How to Make a Really Great Salad

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How much time do you spend thinking about salad? I know, probably not too much. I think “normal” people don’t even think much about salad even while making or eating one.

We have already established that I am peculiar. And, as such, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about salad. This is convenient for you because I can now save you a lot of salad thinking time, and impart the accumulated wisdom of years of figuring out how to make a really great salad.

First, perhaps we’d best define our term. Salad: A dish of raw leafy green vegetables, often tossed with pieces of other raw or cooked vegetables, fruit, cheese, or other ingredients and served with a dressing …This definition is pretty broad, from a dictionary called “free,” and I chose it because I like a lot of freedom when it comes to salad construction.

So, I am going to give you a rough formula for salad making, but you should keep in mind that there is a lot of flexibility and you should feel free to depart from my formula given the slightest provocation (what you have on hand, grow yourself, or find at the market).

Most of my salads start with some kind of leafy greens. I am a big fan of baby arugula and baby kale these days. I also really like romaine. I use very fresh greens, wash them well, and dry them either in a salad spinner, or by wrapping them in a towel. If I’m at the beach, I put them into a clean pillowcase and pretend to be a helicopter.

I usually dress the leaves in a big bowl. I might make a vinaigrette in a small bowl or a jar. But usually, I use the drizzle method. Vinegar goes first. I like either good aged balsamic or white balsamic. Then, a bit of agave or honey. A sprinkling of sea salt. Toss. Then a good drizzle of decent extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes I use walnut, almond, hazelnut, or macadamia nut oil. I tend to use equal amounts of vinegar and oil and maybe a quarter the amount of sweet. Toss gently. I use my hands or tongs.

Then, stuff goes on top. I almost always include some kind of fruit, cheese, and nuts.  There are many options; see individual salads below for ideas.

So, here’s the basic “recipe.”

Really Great Salad

greens, washed and dried
vinegar
oil
honey or agave
cheese
fresh or dried fruit
toasted nuts
optional: cooked or raw veggies, fresh herbs, meat, edible flowers, avocado

Dress the greens, add the toppings. Bring the salad to the table with everything nicely assembled and then toss before serving.

Here are some annotated examples to get you started:

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This is actually the same salad pictured at the top of the page. It is baby kale with steamed Japanese sweet potato, parmesan shards (I use a vegetable peeler), grape tomatoes, toasted walnuts, raisins, mint, avocado, and violets. Dressing is aged balsamic, olive oil, and agave. I drizzled a bit of balsamic glaze over the top.

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This is also baby kale. The parm here is grated. There are little date pieces, toasted walnuts, chives, and violets. Dressing is white balsamic, olive oil, and honey.

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Baby arugula, dried tart cherries, toasted pistachios, and crumbled Roquefort. White balsamic, honey, olive oil.

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Baby arugula, grated parm, toasted walnuts, tricolor raisins, and chilled quartered artichoke hearts. Aged balsamic, honey, and walnut oil.

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Baby arugula, cilantro, tricolor raisins, slivered almonds, finely grated parm, violets, white balsamic, almond oil, honey.

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Arugula, sliced steamed asparagus, sliced persian cucumber, avocado, slivered almonds, crumbled Roquefort, red raisins, chicken salad, black sesame seeds; white balsamic, almond oil, agave.

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Arugula, grilled shrimp, grilled Japanese sweet potato, grilled pineapple, avocado, parm shards, macadamia nuts; champagne vinegar, macadamia oil, honey.

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Arugula, roast turkey, sauteed broccoli rabe, steamed asparagus, avocado, provolone, tricolor raisins, pistachios, balsamic, olive oil, agave.

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Arugula Salad from DebsPotsBlog

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Surprising Kale Salad from Deb’sPotsBlog

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Watermelon Salad from Deb’sPotsBlog

I hope you now have lots of new ideas for great salads! Please leave a comment and let us know about all your adventures in salad making!

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Strong as the Grass

A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass. ~ Richard Adams

This is a slightly out-of-date blog about foraging, but it makes me happy so I’m posting it anyway. The seasons move quickly, so many of the plants I mention here are starting to go to seed at this point, but I hope someone finds this inspiring or educational anyway!

Wild plant to plate.
Wild plant to plate.

