Marinated Mixed Olives

With the holiday season upon us, it seems that every other night there is a holiday party to attend (yay!), often with the request to bring a snack to share (boo!).  But forget that three-dollar bottle of Trader Joe’s wine;  Mixed Marinated Olives are a festive, no-cook recipe that’s easy to tote along to a cocktail party.  More flavorful and colorful that regular olives in brine, they have a homemade look with minimal effort.  The strong pine flavor of rosemary and thyme hold up to the salty olives and give the dish a wintry flair.

Olives are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds and contain high amounts of copper and iron.  While they are high in fat (80-85% of the calories in an olive come from fat), it’s the “good kind” that we hear about–monounsaturated fat, which the same good fat found in extra virgin olive oil.  No surprise there.  Olives are also a good, wholesome way to satisfy that salty snack craving that seems to arise at a party about one beer in.

For these Marinated Mixed Olives, I used a mixture of pitted castelvetrano (bright green), kalamata (large purple) and nicoise (small purple), but use any olives that you like (I’m a big fan of meaty-tasting gaetas as well).  I think olives with pits tend to taste better than pitted, but depending on the familiarity of the party guests with one another, you might want to go pit-less.  It can be hard to pick up a dude while spitting an olive pit out of your mouth.  Or so I’ve heard.

marinated olives 2
Marinated Mixed Olives

makes 1 quart

1 quart of olives (I used a mixture of castelvetrano, kalamata and nicoise)
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red chili flake, or more to taste
zest from 1 lemon (use a microplane or fine grater)
2 tablespoons minced rosemary
2 tablespoons minced thyme
4 garlic cloves

1. Drain the olives from their brine and put the olives in a large bowl.

2. Add the olive oil, chili flake, lemon zest, rosemary and thyme to the bowl. Using the side of your knife blade, smash each garlic clove and peel of the skin and discard. Add the peeled garlic cloves to the bowl and stir everything to combine. Refrigerate and return to room temperature before serving.

These can be served immediately or days later but taste best after one day of marinating.

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).

Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth

seared bok choy and rice noodles in coconut broth

Ah, one-pot meals.  Few things are more satisfying to make or eat than a complete balanced meal in a single dish.  Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth is one of those meals, except, well, I actually used three different pots to make this “one-pot meal”: I soaked the rice noodles in one bowl, seared the bok choy in a pan and then added them both to a big simmering pot with the rest of the ingredients.  You might think that’s cheating, and it is, but it also reveals a secret about good restaurant or gourmet cooking: when ingredients are cooked separately and then combined, they retain unique textures that make the final product more interesting and satisfying than if they were all cooked together using the same method.

Following this recipe will give you some insight as to how restaurants get Asian soups to have firm noodles, crispy vegetables, and clear broths.  The rice noodles are soaked separately in hot, but not boiling, water.  This keeps the noodles from falling apart and prevents the broth from getting cloudy from the starch in the noodles.  The gingery, coconut broth is then cooked separately, with the tofu, snow peas, and separately seared bok choy added at the end, so nothing will overcook.  The dish is then finished with fresh lime juice and raw scallion slivers to provide contrast to the cooked broth and vegetables.

The coconut milk in the broth makes this dish luxurious and special.  While coconut milk is certainly not a low-calorie food, it provides the richness and fat necessary to round out this light meal.  While saturated fat from coconuts was maligned in past decades, science and the press–including The New York Times–has been kinder to this fat in recent years, touting the fact that it is one of the few significant sources of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that perhaps has anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties and is converted into energy rather than fat in the human body.  However, if you are concerned with reducing the amount of coconut milk in any recipe, you can buy a light version of canned coconut milk or simply dilute the regular version with water.  Even with the full fat coconut milk though, this meal is only about 500 calories per serving.

Thanks to Tom Blakely for taking another great photo!  He so generously came over with all his camera gear and in return, I made him tofu.  Which he hates.

Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth
Serves 4

1 package of rice noodles (also called pad thai noodles)
2 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 small red chili, minced (vary according to your chili tolerance)
3 cups of vegetable broth
1 can coconut milk (regular or light)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
6 baby bok choy, each sliced through the root into 4 – 6 vertical spears
1 cup of snow pea pods, ends trimmed
1 block of tofu (usually 14 oz), cut into 3/4 inch dice
2 teaspoons of salt
juice from one lime, or more to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced on the diagonal

1. Prepare rice noodles according to package directions or use this steeping method: Place the rice noodles in a large bowl. Bring a kettle or pot of water up to a boil. Let the water cool for a couple of minutes, and then pour it over the noodles, completely submerging them. Let the noodles steep in the water until they are soft but still have some bite. Then drain the water and hold the noodles in the dry bowl, tossed with a little oil, until you are ready for them.

