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Wednesday
May042011

The Abundance of Spring

This month’s column was all about tailoring our favorite wintery pasta dishes to the wonderfully light and refreshing flavors of Spring, as well as making them healthier and more filling. Unfortunately, it won’t run– so, as not to deprive you of a delicious meal, I am still sharing it here! Enjoy.

:: The coming of spring has me craving lighter dishes full of flavor and nutrition. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that bikini season looms on the horizon, but as the rain slows, the sun peeks out, and the days grow longer and warmer, my meals suddenly reflect the shifting seasons.  

In California, we are lucky enough to have a steady supply of produce all winter long. Even so, the pickings are slim, and in May there are many great new finds at the farmer’s market that bring forth a sense of renewal and change.

Asparagus, baby artichokes, broccoli rabe and pea shoots are some of my favorite short-seasoned vegetables, and when you find some good ones, they often don’t need much more than a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt to shine. Catch them if you can, and you’ll be in for a flavorful treat.

When I crave meals that are both filling and healthy this time of year, pasta is never what comes to mind first. And it’s true, the last thing anyone needs is a plate full of refined carbohydrates–but with a few rules in mind, you can still enjoy delicious and satisfying pasta long after winter’s chill has subsided. Here’s how.

Start with a whole grain There are so many wonderful varieties of pasta on the market now– quinoa, farro, spelt, buckwheat, and brown rice, to name a few– that are full of fiber, vitamins and protein. Check the ingredient list to make sure it’s made with 100% whole grain, so you’re not blindsided by tricky packaging.

Add a protein Legumes, chicken, or mild fish pair well with flavorful pasta. I love glazed salmon over soba noodles. Protein adds volume to your plate, helps keep you satiated, and is an important part of a well-rounded meal.

Toss with some green This is my favorite part of every meal. The trick with vegetables is to never overcook them, so steam, blanch or saute until the color brightens, then remove from the heat immediately. You’ll keep the flavor intact, not diminish nutritional quality, and give your dish a vibrant color and fresh texture. Overcooked, mushy vegetables look and taste sad. 

Rethink proportions Have some pasta with your veggies! Make it your goal to have more vegetables than pasta on your plate. I can almost guarantee you won’t miss the extra noodles.

This month’s morsel: Have your pasta and eat it too: Meals like this take very little time, leaving you with much of the day to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. They’re perfect to throw together on weeknights, but also make a gorgeous seasonal presentation to family and friends over the weekend. Packed with delicious flavors that dance in your mouth, you might forget it’s good for you. ::

Pasta Primavera :: Serves 2 Choose organic ingredients, wherever possible, for the best flavor and nutrition.

4 ounces whole-grain pasta (I used brown rice) 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes 1 bunch asparagus, sliced diagonally and fibrous stems discarded 1 cup canned white Cannellini beans, drained and rinsed 1 cup organic frozen peas 2 cups organic arugula 1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta, according to package instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  • In a heavy nonstick skillet over medium-low flame, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add asparagus and toss to coat in oil.
  • Add beans and continue to cook for a few minutes more, until asparagus is tender and beans start to jump in the pan. Add the frozen peas, then arugula, and cook until peas have defrosted and arugula is wilted. 
  • Add olives and pine nuts and stir to incorporate. Cook for a few minutes more to let the flavors combine. Reduce heat to low and add cooked pasta to the skillet. Season with freshly ground black pepper and toss to combine. When pasta is heated through, remove from heat and serve with a drizzle of good-quality olive oil.
More of my favorite Springtime recipes:
Friday
Dec032010

Mushroom Polenta Tart

December. It’s December.

Indeed it is. December the third, to be exact. Day number three of the 31 craziest, most hectic, most stressful and swiftly-moving days of the entire year. Much like the test you forgot to study for, we wake up on December third (or first, for that matter) and realize with a jolt of panic that we’ve barely prepared. Every day this month we will be expected to perform, and yet we don’t know the script.

There are papers to write and finals to take, not to mention gifts to buy or make and parties to plan and attend. As I look ahead at my to-do list for the next four weeks, however, I feel strangely calm. Amidst the clamor that’s about to ensue, I feel collected and composed. I have no idea why, and I’m afraid to question it for fear it will disappear. Therefore, I won’t talk about it anymore except to say: I am grateful.

Although, I want to take a moment to reflect on the concept of resolutions, because in a few short weeks it will be New Year’s Eve and we’ll all be making them. Now… I can understand why the idea of starting the new year off in a better way is appealing: We are all somewhat attracted to the idea of reinventing ourselves, emerging from the dark and indulgent days of December ready to become new people. Physically, mentally or intellectually, it doesn’t matter. We are a people of progress and of improvement, and I believe this is why we make resolutions in the first place. But why on January first, exactly one month after the day many of us feel is the start of that time when our jeans stop fitting and we lose all self-control?

Why not today, on December third? Let’s take a momentary mental step back to realize that this day is just like any other day. The sun will rise, we’ll go about our daily tasks, the sun will set and we’ll do it all again tomorrow. Why is January first so significant, other than the fact that it marks the start of 2011?

A resolution is, simply, to resolve to do something. Whatever your “New Year’s resolutions” are going to be (because I’m sure some of you have already started a list of things you plan to undo after December), why not make your resolutions today?

My main life complaint, for example, is that I’m horrible at saying no. I’m a pleaser. If something sounds appealing, I say yes, always and without fail. And I hate letting people down. But lately, the effects of doing this for so many years have started to take their toll on me, both mentally and physically, and it is time for me to be adamant. Therefore, my resolution is to simply live more simply. Starting today, I will not acquire any additional activities or hobbies or jobs that I desperately want but just thinking about how to make them fit into my schedule causes me to break out in sweat. If an opportunity comes along that fits the standards for living simply, I will think carefully before I say yes. There’s my resolution. I easily could have waited until January first, and then I guess it would have felt more monumental. But I’m making it today.

Much like this rustic polenta tart, the rest of the month of December for me will be about noticing and embracing life’s little joys and comforts. Perfection is sometimes nearly obtained when a few humble ingredients join to form a beautiful complex of flavors, warming and filling for body and soul and delicious in its simplicity.

May your December be sweet, simple and comfortable. May you enjoy this polenta.

———————————————-

Mushroom Polenta Tart // serves 8

-Adapted from 101 Cookbooks-

Ingredients:

1 cup whole-grain cornmeal

1 cup water

pinch of salt

1 portobello mushroom, diced

1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped

1 cup vegetable broth

1/3 cup plain yogurt

1 tomato, thinly sliced, for garnish

grated parmesan cheese, for serving

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 400′ degrees. Butter and flour (or line bottom with parchment paper) one 8-9-inch glass pie plate or regular tart pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal with water and salt. Stir and set aside.

In a large thick-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, cook onions with olive oil until starting to brown. Add mushrooms and rosemary, cooking for a few minutes more. Once cooked through, remove from heat and set aside.

Bring the vegetable broth to a boil in a medium saucepan, add the water and cornmeal mixture, bring back up to a boil and stir until it is thicker than a heavy frosting – about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in about 2/3 of the onion/mushroom mixture, the yogurt and some freshly ground black pepper. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading it to an even thickness, and top with sliced tomatoes then the remaining onion/mushroom mixture. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the cornmeal is firm and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan a bit. Serve with sauteed kale and nutmeg, as I did.