I am not really that big into Valentine's Day celebrations.  I have had my fare share of good Valentine's Days and bad ones too!  I contemplated coming up with some chocolatey sweet dish, but my husband gave me a little hint (I really hate surprises) that he was going to get me some chocolate.  That covered it for dessert so the only thing left to do was prepare a dinner.  Over the last month I have been working hard to develop the ingredients in this dish.  The reason why I've decided to post this just in time for Valentine's Day, is because making this meal was truly a Labor of Love.  

    I am not a vegan, but I do enjoy eating and making vegan dishes.  After seeing an article in VegNews Magazine for vegan cheese, I knew I had to make some.  One of the ingredients that is needed in most vegan cheese is Rejuvelac, which is a drink made from sprouted grains.  Rejuvelac takes a few days to make, and preparing and aging the cheese takes a few more (about 8-10 days in total).  Was it worth it? I would say it is definitely worth it if you live a vegan, diary-free, or RAW lifestyle.  The reason I decided to go with Aged Chèvre was because I love the combination of goat cheese and beets.

    *If you are not a vegan or you don't want to spend a week or two preparing nut cheese you could always make substitutions.  Swap out the cheese and make roasted lamb, wild caught salmon, or dare I say filet mignon (which is what I would put with it, if we were being "grass-fed and pasture raised" carnivores that day). You could even just use regular goat cheese if you want, but whatever you serve make sure to add some horseradish to it because it goes great with the beets.   

Roasted Beets, Vegan Chèvre and Sautéed Beet Greens

serves 2

2 bunches of organic beets with tops (about 6-8 small beets)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
grey sea salt (Sel Gris)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Aged Chèvre with horseradish (For the recipe - Click Here)
Micro-greens for garnish

Roasting Beets
Preheat the oven to 400° F.  Scrub the beets until all the dirt is removed.  Cut the tops off, leaving about 1-2 inches of the stem attached.  Lay down a layer of aluminum foil and lay down a layer of parchment paper on top.  Place the beets in the center of the parchment lined aluminum foil, drizzle them with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle them with sea salt to taste.  Close up the beets, bundling them with the parchment lined aluminum foil.  Place the package in a roasting pan to collect any drippings and place it in the oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes or until tender.  To serve the beets, peel them (or if they are organic, I just leave the skins on) and cut them in half or keep them whole.  You can drizzle a little extra extra virgin olive oil and salt on top if you prefer.

Sautéed Beet Greens:  About 10-15 minutes before the roasted beets will be done, start to prepare the greens.  Start a large pot of water on the stove top and bring to a boil.  Thoroughly rinse the beet greens under running water to remove any dirt or sand attached to the leaves.  Cut off the stems and discard them.  Prepare a bowl full of ice water and place it on the counter top close to your stove.  Once the water on the stove is boiling, place the beet greens in the water and blanch for 2 minutes.  Take them out of the boiling water and transfer them right away to the ice water bath.  After they have cooled drain them and squeeze all the water out of them.  Roughly chop them.  Heat 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil in a non-stick skillet and add the minced garlic and cook for about 1 minute or until fragrant.  Add the chopped beet greens and saute for a few minutes and toss them around to coat.  Season them with salt and pepper and then serve warm. 

Serve your sauteed beet greens and roasted beets alongside slices of Aged Chèvre with horseradish and garnish with micro greens to make it look all fancy! 

    Normally when you say sunflower, most people will think of either the big beautiful yellow flowers or the perfect little black seeds that taste great roasted with salt.  But there is another aspect to the sunflower plant that most people have not heard of before: Sunflower Greens!  Bright, crunchy and green, they almost remind me of a cross between iceberg lettuce and cucumbers. Except these little greens are packed full of nutrients.
    Sunflower greens are rich in lecithin and chlorophyll, both of which are great for your health.  They are packed with vitamins, minerals and are almost 25 percent protein.  Sunflower greens can be used in salads, raw wraps, as soup toppings, in a sandwich or even juiced.

    I have never seen sunflower greens available in grocery stores near me, but I do know that in some places you can find them.  If, like me, you are not one of those lucky people, growing sunflower greens yourself is the only option.  It is really not difficult to grow them.  If you follow this step by step guide I promise you can grow your own in a sunny spot in your kitchen or home.

