Go Nuts!

I suppose it’s inevitable that I’d write about nuts today. It’s tough not to have nuts on the mind when you’ve been munching on them during a 10-hour road trip, passing grove after grove of pistachios and walnuts and almonds in the San Joaquin Valley.

That’s OK, though. I love talking nuts. Back when I thought low-fat was the way to go to maintain a comfortable weight, I rarely touched them. But I’ve learned a lot since then. For starters, research has shown that people who eat a handful of nuts a few times a week actually weigh less than those on a stringent low-fat diet (I can back that up from my own experience*). And a strong stable of studies shows that eating nuts protects your heart, too, lowering risk of heart attack by up to 30%-50% in some cases.

That’s some serious incentive to eat something so appealing to begin with. Each variety has its own unique flavor, texture and, I would claim, personality. So go a little nuts this week . . . and feel good about it!

* Just be aware that nuts do pack a lot of calories: 1 ounce–roughly a few tablespoons–will set you back around 170. Making smart choices will balance it out, though. I like to snack on nuts in lieu of pretzels and sprinkle them on salads instead of croutons, for instance. That way I’m getting about the same amount of calories with loads more nutritional value and tons more taste.

An Apple a Day

I tend to have three types of encounters with fruit. One is the almost soundtrack-worthy experience of eating a ripe plum or peach straight from the tree as ambrosial juices dribble down my chin. Another is facing down bowls of shiny apples at a Starbucks thinking “I should eat this,” yet knowing that it’ll be like biting into Styrofoam. The third, when I’m at my local organic market, is akin to browsing the bins at a vintage music shop, feeling the pressure rise as I try to remember what, exactly, I like. Some people are naturals in those situations, I’m not.

Needless to say, fruit and I have a complicated relationship and, as a result, I don’t tend to reach for it when my stomach rumbles. But last week, help literally arrived on my doorstep in the form of a box from The FruitGuys. The FruitGuys source local (mostly), organic (when specified) fruit for weekly delivery to offices around the country. For me in California, that translated into a box brimming with oranges large and small, several shades of apples and pears, and even an avocado. And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve eaten a lot of fruit this past week. Happily.

Try these 4 steps to work more fruit into your meals>

I’m finding a lot of my new-found enjoyment has to do with seasonality and curiosity. When a fruit is grown locally, it’s picked at the peak of its flavor; its purpose in life is more about titillating your tastebuds than surviving a cross-continent trek and you can tell as soon as you bite into it. I also find that when I approach fruit from a place of curiosity, it’s not such a big deal if I don’t remember the details the next time around. Fruit is sort of like wine in that way; part of the pleasure comes from the trying and retrying itself.

But the best thing is . . . now I actually look forward to raiding the fruit drawer.

So following that “apple a day” advice is easy — when it’s a good apple.

This week, join me in eating at least one piece of fruit a day–preferably seasonal–whether in a salad, from the fruit drawer, or even plucked straight from the tree. And yes, the strawberries in the crostata count.

Take Your Time

nton-small-iconWhen I have back-to-back trips, as I have the past few weeks, I start to feel like I’ve barely gotten one foot in the door before I have to pack up and head out again. It can leave me feeling hectic. It can make me feel perpetually rushed. I find that when I get into overdrive like that I need to be very deliberate about slowing down and re-calibrating, and mealtime is the perfect opportunity to do so.

It takes concentration to stop from whizzing through the meal at first. I think about each bite as I assemble it on my fork. Occasionally, I even put my fork down altogether to really listen to what my husband is saying across the table or, if I’m alone, watch the hummingbird hover outside the window or inhale the scent of my neighbors’ orange blossoms. At first, the individual actions can feel plodding and exaggerated. But as the days wear on, I begin to feel like my feet are touching earth again, like my breath is reaching my fingertips again. It feels so good I wonder how I could ever have let myself become otherwise.

This week, I challenge you to slow down and take twice as long to eat as you normally do. Start out with a baseline by timing how long it takes you to eat dinner tonight–from plates down to plates up. Then, for the rest of the week, set the kitchen timer for twice that amount at mealtime. At first, it may feel like an eternity. But notice the effect it has on you–what you eat, how you go about your meals, how you feel, and even what you choose to make for dinner–throughout the week. It’s a great chance to catch your breath before the rush of summer is upon us.