I spent a lot of time as a kid ransacking my parents’ bookshelves for book treats, and there were millions. (Probably the most notable of these was the script of the extremely adult and Pulitzer prize-winning play Angels in America, which I read over and over until I could quote entire passages, totally blasted my eleven-year-old neurological development, and turned me immediately into the bleeding-heart liberal I still am today.)

One of my all-time favorite finds was Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus. The title, for me, still conjures up an image of a bearded hippie, magnifying glass in hand and a look of blood in his eye, creeping through the hedges towards an unsuspected asparagus plant. Which I think is the point. Armed with this cheeky and reverent tome, written in its grand old voice, and a copy of the late great Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain (similar theme, totally different age-appropriate perspective), I struck out into the wild with a singular mission: Find things, and eat them. My eyes were always peeled.

Purple deadnettle, a member of the mint family.
Purple dead nettle, Lamium purpureum, a member of the mint family.

On one occasion, I found a bush sporting likely-looking clusters of richly purple berries (“Wild grapes!” I thought, recalling Euell) and filled the pockets of my off-white corduroys, which were then ruined forever. On another, I painstakingly collected acorns from an oak in the woods near my house, pulled the teensy acorn nibs out, boiled them in three changes of water over an hour to remove bitter tannins, and ate them. They were the texture of sad boiled peanuts with a stunningly unpleasant bitter taste. Wine makers use oak barrels to give wine tannins, after all: Oak is the king of bitter. I did not know this at the time. Undaunted, I picked the sunny flowers of dandelions in late spring, dipped them in a batter of egg and flour, and pan-fried them for dandelion fritters. They were okay, but confusing. By the time I reached college, my passion for foraging had mostly fizzled out. (Except for one notable occasion when a mycologist came to visit a class that I was assistant-teaching, held up the biggest most beautiful hen-of-the-woods mushroom I have ever seen, and said “I picked this an hour ago in the woods on this campus.” I actually shrieked in delight—in front of 60 of my students—and in response he gave me the entire mushroom, which I sautéed for dinner that night on my hot plate with great reverence and ceremony. Edible wild fungi are sacred and represent everything right with this planet.)

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset              But all of my old foraging fantasies have been realized since I discovered the quintessentially Baltimore Charm City Farms, and now whenever I go outside everything green looks potentially tasty again. Headed by Victoria and Eric the Mangy White Bushman, Charm City Farms manages a food-forest garden of wild edible plants that is open to the public for harvesting (!!!) and infinite workshops on incredible things like foraging, permaculture, and bushcraft. Victoria and Eric led a wonderful wild edibles workshop on a drizzly Spring day last week, and not only did I learn about a dizzying variety of edible and medicinal plants, but on that very first day I gathered enough to make myself a beautiful foraged lunch when I got home.

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Spring, I learned, is farther along than I thought. (This was a stunning thing to hear since winter turned me into a pale droopy-eyed cave creature who is still struggling to understand that the outdoors isn’t going to try to kill me again until November.) The tiny mustards and cresses that are apparently the first heralds of spring, like pennycress and hairy bittercress, are starting to flower now, becoming spicy as they go to seed. These next few weeks are the best time for tender shoots, which is a great thing for foragers: This is actually the time of year to stalk the wild asparagus.

Victoria introduced us to tiny shoots of Japanese knotweed, a plant I only knew previously as a hazardous invasive to be ripped out by the roots and aggressed against. But at this time of year it is tender, lemony, and delicious raw, and can evidently be used as an interesting substitute for rhubarb. I was charmed by these tiny plants and their unexpected deliciousness. I was reminded that wild chives grow like weeds everywhere, and now I feel that I probably don’t need to put in a supply of cultivated garlic for awhile because it seems like wild chives are never more than a block away no matter where you are.

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Victoria the wild plant huntress samples some redbud, Cersis canadensis, right from the branch, while L (who has clearly been foraging forever and has a taste for bitter dandelion greens that greatly exceeds what is normally expected for people her age) observes. Redbud is in the pea family, and its buds taste a bit like peas.
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Chickweed, Stellaria media.
Garlic mustard.
Tasty invasive Garlic mustard.