2. In a large pot, make the coconut broth. Over medium heat, add the sliced onion and saute, letting the onion soften but not brown, about 5 minutes. Then add the minced ginger and red chili and saute for 1 minute more. Add the vegetable broth, coconut milk and 1 cup of water and whisk to combine. Bring this up to a simmer.

3. In a large skillet, heat up one tablespoon of olive oil and add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Then over high heat, add enough baby bok choy spears to fill the pan and let them get a light brown color one side and then flip over and repeat. They will still be firm but with a nice seared appearance. Remove the cooked boy choy from the skillet and repeat with the rest of the baby bok choy.

4. Add the seared baby bok choy, snow peas and tofu cubes into the coconut broth along with the 2 teaspoons of salt. Let simmer lightly for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and add the lime juice and scallions. Taste and add more salt or lime juice if necessary.

5. Using tongs, divide cooked rice noodles among 4 serving bowls and ladle the broth and veggies on top.

Cantaloupe Food-Processor Sorbet

Cantaloupe food-processor sorbet

When I’m at the market and I see a fruit or vegetable I haven’t tried before, I’m compelled to buy it.  Basically, I’m the culinary version of an early adopter of technology, just think of, say, opo squash as my iPad.  I tried it first, and soon I’ll be trying to convince you all why you can’t live without it.  However, this approach is occasionally ill-advised.  Like yesterday, when I met the Microsoft Bob of the produce section: the muskmelon.

I should have known from its name.  I mean, you there, reading at home, are already disgusted by the muskmelon and you haven’t even seen it.  Nevertheless, I was intrigued by its unwieldy appearance that looked like what you would get if you bred a cantaloupe with an ogre.  After giving it a brief sniff to rule out the presence of its promised “musk,” I tossed it into my cart, hauled it home and sliced it open.

Ighhh.  The flesh looked like a cantaloupe’s, but while it had all of that cantaloupe-y flavor, it had none of the sweetness.  I dotted around my kitchen looking for anything to help remedy my mistaken purchase.  Inspired by a refreshing cantaloupe Italian ice that I’d recently had at Mario’s, I decided on a muskmelon sorbet, adding lemon, lime and mint to brighten it up.  I don’t normally like to use white sugar, but this was a muskmelon emergency.

So last night, as I let my muskmelon experiment chill in the freezer, I headed off with my friend Jess to mingle with conscious foodies at a book launch party for Fair Food, a book that outlines a plan for a better, sustainable food system in this country.  My frozen dessert sensors must have been on, because I fortuitously met Alison Bower, owner of Ruth and Phils Gourmet Ice Cream.   And just like when someone has a growing rash, runs into a doctor in public and makes her take a look at it right then and there, I immediately gushed to Alison my muskmelon/sorbet fiasco.  Alison offered a suggestion for my sorbet in case it came out less than ideal, “You can always turn it into a blended cocktail.”  WHAT.  No wonder she’s a pro.

When I gave my sorbet the final buzz in the food-processor this morning and gave it a taste, it was lovely: smooth and melon-y, with a slight kick from the tart citrus.  Yet it did just seem to be screaming for a shot of tequila on top.  Thanks Alison.  Good thing I made a quart of it and can enjoy it both ways.

The neat thing about this sorbet is that you don’t need an ice cream maker to make it, you just blend the ingredients, freeze them and then blend them one more time before serving.  The texture is slightly icier than store-bought sorbet, but that makes it light and cooling, and of course you don’t have added dairy, eggs or vegan fats to make it heavy like ice cream.  By pureeing the whole melon, rather than using a fruit juice, all the fiber and nutrients like beta-carotene and potassium are preserved.  This particular muskmelon desperately needed some sweetness, but if your cantaloupe is sweet, you could forgo the sugar or add a few teaspoons of agave for a more natural option.  If you are brave (read: obstinate), try this with a muskmelon; otherwise, give it a try with a more reliable member of the muskmelon family: the cantaloupe.

Cantaloupe food processor sorbet
Cantaloupe Food-Processor Sorbet
Makes about 1 quart

5 cups of cubed cantaloupe or muskmelon, rind and seeds removed (from 1 small melon)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 sprig mint
juice from 2 limes
juice from 1 lemon
pinch of salt

1. In a small pot, heat the sugar, water and mint, until the sugar just dissolves. Set aside to cool. Then discard the mint sprig.

