I love bread in all it’s forms. I love a crunchy baguette that crackles in your mouth and leaves dustings of crust all over your car (where you tear into it in the grocery store parking lot). I love soft and tangy sourdough and dense, moist whole grain loaves peppered with seeds and oats. I even love the doughy Hawaiian-style rolls pumped full of chemicals and preservatives that they sell in bulk bags at the grocery store. I love bread with garlic, with cinnamon sugar, and soaked in egg and milk and fried. I love it all.
I preface this post with the above paragraph because I feel that often bread-lovers feel defensive and bitter when told to decrease the volume of grains and starches in their diet in favor of greens and other vegetables. Please know that I do understand your love for that squishy, doughy deliciousness. In fact, there was a time in my life where nearly everything I ate was served on a bun, between two slices of bread, or atop a steaming puddle of noodles. With a side of more bread. During that time, vegetables were served only as an afterthought – a sad, perfunctory little wad of green in the corner of my plate. I ate them because I knew they were good fuel for my body, but I didn’t enjoy them. I hated broccoli and everything in the broccoli family (rapini? no, thank you). Asparagus was too stringy, cabbage too tough. I was ambivalent toward carrots, and I was so sick of raw spinach salads with sliced tomato and cucumber that I could scream.
I can’t quite pinpoint exactly when, but eventually I realized that there was a wide world of red and purple and emerald and sunshine yellow vegetables out there waiting for me. I made the conscious decision to transition my focus from grains and starches and fully embrace all the unique flavors and textures the vegetable kingdom has to offer. (This means that our meals are not centered around potatoes or cereal products like pasta, flatbreads, rice or rice noodles very often, although I am not militaristic in denying myself those items occasionally.) Now, when planning a meal, I first choose a vegetable or combination of vegetables to feature, based on what is in season, looks good at the grocery store or was delivered in my CSA share, or just happens to appeal to me at that point in time. Often, our plates are filled with two, three or even four different vegetable dishes and a protein (fish, steak, poultry). Through this culinary emphasis on vegetables, here is what I have learned:
1. It is okay to not like certain vegetables. (As long as it isn’t “all vegetables.”) Sometimes we have tried a vegetable many different ways, and, however irrational it may be, we simply do not like it. For example, I truly do not care for broccoli. Since I am almost always in charge of the dinner menu, I therefore rarely eat it. (Chef’s prerogative!) However, I do make Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and Swiss chard regularly- all cruciferous vegetables that share many of the same nutrients as broccoli. I believe that it is important to find the vegetables that you love, and to learn to prepare them in ways that make you drool.
2. Find the flavor profiles that work best with your tastebuds. My father often made Asian-inspired vegetables while I was growing up. He dressed them with garlic, ginger and soy sauce and fried them up in the wok. I won’t say I hated it, but it wasn’t a flavor that spoke to me. I finally realized, after making a recipe for Asian prawns culled from the netherworlds of the Internet (it involved cornstarch), that I simply don’t like the combination of ginger and soy sauce. I find it overpowering and cloying. In fact, I discovered that I don’t particularly enjoy soy sauce, at all (unless part of a marinade for meat). I discovered that I do, however, love my vegetables served with lemon and white wine and bright vinegars (champagne vinegar, pear vinegar). I learned these little tidbits about myself and my tastebuds through trial and error, and they inform my decisions in the kitchen every day.
3. Breakfast is the most difficult meal to eat healthfully. Imagine the typical American diner breakfast special: omelette smothered in cheese, crispy hashbrowns, browned toast, golden pancakes, amber maple syrup, cream cheese stuffed French toast, brown patties of sausage or strips of bacon. My point? It is very rare to find a large bed of greens on a breakfast menu (and often, requesting fruit or tomatoes instead of the endless “sea of brown” costs extra!). At our house, I try to keep my eye on the green to neutral ratio on the plate. In other words: what is the proportion of green items to the proportion of brown, white, yellow and beige items?