Have a Social Hour

All the way through early summer, peas and favas are at the market. Now some will look at those piles of pods, shake their heads and think “too much work,” and I’m the first to agree that frozen peas can be a saving grace on a busy weeknight. But there’s another way, too, to view the labor-intensive process of prepping spring produce–as a treat in and of itself to be relished rather than rushed. It’s a mindful eating practice in the form of sharing the prep work.

Maybe it’s the communal bowl set out to catch the fruits of your labor. Maybe it’s the tactile act of nudging peas out of their pods, popping favas out of their skins, whittling baby artichokes into edible wonders. Whatever it is, something clicks to allow conversation to unfurl at its own speed, to let strands of thought unspool silently in our minds without feeling the need to speak out loud.

Most people, I’ve found, have sepia-tinted memories of sitting on a sunny stoop with someone–a child, a grandparent–with a bowl between them. Just yesterday, my mom and I were shelling favas for our Easter meal when she shared a memory of shelling peas with her mother–a moment I’m sure I’ll recount to my own daughter a month, a year, a decade from now. It’s a timeless act that, amidst this busy world, people tend to tuck away and cherish deep in their hearts.

And I haven’t even mentioned the joy these little gems bring to the plate.

So for one meal this week have a few friends over, wrangle the kids together, invite your spouse to sit for a spell and prep some seasonal produce . . . all the better if you have a sunny day and a stoop.

Fennel, Red Onion & Blood Orange Salad with Miso-Orange Vinaigrette

I dare you to attach the word “deprivation” to this salad. The bitter blood orange, the earthy miso, the crunchy fennel, the hit of sweet juice and the bite of arugula all come together in a festival of flavors and textures.

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (not blood orange)
2 tablespoons white miso paste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
1/2 pound arugula
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 blood oranges, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

Shake together orange juice, miso, oil, sugar, ginger and a pinch of salt and pepper in a tight-sealing jar.

Toss together arugula, fennel, mint and onion. Drizzle dressing over top and toss well. Divide mixture among four plates. Arrange orange sections and pine nuts on top.

Serves 4

Eat an Omnivore

nton-small-iconIt can be confusing trying to eat with an “eco-clean” conscious. Organic or local? Free-range or all-natural? Farmed fish or wild fish? Each of these questions is a bit like French grammar; sure you can put “rules” to them, but those rules will invariably be followed by a litany of exceptions.

What I hope to do with the “nibbles to noodle” that focus on eco-friendly eating is to dice the larger issues into bite-sized bits for you to ingest into your awareness. That way, you can be confident you’re making smart choices when facing the fish counter, the meat counter, the produce section. This week, we’ll look at a sigle facet of one subject: farmed fish.

Not all fish are created equal when it comes to being a good candidate for aquaculture (the fancy name for raising fish in a controlled environment). Carnivores like tuna and salmon are poor choices by their very nature; it takes up to 25 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed tuna and up to 8 pounds to produce 1 pound of salmon. Because of the high quantity and population density inherent in fish farms, this can put a strain on wild stocks and increase the risk of toxic build-up. Conversely, herbivores and omnivores like tilapia, catfish and arctic char have a much smaller footprint (or should I say fin-print?) on wild waters, making them better choices for farming.

So this week, feast on some omnivorous fish like catfish and see how simple–and delicious–sustainable can be.

* One note: be sure to choose domestically farmed fish. As of now, overall aquaculture practices in other countries are poorly regulated from both health and environmental standpoints.


It all started with a box of salt cod I bought on a whim on Friday. I know it’s an odd ingredient, but salt cod reminds me of Greece. And I’d just finished the (hopefully final) edits on my novel (that alone is a good reason to celebrate), which is partially set in Greece. And thinking of salt cod and Greece made me think of the feasts we used to have there–tables groaning with food. So on Saturday, I began shredding the fish and my husband started making calls, and by 8:00 we had a festive crew nibbling on fried salt cod fritters with skordalia (kind of like super-garlicky mashed potatoes beaten with olive oil), vinegary beet salad, charred lamb chops and the pungent yogurt dip called tzatziki.

