Apple and Oat Muffins

Add a little apple to your morning muffin:

Healthy Apple Oat Muffines

I don’t bake muffins often, but when I do, I try to make them healthy. This way they are on hand for an easy breakfast or a snack. My issue with muffins, is that they often resemble mini-cakes, packed with sugar and fat. To some extent, this can’t be avoided if you wish to eat a muffin that doesn’t resemble a hockey puck or bird food. But I adjust, reducing some of the sugar and fat and adding healthy grains or cereals, fruit and nuts to the batter. I also add grated fruit, which is a key ingredient for natural sweetness and moisture.

Grated apple is the star of this muffin recipe, which also includes raisins, chopped nuts, and oats for extra fiber. As muffins go, they are reasonably healthy, while sufficiently naughty to indulge a craving for something moist and sweet. You can tweak this recipe if you like – just make sure to follow the ratios. In place of apple, try adding grated carrot, zucchini, or pear; and bran can be substituted for the oats. There’s no need to peel the fruit. The nutrients in the skin add a little extra healthy boost – I’ll take my small victories where I can.

Apple Oat Muffins

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Makes 12 (2 1/2-inch) muffins

1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins
1 medium sweet and crisp apple, such as Honey Crisp, grated, about 1 cup
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Oil a 12-muffin tin (or line with paper liners).
2. Mix the sugar and oil in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the molasses and vanilla, and then mix in the buttermilk.
3. Whisk the flour, oats, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Add to the sugar mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, without over-mixing. Stir in the raisins, apple and walnuts, if using.
4. Spoon the batter into the muffin tin or paper liners, filling them. Transfer to the oven and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in the pan, and then remove and cool the muffins completely on a rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Herb and Cheesy Hasselback Potatoes

These baked potatoes are not a hassle:

Cheesy Hasselback Baked Potatoes with Parsley and Garlic

I can’t think of a better way to prepare a potato than hasselback-style. You may have seen these baked potatoes, with their distinctive accordion pattern. Thinly sliced, but still intact, the flesh is exposed while creating a cascade of ridges and edges ready to crisp. As the potato bakes, a flavorful basting sauce dribbles into the potato, flavoring the interior while hastening the browning of the skin. Apparently, you can have your baked potato and your crisps and eat them as one.

Russet potatoes, large Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet potatoes are all fair game for hasselback-style. The key to the prep is to first thinly slice a piece of each potato base lengthwise to stabilize them, so they won’t wobble or tilt while baking. Then cut thin slices crosswise, 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick, nearly to the bottom without cutting through the base. A trick to doing this is to lay 2 chopsticks, or 2 thin cutting boards lengthwise on either side of the potato, to act as a buffer for the knife as it cuts through the potato, and prevent it from reaching the work surface.

Then, brush the potato all over and in the crevices with a melted butter basting sauce, and continue to baste the potato once or twice while it bakes. About halfway through the baking process you can gently fan the slices to spread the potato further open to expose to the interior. If some of the slices break off, no worries! They will be delicious chips on the side.

Herb and Cheesy Hasselback Potatoes

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra for finishing
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for finishing
1/4 cup finely grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, and/or chives

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Cut a very thin slice lengthwise from the bottom of each potato to stabilize the bottom. Cut each potato, crosswise, as thinly as possible, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, to about 1/4 inch from the bottom, without piercing the base. Place in a baking pan or cast iron pan.
3. Melt the butter with the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the garlic, salt, and pepper and remove from the heat. Brush the potatoes all over and in the crevices with some of the butter mixture.
4. Transfer to the oven and bake until the potatoes are tender and beginning to crisp, 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, basting once or twice with the butter. In the last 10 minutes or so of cooking, sprinkle with the cheese and continue to bake until the cheese is melted.
5. Remove from the oven and immediately brush all over with the remaining butter. Season with additional salt and black pepper and sprinkle with the herbs.

Farmers Market Potato Salad

Tasting Potatoes, Danish-style

I discovered this fresh and light-handed salad years ago when I lived in Denmark. Most likely it was at one of our frequent family gatherings, seated outdoors at a long wooden picnic table in the shadow of a thatched roof farmhouse with the summer sun hanging, as if caught on the hook of the horizon, refusing to sink as the evening set in. It was certainly summer, because that’s when new potatoes are at their peak in Denmark, and considered not only a staple but a delicacy to be greedily devoured.

