USDA organic. The tomatoes are hydroponic and imported from Canada. Fresh greenhouse vegetables / légumes de serre frais in environmentally friendly packing. No comparison with a heirloom seasonal summer tomato ripened on the vine but with the advantage of year round availability. My whole grain bread is doubly certified both USDA and Northeastern Organic Farming Association organic. And it’s local.

Note to self. Checking out labels takes a lot more time than preparing the sandwich. Add second note. It’s better for your health to cook than to check labels.

The last thing I checked was sodium. My rough estimate for the patty plus BBQ sauce plus bread is about 900mg. To my palate, it all tasted pretty good, but it might be on the high side for sodium sensitive people.

So is it all healthy? Of course it’s healthy for most people, but I could have told you that before checking all those labels. How can you go wrong with avocado and whole grains?

It’s illegal to label my green salad healthy!

mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics
mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics

 

Like pornography, healthy food might be tough to define but you know it when you see it. Now a simple green salad should be the picture of healthy. Right? But since healthy means different things in different contexts, defining healthy gets confusing at times.

Take the green salad I am serving tonight. The choice of greens always depends on availability so some mesclun from my local greenmarket will serve as the base. A handful on each plate, a few tomato pieces (still not seasonal I admit), some thinly sliced scallion, and for the final touch, a tablespoon or two home crafted vinaigrette made with a fine California Arbequina, some sherry vinegar, and salt. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Of course. Who would say no?

Those rich dark greens and shades of almost purple are the colors of healthy.

Not boring or austere thanks to good oil, salt, and pristine greens. Not too much sodium. Nutrition points for dark green vegetables. Expensive, local, fresh, and natural. Organic? Now that one I am not completely sure about. The mesclun is probably organic. But tomatoes and scallions? Just not sure.

And the vinaigrette is not unprocessed. Grinding olives to olive oil is complex, but the oil is unfiltered with shades of green in the sunlight and was pressed within the last 6 months so I am am going to say “good” processed. As far as the salt and the vinegar, those two products are complex too.

Looking at the nutrition numbers, the fatty acid ratio is excellent. Well above the ratio recommended by the Healthy Eating Index. This ration is a calculation used by nutritionist nerds like me to evaluate the quality of the fat for clients who want to reduce dietary saturated fat.

My plate of salad counts for about 180 calories out of my usual dinner of 700 to 800 calories.

So far so good. Eating salads before the meal makes good nutrition sense for two reasons. First it is nutrient dense. And second, salads fill you up so you are less likely to devour the main course.

But think about this scenario. And until the FDA finalizes nutrition guidelines for restaurant menu labeling, we won’t know for sure. As an off the shelf product, my salad could not be labeled healthy. Sodium is okay, but there is too much fat and too much saturated fat. What that means is that if the restrictive labeling criteria remain intact when the restaurant regulations are finalized, it would be technically illegal for a restaurant or deli take out to label my salad healthy. That’s what I mean about healthy meaning different things in different contexts.

I am still going to give it a healthy thumbs up.

How about you?

Roast Chicken Skin is Best Part!

Roast Chicken | gourmet-metrics
Roast Chicken | gourmet-metrics

This is a beautiful Poulet Rouge Fermiere roast chicken, one of winter’s pleasures. The spring equinox is approaching, so this may be my last indulgence until fall.

My grandfather always said the skin was the best part of any bird. He makes a good point. Some of my zealous colleagues recommend throwing the skin out, but I see things a little different.

Skin protects the meat during the roasting process. It would be one dry, desiccated bird without that protective layer of lubricating fat. Throwing out the skin is disrespectful to the chicken, but it’s also expensive. I pay a lot for my bird. I expect my chickens to be well fed without growth stimulants and that means more expense for the farmer who raises them. Paying $5.00 per pound and throwing out the skin means throwing away good money.

My counter to both cost and my zealous colleagues is to serve smaller portions. This bird weighed three pounds as purchased. After roasting with resulting moisture loss and refuse (bones), the yield is closer to 50% of the purchased weight. So I made 6 servings. Plenty of protein, less fat and saturated fat, crispy skin, and deliciously roasted flavorful chicken.