I’ve known that garlic mustard is edible for quite a long time, but every time I’ve sampled it in the past it’s been overwhelmingly bitter. I’m really not one to shy away from garden-variety bitter greens—if some horrible veggie tyrant made me choose only one plant to eat for the rest of my life, it would probably be kale or broccoli rabe. But wild plants have a habit of way, way bitterness, I’m sure because that flavor hasn’t been cultivated out of them for hundreds of years. But at this stage, garlic mustard is still in a tender baby phase. It’s still shockingly bitter, but the bitterness is matched by a pleasant garlic pungency. I’d never known how to identify it in its youth, so when Victoria pointed it out I was very pleased. The youngest member of our group helped me harvest a big bunch of garlic mustard, using an impressive pocket knife. I took the mustard home for lunch.

A bunch of garlic mustard that became my lunch.
A bunch of garlic mustard that became my lunch.
Garlic mustard and wild garlic chives.
Garlic mustard and wild garlic chives.

I felt these two wild plants—the garlic mustard and chives—would be a great foundation for a meal. Bitter spicy veggies crave creamy fat and carbs to balance their flavors, so I settled on white beans, a runny egg, and a toasted slice of Mama Chickpea’s home-made bread that she sent me in the mail! Moms are the best, right?

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Washing off the wild.

chopping

chopped

hot pepper spices

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Garlic mustard, wild chives, and canellini beans finish steaming up while I crispy-fry an egg in olive oil.

Lunch

Here goes a finished meal, the coolest lunch I’ve made in a long time. Plants taken from the wild woods with mom’s homemade bread. Way yum. I do think, in future, that I’ll take more precautions to de-bitter my garlic mustard, because even in its youth it was face-puckering. I detest blanching greens because I feel that bringing water to a boil is generally a waste of my time when I’m going to sauté things anyway, but I think I’ve been overruled in this case. Still, it was absolutely delicious, and the beans and egg set off that plant pungency beautifully. The mustard had the odd quality of turning the oil it was cooked in crazy lime-green, which I’m sure means it was spectacularly good for me. Free food? Check. Nutrition? Check. Childhood dreams of becoming a wild animal? Well, kind of. Or kind of not. But still!

I’ll be posting more foraging-relevant stuff as the season goes on. Happy Spring! Love, Rutabaga

Maple Bacon Pecan Ice Cream

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IMG_4174Oh, yes, I did! I caved to pressure from Rutabaga’s brother. Well, that’s not even true. I am a total sucker when it comes to the whims of my kids, especially food whims.

Don’t get me wrong. I can set a limit if there is a good reason. This comes up in the dr deb office all the time. I treat the parents of teenagers and they often need lots of help to learn to be clear and firm when necessary.

The truth is, if you are clear and firm with kids when they are young, there is very little need to do so when they are older. If they know you mean business when you say no, they don’t pester, they don’t whine, and they don’t suffer.

I saw no reason to say no to Brian when he suggested making bacon ice cream. I felt a little skeptical, but I also figured it’s probably not a trend for nothing. Actually, Brian equivocated, knowing he wouldn’t be home for long…and how much bacon ice cream can one person consume in a week? He consulted his father and his friends to make sure there were other interested parties.

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IMG_4170So, I modified my no churn recipe. And the results were surprising. I really, really liked it and that was unexpected. I thought it would be novel, interesting, but a little disgusting. I wouldn’t eat a whole bowl, but I can’t eat a whole bowl of any ice cream; it’s way too rich for my little hippie system. The men consumed large quantities. Both of my men are buff gym rats at the moment and I think eating bacon ice cream made them leaner. Men!

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Bacon ice cream is great with Black Sesame Loaded Oatmeal Cookies! Who knew?

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Maple Bacon Pecan Ice Cream

I used organic, uncured bacon and organic maple syrup.

3 cups heavy cream
1 can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup maple syrup
¼ cup dark corn syrup
1 tsp. salt
1 cup toasted chopped pecans
12 oz crisp bacon, chopped

Whip the cream and salt in a stand mixer or with a hand mixer until soft peaks form. Add the condensed milk, corn syrup and half the maple syrup with the machine running and continue to whip until firm-ish. Fold in the remaining ingredients by hand. Taste and add a little extra salt if you think it could use some.

