A winter salad to freshen your plate

As February melts into March, spring is now just around the corner here in Brooklyn. Even as winter tries to throw one more polar vortex at us, it won’t be long now before the first green shoots start popping up. Even so, we’re now entering one of the saddest times of year for fresh produce at the greenmarket, as the winter stocks of squashes and apples begin to run low while the fresh greens of early spring are still a couple months away. This is the time to turn to the canned, pickled and frozen spoils of last season’s garden, but what if you want to eat fresh? Enter the healthy winter salad.

Winter salad arugula grown indoors

Winter arugula grown indoors

Every year as the first freeze hits, I abandon the tomatoes, peppers and squashes to their fate, watch the berry plants go dormant, and bring in a select few herbs to form the indoor winter garden – rosemary, lavender, thyme, mint, parsley. This year in addition to carrying over the herbs I decided to start an indoor crop just for winter, and planted a box of arugula.

Arugula is an ideal mini crop to grow indoors during winter – it prefers things on the cooler side, does ok with partial sun, and has roots that don’t go too deep, making it perfect for containers (I grew mine in an old wooden wine box). Plus you get a lot of nutritional bang for your buck as arugula has high levels of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and vitamins (particularly vitamin A). When harvesting, pull the larger outer leaves off and leave a few of the tiny center ones so it keeps growing back again & again.

Arugula has a nice peppery zest to it and you can use your crop in a number of different ways – in a pesto, in pasta dishes, or of course in a fresh salad. For my salad, I combined arugula with seasonal citrus and watermelon radishes, to make a fresh, healthy, and colorful addition to a winter meal.

Winter salad with arugula, citrus, and watermelon radishes

A simple winter salad of arugula, citrus, and watermelon radishes

Winter salad with arugula, citrus, and watermelon radishes
Recipe type: salad
Prep time:
Total time:
Serves: 4
Brighten up your winter table with this light, healthy, and colorful salad. Watermelon radishes add bright red color, but you can substitute other kinds as well.
  • 4 cups arugula, rinsed and drained
  • 4 clementines or 1 large orange, peeled
  • 4 large radishes (preferably watermelon variety), washed
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ⅛ tsp salt (to taste)
  1. Make vinaigrette: Mix lemon juice, shallot, salt, and pepper in bowl. Drizzle in olive oil slowly while whisking to combine.
  2. Cut radishes lengthwise, then slice crosswise into thin discs.
  3. Separate citrus segments - for clementines, use entire segments. For oranges, cut segments in half.
  4. Combine arugula, radishes, and citrus. Toss with vinaigrette & serve.
  5. Make this salad your own: mix in other elements to make it more substantial. You can add mesclun greens, endive, fennel, pear or apple slices, chopped red onion, avocado slices, walnuts, or feta cheese.


This salad has a lot of bite to it – if it’s too much zing for your palate, you could mix in some mesclun greens, and any high fat toppings you might add such as avocados, nuts, or feta cheese will help balance and tame it as well.  Or try a cooked version – sautée the radishes in oil or butter with a little salt & pepper until soft, toss in the arugula & turn off the heat so it just wilts, and add the citrus last.

Massage Your Greens

So kale may very well be the “it” vegetable of 2013, with the New York Times proclaiming “The fashionable plat du jour these days is the humble kale salad”. And rightfully so, given its antioxident rich nutrient profile. But how about some love for kale’s less trendy cousins? I’ve got some collard greens growing in my garden, and I was surprised to find out that they are actually the exact same species of plant as kale. In fact cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are also different cultivars of that same species, Brassica oleracea. Who knew?

massaged collards

The collards on the left have been massaged for a few minutes, on the right is their natural state

Those veggies all look rather different but share a similar taste, and to a majority of us (about 70%) that taste is bitter. The bitter flavor compounds are related to a chemical called PTC, which you might have encountered in biology class when the teacher gave you little paper strips to taste and 3/4 of the class made “ick” faces as the rest wondered what the fuss was about. That’s because you need a certain gene to taste the bitterness, and if you don’t have it, brassica veggies probably taste pretty good.

Now getting back to trendy kale – that fashionable plat du jour is actually the massaged kale salad, which when I first heard about it sounded like a bunch of foodie crap. But confronted with a harvest of collards and not really wanting to cook in the heat of summer, I figured I’d give it a try. The theory is that by rubbing the leaves together you essentially cause them to wilt – the cell walls break down and enzymes are released, making the leaf both less tough and less bitter. Most recipes also call for working in a dressing with salt, an acid, and a fat, which further cause the leaves to break down as well as working to cut the bitterness on your palate.

Lo and behold, it works! So, if you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for a few minutes, here’s a simple, healthy salad:

Massaged Collard Green Salad
Recipe type: salad
Prep time:
Total time:
Serves: 2-4
Massaging greens like collards or kale softens them and tames their bitterness, allowing them to be used raw as the base for a healthy salad.
  • One bunch collard greens or kale
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Toppings of your choice (bacon bits, parmesan cheese, sundried tomatoes, walnuts - whatever you've got handy)
  1. Wash the greens, remove the stems, and tear the leaves into rough pieces
  2. In a large bowl, add the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt to your greens
  3. Get your hands in there & grasp large handfuls of greens, crushing and rubbing them together like you're kneading bread. Keep this up for 2-3 minutes or until the greens are pretty well wilted.
  4. Mix in your toppings and serve!


