Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spring Produce Cheat-Sheet

The older I get, the more I appreciate spring.  Growing up, I considered spring merely a damp buffer between winter snow days and blissful summer vacation. Now, rather than looking past the season to longer and warmer days, I enjoy the world's slow awakening: days are comfortably warm, singing birds sound sweet and new and  flowers and trees are green with the promise of bloom.

In the kitchen, spring is likewise a season of promise. Farmer's markets start to pop up (check this map for local markets in western PA) and seasonal recipes highlight all that they have to offer. And with all these fresh, seasonal, local goods tempting me, spring is also the the season where I go totally overboard when shopping. I want to buy every seasonal fruit and vegetable I can get my hands on, and usually do, but twice as much as I need.

This spring, I will focus on just a few choice veggies: Arugula, asparagus and chard.  Not only are they  national springtime produce, they're crops indigenous to my region.  For more on seasonal produce, check out the Pennsylvania Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables guide and/or the seasonal spring fruits and vegetables guide (for nation-wide seasonal availability).


Arugula, a.k.a. "rocket lettuce," is a dark, leafy green. Arugula is available in "common" and baby varieties, the latter being more readily available. Its flavor is typically described as "peppery," as it has a biting, almost bitter, taste. Good for salads, sautes or tossed with pasta.

Baby arugula
Baby arugula's big brother, "common"

For arugula newbies, try a cooked recipe (like this Lemon Fusilli) that mellows its sharp flavor by combining it with other ingredients and cooking out a bit of the bitterness.

For arugula pros, take your greens straight up: mix a few handfuls into your salad or green smoothie.


It's no surprise that asparagus tops the list of spring produce!  Though available throughout the year, spring is the time when these perennials are at their peak.  Watch the grocery store (or hit your farmer's market) to get spring asparagus for a steal; I've seen per pound prices drop by half, if not more when in season.  Also keep an eye out for the more rare (but kinda creepy looking) white asparagus.

Here's my favorite way to cook asparagus:

Dress one bunch trimmed asparagus with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice and roast in a 400-450 degree oven until asparagus begin to appear shriveled and start to turn golden brown. Give your pan a shake at least once through the cooking process (and line your baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy clean up). Top with grated parmesan cheese once out of the oven, if desired.  Serve asparagus atop a bed of greens with hard-boiled eggs.  Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.


I've already started seeing big bunches of colorful chard in the local/organic section of my grocery store. Chard, like arugula, is a distinctive green that's known for its nutritional benefits. Though I assume it could be used raw in salads, I've mostly seen chard used in sautes, after first removing the thick, woody ribs and roughly chopping. Look for the white-ribbed Swiss Chard and the more colorful, aptly named Rainbow Chard.

Whatever variety you choose, select the freshest chard you can find and try to use it the same day you buy it. Chard that is past its peak can taste bitter and unpleasant. Not so tasty.

Try out chard in this simple saute with garlic, olive oil and pinch of red pepper.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

4 Restaurants to Try... Now!

If you call my same little corner of western Pennsylvania home, here are four restaurants to try this weekend. No planning, GPS-ing or trips to the city required. 

Rivertowne Pour House

Monroeville, PA

Must-Try Food:
Blackened Salmon BLT
Must-Have Drink:  Arctic Amber

This hometown pub in Monroeville offers more than your standard sports bar fare.  One of four Pittsburgh area locations, Rivertowne the restaurant is an extension of Rivertowne Brewing, the likewise Pittsburgh-based craft brewery.  The Monroeville location offers up to 18 original Rivertowne brews on draft and new twists on your classic pizza, wings 'n subs menu.

The Green Mango

Monroeville, PA

Must-Try Food:  Choo Chee Tofu and Summer Rolls
Must-Have Drink:  Thai Iced Tea

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'll once again endorse The Green Mango.  It was here that I first tried Thai food, so it will likely remain my favorite Thai spot, well, forever!  The Green Mango is great for a quiet, relaxed meal, with great service and BYOB.  Though I am confident the rest of their menu is just as solid, I am yet to venture beyond their curries... There's just too many that are too good!