Scoop the mixture into a big, lidded container and freeze for at least 8 hours before serving. Drizzle some extra maple syrup over the top because you’re already going to hell.

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Improvisations in Chocolate

Lately I feel like I’m making up each day as I go along.

I both relish and resent this in the way that I relish and resent adulthood.

What should I be doing right now? Writing a poem? Or writing my Master’s thesis?

If I paint my new room while listening to This American Life, is that a good use of my time? The paint on the roller squishes satisfyingly, the interstitial music is soothing, the color is the perfect seafoam green, but will I regret this?

Should I be a scientist? Or should I be a writer? And how long do I have to do one or the other before I know the right choice? And how do I even start?

In college I was off and on fascinated by improvisation. The best games my friends and I played were make-believe. A space for make-believe is a wonderful thing to take into adulthood. In a game of Manhunt in the cool dead of night, there are moments that feel like someone might actually be out to kill you. When a hand grabs your arm out of nowhere, it’s okay if your screams are filled with real rage. It’s a game, it’s a play, it’s practice. For that moment you can be whoever makes the most sense.

That’s a sort of assuredness I have a hard time finding in my life right now. Who am I supposed to be, anyway? Should I try to make people happy, or should I breeze by them on my way to achieving some antisocial goal? And what am I trying to achieve, anyway?

Oddly enough, I find solace from all of this uncertainty in the kitchen. Like playing games with my closest friends, cooking is like a sandbox. The greatest failure is only inedibility. I can clatter through my cabinets in a furious race towards a goal, leaving a glorious mess in my wake, with only half of an idea of how I’m going to get there, and most of the time I win. What could be better than chaos followed by chocolate?

Like in the case of these brownies I made. When a chocolate craving or tragedy strikes, the only solution is immediate brownies. But immediate brownies are impeded by lack of ingredients. I forgot to get eggs. I stomp around my kitchen, cursing at the cabinets.

But like I said, the kitchen is a sandbox–and there are always new toys to play with and new improvisations to try. A few months ago, my Chickpea mother bought be a tin of cracked golden flax seeds, which sits in my freezer with the purpose of making my morning yogurt nutritious and crunchy. I am the weird hippie’s child who craves chia and flax seeds. But have you heard of “flax eggs”? A tablespoon of cracked gold flax, two tablespoons of water—so the internet tells me—let it sit, and you will have something not only egg-like in texture (chia and flax’s fabulous goop), but egg-like in action for baking.

I made three flax eggs. Watched as they gloopified. Folded them into melted chocolate and flour to turn out an alarmingly stiff batter. Folded in chips and chopped walnuts (the next batch was pistachios—even better). Baked them. And of course, they were perfect. Squidgy, rich, dripping when warm—and just that hint of whole-wheatiness imparted by the flax, which actually goes wonderfully with dark chocolate. In the kitchen as in childhood, and maybe as in life, a mistake doesn’t have to be defeat. A mistake, followed by improvisation, might lead to lower cholesterol, greater nutrition, and slumpy, crunchy, perfect, irresistible brownies.

Not-Quite-Vegan Chocolate Chip Pistachio Brownies

I have made these brownies twice now, and they are perfect because they are delicious, and they are imperfect because soon I’ll find a different recipe that will be better. There’s nothing special about this recipe—in fact, it’s based off a Nestle brownie recipe—but it’s lovely and worth making to brighten your winter. And if you, like me, have flax and no eggs, brownies are still within reach. If you have salted butter, but not unsalted, you can still make brownies. If you have only semisweet chocolate, or only bittersweet, it’s still time for brownies. Pistachios are excellent with chocolate, but walnuts work fine (or anything else. Almonds! Dried cherries! Make it up!).

I apologize for no photos on this post, by the way—I had them, and this week my computer died and I lost all of my photos. I’m embracing chaos and blogging anyway. I will probably be making a batch of these soon to console myself.

1 stick (1/2 lbs) unsalted butter (I have used salted and it was luscious), diced
1 c semisweet chocolate chips
3 eggs OR 3 flax eggs (3 tbsp ground flax + 6 tbsp hot water, allowed to sit 10 min)
1+1/4 c AP flour
1 c granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 c bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 c chopped pistachios (or other chopped nuts)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9×13 in. baking pan (I used much smaller—roughly 8×8—and increased baking time by about 10 minutes to fine results).