2. In a food processor or blender, puree the melon, sugar water, lime juice, lemon juice and salt until very smooth. Pour this into a glass baking dish and put in the freezer for at least 4 hours or until frozen.  Stir occasionally; it will make the final step much easier.

3. Take the baking dish out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter for at least 5 minutes.  Using a spoon or a knife, break up the frozen mixture and put it into a food processor.  Pulse to break up the ice crystals, then puree until smooth and velvety.  Scoop and serve directly from the food processor.  Store any extra in a container in the freezer and just let it sit for a few minutes on the counter before scooping.

Nutella Oatmeal with Dried Cherries


Many people vividly remember their first encounter with Nutella, the decadent Italian spread of chocolate, hazelnuts and deliciousness.  My situation was different in that rather than being the Special Treat That Changed Everything, Nutella was actually one of about three foods that I would eat until the age of 12 (the other two being chocolate pudding cups and bread).  Determined to make my sister and I into independent young women, my mother insisted that we pack our own lunches for school beginning in the first grade.  So as you can imagine, my daily lunch consisted of a Nutella sandwich and a chocolate pudding cup.  While this meant that I was the most popular six-year-old at the lunchtable, it also meant that my blood, muscles and most of my major body organs were composed predominantly of chocolate.

While my tastes have certainly since expanded beyond those three foods, there is still a special place in my belly for Nutella.  However, especially after looking at the listed ingredients (I don’t recommend it), Nutella seems better suited to a supporting role in the daily diet.  Here, I’ve paired half a serving size of Nutella with hearty rolled oats, Omega-3-packed flax seeds, and tart dried cherries, to add a little luxury to what can be a humdrum morning meal.  If you are just getting used to “health foods” like whole grains and flax seeds, think of this dab of Nutella as the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help you start eating the good-for-you stuff.  Sugar, coincidentally, is the number one ingredient in Nutella.

I added a teaspoon of cocoa powder to bump of the chocolatey taste, without adding the additional sweetness and calories that would be in extra scoops of  Nutella.  Oatmeal is an inherently customizable dish, so make this according to your tastes–more Nutella, less cocoa powder, no oatmeal, etc.  You can even garnish with sliced almonds or chopped hazelnuts in addition to the cherries for a little crunch.  I always give flax seeds a buzz in my spice grinder before using them because your body assimilates the nutrients better when the seeds are ground; however, if you don’t have a spice grinder, you can leave them whole.

Nutella Oatmeal with Dried Cherries
Serves 1

1/2 cup rolled oats
1 1/4 cups water
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon flax seeds, preferably ground in a spice grinder (can be left whole)
1 tablespoon Nutella
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons of dried cherries

1. Place 1/2 cup of rolled oats a small pot with 1 1/4 cups of cold water and the pinch of salt. Bring up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oats are fully cooked and most of the water is absorbed. There will be a little excess liquid for the flax seeds and cherries to absorb.

2. Stir in the ground or whole flax seeds, Nutella, cocoa powder and dried cherries. Let stand for 1 minute to thicken before eating.  Garnish with additional cherries if desired.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal

lemon cilantro mung dal

In the last few years, there’s been increased media coverage about the rising cost of food, the negative environmental and health effects of eating too much animal protein, and the importance of whole foods and fiber in our diets.  It’s actually surprising to me that more people aren’t looking to beans and lentils as an easy solution.  These members of the legume family are loaded with protein, fiber, trace nutrients and come in a variety of shapes, flavors and sizes.  Furthermore, they’re totally cheapsville.  A serving of beans or lentils will cost you around 10 – 50 cents.  Compare that with the even lowest quality meat that you are willing to eat.  Also since legumes usually come dried, canned or frozen, they last in your pantry for months to years, stretching your buck even further.

But you still aren’t cooking them at home.  Why, friends?  Because they take time?  You don’t know how?  You’re afraid to eat them?  They’re un-American?  Push those worries aside.  Today you’re learning how to make an easy, knockout lentil dish.