Roast Chicken Plate | gourmet-metrics
Roast Chicken Plate | gourmet-metrics

Granted, that serving did look small, so I filled out the plate with lots broccoli raab and a basmati / wild rice mixture. With a little bowl of soup to open and fresh pineapple to finish, my meal was complete. Not exactly a low fat meal, but manageable in terms of saturated fats. And significantly lowering sodium than any restaurant meal. All for roughly 750 calories. That is what I call win / win.

For nutrition enthusiasts and zealous colleagues, the labeling data is listed below.   Small is beautiful works for me.

Nutrition Facts per 1 serving chicken with skin  (120g):  Calories 270, Fat 16g, Saturated Fat 4.5g, Sodium 135mg, Carbohydrate 0g, Fiber 0g, Protein 29g.  Vitamin A 2%, Vitamin C 0%, Calcium 2%, Iron 8%

Clams & Linguine

Fresh, local, and in season depends on where you live and what is accessible.  During the summer, I have easy access to clams because my local greenmarket is on the south shore of Long Island and offers a constant supply of fresh, local fish and shellfish.  All last summer I cooked flounder, bluefish, porgies, tuna, even a swordfish caught off Montauk Point.  And all last year I kept looking at those delicate Long Island little neck clams.  I never bought them because I’m just not used to clams.  Love to eat them and never cooked them.  So this year I decided to do it.  How else can you keep on learning if you don’t try new things?  I pulled out my best reference sources, put together a starting structure, and am ready to share the results.  Steaming little neck clams open is easy once you get the hang of it.  I used a 3 liter pot (actually the bottom of my steamer) as you can see in the picture below.  White wine or dry vermouth can be substituted for all or part of the water needed to steam the clams.  100 grams linguine gripped firmly in the hand measures about ¾ inches or 2 cm in diameter.  You will also need a medium sized sauté pan and a 2 liter saucepan to cook the pasta.  Proportions listed below are for 2 modest servings.

Linguine and Clam Sauce

makes 2 cups

cost $11

serves 2

440 calories per serving

RECIPE

2 dozen little neck clams (about 900g measured raw in shell), scrubbed and de-sanded as required

1 cup water (¼ liter) for steaming

4 robust cloves fresh garlic (25g), peeled and smashed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (30ml)

⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon oregano

3 ½ ounces dry linguine (100g), made with 100% hard durum wheat or semolina flour

½ cup chopped parsley (15g)

Assemble all ingredients before starting.

Bring water to boil in the bottom of a large pot.  When the water is boiling, add the clams.  As the clams open, remove each one carefully to a bowl retaining every drop of the flavorful liquid.   Steaming the clams open takes about 5 minutes.  As soon as the shells are cool, remove clams from shells.  Keep clams in a small bowl and strain the remaining liquid to remove any remaining sand or grit.  Put aside keeping clams and juice separate.  As the clams are steaming, add olive oil to the sauté pan and slowly soften garlic over low heat.  Add crushed red pepper and oregano to garlic oil, letting the mixture steep for about five minutes.  Add reserved clam juice, increase heat, and reduce volume to about half.  Keep sauce warm.

Cook linguine al dente in salted water.  Remove with a pasta fork and transfer to the sauté pan.  Retain cooking water.  Stir in clams and parsley.  If more liquid is required, add some from the pasta cooking water.  Serve immediately.

METRICS

Clams are a significant source of protein as well as many essential vitamins and minerals.  Olive oil is a natural source of oleic acid.

Total fat exceeds “healthy” limits, but please remember to put this disclaimer in the context of the great fat debate.  Saturated fats are within “healthy” range.  Your may be asking where does the saturated fat come from?  It is the olive oil.  Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, olive also contains a fraction (14%) saturated fatty acid so a couple tablespoons adds up.  Sodium is within the current standard of less than 480mg per serving and 140mg per 100 grams.   Now let’s step back a moment and consider carbohydrate metrics.    My favorite Italian recipe source, Le Reccette Regionali Italiane, lists 100 grams dry pasta per person.    My version reduces that amount by half to 50 grams per person.    My preference is less pasta and more clams.  But that’s the joy of cooking!  It is completely up to you.