Macerate Your Berries


The half on the left was rubbed with sugar, both sat around for an hour

Early summer brings lots of fresh strawberries, and I’ve been happily bringing home a quart or two from the greenmarket over the past few weeks. Strawberries fall into the category of “non-climacteric” fruits. This means that unlike bananas or tomatoes, they don’t continue to ripen after harvest. They’re at their peak when you pick them, and then it’s use them or lose them. To make things worse, they’re also thin-skinned, which allows mold and bacteria an easy foothold. Leave a pint of strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter on a muggy summer day and you can easily come back a few hours later to find them mushy and covered in fuzz!

So what to do with your berries? Personally I like to macerate them. (It’s ok, I’ll wait for your 12 year old self to stop chuckling : ) Maceration is the term for breaking something down in liquid. Much like marinating meat, maceration will soften the fruit by breaking down cell walls, and can also impart flavor, either into the fruit, or from the fruit into the liquid.

With strawberries, you’ll want to start by washing and hulling them (removing the stem part), and then slice them into pieces so more surface area is exposed. Then you’ve got some options. The most common thing to do is simply sprinkle them with sugar. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water. As the liquid is drawn out of the fruit, its cell walls will start collapsing, releasing further liquid until soon your berries have created their own syrup. You can also soak them in alcohol, or in acid like lemon juice. Personally, given how sweet strawberries are already, I prefer using balsamic vinegar, which has both sugar and acid in it, and brings out the fresh strawberry flavor while adding some complexity of its own.

I recently did a taste test and here are some different options you could try:

  • Honey or maple syrup: more interesting variations on plain sugar
  • Balsamic vinegar: Keeps the bright strawberry flavor but adds some notes of dark fruit or prunes, cuts the sweetness a bit. Even better when some chopped basil or mint is mixed in
  • Orange liqueur or rum: If you’re going to go this route, be sure to add sugar or else it will be too harsh. The exception was elderflower liqueur, which is naturally sweet, and would complement strawberries pretty well in a dessert
  • Lemon/lime: sweet-tart and bright, tastes like another kind of fruit entirely. The lime version had a sour candy taste like Smarties.
  • Soy sauce – a salty/sweet combination that your tongue wasn’t expecting. Definitely not for everyone, but it could be a fun surprise if worked into the right dish

In general it will take about half an hour for the magic to happen. At that point, you can top the macerated berries with whipped cream, pour them over ice cream with their syrup, or make a shortcake. You can also strain them out of the liquid and cook with them, since having some of the liquid removed already makes for a less-soggy pie. The season for fresh strawberries is coming to a close here in Brooklyn, but this will also work with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and the other fruits of summer.

Back From The Dead

Ok, I’ll admit it, I fell off the blogging wagon. Apparently this is a common thing, like letting that diet or gym routine slip. But I have a couple good reasons. First, I have the kind of job that sometimes involves a lot of travel. Everyone thinks business travel is exciting, but frankly it’s exhausting and all-consuming. At the same time though, over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to have great culinary experiences in cities across the US, whether that be an “everything dog” and the latest gastropub in Chicago, Cuban food in Florida, or wandering the markets in San Francisco’s Chinatown (live bullfrogs, anyone?)

The first tomatoes of summer

The first tomatoes of summer

The second thing that happened is spring, and over the course of that season I’ve been establishing my urban garden, which I’m proud to say now has about two dozen containers of plants in the prime of their lives. I’ve rotated through greens, radishes, and broccoli, and now I’ve got tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, and summer squash in various stages of development. Strawberry season is drawing to a close and blueberries are in. As summer nears its apex, the hard part of gardening is over and I can kick back and literally enjoy the fruits of my labor.

So now that summer’s here and I’ve got a little more time, I’ve been dedicating myself back to my original mission, which is to educate myself more about cooking, one ingredient, technique, or piece of equipment at a time. The great experiences I’ve been having contribute to that goal, and I look forward to sharing my experiments with you.

Field Trip: Cooking En Francais at Cook & Go

Last week I had a fun time accomplishing two things at once with an awesome “cooking in French” workshop at Cook & Go in Manhattan.  I discovered this through Fluent City, where I’m currently taking a French class and thought it would be great opportunity to bone up on my French culinary vocabulary while also learning some new French dishes.  Cook & Go’s concept is simple but great for a busy New Yorker:  you spend a couple hours assembling a menu of a few courses.  Some of the annoying prep is taken care of for you already, and the remaining execution is planned out in a way that makes it approachable for even a novice chef.  When you’re done with the class, you end up with a set of containers in a takeout bag along with easy instructions on how to pop them in the oven and finish the cooking at home.  Bon appétit!  (Btw, they started in France but since this is NYC most classes are in English, and the cuisine options are geographically diverse.)