I’m taking inspiration from some of the fabulous lentil dishes in India called dal.  One of the most basic dals uses split and husked mung beans and is called moong dal (see the pic below).  This dal is considered very nutritious and easy to digest–so much so that it’s often given to people when they are recovering from an illness like the stomach flu.  Most dals are prepared the same way: you soak the lentils, then boil them in water, and then flavor the cooked lentils with a spiced oil.  The final texture can be anywhere from a thick puree to a thin soup.  It’s an easy process, but it does require planning.  I suggest soaking the lentils the night before you want to make this dish.  Then the lentils need to cook for about an hour, unattended, and then finishing them with the oil takes only 2 minutes.  Lentils also soak up a good amount of salt (just like soups), so don’t be afraid to be generous with your salting.  Lemon and cilantro are classic finishing flavors to many dals; here, I’ve amped up the quantity to make this dish really pop with bright flavors.

Each 1 cup serving of this Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal (from 1/4 cup of uncooked lentils) has about 170 calories, 14 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber (about 61% of the recommended daily allowance) and each serving of the lentils cost 20 cents.  You can round out the meal with bread or rice and a side salad.  Leftover dal makes an easy, energizing breakfast as well.

mung dal

The dish on the left shows what dry moong dal looks like when you buy it.  The dish on the right shows what it looks like after soaking overnight.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal
Makes 4 1-cup servings

1 cup of moong dal (split and husked mung beans)
1 tablespoon of butter
2 teaspoons of olive oil
1/4 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
pinch of asofetida or garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of lemon juice, from about 1 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup of finely chopped cilantro leaves and stems (not roots)

1. In a fine mesh strainer, thoroughly rinse the moong dal in running water until the water runs clear.  Sift through the lentils to make sure there are no stones, husks, or dirt.  Put the rinsed lentils in a bowl, cover with several inches of water and let soak overnight on the counter or inside the refrigerator if your kitchen is hot.

2. The next day, drain the lentils and give them a quick rinse.  Put the lentils in a medium-sized pot and cover with 3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, and let this cook for about 1 hour.  Skim off any foam that forms on the top and add more water if necessary, but mostly you can leave it alone.  You want the lentils to get fully softened (with no grittiness) and start to fall apart. Then give them a mash with the back of a ladle or an immersion blender to make a smoother puree.  You should end up with about 4 cups of a medium-bodied puree.  Add more liquid or cook longer to adjust the thickness to your liking.

3. Once the lentils are cooked, take another medium-sized pot and melt the butter and oil over medium heat. Then add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, stirring, and let these cook for about 30 seconds until they start to sizzle and pop. Quickly add the turmeric and asofetida or garlic powder. Then immediately add the cooked lentils and stir to flavor them with the spices. Add the 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and let the mixture come up to a simmer.  Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and cilantro.  Taste to see if it needs more salt or lemon juice and then serve.

Lemon-Ginger Detox Infusion

Lemon Ginger Detox Infusion
And…we’re back!  There’s a very good reason that Urban Chickpea has been on hiatus.  During May and June, I had the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen of Ananda in the Himalayas, a breathtaking destination spa in Northern India.  The spa specializes in Ayurvedic treatments, Ayurveda being the traditional healing practice in India.  Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of diet when it comes to health, so while Ananda provides luxurious spa treatments, massage, detoxes, yoga, meditation and Vedanta study, to me, the true heart of activity was in the kitchen.  In the coming weeks, I’m excited to share stories and recipes on Urban Chickpea inspired by my stay there!

Amphitheatre at Ananda

I arrived at the spa nestled in the Himalaya mountains via a stop in India’s capital city.  Speeding up the winding mountain road, I began to regret downing that espresso at the Delhi airport.  Although I’d given up coffee a year ago, all the rich mithai and chaat (that’s “sweets” and “snacks” to all you gringos) in Delhi had turned me into a tired little slug.   The espresso did give me the kick in the pants that I so desperately needed, but it also gave me a good deal of nausea and dizziness, which is what happens when you flood a tiny body with an elephantine dose of caffeine.

Upon arriving at the doorstep of Ananda, I was greeted with showstopping Indian hospitality and the house signature drink: a chilled concoction of lemon, ginger and sugar, which did its best to comfort my overstimulated stomach.  After a cup of this drink and a well-deserved nap, I was ready for weeks of learning and relaxing in what has to be one of the most beautiful, peaceful places in world.

Grounds at Ananda

Inspired by that soothing beverage, I created my own hot, unsweetened version to have at home.  Lemon is a known detoxifier: it supports liver function and helps the digestive and circulatory systems eliminate waste.  Fresh ginger is a classic folk-remedy for nausea, and it also boosts circulation, which promotes the elimination of toxins through the skin, digestive tract and kidneys.  Together, these two create a mild infusion that wakes up your body and promotes gentle, natural detoxification.  Since you use the peels in this recipe, it’s a good opportunity to seek out organic lemon and ginger. Regardless, make sure to give the outsides a good scrub.

