A cheesy frittata packed with spinach, a pea salad dotted with pieces of feta and mint — two of my favorite dishes from “Healthy Dish of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year,” a Williams Sonoma cookbook by Kate McMillan. It’s a book for celebrating the seasons, for embracing the variety and abundance of seasonal produce and the color and vibrance of healthy cooking.
In addition to “seasonal vegetables,” the introduction proclaims an emphasis on “lean proteins… whole grains and good fats…” Each month’s recipes start with a calendar of meals, accompanied by a brief explanation of reoccurring themes and ingredients for the season. In my view, the calendar would be far more useful if it was organized around using up ingredients in successive recipes. Instead, it’s a way to whet your appetite at a glance, with each day’s dish calling for its own separate set of fresh, aka expensive ingredients. Take the first and second of March — a “spicy vegetable hash” calling for both sweet and Yukon gold potatoes, jalapeño pepper, plain yogurt, lime wedges and fresh cilantro, among other things, right next to “stir-fried pork and sugar snaps with soba noodles,” requiring Asian sauces/vinegars/oils, green onions and fresh ginger in addition to the title ingredients. Especially with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, you’d think Ms. McMillan would repeat more of them and organize the meal plan accordingly. Then again, it does bear the Williams Sonoma brand, so frugality may not be a fair expectation 🙂
That said, the monthly calendars can just as easily be used as a source of inspiration for ingredients to try. Say you’re visiting your local farmer’s market in March. A quick peek at the March spread might nudge you toward more generous helpings of swiss chard or fava beans, as opposed to that helpless feeling when confronted with large quantities of fleeting, seasonal produce. The large amount of recipes — it’s practically a tome — means that every five or six suppers receive their own full page photograph, which makes perfect sense but is still a little disappointing, in this digital age where food blogs display ten or twelve process photos for a single recipe. You can’t help but gravitate toward the dishes that are photographed. On the plus side, each recipe is accompanied by a note that either summarizes the essence of the dish — “fluffy ricotta-and-artichoke-stuffed ravioli sit in a pool of light, fragrant vegetable broth” — expounds on its nutritional value, provides historical context or suggested variations.
Here’s a brief sampling of each month’s themes and ingredients:
The emphasis is on root vegetables and “warming spices, such as turmeric, cayenne, curry paste and red pepper flakes.” Traditional comfort foods are made healthier with alternate cooking techniques, such as pan-searing instead of frying, and the abundant use of rich and creamy vegetables. As you might imagine, stews and soups are a natural way to create healthy food out of comfort food: A version of minestrone uses extra vegetables and low-sodium chicken broth, and “Asian-Style Chicken Soup” transforms your basic chicken noodle into something greener, spicier and more piquant. A vegetarian cassoulet replaces the traditional pork and breadcrumb mixture with meaty mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, beans, celery, carrots and potatoes.
McMillan encourages the reader to infuse winter dishes with color and fresh produce, and to pay attention to the flavor enhancing properties of sauces and garnishes. Winter’s inclination toward meat and potatoes is acknowledged, but the protein and carbs are lean — scallops, salmon, lentils eggs, quinoa, barley and whole-wheat penne. I’m especially keen to try the “Moroccan-Spiced Roasted Vegetables and Quinoa” and the “Roasted Salmon with Avocado-Grapefruit Salsa.” Oh, and “Broccoli Rabe and Olive Pizza.” Oh, and “Cauliflower Steaks with Caper-Anchovy-Garlic Sauce.” Okay, I’ll leave it at that.
The March dishes place spring’s green produce center stage — asparagus, snow peas, arugula…the list goes on. A platter of grilled endive and asparagus, boiled fava beans and orange slices tossed with orange juice, olive oil, salt and pepper is an unusual, textured take on a spring salad. On March 31st, McMillan tosses blanched asparagus, baby carrots and sugar snap peas with angel hair pasta, tomatoes, fava beans and Parmesan cheese.
The emphasis on green, seasonal produce continues, alongside grilled meats and spring herbs like dill and chives. “Roasted Asparagus Farrotto” takes the nutty, magnesium-rich grain farro and cooks it (with olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted asparagus) in the style of risotto. Here’s the pea salad whose praises I was singing earlier:
Pea, Feta & Mint Salad
3 cups shelled English peas
2 T. olive oil
2 T. minced fresh mint
Salt and pepper
1 T. red wine vinegar
3 oz crumbled Feta cheese
1) Blanch the peas for 1-2 minutes in a pot of rapidly boiling, lightly salted water. Immediately transfer them to an ice water bath. Drain and pat them dry.