Pho Van

Pittsburgh, PA (Strip District)

Must-Try Food:  Pho with Flank
Must-Have Drink:  Vietnamese coffee

Pho Van, in Pittsburgh's eclectic market-based Strip District, was a lunchtime haven for me and a few yogi friends back in February.  While attending the Pittsburgh Yoga Expo, we stepped out for a quick lunch, only to be bombarded by freezing temperatures, falling snow and near white-out conditions.  Practically running through the restaurant's front doors, we were greeted by a serene atmosphere and some much needed body-and-soul warming food.  My well-done flank pho was spot-on and served with all the fun fixin's.  If you're a fan of the more adventurous pho - like beef tripe - worry not, they have that too.  Best of all, it was ridiculously affordable; Pho Van offered a superb meal for under $10.

Cellar Door Cafe & Crêperie

Greensburg, PA

Must-Try Food: Nutella Solo Crepe or Mediterranean Veggie Sub
Must-Have Drink: A basic coffee, to complement your crepe!

Mmm.. Crepes. There's nothing quite as good as a basic but delicious chocolate-hazelnut crepe, and this place does them right.  If you're looking for a little more than chocolate, Cellar Door has plenty of other varieties to fill you up and fuel your day (like the chicken raspberry and francesca veggie). Also vegan and vegetarian friendly, Cellar Door offers weekly Meatless Monday specials.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Noodling About Noodles

"In just about every Asian culture that uses them, noodles are associated with well-being and [are a symbol of] long life."

Thank you, udon, for inspiring this post.  The udon noodle is a big, fat, wheat-based Japanese noodle, which until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of.  I stumbled upon it in this quick vegetarian noodle bowl recipe, also shared below.

In Japan alone there are at least seven major types of noodles; this number multiples quickly if you include Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai variations.  

As with many other elements of Asian culture, food - especially the noodle - represents something greater than itself.  Living in the western world of drive-throughs and to-go cups, I easily forget that what I eat is connected not only to my body, mind and well-being, but also my society, culture and heritage.  In contrast, this point is central to Asian cuisines.  Beyond seasonality and freshness, food in Asia embodies centuries of tradition and often represents (and is thought to harken) future success and prosperity.

In the greater United States, however, we have few foods to call our own (one pitfall of our "melting pot" background, I suppose), and even fewer that are readily connected to sweeping ideals or cultural cues.  New Year's Eve dogs and kraut aside, of course. ;)

Ironically, I didn't actually use udon noodles in this recipe.  I substituted linguine.  If you try this recipe, take a quick peek down the international foods aisle of your local grocery store or (for you city-dwellers) check an Asian market for authentic udon.  If you, like me, can't find the real thing, give the substitution a go.  The result was still quite tasty!

Either way, use this recipe as a chance to slow down and connect to your food.  Not only will your hunger be more satisfied,  you might feel a little more connected to your past, future, family or culture.

Tofu Noodle Bowls


  • 1 8-ounce package udon noodles, or linguine
  • 4 tablespoons roasted peanut oil, or 3 tablespoons sesame oil mixed with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 12-ounce package firm tofu, cut into 12 pieces
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 11 ounces baby spinach, baby kale or a combination
  • 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced diagonally
  • Large pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • Pinch of sugar


Cook the udon noodles or linguine as the label directs. (Don't overcook or they will get mushy.) Drain, reserving about 1/3 cup of the cooking water.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Pat the tofu dry and season all over with salt and pepper. Add the tofu to the skillet and sear until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Set aside and keep warm.

Add 1 tablespoon oil and the greens to the skillet. Cook, tossing, until just wilted. Add the scallions, red pepper flakes, the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, the soy sauce and sugar. Add the reserved cooking water; heat to create a broth. Divide the noodles and greens among 4 bowls and top with the tofu.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oat-Date Granola Bars

Showered?  Check.  Outfit?  Check?  Old faux-Ugg boots on my feet, with heels stashed in my purse?  Check.  Travel mug ready with steaming hot high octane coffee?  Big check.  Keys? Check.  Now, mad dash for the car!

