Category Archives: Side dish

Velvety Harissa-Spiked Tomato Sauce

tomato sauce with harissa and cilantro

I have a friend who used to date a guy who was more giving and generous than anyone I’d ever met–but almost to an uncomfortable point.  Mention you liked his shoes?  He would take them off and give them to you.  Never met him before, but he heard you played the drums?  He’d invite you to his parents’ house in the suburbs to jam and sleepover.

However, on a Saturday night not too long ago, I turned into that guy.  My buddy Nate and I were hosting our second Seek Supper Club event, when in the middle of the 2nd course, a diner burst into the kitchen raving about the tomato sauce I’d put on the plate.  I immediately packaged the remainder of the sauce into a quart container, and foisted it upon him before he left.

There are thousands of marinara sauce recipes out there, and certainly rules about what makes one “authentic” or not.  I’ve nicknamed this sauce “Not-Your-Nonna’s Tomato Sauce” because it really doesn’t follow any of those rules.  The recipe has three unexpected ingredients that are key to its balanced flavor and that would make your Nonna shudder: pureed white beans, cilantro and harissa.

Since I’m not Italian, I don’t have an Official Nonna, but I’m pretty sure neither of my actual “nonnas”–one is Pakistani, the other, German–would have approved of this sauce either.  It doesn’t take a whole day to make and there’s no secret pinch of sugar.  This shortcut method, however, creates a balanced, smooth sauce: the carrot and onion sweeten up the sauce naturally, the white beans lend a velvety texture, and the cilantro and harissa add brightness and spiciness to balance out the tomato’s acidity.

Harissa is a North African chili paste that’s pretty easy to find in the international food aisle of most supermarkets.  I’ve seen gourmet jarred versions that I’m sure are delicious but I find myself drawn to the kind that looks like a terrifying, red toothpaste and costs less than $2 at the grocery store.

While I served this sauce as an accompaniment to quinoa patties, you can use it anywhere you’d use a regular marinara.  This tomato sauce especially makes a great topping to a vegetarian pasta, since it has extra protein from the white beans.  Make a double-batch and freeze it in one-cup portions.  Add some water and fresh veggies and you’ve got a great tomato soup as well.

Velvety Harissa-Spiked Tomato Sauce
makes about 3 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 carrot, chopped
1 box (about 26 ounces) pureed tomatoes (recommended:Pomi)
2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 can of cannelini beans
3 sprigs cilantro, tied together
1 teaspoon of salt or more to taste
1 – 2 tablespoons of harissa

1. Heat up the oil in a pot and saute the onion, carrot and garlic for 5 – 8 minutes until soft, but not brown. Add the tomatoes, cannelini beans, cilantro, salt and harissa and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, adding water to thin if necessary.

2. Remove the cilantro sprigs and blend the sauce in a blender until smooth. Add water to thin to desired consistency. Taste and add more salt or harissa if necessary.

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Roasted Delicata Squash Rings

roasted delicata squash rings

If you are in a pre-Thanksgiving panic and looking for an easy, healthy side dish to add to your Thanksgiving table, first check out this checklist from Jezebel of things you should have already done for Thanksgiving, like starting your own cranberry bog and hatching your own turkey eggs.  Then consider adding this simple Roasted Delicata Squash Rings recipe to your menu.  Delicata is a sweet fall squash that’s now available at many grocery stores and farmers’ markets.  Not only does it have a sweet, starchy flesh, but the peel is beautiful and edible, so you don’t even have to go through the work of peeling it like other squashes.  Just slice it and roast it and you’ve got a simple and visually stunning side dish to complement any fall meal.  You can even prep these ahead of time and just reheat them in the oven before Thanksgiving dinner.  They don’t taste too shabby at room temperature either.

Delicata tastes great roasted on its own like this, or you can add the roasted rings to a grain salad or any place you might add roasted butternut squash or sweet potato cubes.  Since delicata is naturally sweet and roasting enhances this quality, the squash rings could even been a substitute for the more time-consuming (and fat- and sugar-laden) classic of sweet potato casserole.  If you have a mandoline, try slicing the delicata very thinly to make oven chips as a great between-meal snack; follow the same procedure, just reduce the time in the oven by about half.  I’ll warn you though: these chips are ridiculously addictive.