How to Grow Sunflower Greens

STEP 1:  Preparing a little greenhouse/garden bed

  1. Purchase some whole sunflower seeds that are meant for human consumption (Not the kind you feed the birds with).  I order my seeds from the Sprout People, but I am sure there are other places you can find them as well.
  2. Save one of those white plastic food containers with clear plastic tops that you get from ordering take-out food and poke a few holes in the bottom with scissors or a pen (If you don't order take-out then you could always use a regular plant pot that has drainage).  Save the plastic top to use as a cover while the seeds are under the soil and then you can use the top as a drip tray as they start to grow bigger.  (As you can see below I saved two of the clear plastic tops so I could have a top and a drip tray at the same time - We order a lot of Thai take-out because bringing a 3 year old and a 1 year old to a restaurant is just not fun!)
  3. Get organic potting soil and fill the plastic tray up to the rim (or about 3/4 full).  Now you have a little greenhouse/garden bed all set up for your seeds.

NOTE:  The tray that I am using below is 7''L x 4''W x 2''H.

           STEP 2:  Sprouting the Sunflower Seeds

For the size tray that I use, I will sprout about 1/4 cup of seeds.  If you are using a larger tray then you will need to increase the amount.

  1. Clean the sunflower seeds by rinsing them under cool water and cull through them to make sure there are no sticks or rocks (it happens sometimes).
  2. Place the clean seeds in a jar, bowl, or cup and add enough water to cover the seeds completely.  The seeds will float so to keep them all underwater place another cup or bowl over the top of them.  Leave them to soak for 8-12 hours or overnight.
  3. Next you need to spread the seeds out into a sprouter (this is the one I own) or you could even make your own by using another plastic take-out tray with holes in it.  It just needs to be something with good drainage.  (A colander would even work)
  4. Twice a day you need to rinse the seeds with cool water.  Let the water drain off completely and set the container out on the counter. (The idea is to keep them moist without being submerged in water)
  5. Continue to rinse your seeds twice a day (for normally about 2-3 days) or until the seeds start to sprout little white tails as seen in the picture to the left.

STEP 3:  Plant Your Sprouts
  1. Using a mister or spray bottle, moisten the dirt inside your greenhouse/garden bed quite thoroughly.
  2. Take your sprouted sunflower seeds and lay them out in a single layer (they can be overlapping a little) on the moist soil.  You want to keep them snug together because they will grow better.  
  3. Place the plastic top on to keep the moisture in, and move the greenhouse/garden bed to a warm spot out of direct sunlight.
  4. Once or twice a day, if the dirt or sprouts seem to look dry, give them some water (I like to use the spray bottle).  You want to keep them moist, but not soaking. 
  5. Once your greens start to open and push up like the picture below you can remove the plastic lid and move the greenhouse/garden bed to a nice warm and sunny spot and water daily, always making sure the soil is moist.
  6. The greens will grow and continue to stretch their leaves, always following the sunlight so you may need to give the greenhouse/garden bed a turn around every once and a while to keep them growing straight. 
  7. Another thing you will notice is that sometimes the seeds will stick to the leaves, you can just gently pull or pop them off.  (I find this task useful for relieving my occasional OCD ;)
STEP 4:  Harvesting your Sunflower Greens
  1. To harvest your sunflower greens all you need a pair of scissors or small garden sheers.  For optimal taste it is best to harvest the leaves before their second set or "true leaves" begin to sprout.  In the picture below you can see how these greens are a little past where they should be, because you can see their second set of leaves.  They will still taste fine, but try to grab them before this happens.  
  2. You can store your cut greens in the refrigerator (they will last quite a while).  
  3. Then just dump out the roots (I put mine in the compost bin) and start again.
And there you have it!  It's not as hard as all the steps might suggest.  Sunflower greens are in my opinion the easiest of the micro-greens/sprouts to grow.  It is even a fun project that you could do with your children.  The whole process takes only a few days so they can quickly see how a seed becomes a plant...a cool plant that they can eat!
    Have you ever seen a work of art that inspired you on multiple levels? Just recently I have learned about a Chinese artist named, Ai Weiwei.  The particular work of art that struck a chord with me was his, "Sunflower Seed" exhibit at Tate Modern in London.  The sheer size of the piece is impressive to say the least.  100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds spread out on the floor for people to walk on and interact with.  I'm a few years too late to visit this work of art in its original state, but that doesn't diminish the impact it has had on me. 