Chef Wilson Johnson teaches cooking in French at Cook & Go

Chef Wilson Johnson teaches cooking in French at Cook & Go

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Kitchen Lab: Onions Without Tears?

cut onions without crying

Big Bowl o’ Onions

Here’s a follow-up from last week’s article on French onion soup.  Ok, I’ll admit it. I was practically weeping like an infant by the time I was done researching this one. Yet for you, dear reader, I mangled my way through a half dozen onions in an attempt to prove which of these purported techniques let you cut onions without crying.

So why does prepping such a basic ingredient make us feel like we’ve entered a tear gas factory? As a defense mechanism, onions absorb sulfur from the soil to create pungent compounds which make them impalatable to the animals who might otherwise want to dig them up and eat them. Each cell in an onion contains not only amino acid sulfoxides, but also a storage vacuole (basically a bag of liquid floating in the middle of the cell) with enzymes. When you break the cell apart, the enzymes mix with the sulfur compounds and produce a volatile gas (propanethiol S-oxide). This in turn wafts up to your eyes where it combines with water to form sulfuric acid. No wonder you’ve got tears!

The good news is that when heated, these sulfur compounds react with each other and with other substances to produce a range of characteristic flavor molecules that give onions the savory, meaty quality which adds depth to so many dishes. So how then to get to this deliciousness without the tears?  Here are the top 10 theories that I tested in an afternoon of not so scientific experimentation: [Read more…]

Fond of French Onion Soup

French onion soup (or soupe à l’oignon gratinée, if you’re French) is a classic example of winter comfort food. One plunge of a spoon through the melted cheesy crust to the richly flavorful broth below and you’ll be hooked.

French Onion SoupLegend has it that King Louis (either the 14th or 15th, take your pick) invented this dish after returning to his hunting lodge one night to find nothing in the pantry but onions, butter, and champagne. In reality it was probably created back in Roman times by a much more humble cook facing a similar predicament. This, like all truly great cooking, is a peasant dish born from necessity.

I love this recipe because at its core it’s about extracting as much complex flavor as possible from one ordinary ingredient, and that’s the ethos of Building Flavor!  Now bear with me as I geek out a bit – after a small science lesson you’ll know why each step matters, which means you can cook this without being chained to the recipe. [Read more…]

Learning to Love Grapefruit

January is the time of year when I always seem to inherit a pile of fruit that arrived as a holiday gift.  You know what I’m talking about — that box full of apples, pears and citrus that appears on the doorstep one day like some kind of time capsule from an era before supermarkets.  In any event, it’s an old timey delivery of vitamin C and a wish for good health in the new year.  Yet by February I’m still left wondering “what do I do with all these damn grapefruit?”

Broiled grapefruit with cinnamon sugar

Broiled grapefruit with cinnamon sugar

The grapefruit was born in the West Indies in the 18th century as the bastard child of a sweet orange and a pomelo.  The name refers to the fact that they grow in clusters, which when unripe look like a giant bunch of green grapes.  By the early 20th century they had made it to Florida and Texas, where one of them mutated to form a pink variety.  Growers of the atomic age fiddled around with this by blasting it with radiation and created the ruby reds that we have today.

The color in the red varieties comes from the antioxident lycopene, and grapefruit also contain large quantities of spermine, which is alleged to be the fountain of youth.  Grapefruit have a low glycemic index so they won’t spike your blood sugar, they may help lower cholesterol, and proponents of the grapefruit diet swear that they are stocked with fat burning enzymes.  On the downside, grapefruit can mess with the metabolism of certain drugs like Lipitor with potentially fatal consequences.  So, like many things, grapefruit will cure all that ails you, unless of course they kill you first. [Read more…]

Beef Negimaki

When it comes to game day party food, the first thing that comes to most Americans’ minds is chicken wings.  Now there are a lot of delicious recipes for wings, but I’ve never really been a fan.  Call me lazy, but when it comes to grazing, I just don’t like having to work through something with a high bone-to-meat ratio.  So, when creating bites for a meaty snack platter, I take my inspiration from sushi.

Beef negimaki (negi=scallion, maki=roll) is that sushi restaurant staple for the carnivores.  The beef and the soy sauce are both rich in glutamates that lend that delicious umami flavor and the sugar in the mirin pulls it together into a glaze.

Beef Negimaki

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Be Prepared

Mise en placeImagine this scenario:  you’ve got a bunch of guests over for a dinner party, or the whole family at Thanksgiving.  Everyone is happily chatting away with drinks or snacks in hand, all of them looking forward to the main event.

Meanwhile, in your impossibly cramped kitchen, you’re flailing around desperately wondering where you hid the oven mitts while something languishes overcooking in the heat.  You’ve got a sauce boiling away like Krakatoa because it just won’t reduce fast enough, and you just now realized that this other thing calls for finely minced garlic?

Dinner was supposed to be at 8, and at 8:15 one of your guests pokes their head in with a look of mixed expectation and sympathy and asks… “can we help you with anything?”

Does this seem familiar to you?  Because it’s happened to me way too many times.  And my resolution going forward is to be a better boy scout and simply be prepared. [Read more…]