Delicata Squash image

The shape of the squash slices reminds me of the flower-shaped butter cookies that I used to eat off of my fingers as a kid.  Which, for some reason, now only appear to be available on Amazon for $59.99.  From a food-safety standpoint, it’s probably a safer bet to just go with the squash.

Roasted Delicata Squash Rings

Roasted Delicata Squash Rings

Serves 4 as a side dish

2 – 3 delicata squashes
3 tablespoons of canola or grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon of salt
pinch of red pepper flake
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Slice each delicata squash in half horizontally (to preserve circle-shape) and scoop out the seeds with a small spoon. Then slice 1/4-inch rings.

3. Toss the rings with the oil, salt, chili flake and pepper, making sure that there is just enough oil to coat. Place the rings in a single-layer on the prepared baking sheets and roast for 30 – 40 mins, turning them over halfway through. The squash should be fully cooked and lightly browned on each side.  Add more salt to taste, if desired.

Golden Wild Rice Salad

Wild Rice Salad

Beets.  Nothing polarizes the sexes quite like them.  Well, maybe frozen yogurt, strip clubs, and perhaps inane declarations about the differences between men and women.  Nevertheless, lots of men I know think that beets taste like dirt, and many of the women I know like the fact that they taste like dirt.

But that’s where golden beets come in.  They have a slightly mellower, less “earthy” flavor than their red brethren and they are still packed with folate, potassium, and beta-carotene.  Also, you won’t have Lady Macbeth hands after handling the golden variety.  Roasting any beet enhances its natural sweetness; then after roasting, the skin easily slips off under running cold water and they can be sliced into bite-sized wedges.

The sweet, roasted golden beets are the star of this balanced wild rice salad.  To round it out, I added a mixture of wild and brown rice, black-eyed peas, pistachios, basil and an orange dressing.  Basically you could use this basic formula to construct your own sophisticated bean and grain salad out of whatever you have in your fridge: cooked grain + cooked (or canned/frozen) bean + veg + herb + nut + dressing.  I keep this general formula in mind when I’m making myself a salad to ensure that it will have enough protein and healthy fat to keep me full and enough flavor and variety of textures to keep me interested.  Inspired by an autumnal color palate, I chose the golden beets as a starting point and branched off from there.  The basil really brightens up the energy of this hearty salad, but another fresh green herb like tarragon, parsley or even baby spinach leaves would work just fine.  This warm salad doesn’t need much of a dressing–just a squeeze of orange and a pat of butter.

Golden Wild Rice Salad
Serves 4

1/2 cup wild rice
1/2 cup brown basmati rice
8 small golden beets
1 1/2 cups of frozen black eyed peas (or canned, rinsed)
1/2 cup pistachios, toasted
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
juice from 2 oranges
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup chopped basil
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
black pepper

1. Wrap whole beets in foil together and place on a sheet tray. Roast in the oven at 375 degrees for 1 hour, or until they are fork tender. Let cool for a few minutes, then run under cold water and rub off the skin with your fingers.  Slice into wedges and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, bring 1 1/4 cup of water up to a boil, add wild rice and brown rice and reduce to a simmer and cover until all the water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Defrost black-eyed peas in hot water and drain. Combine warm rice, black-eyed peas, beets, pistachios, butter, orange and lemon juice, basil and salt and pepper.  Taste and add more salt or lemon juice if necessary.

Zucchini Mac and Cheese

zucchini mac and cheese cooking light

Last week, I flew to New York to cook on stage for Cooking Light magazine’s Supper Club, a dinner gala at the Time Life building.  The magazine named me their “Healthy Cook of the Year” last October at the Taste of Atlanta based on original recipes, a cooking video I submitted, and a live cook-off.  My two original recipes were Afghani-Style Squash with Curried Kale and Apples and a pasta-free version of Macaroni and Cheese.  Can you guess which one was more popular?