I was smitten by the salad’s restraint, simply tossed with oil and vinegar, and generously layered with freshly snipped flowering sprigs and herbs from the garden. As an American, my experience with potato salads to that point had been the heavy-handed mayo and egg sort, tasty for sure, but more of a cloak and disguise to the mild-mannered potato. I would prod a fork through those murky salads swathed in cream, sugar, and oil in an attempt to fish out any intact morsel of potato, which by then had no flavor except that of the coating with which it was blanketed. The Danish potato salad was delightfully different, and appropriately Scandinavian in its understatement and use of fresh ingredients, celebrating the humble potato with a confetti of garden herbs. Most importantly: I could taste the potato.  And when the season’s newest potatoes are available, delicately sweet and faintly redolent of butter, there is nothing as sublime as the taste of potato.

As you can see, I chose blue potatoes for this salad, since I love their unusual color and how they contrast with the flowering yellow mustard greens I found at the farmers market. You can also use yellow or red new or small potatoes. The combination of herbs is up to your taste and whatever might be growing in your garden or stashed in your fridge. If you can find flowering mustard, add it to the mix or use it as a garnish, since it adds a nice peppery bite and vibrant color to the salad.

Danish Potato Salad with Garden Herbs

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes plus cooling time
Serves 6

3 pounds new potatoes or small potatoes (red, white, or blue), washed
Salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, dill, chervil, chives, tarragon, coarsely chopped
Flowering mustard sprigs for garnish

1. Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover with cold water and add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Partially cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes depending on the potatoes. Drain the potatoes and let stand for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

2. Cut the potatoes in half or large bite-size pieces. Add the potatoes, the oil, vinegar, scallions, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and the black pepper to a large bowl and stir to thoroughly combine. Cool to room temperature.

3. Before serving, taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if desired. Add the fresh herbs and stir to blend. If the salad is too dry, add additional olive oil. Serve at room temperature.

Roasted Carrot and Pearl Couscous Salad

Here’s a party-worthy salad layered with flavor, that you can call a main course or a sumptuous side:

Carrot Couscous Salad Platter

This salad does not hold back on herbs and spice. Handfuls of garden herbs and a shake of the contents of your spice drawer build layers of flavor and freshness into this bright and festive couscous platter. Israeli couscous (also known as pearl couscous) is made of wheat flour and semolina which is rolled into tiny “pearl” balls and then toasted. The dried couscous, once purchased, is simmered in a liquid to soften. I like to toast the dried couscous in the pan first, before adding the liquid to simmer, which essentially means the couscous is doubly toasted. This extra step adds satisfying nutty flavor and golden color to the sturdy little semolina balls.

Carrot Couscous Salad with Pine Nuts

Purchase rainbow carrots for this salad, if possible, since they add a brilliant array of color to the platter. Choose thin carrots of uniform size to ensure similar cooking time. If necessary cut thicker carrots in half lengthwise.

Roasted Carrot and Israeli Couscous Salad with Pine Nuts and Arugula

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups Israeli (pearl) couscous
2 1/4 cups water
Salt
1 small red chile pepper, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 ½ pounds thin rainbow carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise if thick
Freshly ground black pepper

Gremolata:
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Pinch each of salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 cups baby arugula
2 to 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/2 lemon, plus wedges for serving

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet. Add the couscous and toast over medium heat until golden, 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover the skillet and simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer the couscous to a bowl and stir in the chile pepper, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, coriander, and cayenne. Let stand at room temperature while you roast the carrots.
2. Heat the oven to 425°F.
3. Place the carrots in a large bowl, drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and lightly season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spread the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in the oven until lightly charred and crisp tender, about 20 minutes. Remove and cool slightly or to room temperature.
4. Make the gremolata: Mix the parsley, cilantro, dill, garlic, lemon zest, salt, and black pepper in a small bowl.
5. Scatter the arugula on a serving platter or in a wide shallow serving bowl. Spoon the couscous over and around the arugula and arrange the carrots on top. Squeeze the half lemon over the salad and sprinkle evenly with the gremolata. Garnish the platter with the lemon wedges and serve.

Easy Rice Pilaf

 Homemade Rice Pilaf – Quick, Easy, and Delicious:

Homemade Rice Pilaf - easy and delicious

When I was young, one of my favorite side dishes was rice pilaf. It came in a slim box with a portion of rice and a sachet of spices, dehydrated chicken stock, and goodness knows what else – all set to prepare with water on the stovetop. The results were salty, addictive, and fragrant. My brothers and I would fight over who got to finish the bowl on the dinner table. One box was never enough.