A great way to work greens into your breakfast is a breakfast salad. My favorite version draws from the traditional French salade Lyonnaise, a salad of frisée dressed with a warm shallot and Dijon dressing and served with bacon and a poached egg. (Mark Bittman’s classic recipe for the New York Times is both beautiful and delicious; article here.) The bright acidic flavors in the dressing pair perfectly with the richness of egg yolk and fatty bacon, which are already traditional breakfast foods. I can’t be fussed with poaching an egg early in the morning, so I fry mine over-easy; you still have the dripping mellow yolk but you don’t have to wait for water to boil. It is fast, easy, and, best of all, starts your day with something green.
Basic Breakfast Salad
Serves one person, double for two, triple for three, etc.
3 slices bacon (or leftover roasted chicken, shredded, or sliced ham, or similar)
3 large handfuls of greens: buttery lettuce, spinach, baby kale, frisée or radicchio, endive, or my personal favorite, arugula, all work beautifully.
1 half medium cucumber, thinly sliced or diced
Other vegetable additions: Avocado, green onion, chives, tomato, blanched asparagus, shredded Brussels sprouts, and more!
1 lemon, juiced
Dijon mustard, to taste
1 clove garlic, grated – or – garlic powder
Minuscule pinch of sugar – or – drop of agave, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Mayonnaise, to taste*
Start by preparing the vinaigrette. This is a basic recipe that can be tweaked to produce a variety of flavors, and is not set in stone by any means. A general rule of thumb in preparing dressings is:
acid (lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar of any kind, mustard)
+ fat (olive oil, mayonnaise)
+ seasoning (garlic, herbs, spices, Tobasco, salt, pepper)
1. Begin with the juice of one lemon. Using a regular kitchen tea spoon, add a spoonful of mayonnaise, and a quarter-spoonful of Dijon mustard, to start. Whisk together with a fork, and taste. The more mayonnaise is added, the creamier the dressing will be. The more Dijon, the more “wine-y” the dressing will be. Grate half of the clove of garlic directly into the dressing; stir, and taste after letting it sit for about 30 seconds. Add the remaining half-clove if you think it needs it. Add mustard or mayonnaise as needed until the dressing is to your liking. Add a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper.
2. Add a very, very small pinch of cane sugar. Agave or maple syrup can also be used. I feel this takes the “bite” off the edge of the lemon juice. Don’t add too much, though- a few grains is all you need. It’s easy to end up with a honey-mustard-style dressing if you aren’t careful.
3. To assemble the salad, wash the greens and place in a bowl. I try to use twice as many greens as I think I need, because they shrink up so much beneath the egg and the bacon. Case in point: the picture of this salad, above, has nearly four cups of greens in it- yet they almost completely disappear beneath the protein! Top with cucumber and any other toppings you have on hand. Fry or otherwise cook your egg (and bacon). Right before you plate, toss the greens in the dressing until coated, add additional vegetables, and top with egg and bacon.
*A note about mayonnaise: I think that mayonnaise has gotten a terrible rap, thanks to the “low-fat” dietary movement. Basic mayonnaise simply consists of egg yolk, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and olive oil. These are all common ingredients in American kitchens, so I am not sure what the aversion is to the emulsified form. My sister, a mayonnaise hater, claims it is the texture. I don’t understand it. I use mayonnaise frequently, in small amounts (a tablespoon here or there), as it is perfect to cutting acid tastes (citrus, vinegar) and making your dressing a bit more creamy. I do not recommend using low-fat mayonnaise, as the chemicals used to remove fat from what is, essentially, a fat, have a terrible rotten egg flavor that seems to permeate everything it is used in. I use about a teaspoon in just about every salad dressing I make, and while guests do ask what my “salad dressing” secret is, no one seems to suspect mayonnaise. Olive oil or avocado are both good substitutes if you prefer not to use it, however.