If your eyes blurred out most of the words in that last paragraph and homed in on “mac and cheese,” you’d be like many people I’ve talked to who are eager to find a lighter version of this favorite comfort food.  (And like the judges at the Taste of Atlanta who awarded me $10,000 for the recipe!)  So this year, Cooking Light invited me to the Supper Club dinner to share my Zucchini Mac and Cheese–nicknamed “Mac-less Mac and Cheese” by Cooking Light Chef Allison Fishman–with about 200 guests.  Each guest got to sample the recipe during the hors d’oeurves part of the evening.  As the sit-down dinner began, the energetic and entertaining Executive Chef Billy Strynkowski invited me on stage to demo my recipe to the world’s most encouraging dinner party guests.  The whole evening benefited breast cancer research via Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  A great evening and a great cause and also a pretty nifty gift bag.  With my new Vera Bradley reusable shopping bag, I’ll now be the trendiest person in the Whole Foods parking lot the next time I get hit by a car there.  (Yes, that happened.)

This recipe is broken out into a number of steps, but the premise is fairly simple.  Instead of boiling pasta, slice zucchini into matchsticks and saute them for two minutes.  Then add to your cheese sauce.  Really any mild vegetable could work (I call these “canvas vegetables” because they take on the flavor of whatever you add them too); eggplant, summer squash, spaghetti squash–my good friend Elizabeth over at Brooklyn Supper created a version with parsnips after I taunted her with samples of mine at the office!

I jazzed up this basic idea by including roasted tomatoes for sweetness and color–I mean, come on people, I was trying to win a contest, here–but feel free to simplify and leave them out.  While I definitely use real cheese in the recipe, I balance out the ooey-gooeyiness of gruyere with strong flavors like sharp cheddar and Parmesan.  This means I have to use less cheese overall for the same strong cheesy flavor of other cheese sauces.  Each serving has only about 1.5 ounces of cheese total (generally equivalent to a 1-inch cube of cheese).

My favorite part of this recipe is the puffed amaranth topping.  I avoid cooking with processed ingredients like white pasta and bread crumbs, so I wanted to come up with a crunchy topping that was wholesome.  I took inspiration from one of my culinary school instructors who rolled chocolate truffles in puffed amaranth!  Amaranth is a South American whole grain similar to quinoa; it’s tiny and high in protein and when placed over dry heat, it puffs up with air like popcorn.  Amaranth is like the Kourtney to quinoa’s Kim Kardashian–tinier, now getting more press on its own, and, in this case, somewhat of an airhead.  The puffed topping is entirely optional, but I think it’s a neat way to incorporate a true whole grain into this dish and it’s really fun to make!

Here’s the recipe you’ve all been waiting for: My 10 G’s Mac and Cheese.  I got distracted at the dinner and forgot to take a close-up photo of the finished recipe, so please accept this photo of me with a novelty check from last year’s competition in its place.

Cooking Light Alia Dalal

Zucchini Mac and Cheese with Puffed Amaranth Topping
Makes 6 one-cup servings

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup amaranth
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
3 medium zucchini, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into 1/4 inch disks, then sliced into matchsticks or batons–basically cut the zucchini into the approximate size of macaroni
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoons grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

For the cheese sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of low-fat or nonfat milk
6 ounces of gruyere cheese
2 ounces of sharp white cheddar
pinch of grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

special equipment: one-cup gratin dishes or oven-safe ramekins (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Take halved grape tomatoes, toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and pinch of salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and roast in oven at 400 degress for 20 minutes. Let cool.

3. Preheat Broiler.

4. Meanwhile, to make the puffed amaranth topping, heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and put 1 tablespoon of amaranth in the pot and cover with a lid. The amaranth will begin to pop like popcorn. Swirl the pot around to evenly distribute the heat. When the popping begins to slow, after about 30 seconds, pour out onto a plate to cool. Removing amaranth before its finished popping prevents it from burning. Repeat 1 tablespoon at a time until all the amaranth is puffed. Set aside.

5. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter for the cheese sauce in a large pot and stir in the 2 tablespoons of flour. Stir over low heat for 2 minutes, then add 3/4 cup of milk, stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps. Add grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and sauce will begin to thicken.