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and semisweet chips over lowest heat. Be careful not to scald the chocolate: do the on-the-burner-off-the-burner-stir-stir melting chocolate dance. Stir constantly until the mixture is perfectly smooth. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and save some drips for yourself in the saucepan.

Basically, dump everything else into your mixing bowl. First, add your (flax) eggs. Stir to combine.

Add flour, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda, and stir until everything is evenly distributed. The batter will have the texture of rapidly setting cement. I find it best to use my hands at this point.

Still using your hands, incorporate the bittersweet chips and pistachios. Glob the batter into your baking pan, and bung it in the oven for 18-22 minutes. Your mileage may vary: I baked my brownies until the middle barely jiggled when I shook the pan—which, in a smaller pan, took about 10 mins longer than expected. You want the middle not entirely set, and a toothpick stuck in the center to come out a little crumby. Let the brownies rest on a rack or atop an unlit burner for at least half an hour for things to set up, and then cut into squares and serve to your friends.

Chi Bowls

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I couldn’t figure out what to call this recipe! I considered Chia Pudding, but I just can’t get past the chia pet association. And it’s just not pudding. Sorry. I don’t care how long you’ve been dairy free, vegan or paleo, but you’ve had pudding in your life and chia pudding is just not pudding. Megan suggested Smoothie Bowls, but they’re not smooth. I’m a stickler for semantics. So is she, but she wanted to get me off the phone. Berry Bowls sounded nice, but berry bowls are potter lingo for a bowl with holes; very nice, but not something you eat.

Some people call these sorts of things Energy Bowls or Power Bowls. And I like that. But it seems to me that many Energy or Power Bowls you see on other blogs or food sites have all sorts of protein powders or acai or maca. I haven’t explored these things. I’m sort of old. So, I decided those names weren’t quite right either.

Chi means “vital energy” in Chinese. I think of it as “life force.” We had a ferret named “Chi.” We’ve been thinking about her lately because of the demolition. When the guys took out the corner cabinet, they found 20 toothbrushes underneath. That was the work of a thief of a weasel named Chi. Chi Ferret was the embodiment of energy spirit. And she loved fruit. And nuts. So, this recipe is named after her.
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Here is a picture of Chi in a bowl.
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Chi Bowls

I know that peanuts are not nuts, but I am including them with nuts. If you don’t eat them, don’t use them or the peanut powder; it’ll still be great!

Makes 1 bowl

1/3 cup coconut or almond milk
2 tbs. peanut powder, like PB2 (optional)
1 tbs. honey or agave (optional)
1/3 cup seeds (chia, sesame, hemp, sunflower)
1/4 cup nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, peanuts)
1 cup fruit, in bite-size pieces
optional garnishes: coconut flakes, extra seeds and/or nuts, granola, nut butter, mint, more sweetener

Mix together the coconut or almond milk, the peanut powder, sweetener and seeds. If you have time, you can refrigerate this mixture for up to a day and it will get thicker and the chia will swell. This is nice, but not essential unless you have talked to the nutrition police and they told you to do it.

Arrange the fruit, nuts and optional garnishes on top. Take a picture and post it on Instagram and tag me: @debspots. Then mix everything together and dive in; so good, right?

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Love, Chick Pea

Oh, and don’t forget to hop on over to Deb’s Pots for other recipes!

Stuffed Spaghetti Squash

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I grew up in the sixties. We ate a meat based diet. That was just what people did. Supper was some sort of steak or chop or piece of chicken, a starch, and a vegetable. The exception was pasta, usually in the form of spaghetti and meatballs. Probably the only meatless meal we had regularly was pizza, though there might well be pepperoni or sausage on top of it.

When I went to college, the meat was horrible. Brandeis had some sort of arrangement with kosher butchers that involved a lot of gristle. It was so alarming that by my senior year, I was ready to become a vegetarian, as were my friends. I lived with five other women in an off campus apartment in a complex called “The Mods,” and we had a kitchen! We took turns cooking, but because I already loved to cook, I often agreed to take my roommate’s turns making supper. We had all gained weight eating cafeteria food for the three previous years, so our diet was low fat, low calorie and veggie. We had a lot of grape nuts and grapefruit.