    The artist, Ai Weiwei is a big proponent of blogging and social media because he believes it changes our perceptions of time and space.  Appropriately, when I saw the sunflower seed exhibit the first connection that I made related to my new experience as a blogger.  I feel as though I am one seed lying among a million others.  But what I have come to learn is that while we may all be individual seeds, we are all part of a unified field.  There is a fellowship between bloggers because we make up an aspect of the internet, we create it and we live in it together all while supporting each other.  (A little too deep for a salad recipe you might be thinking!) 

    If you want to learn more about how Ai Weiwei's "Sunflower Seed" exhibit was created CLICK HERE! (I recommend watching the video, it is very moving).

    My inspiration is now clear so onto the process of making the salad.  Sunflower seeds are awesome in a salad, and now as I have come to discover, so are sunflower greens.  (How to Grow your own Sunflower Greens)  If you don't have all the ingredients that I use then improvise, be inspired and create your own version.  I personally like to include all different taste sensations in my salads, so I try to incorporate things that will be sweet, sour, crunchy, watery, smooth, etc.  If something looks good to you throw it in and see how it goes.  Creativity is all your own and you can find inspiration anywhere!

"The internet changes the structure of society all the time - this massiveness made of individuals."  (Ai Weiwei for the Unilever series at Tate Modern, 2010)

Sunflower Salad

Salad greens - (I used arugula because I like the bite that it has)
Sunflower greens (How to grow your own)
1-2 blood oranges
1 purple carrot
raw sunflower seeds
avocado oil (or your favorite choice of oil for a salad)
rice vinegar (or your favorite choice of vinegar)

*The quantities of all the ingredients is based on your own preference and the size of the salad you want to make.  It may be simple but the ingredients that you use will make all the difference.

Wash and tear the salad greens and place them on a plate.  Top them with washed sunflower greens.  Supreme the oranges and lay them on top of the greens. Julienne or grate the carrot and sprinkle over the top along with the raw sunflower seeds.  Drizzle with oil and vinegar.  It may be simple but all the different flavor types work perfectly together. 
    This will be the last of my avocado series, because if this continues I will never want to eat another avocado in my life.  I wanted to finish off with my favorite way to eat avocados; in salads.  I was watching the Dr. Oz Show the other day (yes, on occasion Dr. Oz will get some viewing time at my house) and they were touting the nutritional benefits of kiwifruit.  Those little fuzzy fruits are not normally on my grocery list, but after hearing that they taste great thrown into a salad, I decided to pick up a few.  I had fun making up this fresh salad, with lots of different flavors all mingling together.

    The day I decided to make this salad, I was a little displaced from my kitchen.  My husband was making a large pot of sauce, so I decided to sit in a sunny, peaceful and not-so-quiet spot in our dinning room. Not-so-quite because our boys love to race their cars around the hard floors and play underfoot when I am doing something particularly interesting.  Direct sunlight makes food and plants look so appealing to the eye, but yet it is not the best for taking good pictures I've learned.  On occasion I would like to disagree with this because personally, I find something very interesting about shadows.

    Have you ever held something like a citrus or kiwi slice up into the sunlight?  Whenever I do I revert back to my 6 year old self, when I would find delight in the sunlight illuminating through a slice of fruit.  As I find myself now deeply rooted in adulthood, I appreciate those precious moments when you can revisit childhood memories.