6. While the sauce is thickening, heat a large skillet with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add garlic and red pepper flake and saute for 30 seconds. Turn up heat to medium-high at add the zucchini batons and saute for 2 minutes. The zucchini should still be firm and retain it’s shape.

7. Turn off heat on cheese sauce and stir in shredded gruyere and cheddar. When the cheese is incorporated, stir in the roasted tomatoes, sauteed zucchini and chives. Divide the mixture evenly into the 6 gratin dishes.

8. Mix 2 tablespoons of melted butter with the puffed amaranth and top each gratin dish with the mixture. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of Parmesan on each dish and place under the broiler until the cheese melts and the topping crisps, about 2 – 5 minutes.

Photos courtesy of Danielle Seltzer at Cooking Light (top) and John Cordero (bottom).

Toasty Cinnamon Brown Basmati Rice

I grew up eating lots of rice at home.  We ate so much of it that I was convinced it was a vegetable for most of my youth.  (Don’t waste your time trying to figure out the logic there.)  Rice was synonymous with white basmati rice, a long, fragrant grain from India that my mom would cook with a good with a pinch of floral saffron or wrapped in tendrils of dried dill.

While I still look to white rice when I’m trying to create an elegant meal for a special occasion, brown rice is one of my everyday go-to foods.  Since brown rice has both the bran and germ intact, it has more nutrients, protein and healthy fats present.  Out of all the grains, it’s the highest in energy-giving B vitamins, and also contains significant amounts of vitamin E, manganese and selenium.

The key to cooking brown rice is to work with its idiosyncrasies rather than against them.  Brown rice is chewier and heartier than white rice, so I try to cook it with strong, toasty flavors like cumin, cinnamon and clove that complement its texture.  Compared to sticky short-grain rice, basmati grains are longer, crunchier and more separated.  After toasting the spices in the oil to release their flavor, I also toast the rice to accentuate its individual grains and keep them separate.

This rice is spicy and flavorful and is a great accompaniment to an Indian meal.  Try it with dal or tandoori chicken with a side of Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds.  Its flavors are versatile enough to accompany an American or Middle Eastern-style meal as well.

A warm bowl of brown rice also makes a great, hearty breakfast on its own.  It’s really not so different from a breakfast of commercial dry cereal or oatmeal, except that the whole grains are intact and no additional sweetener is required.

Toasty Cinnamon Brown Basmati Rice
Serves 4

1 cup brown basmati rice
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
5 green cardamom pods
1 3/4 cups of water
pinch of salt

1. In a mesh strainer, rinse the brown basmati rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.

2. In a medium pot with a lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and gently stir until they start to sizzle and pop, about 30 – 60 seconds. Then add the cinnamon stick, cloves and green cardamom pods, stirring gently for about 30 seconds. Add the drained rice, stirring occasionally until the water has evaporated from the grains. Pour in the water and the pinch of salt and bring the pot up to a boil. Once it has reached a boil, turn the heat down so the water is only simmering and cover with the lid. The rice will need to cook for about 30 – 45 minutes. When all the water is absorbed, turn off the heat and let the rice sit and steam for 10 minutes. This well help soften the grains.  Remove cloves, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods before serving.  Or just warn your guests.

Celery Leaf Salad with Honey Vinaigrette

People give three major reasons for not eating lots of vegetables: 1) they are expensive with lots of waste; 2) they go bad in the fridge before they can be used up and 3) they don’t taste that great, particularly without a lot of cooking and work.  I can’t think of a vegetable that more embodies those complaints than celery.  Recipes rarely call for more than a stalk or two, and by the time you cut off the tops and the bottoms, you’ve wasted half the plant.  Then it sits in your fridge for weeks until it’s all pale and flaccid because, let’s be honest, you don’t like celery that much.  It’s just too celery-y.

But celery, particularly the leaves, have a fresh, verdant taste that can be lovely and unique.  The first day or two after you buy your celery, pick off the leaves for this salad; you’ll likely get between 2-3 cups.  The leaves are slightly bitter with a distinct celery taste, so the trick is to balance out that flavor with others, particularly sweet, salty and smoky.  I sweetened up the vinaigrette with a bit of honey, added baby spinach, fresh berries and salty, smoky almonds to offset that slight bitterness.  Sweet flavors are especially good at balancing bitterness, which is why chocolate needs sugar and why honey is fabulous in this vinaigrette.