Our bible that year was Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook. And one of the favorites in our rotation was spaghetti squash. It was a very involved recipe that seemed to take forever to make. And, as I remember, it was pretty bland. But it was healthy and we could pretend (sort of) that we were eating pasta, so we had it often. And I was proud of my newfound veggie cooking skills. It went along with the general hippie persona. You know, Brandeis sociology, meditation, yoga, Indian skirts, Birkenstocks, weed…

When I came home for winter break, I offered to cook supper for the family. I decided to make my famous spaghetti squash, spent all day shopping and cooking. Everyone assembled and took a taste. And my mother said, “Where’s the meat?” I said, “this is what we have for supper all the time up at school.” She said, “that’s nice. Where’s the meat?”

I hadn’t made spaghetti squash for many years, but recently, Brian went on a low carb diet. So we tried a few different preparations. He really loved them all. But this one was the winner. Brian is a carnivore; he would have done great in the sixties. So the version I made for him had some ground turkey in it. But even if it hadn’t, I don’t think he would have said, “where’s the meat?” This recipe is wonderful with or without meat!

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Stuffed spaghetti squash

This is great with or without meat.

Fresh, artisan mozzarella is wonderful stuff, but don’t use it here. It’s got too much moisture. Use the rubbery stuff that comes shrink wrapped in a brick. The best way to shred it is to put it in the freezer for 15 minutes or so and then use a box grater, large holes. Do use good, imported, well aged parmigiano reggiano

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Serves 6

3 medium spaghetti squash
½ cup ricotta cheese, whole milk or part skim
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup grated parm
Tomato sauce, with or without meat (recipe below)
Cooking oil spray
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. The best way to do this is with a big knife and a rubber mallet. Be careful! Scoop out all the seeds and stringy stuff. You wany a sharp spoon or tool; I use an ice cream scoop. A melon baller or grapfruit spoon are good options. Put the innards in compost and in the spring little spaghetti squash plants will grow. Sprinkle the cut surfaces and cavities with salt and pepper. Like a baking sheet with parchment and spray with cooking oil. Lay the squash cut side down on the parchment and bake for about 25 minutes, until the squash begin to soften. Turn the oven up to 400°

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Turn the squash halves over and let them cool for a few minutes. Or you may do this ahead and let them cool completely and refrigerate for a day or so if you want. Use a fork to scoop out the flesh and put all of it in a big bowl.  As you are scooping, remember you are going to use the shells, so leave a bit of squash there so they don’t collapse.

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Season the strandy squash flesh with salt and pepper and mix in the ricotta. The best way to do this is with your hands. It is very important to taste this mixture and make sure it is properly seasoned before you go any further with the recipe. It should taste nice and creamy and like you really want to eat the whole bowl now but you won’t because you are having it for supper.

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Now divide this tasty mixture between the shells. Take about a cup of the sauce and reserve it for serving. Divide the rest and top the squash mixture with the sauce. Now top with the mozz. And then, finally, the parm.

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Bake the stuffed squashes for 40 minutes or so, until the cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown and the filling is piping hot.

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Let them stand for a few minutes before serving. Warm up the reserved cup of sauce so everyone can have a little extra on top. A nice green salad is a perfect accompaniment. Ideally something with a little citrus and some nuts.

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 Meat Optional Tomato Sauce

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 ½ medium onion, fine dice
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. ground meat (optional), you can use turkey, chicken, pork, beef, lamb or a combo
pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 tbs. olive oil
¼ cup decent red wine
1 can crushed tomatoes (I like Muir Glen)

Saute’ the onion in the olive oil in a medium saucepan until soft. If you are using the meat, add it at the same time as the garlic and brown the meat and garlic together. Add the wine as soon as the meat is brown and scrape up the brown bits in the pan. If you are not meating, add the garlic and cook for just a few seconds and then add the wine. Then add the tomatoes. Let the sauce cook for a half hour or so.

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with love from chick pea

Peace Within the City

When I was in high school, my mother (ahem: Chickpea) came in to my 10th-grade English class to do a demonstration on mindfulness. She’s a psychologist, and we were reading something about meditation, I think, so she was a qualified professional. To my surprise (and my classmates’ delight), she brought in a tray of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to aid in her demonstration.