These days, I make pilaf from scratch – and you probably do, too, without realizing it. The principle behind pilaf is that rice, or another grain such as bulgur or farro, is sautéed to lightly toast the grains, and then steamed in a flavorful broth, along with spices and a few aromatics such as onion and garlic. When ready to serve, the rice is fluffed to separate the grains and prevent stickiness, and handfuls of fresh herbs, chopped almonds, or chilies are added for extra flavor, texture, and color. You can choose to keep the rice simple or add the garnishes selectively to your taste. I tend to pile them on, because they add sensational flavor and freshness, while nudging an unassuming side into a stand-alone dish. So, before you reach for a box of pilaf in the supermarket with a long list of multi-syllabic ingredients, remember that it’s really quite easy – and much cheaper – to make your own from scratch.

Homemade Rice Pilaf

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves 6 as a side dish

2 3/4 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian option)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
Generous pinch of saffron threads
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup orzo
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/4 cup basmati rice

Optional garnishes:
1 scallion, white and green part thinly sliced
1 small red jalapeño, finely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

1. Combine the stock, 2 tablespoons butter, the salt, paprika, and saffron in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and keep warm.
2. Heat the oil and melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a deep skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add the orzo and sauté until light golden, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for about 1 minute, and then add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring constantly to coat and lightly toast the rice, for about 2 minutes.
3. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Cook, undisturbed, until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes
4. Serve with the garnishes sprinkled over the top.

Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon and Cream

Cool Soups Are Not Just For Summer. This light and luscious pea soup is a lovely spring teaser:

Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon and Cream

With warmer days on the way, chilled soups are a bright and refreshing alternative to a steaming bowl of soup. And while cool soups are certainly a solution to the heat of summer, they are also delicious year round. In fact, the slightly chilled temperature often amplifies the flavor and freshness of the ingredients, especially when the soup is as elegantly simple as this pea soup.

I prefer the savory flavor of the chicken stock in this recipe, but additional water may be substituted for a vegetarian version – in which case, be sure to taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. The soup may be served slightly chilled or at room temperature. Serve as a light first course for 3 to 4 people, or divvy it up between 6 to 8 demitasse cups for a pretty appetizer.

Chilled Pea Soup with Crème Fraîche, Lemon, and Tarragon

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes, plus cooling time
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
3 cups shelled English peas
1 cup chicken stock (or water)
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup crème fraîche (or plain whole-milk Greek yogurt)
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Sliced radishes and fresh tarragon leaves, for garnish

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peas and sauté until bright and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, salt, and pepper and simmer until the peas are very tender, 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Carefully transfer to a food processor and process until smooth. Add 1 cup water, 1/4 cup at a time, until you reach your desired consistency. (The soup should be a little thick and not too runny.) Taste for seasoning and transfer to a bowl to cool to room temperature.
3. Whisk the crème fraîche and lemon zest in a small bowl.
4. Divide the soup between serving bowls or small cups. Add a spoonful of the cream to the soup and gently swirl, leaving light traces of the cream visible. Garnish each serving with 1 to 2 radish slices and sprinkle with snipped tarragon leaves.

Greek Tomato and White Bean Stew with Feta and Ouzo

 A splash of Ouzo and a sprinkle of feta add Greek inspiration to this hearty vegetable stew:

White Bean, Kale, Tomato Ragout with Ouzo and Feta

I love hearty vegetable soups in the winter. They are quick to prepare and non-judgmental when it comes to emptying the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator for a healthy dinner. One of my favorite stocks is Italian inspired and tomato based, sometimes with a splash of wine, and often with a rind of cheese added into the mix to exude delicious umami flavor while the soup simmers. I’ll then finish with beans or grains and handfuls of winter greens which wilt in the simmering stock just long enough to soften without discoloring. For this soup, I tweaked my favorite method and took a detour further south to Greece for inspiration. A splash of Ouzo (a Greek anise liqueur) amplifies the fennel in the soup and adds an extra layer of flavor that rounds out the tomatoes’ natural acidity. Rather than submerging a rind of cheese in the stock, I sprinkled feta over the soup for garnish. I must say I was pleased with this little detour, and I hope you are too.

Greek White Bean Stew with Tomato, Feta, and Ouzo

Active Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, with juices
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for a vegetarian option)
2 to 3 tablespoons Ouzo or anise liqueur
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch lacinato kale (or chard)
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Crumbled feta for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, and the onion is translucent without coloring, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste to blend and then add the wine. Simmer until the wine is reduced by about one-third, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, 2 tablespoons Ouzo, the bay leaf, sugar, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, and add a little more salt or another tablespoon of Ouzo if desired.
3. While the stew is simmering, remove the tough stems from the kale, stack the leaves, and slice crosswise into thin ribbons. 
Stir the kale and white beans into the stew and cook until the kale wilts, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes. If the stew is too thick, top off with additional chicken stock and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Ladle the soup into serving bowls and serve garnished with crumbled feta and the reserved fennel fronds.