References:  Le Riccette Regionali Italiane (La Cucina Italiana, Quart edizione: settembre 1976), Fish without a doubt, Rick Moonen (Houghton Mifflin Company 2008)

 

Pper Serving (255g):  440 Calories, Fat 17g, Saturated Fat  2.5g, Sodium  240mg, Carbohydrate  45g, Fiber 3g, Protein  25g.
Excellent  Source:  Protein, Vitamin A,  Vitamins B1,  B2, B3, B12, Vitamin C, Folate, Iron. 
Good Source: Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc.  

Salad Dressing

Salads are quicker to make when the dressing is handy, so I have always had a bottle of one of the respectable brand names waiting and ready to go. Then one day about a year ago, I read the label. No extra virgin olive oil! I checked other labels and discovered that most of the bottled dressings had no olive oil. Even the most expensive, most prestigious brands! The best I could find was a mention of extra virgin in the list of ingredients along with other oils. So I started experimenting and ended up with this superb dressing. It is significantly more expensive to make and somewhat more cumbersome to use, but the exceptionally fine flavors and clean taste of the vinaigrette for me at least are worth any extra effort and cost.

makes 14 fluid ounces (400g)

cost $12 per carafe

yield 28 tablespoons

90 calories per tablespoon

RECIPE

300 ml (1 ¼ cup) moderately priced extra virgin olive oil

100 ml (6 tablespoons, 2 teaspoons) sherry vinegar, at least 6% acidity

2 teaspoons flake style salt (5.6g )

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Make the vinaigrette in a standard glass 2 cup (500ml) measuring cup.  Measure out ingredients in the order listed.  Using the metric side of the cup simplifies the process, but standard cup, tablespoon, teaspoon equivalents are also listed.  Beat the mixture into a state of emulsification using a wire whisk and pour vinaigrette into a 14 fluid ounce (420ml) storage carafe with a pouring spout.

Like some cooks and some dietitians I know, olive oil and vinegar need encouragement to share the same plate.  There are two options:  an emulsifier or brute force.  This vinaigrette has no emulsifier and therefore requires a lot of agitation.  It is easy to make, but can be cumbersome to use.  Once made, the carafe of vinaigrette should be stored in the refrigerator.  Olive oil gets cloudy and starts to congeal at that temperature.  Bring the vinaigrette to room temperature and shake vigorously before pouring.

METRICS

How much dressing you use depends on the size and composition of the salad and of course on your personal preference.   For a small salad appetizer, 1 tablespoon or ½ serving is usually enough for me.  Extra virgin olive oil gets very expensive really fast.  This carafe was made with a moderately priced oil $16.99 per 500ml.  Sometimes I use an even more moderately priced oil $11.99 per 500ml and the carafe only costs me about $9.  Going even cheaper, say $15.99 per liter (34 oz), the cost drops to under $7.  Expensive extra virgin olive oils start about $21.99 per 500ml and goes exponentially up from there.

Salad greens and intensely colored raw vegetables are loaded with carotenoids and other fat soluble phytonutrients.  Full fat salad dressings increase absorption rate so any oil based dressing is preferably to fat free dressings.  Extra virgin olive oil is a natural source of both monounsaturated fat and polyphenols.  Research on the antioxidant effects of dietary polyphenols has been promising and the FDA actually permits a qualified health claim for monounsaturated fat from olive oil and reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

My vinaigrette has a good sodium profile.  The 2014 National Salt Reduction Initiative sodium target for salad dressing is 570mg per 100g and my homemade version has 560 mg per 100g.  For comparison sake, a commercial off the shelf brand can be as high as 1500mg per 100g or more ….

While the health arguments are comforting and provide rational justification, the real reason I continue to make my own comes down to it just tastes better!

 

Per Tablespoon (14g): Calories 90, Fat 10g, Saturated Fat  1.5g, Sodium  80mg, Carbohydrate  0g, Fiber  0g, Protein  0g.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

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.