Now, nutritionists might thumb their noses at our feast and, divided up into grams of fat and sodium, they’d be right to do so. Lord knows, I’ve spent most of my life feeling guilty about living it up after decades of diet indoctrination. But I truly believe that there’s a place for meals like these. Rick Bayless, in his book Mexican Everyday, talks about how occasional celebrations are a natural balance to everyday moderation; “No one ever got fat on a weekly feast, but missing that feast can leave you with strong cravings (both physical and spiritual) all week long.”

I agree. Along wigh moderation, celebration is a foundation of a mindful eating practice. So I went into this weekend with eyes wide open, trusting that Sunday through Friday I would eat simply and wholesomely, that this celebration was yang to the more restrained weekday yin, and that I needed both to remain balanced. And I’ll tell you, what a world of difference it makes entering a Monday feeling fulfilled rather than remorseful.

So this week (or next if you’re not into spontaneity), I challenge you to have a feast. Make a roast, bake a cake, revel in the meal and the company. The one ingredient you’re not allowed to include? Guilt.

Take a Trip

nton-small-iconFiguratively speaking, anyway. When my wanderlust wants to whisk me away but I don’t have the time (or budget) to climb on board I turn to my cookbooks for escape. Do I feel like going to India with a simple lentil dal or is it off to Thailand tonight? Am I craving a visit to my favorite Parisian bistro or would I rather the rambunctiousness of a Roman trattoria?
Food can take us places we’ve never been or bring us back to places rich with memories. So think about your meals this week not just in the context of what food you’ll be putting on your plate. Factor in whether you’re feeling adventurous or nostalgic–or even a little of both–and let your meals take you where you want to go.

Experiment with Mushrooms

Heh, heh. No, not those kinds of mushrooms. Not even wild mushrooms. I’m talking run-of-the-mill brown cremini. Humble fungi like these (and their even humbler cousins, white button mushrooms) have nutrients like niacin that help regulate hormones, and potassium, which helps lower blood pressure. Mushrooms are also known to combat certain cancers. Cancer like my friend Merede is fighting.

When I got the call last week that Merede wanted some girlfriend encouragement and was looking for ways to eat healthier, I brought along a big pot of whole-grain “risotto,” dense with cremini mushrooms. Sure it was healthy. But as Merede inhaled the scents, tasted its rich flavor, and shared the meal amid the laughter and voices of her friends, I guarantee the nourishing benefits went well beyond the nutrient value of the dish.

This week, experiment with cremini in a variety of ways both raw and cooked. Try slicing them thinly and tossing them with shaved celery and garlicky vinaigrette. Or sautéing quartered cremini in olive oil with minced shallots and rosemary and mounding them on top of a sautéed chicken paillard (a thinly pounded chicken breast). Or . . . try my recipe for Merede’s Mushroom “Farrotto” with Roasted Butternut Squash and Shallots. I speak from experience in saying it will truly nourish both body and soul.

Mushroom “Farrotto” with Roasted Butternut Squash & Shallots

Farro is an ancient strain of emmer wheat. You can find it in many specialty shops and also online at ChefShop.com. The hearty, nutty flavor of the farro pairs beautifully with butternut squash and mushrooms.

1 small butternut squash,  peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
2 cups sliced shallots
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
3 thyme sprigs
3 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
2 pounds cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 bay leaves
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 quart mushroom stock
1-1/2 cups farro
1/4 cup shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Toss squash and shallots with 1 tablespoon olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper and thyme. Spread out in a heavy roasting pan and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally after the first 10 minutes, until squash and shallots are tender and caramelized. Remove from the oven and discard thyme stems.

While the squash roasts, heat remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add pancetta. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until a good portion of the fat is rendered. Add mushrooms to pot and toss well. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, until mushrooms begin to release their liquid. Uncover and increase heat to medium-high. Add bay leaves, garlic and a pinch of salt and pepper, and continue cooking for 12-15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are tinged golden-brown.

Stir in broth, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot, and bring to a boil. Stir in farro and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring frequently, until all the liquid is gone and the farro is tender. Stir in squash and shallots and serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Serves 8