Momma introduced us to the idea of eating mindfully. “Take the cookie in your hand. What is its weight? What does it look like? Consider its smell, and when you taste it, notice how it crunches, and really really taste it.” It was an introduction to how eating—along with any other daily experience, really—can be meditation.

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Right now I’m back visiting New York City, which I only recently left after two years, and I’m constantly reminded of how my relationship with this town is the definition of love/hate: There is nowhere busier or faster than the Big Apple. Today I walked past a man who had a cat balanced on his head, I was propositioned for money no less than five times, and many fascinating conversations and smells were imposed upon me. I also had one of the most transcendent moments of meditative stillness in my life—namely, I had a really great lunch.

I decided to treat myself to a meal at Ootoya, one of my favorite restaurants in Manhattan and the world. I’d only eaten there once before, but the concept is so seductive to me: It’s a classy place that serves what they call “authentic Japanese home-cooking.”

I sat at the wooden bar next to a sophisticated-looking woman who, to my surprise, was eating just the dish I was interested in ordering. I had forgotten the name of it, so I waited until she finished a conversation with the waitress, which was conducted entirely in Japanese and involved several petite, dignified bows from the waist. I asked her what she was eating.

Buta yasai nabe,” she said with lip-smacking satisfaction. “Such classic food for winter.” As far as I can tell, this translates to “pig vegetable pot.”

The waitress brought me a black ceramic cup and filled it with perfectly brewed green tea. I wrapped my fingers around the hot cup and let the steam wash up my nose and into my brain. I noticed that my chopsticks were also ceramic just at the tips, in a way that reminded me of oxford shoes with black-leather toes—textured to grip each bite.

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On first impression, this food might be considered plain; it has none of the crispy breading or thick sauces of most Japanese-American food. Just a soup of light, salty, clear soy broth, a few pure-white strips of fatty pork belly. Lots and lots of spongy napa cabbage. Perfectly tender green spears of broccoli rabe, buttery and bitter. And four melting slices of tomato, poached in broth, whose skins fall away in your mouth.

They are such simple ingredients. No real mystery to their preparation. Meat and vegetables in broth. But in lifting each slippery piece of pork, and dipping it into dashi for extra salt—dashi in which I saw shimmering scales—and bringing it to my mouth; and then transferring one soft piece of tomato to my spoon, quivering like jelly; and then a rag of napa cabbage that had soaked up broth like a sponge; one taste came after another like lines in a poem.

The most captivating part of this meal, though, that really elevated it, was the humble-seeming bowl of sticky white rice at the bottom left. The kitchen at Ootoya gives you the option of topping your rice with something as a tasty accent. I chose hijiki seaweed because, I dunno, I usually like seaweed. Nori is fun. Except this seaweed was like something else altogether. I don’t usually expect to be bowled-over by seaweed, but there you are: The hijiki at Ootoya is positively floral. Every bite of that fragrant rice reminded me of lavender and orange peel. It’s like a magic trick, like smelling a fabulous perfume and having no idea who’s wearing it or how a person could smell that good. Seaweed? Most seaweed tastes like seaweed, so why does this one taste like flowers and fruit? Usually with Japanese food you use the rice as a sort of bed for a saucy main dish, but I ate this rice plain, feeling totally surprised by each bite, until it was gone and my belly was full. Hours later I’m still thinking about the impossible taste of lavender and orange peel and salt.

A meal like this, to me, takes on its own particular rhythm. It reminds me that when food is thoughtful, lunch can be just as compelling as listening to an orchestra play. Cooking is just another art form, and when it’s done well, it forces you to slow down and think about it. Like all art, it gives you a glimpse at someone’s thought process, and that’s one of the best parts of being human, I think. And finally, it clears your mind: A good taste, like an interesting chord, demands your full attention. It’s too beautiful to worry about everything else.

With a few bites of tsukemono pickles, and spoonfuls of chawanmushi—a strange, perfectly smooth savory egg custard—I paid my bill and ended my meditation. For the rest of my day, stressed out by the absurdly crowded and overheated subway and all the noise and bustle of the city, I kept returning to the thought of that slow meal, and the seaweed that somehow tasted like flowers.

~Rutabaga