Avocado Watercress Salad (Raw & Vegan)

serves 2

1/2 avocado, diced
1/2 small zucchini, diced
1 kiwifruit, skinned and diced
5-6 small leaves of fresh basil, finely minced
3-4 small leaves of cilantro, finely minced (you can omit this if you are a
pinch of salt

juice from 1/2 a Mayer lemon
handful of watercress for each salad
assorted greens for garnish (optional)
1 small starfruit for garnish (optional)
extra virgin olive oil
vinegar (your choice: I enjoy using balsamic, white balsamic, rice or coconut vinegars)

In a small bowl combine the diced avocado, zucchini and kiwifruit.  Add the minced basil, minced cilantro, pinch of salt and the juice from half a Mayer lemon and gently toss everything to combine.  Using either food rings, a round cookie cutter or even something like an empty aluminum can, gently press a few spoonfuls of the salad mixture into the mold.  When you have placed in enough of the salad mixture to make a good sized stack, carefully and slowly remove the mold.  Top the mixture with a handful of watercress greens.  If you are feeling playful like I was, cut a few slices of starfruit and place them around the plate along with other assorted greens.  Drizzle extra virgin olive oil and vinegar over the top of the salad in amounts of your own preference.  Enjoy!

    I am very excited to share this recipe.  If you want to impress at your next brunch this is definitely the dish to go with.  It is not difficult, has a minimal amount of ingredients and it looks absolutely beautiful set out on a flat plate.  Here in the northeast USA we are in the middle of winter, which means LOTS of lovely citrus fruits.  The grocery stores are packed with all sorts of varieties, so grab a handful, taste them all and see which ones you like best.  Then chop them all up and sprinkle on a few things and you have the most beautiful breakfast or brunch salad to serve to your guests. 

    If you are thinking, "yeah right" I can't make that.  Let me tell you, that you most definitely can.  Just make sure you have a sharp knife.  Peeling citrus with a knife always looked tricky to me but it's really not as bad as it seems.  My slices were by no means even, but lay them out on a plate and no one will know.  You never know what you can do until you try.

    The cheese used in this recipe is called Halloumi.  I was introduced to this cheese when I started learning more about vegetarian meals.  Halloumi is a sheep and goats milk cheese made with non-animal rennet so it is acceptable for most vegetarians.  This cheese is firm, salty, and instead of melting when heated it can be grilled or fried until it browns.  When it is browned in a skillet it tastes divine over salad or just on its own as a snack.  The saltiness of the Halloumi goes perfectly with the sweetness of the citrus fruit and topping it with some shallots and spicy micro-greens will satisfy all your taste sensations in one bite.  I never knew that Halloumi was hiding in my local grocery store cheese section until I found it one day.  If you can find some in your store give it a try, it is amazing!   

Citrus Salad with Halloumi

makes a platter that will serve 2-4 people

An assortment of citrus fruit such as:
1 dark red grapefruit
2 honey tangerines
2 sunburst tangerines
1 navel orange
1 pomelo

(you could also try blood oranges, mandarins, tangelos, Valencia oranges, pink or white grapefruit.   Just keep the tart citrus to a minimum.  You want the salad to be comprised mostly of the sweeter citrus varieties)
1 small shallot, minced
Coarse grey sea salt from France, Sel gris (or any coarse sea salt) to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 (8 oz pkg) Halloumi Cheese (made with non-animal rennet)
Daikon radish micro-greens (or a
spicy mesclun or baby lettuce mix) SEE NOTE BELOW

    Peel and slice the citrus using a sharp pairing knife.  Slice off the ends of the citrus and stand it up on one of the sides.  Carefully cut away the sides of the citrus with the knife trying to remove as little flesh as possible.  Then slice the peeled citrus into rounds (You can see a picture of this above) removing any seeds as you go.  Lay the slices of citrus out on a flat serving plate.  Sprinkle the shallots, salt and pepper over the top, using as much as you would like depending on your taste.  Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil and rice vinegar over the citrus as well, again using as much as you would prefer.  At this point you could *pan fry the Halloumi and serve it right away or place the citrus plate in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it and right before it goes out, top it with *pan fried Halloumi.  Sprinkle some micro-greens over the whole thing and watch the eyes of your guests widen in admiration.

    *To pan fry the Halloumi you need to make 1/4-inch slices and lay them in a non-stick skillet over medium heat.  As they start to fry you will see alot of liquid, keep frying over the same heat until this liquid evaporates.  Check the undersides for browning and once they are browned to your liking flip them over and brown on the opposite side.  Place on-top of the citrus salad and serve right away.  (As the halloumi cools it will become a bit rubbery and chewier, which is why it is best served right after frying.) 