The result is both thrifty and gourmet: you stretch that $1 bunch of celery by using the greens, and the salad elegant enough to serve to guests, with the celery leaf lending an unusual, almost exotic flair.  Celery is also one of the foods highest in Vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin that is believed to help regulate blood pressure and clotting.

The only new ingredient on this list might be brown rice vinegar.  It’s a sweet, mild vinegar that can be used in almost equal proportions to oil in a vinaigrette (as opposed to a more typical 1: 3 vinegar to oil ratio).  It’s less processed than many other commercial vinegars, but if you don’t have it, substitute rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for a similar, delicate vinaigrette.

Celery Leaf Salad with Honey Vinaigrette
Serves 1 as a main; 2 as a side

For the Salad:
2 cups of celery leaves
1 cup of baby spinach
1/2 cup of quartered strawberries, about 6-8 berries
1/8 cup smoked almonds

For the Honey Vinaigrette:
2 teaspoons brown rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1. In a medium-sized bowl, toss together the celery leaves, baby spinach, strawberries and smoked almonds.

2. In a separate small bowl, combine the brown rice vinegar, salt and honey and whisk with a fork.  Then drizzle in the olive oil while whisking with the fork.  The honey will act as an emulsifier to keep the vinaigrette together.

3. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine.

Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds


This recipe was born out of revenge.  When I visit my parents’ house, I become the de-facto short order breakfast cook for my father.  As he’s walking out the door to grab the newspaper, he’ll call out a breakfast order which usually includes how he wants his eggs to be cooked and a non-negotiable number of pieces of toast.  One morning, I tried to mix it up by making him basic oatmeal, sweetened with sliced bananas.  This was a mistake.  Like many men of a certain age, he’ll refuse to try anything that screams “health food,” but I thought I could win him over with my charm as the youngest daughter in our family.  This was my second mistake.  After one bite, he ran to the trash, spit out the oatmeal, then looked to the heavens and exclaimed, “THIS IS FOOD FOR ANIMALS!”

Little bit of a drama queen, that one.  However, let the record state: I make damn good oatmeal.  This was war.

Now, I always sneak a veggie or two into his breakfast, whether its spinach in a frittata or sliced tomato on the side.  But fuming over this tantrum, I decided to go extreme: that man was getting a plate full of steamed broccoli for breakfast.  I quickly pan-steamed broccoli florets and, feeling benevolent, gave them a quick saute in oil with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and plenty of salt.  I still wanted to win him over to the green side.  The result was perfectly tender broccoli with Indian flavors crusted on top and none of that cabbagey flavor that broccoli-haters crinkle their noses at.  Not only did he gobble it up, but he requested more.

I prefer to keep whole spices on hand since they last longer and have more flavor.  But if you only have ground cumin, you can definitely substitute that for the cumin seeds.  Just add it to the oil and then immediately add the broccoli.  Unlike whole spices that take a minute bloom and give flavor to hot oil, ground spices will generally just burn if left in a pan alone to sizzle with oil.

This dish takes 3 minutes to make, and it’s still my favorite way to eat broccoli.  Love  you, Dad!

Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds
Serves 2

1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flake (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Take a large saute pan with a lid and fill it with a half-inch of water.  Generously salt like water and then bring to a boil. Add the broccoli florets in an even layer and then cover.  Let steam for about 30 seconds or until bright green.  Remove the florets from the water and let drain in a colander or on a kitchen towel.  Drain the water and wipe out the saute pan.  If you have a steamer basket, you can use that to steam the broccoli, if you prefer.

2. In the same saute pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and let it heat up.  You’ll see a slight shimmer across the surface of the oil.  Then add the mustard seeds and the cumin seeds.  Once they heat up, the mustard seeds will start to sizzle and pop.  As soon as they start to do this, add the red pepper flake and the drained broccoli florets.  Sprinkle the salt evenly over the whole pan, adding more to taste if necessary.  Saute for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and serve immediately.