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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Spinach Salad with Roasted Sweet Potato, Goat Cheese & Candied Nuts

Ok, so it's been a little while. With the spring season in full swing, the energy level in NYC has noticeably increased. The streets are busier, the winter jackets have finally been stored and green markets are bustling. All of this increase in activity and availability of spring produce has also ushered in the busy season at the restaurant. The outdoor garden is in high demand and the soft shell crabs and rose have been flying off the menu. I'm thrilled that we've been especially busy lately, however I find myself particularly challenged now to maintain a healthy work/personal life balance and, hence, a work/blogging balance.

It's hectic periods like this when I fall into a regular routine of picking up a standard list of items while grocery shopping. Like everyone else, I have a few keys foods that I'm very comfortable with. My produce standards include mushrooms, kale, spinach and arugula. A week doesn't go by without me using one, or all, of these ingredients. The busier I get, the easier it is for me to run to the market, pick up the usual suspects, and throw together a quick meal that I've made a million times before. But the last time I was at the market, I forced myself to pick up a few things that are not on my aforementioned weekly shopping list, including a big green market tote filled with sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes store well and are available almost every month of the year, yet I don't cook with them all that often (but I know that I should). They pack even more of a nutritional punch then the white potato. They are rich is vitamin A, vitamin C , dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates. Plus, just like the good ol' white potato, they can be prepared using a variety of different methods (baked whole, mashed, pureed into a soup, roasted, etc).
I've been on a major salad kick lately, so that's the direction I ended up going in. I roasted the sweet potatoes in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and then tossed the roasted cubes with melted butter, brown sugar and cayenne pepper. I dressed baby spinach leaves with an easy rosemary vinaigrette and then gently tossed in the roasted sweet potato, candied nuts and earthy crumbled goat cheese. It turned out to be a perfectly satisfying and balanced meal. And when I say 'balanced', I don't mean in a food pyramid way (meat, veggie, starch), I'm referring to flavor, texture and appearance. I love this salad as much as I do because it is salty, sweet and savory, crunchy and creamy and boasts varying colors and an appetizing appearance. And, as often happens when cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients, it just so happens to be nutritionally balanced as well.

A quick note on the nuts that the recipe calls for: I of course prefer to make my own (my recipe is included below), but sometimes that just doesn't happen. When I don't have the time, I look for high quality brand like Bobby Sue's Organic Nuts. For those of you in the NY area, you can find Bobby Sue's nuts at Whole Foods, Murray's Cheese Shop and a host of other specialty stores.

Spinach Salad with Roasted Sweet Potato, Goat Cheese & Candied Nuts

4 servings

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled & cut into cubes
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. brown sugar
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 c. baby spinach
4 oz. fresh goat cheese
2/3 c. candied nuts (recipe below)
1/4 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely minced
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss cubed sweet potatoes with olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper on a large baking sheet. Roast 25 minutes until tender and a little caramelized.

When the sweet potatoes are done roasting, melt butter in a small skillet. Whisk in brown sugar and cayenne pepper. As soon as the sugar and cayenne pepper is incorporated, remove from heat and pour over roasted sweet potatoes. Toss gently.

Make dressing by combining minced rosemary with balsamic vinegar. Gradually whisk in olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Toss spinach leaves, nuts and sweet potatoes in dressing and serve topped with crumbled goat cheese.

Candied Nuts
1 pound nuts (pecans, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, or a combination thereof)
1 c. sugar
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 egg white
1 Tbs. water

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Combine sugar, salt, cinnamon and cayenne pepper in small bowl. In a large bowl, whisk together egg white and water until frothy. Stir in nuts and toss well to coat. Sprinkle in sugar mixture and toss until nuts are evenly covered.

Spread nuts in a single layer on a parchment paper lined baking dish. Bake 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. After they have cooled, break up any nuts that have stuck together.

Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Monday, April 11, 2011

First Taste of Spring Onion Pasta

Here in New York, we are finally seeing signs that spring is on its way. What has seemed like an endless winter is just now giving way to some much anticipated warmer weather. Soon enough we will have many more options at the market, including asparagus, rhubarb and, one of my very favorites, ramps. Rumor has it that if you get to the farmers market in downtown Brooklyn early enough, you can snag some of the season's first showing of ramps. I, however, have been unlucky, or (more likely) am not an early enough riser to be able to confirm this. What I have been able to find at numerous markets are spring onions. Hopefully you are able to find them too!


To help ring in the start to the new season, I have created a pasta dish that highlights one of spring's first sprouters. As you can see from the photo, spring onions look like an overgrown scallion. The more pronounced bulb can be either white or purple and the flavor is a little more assertive than that of a scallion, however they are milder and sweeter than regular yellow onions. Use them sparingly when raw, or in large amounts when cooked, like in this pasta dish.

It may seem like you are using way too many spring onions (I use 5 onions for 1/2 pound of pasta), but, trust me, it's not overwhelming. Once they are cooked down, they become sweet and mild and really make the dish. Tossed with hearty whole wheat pasta, wilted greens and some good Parmesan cheese and you have yourself quite a tasty and healthy one-dish meal. Bring it on, spring!


First Taste of Spring Onion Pasta

2 Tbsp. butter
5 spring onions, sliced into thin rounds (reserve dark green ends for another use)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
2 c. fresh greens (chard, spinach, etc)
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/2 lb. short cut whole wheat pasta (like penne or fuscilli)
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add in spring onions and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. When the onions are just about finished cooking, drop the pasta in the boiling salted water. Add in garlic and crushed red pepper in with the onions and continue to cook for another minute. Wilt in the greens.

Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up an bits from the bottom, and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half. Drain the pasta just before it is "al dente", reserving 1 c. of the starchy cooking liquid. Add the pasta into the pan, toss in Parmesan cheese, and continue cooking until the pasta is done, adding in some of the reserved pasta water if it begins to look a little dry.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with a little more grated Parmesan, if desired.