2) Toss the blanched peas with the olive oil, mint, 1/2 tsp. salt and a crackling of pepper. Just before serving add the vinegar and the cheese.
May celebrates lighter, al fresco dining — think salads, fish, grilled pizzas. Polenta is also frequently used as a foil for spring veggies: on May 1st, McMillan braises artichokes and serves them with shallots, peas and fresh herbs over a bed of polenta. On the 29th, she roasts asparagus and cherry tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few tablespoons of parmesan cheese, accompanied by wedges of grilled polenta. Apparently polenta contains “cartenoids,” which is good for your eyes and heart.
June presents simple combinations of fresh summer vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. I’m into the June 15th salad that mixes roasted peppers, eggplant and zucchini with goat cheese and crisp red leaf lettuce. And the idea of grilling whole wheat pizza dough and topping it with nothing more than a simple salad of mixed greens, sliced plum tomatoes and parmesan shavings. Or on June 27th, brining pork chops in cider vinegar, brown sugar, berries and red pepper flakes and serving it with grilled plums, peaches and nectarines.
Corn and tomatoes get their due in July — tomato and arugula frittatas, scallops with avocado-corn salsa, smoky grilled chicken and corn, tomato and bean salads with toasted bread crumbs… McMillan also suggests grilling traditional summer dishes to vary flavors — for example, “Ratatouille on the Grill.”
“Vine vegetables” are recycled throughout the month, such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. For example, eggplant is broiled and puréed with Greek yogurt, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, mint, salt and pepper, then spread across grilled Naan and topped with grilled red onions. On the 22nd, zucchini and peppers are julienned and sautéed, then served with buckwheat fettuccine, melted goat cheese and fresh herbs.
More tomatoes and zucchini, and a transition into fall with light soups and stews. A grilled portabello burger with tomato-ginger jam and sautéed red onions looks particularly scrumptious.
This month’s meals emphasize the expected assortment of fall produce such as pears, apples and butternut squash showcased via more pastas and whole grains. For example, there’s a roasted butternut squash whole-wheat pizza with goat cheese, Parmesan and arugula, and a whole-wheat flat bread with caramelized shallots, Monterey jack cheese and thin slices of grilled chicken and raw apple. Here’s the recipe for the spinach frittata:
Frittata with Spinach, Roasted Peppers & Gruyère
8 large eggs
2 T. low-fat milk
Salt and pepper
2 cups baby spinach
2 olive-oil packed roasted red peppers, drained and chopped (or a cup fresh)
1/4 cup shredded Gruyère
1 T. unsalted butter
2 T. olive oil
2 T. finely chopped yellow onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh chives
1 tsp. fresh parsley
1) Whisk together the eggs, milk, 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Add the spinach, peppers and cheese.
2) Preheat the broiler. Meanwhile, melt the butter and oil in a 12-inch ovenproof frying pan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes and the garlic for an additional minute.
3) Pour in the egg mixture, reduce heat to low and cook until the edges are firm, about 4-5 minutes. Lift the edges with a spatula, tilt the pan and let the uncooked eggs run beneath. Cook 4-5 minutes longer, until the eggs are almost set.
4) Broil the eggs for about 2 minutes, until the top sets and browns slightly. Transfer the baked frittata to a flat serving plate and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temp.
For heartier, fall fare, more protein is mixed in during November, such as turkey, pork and lamb. Star produce items include cranberries, pumpkin and dark greens. For example, on the 29th, McMillan stir-fries lamb with broccoli and mushrooms and on the 25th, she fries chard, eggs and polenta in olive oil and tops them with a yogurt garlic sauce. But even in November, the produce has a fresh, crunchy flair, including an apple-jicama relish for “Pulled Chicken Sliders” and a pineapple-avocado salsa for Mahimahi.
McMillan suggests lightening the rich foods of the holidays by using olive oil as a substitute for butter and root vegetables (again) as complex carbohydrates. In addition, whole grains pepper the menu, such as “Spaghetti with Collard Greens, Hazelnuts and Caramelized Onions” and “Kale, Turkey Sausage and Barley Stew.” I’m also drawn to a dish of seared scallops garnished with shredded brussels sprouts and prosciutto.
The great thing about cooking with so many vegetables is that most of these meals can be enjoyed year round, even though it’s ideal to enjoy produce at its peak. I made the October frittata this spring. Happy eating, and healthy cooking 🙂