    Note:  I like to grown my own micro-greens in my kitchen, which I have never known anyone else to do? (If you do too please let me know so I don't feel so weird)  I have heard of a few places that sell micro-greens but if this is something you just can't find I would suggest using baby lettuce in a spicy variety like a mesclun mix.  Put a layer of the lettuce down first and place the citrus on the top.  Another idea for a party would be to place a large bowl of baby salad greens next to the citrus platter and encourage people to top their salad greens with the citrus salad.  Hope this gives you a few more options for serving!

"Only those who look with the eyes of children can lose themselves in the object of their wonder." -Eberhard Arnold

    We find winter quickly approaching us in the state of New Jersey as we are now sitting in the middle of a snow storm.  Instead of watching graceful falling ice crystals, we are worried about our loved ones that still do not have power, heat or a home to return to.  For me it is just a further reminder at how lucky I am to have a beautiful home with electricity, heat and internet.  The destruction and chaos in this last week will be forever ingrained in my memory.  Along with the unending gas station lines, I also took for granted the fresh food in my grocery store.  Anything that needed refrigeration was either wilted, shrived up or just not available.  Along with most every other New Jerseyan, I had been playing the game "eat everything in your refrigerator as fast as you can."  Doing this for a few days has left me craving a nice fresh salad, but I knew I wouldn't be finding any fresh tomatoes or homegrown cucumbers. 

    I decided to try some more seasonal items like acorn squash and cranberries.  Fresh cranberries can now be found in most grocery stores and seem to be either very well stocked or extremely ignored for lack of tasty things to do with them.  Roasting the cranberries made them soft but still bright and tart.  For the greens part I was lucky to find some organic baby arugula still looking fresh in their little plastic box.  If you enjoy the taste of pumpkin seeds I also recommend keeping the acorn squash seeds and roasting them along with everything else. 

    To top off the salad I included some homegrown daikon radish sprouts to give a spicy freshness you probably won't ever find at any grocery store.  However, sprouts are easily grown in a small little corner of your kitchen.  They give you the satisfaction of having a fresh homegrown ingredient at any time of the year that can be thrown onto or into almost anything (probably not ice cream...keep them away from ice cream!).  The only requirement for sprouts is patience and constant rinsing.  This is how I grow my sproutsOverall I try to cook as seasonably as possible because it makes me feel more connected to my environment, but sometimes you just have to go with what's available in your grocery store.

Roasted Acorn Squash Salad

serves about 4 people

1 large acorn squash (you can include the seeds if you like*)
1 bulb of fennel
3/4 cup of fresh cranberries
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

fresh grated nutmeg
4-5 oz baby arugula
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
radish sprouts - How to grow sprouts
honey citrus rosemary vinaigrette (recipe below)

    Quarter the acorn squash and slice into small chunks.  Either scoop out the seed and discard them or save them to roast along with the squash.  Cut the fennel bulb in half lengthwise and slice into strips.  In a large bowl place the acorn squash, fennel and cranberries.  Drizzle everything with olive oil (as much as needed to coat all the pieces) and toss to coat.  Lay everything out on a parchment lined baking sheet and sprinkle with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste.  Bake in a 400° F preheated oven for 35-40 minutes or until the acorn squash is tender when pierced with a fork. 
    Wash and dry your baby arugula and place it in a large salad bowl or on individual plates and top with the roasted acorn squash, fennel and cranberries.  Top with chopped walnuts and radish sprouts.  Drizzle honey citrus vinaigrette over salad and toss.  Ideally you should serve this salad warm, a few minutes after the vegetables come out of the oven. 

*Acorn Squash seeds are very similar to pumpkin seeds and can be roasted the same way.  The roasted seeds are a bit crunchy so I have left it an optional part of the salad because not everyone enjoys the texture.  My husband left only acorn squash skin and seeds on his plate, so I realize it is not a taste for everyone!

Honey Citrus Rosemary Vinaigrette

1/2 of a Valencia orange (fresh squeezed juice and zest)
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely minced
salt and pepper

Place all ingredients into small mixing bowl and whisk until emulsified.  Drizzle over salad and toss to coat.  Store extra vinaigrette in the refrigerator.