This harried summary of my morning routine is missing just one other check... Breakfast!  In my continuing effort to eat smarter, I've committed myself to eating a decent breakfast each and every morning - no matter how hectic.  For now, I'll gloss over the fact that this breakfast is typically eaten while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the parkway; I'm still working on a morning schedule that will leave enough time to eat at an actual table.  One step at a time.

So to get a jump on my weekday breakfasts, I baked a pan of these Whole Foods date granola bars over the weekend.  I just downloaded their (totally free!) recipes app (iPhone friendly only) and find myself turning to it frequently. You can search for recipes based on meal type, dietary preference or cooking situation (i.e. cooking with kids, entertaining, make ahead, etc.).  You can also use the "On Hand" capability to magically find one recipe combining that last chunk of cheese, handful of eggs and bunch of kale in your fridge.  I particularly like the "Favorite" tool; I can easily save a recipe I like for quick reference later. 

My new-found app love aside, this bar recipe yields a final product similar to one of my store-bought favorites, the Lara Bar, with a slightly denser, more floury texture.  Plus, the recipe produces 10 generously sized yet low-calorie bars for a fraction of the cost.  Allotting myself two bars (well, wedges - more on that below) per morning, this quick, easy and inexpensive recipe supplied me with a ready-to-go breakfast for almost an entire work week.

What these bars boast in convenience, however, they lack ever so slightly in flavor.  They weren't bad by any means, they just were not terribly exciting.  I'll definitely make them again, but I might add a little p'nash.. like dried cranberries, apricots or mangoes, and some type of nut.

Give them a try for yourself, and check one more thing off your crazy morning to-do list!


  • 2/3 cup chopped pitted dates, divided
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/4 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt


Preheat oven to 375°F and grease an 8 x 8-inch baking pan. In a blender, combine 1/3 cup of the dates and water; blend until very smooth. Add egg and blend just until combined. In a medium bowl, combine oats, flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt and whisk until combined. Add date-and-water mixture and remaining 1/3 cup chopped dates; stir until moistened.

Scrape into prepared pan, level the top with a spatula, and bake until firm and lightly browned around the edges, about 17 minutes. Cool in the pan and cut into 10 bars. Bars keep in an airtight container for about a week. They can also be individually wrapped and frozen until ready to eat; allow about 2 hours for them to thaw. 

My little tip:  I don't have an 8x8-inch baking pan, so I just used a round 8-inch pie pan.  The same cooking time worked well, plus I got to cut them into fun wedges!

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Monday, February 11, 2013

5-Ingredient Vegetarian Recipes

I love recipes with short ingredient lists, quick cooking times and small price tags.  Just in time for Meatless Monday, here's a short list of recipes that not only meet my recipe trifecta, but are meat-free too:


Black Bean Quesadillas

These quesadillas are fast but filling, packed with protein from the black beans and luscious avocado.  If gluten free, try using corn tortillas in place of the whole wheat.

Photo: Oxmoor House

Butternut Squash Risotto

This risotto recipe is true five ingredient comfort food, thanks to a little grocery store shortcut from frozen pureed butternut squash. If you want to break the five ingredient rule just a little, add some fresh thyme and parmesan cheese.



5-Ingredient Chili

This quick chili from the Kitchn originally calls for ground beef, but subbing in tofu or meatless crumbles could easily turn this meat free (see the recipe's note for further tips).

Photo: Food Network

Cold Peanut Noodles

Mmmm.. this simple noodle dish is one of my favorite take-out foods.  When there's no time to even pick up the phone, try this quick-fix version of peanut soba noodles.


Grilled Watermelon Salad

Combining quick-grilled watermelon, arugula, goat cheese and a quick dressing, these few ingredients combine to taste like summer on a plate.