Try drinking this infusion first thing in the morning about 30 minutes before breakfast. Your body will thank you, particularly if you just exposed it to a hearty night of drinking or a ride up a winding mountain road.

Lemon-Ginger Detox Infusion
Serves 1

1 lemon
1-inch piece of ginger (unpeeled)
1 1/2 cups of water

1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel two strips of zest off of the lemon and place the strips in a small pot.  The peeler will remove the flavorful, yellow zest and leave most of the bitter, white pith behind.

2. Take the ginger and cut it into 4-5 slices.  Put these in the pot with the lemon peel and cover with the 1 1/2 cups of water.  Put on the stove and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and let cook for 10 minutes.

3. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice from one half into a mug. Pour the ginger-and-lemon-infused hot water through a strainer into the mug with the lemon juice.  Find a cozy corner and enjoy.

Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita

green pea soup with cucumber raita

Chicago has two seasons: an arctic Winter survivable only via heinous marshmallow-shaped coats and convenience store robbery face masks and a skin-melting, eyeball-liquifying Summer.  But for a few short weeks in May, we enter what people in most cities would call “Spring” but what my friend Claire aptly describes as “Seasonal Limbo.”  It’s freezing, then it’s hot, the flowers start to bloom, then they all freeze and die, then it rains so much that you regret not buying that ark when you saw it on sale at Target.

The unpredictability of Seasonal Limbo calls for a flexible meal plan.  Not only is this soup made in about 15 minutes from ingredients like onions and frozen peas that are easily kept on hand, but it can also be served either hot or cold.  I like to have it hot when its fresh and then cold as leftovers.  The only difference is that you’ll want to salt the cold version more than you would the hot version: an extra pinch or two will do.  Like in the Mushroom Walnut Pate, your palate can’t perceive saltiness as much in cold food as in hot, so cold dishes require extra salt.

While the basis of this soup is almost painfully simple (cook onions, broth and peas and puree), I’ve deepened the flavors by adding a dash of cinnamon for a warming spicy hint and lemon juice and mint for brightness.  Pureed soups like this are often topped with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, and I’ve taken that as an inspiration to swirl in raita, a traditional yogurt condiment in North Indian and Pakistani cuisine.  Raita can be made with a number of spices, seasonings and raw vegetables, but here I’ve kept it simple with minced cucumber and dried mint for a cool contrast to the sweet soup.  You can also make this raita on its own to use as a condiment to a fiery Indian dinner or as a dip for veggies or shrimp.  Thinned out with water, it also makes a great dressing.

The soup and raita call for two different kinds of mint, but feel free to substitute fresh for the dried if you don’t have it.  Dried herbs like mint and parsley are one of the hallmarks of Middle Eastern cuisine, so if you like cooking that type of food, they may be worth the investment to help you attain more authentic-tasting results.  Regardless, this hot-cold soup and its Seasonal Limbo Green color will help you get through the “season.”

Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita
Serves 2 as a main; 4 as a starter

For the Soup:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 16-oz bag of frozen peas
2 tablespoons chopped mint, loosely packed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, about 1 lemon

For the Raita:
1/4 cup minced or grated English cucumber, with the seeds and peel (extra for garnish, optional)
1/2 cup plain yogurt, non-fat OK
1/4 teaspoon dried mint
pinch of salt

1. First make the cucumber raita by mixing the minced cucumber, the yogurt, the dried mint, and the salt in a small bowl. This can be made ahead and kept in the fridge.

2. In a large pot over medium heat, add the oil. When it starts to shimmer, add the diced onions and the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. You do not want any browning on the onions. Stir in the cinnamon and cook for 30 seconds. Then add the vegetable broth and the water and bring up to a boil. Stir in the frozen peas and cook until just defrosted and warm. If you cook them longer, the soup will lose its bright green color.

3. Pour half of the soup into the blender with the lemon juice and the fresh mint and blend until smooth. Then repeat with the other half of the soup. You should never fill a blender more than half-way full with a hot liquid, so work it more or fewer batches according to the size of your blender. Combine the pureed soup into one container and taste to see if it needs more salt.

4. If serving hot, ladle or pour the soup into bowls. Then take a spoonful of the chilled raita and swirl it in a spiral pattern into the bowl and garnish with some extra minced cucumber if you’d like. If serving cold, add an extra pinch of salt and then chill for several hours. Swirl in the raita and serve.