Carrot and Fennel Soup

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A few days ago, the Washington Post ran a story on the origin of baby carrots. Contrary to popular perception, those little orange nubs that come ready to eat in portable plastic bags aren’t juvenile versions of Bugs Bunny’s preferred snack. Baby carrots, it turns out, are actually larger carrots that have been peeled, cut and polished into two-bite chunks. Who knew?

I must admit that I’m not a fan of baby carrots. When my daughters were younger I used to buy them from time to time, usually for their lunches. But inevitably, a portion of each bag would go to waste. The stragglers would dry out and develop a kid-displeasing whitish coating. Or they would become mushy and even a little slimy, indicating spoilage.

I also think baby carrots are less flavorful than their larger cousins. I suspect this is due to the fact that growers, seeking to appeal to Americans’ potent sweet tooth, have turned to carrots whose sugar content has been boosted through selective breeding practices. The additional sugar masks other, more traditional flavors, or it displaces them altogether.

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Roasted Cauliflower with Dates and Olives

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2015 was a banner year for the Mediterranean diet with a number of published studies linking it with important health benefits. These included lower risks for heart disease, breast cancer and depression, and improved cognitive function. And those don’t include the study published in December 2014 linking the Mediterranean diet to a longer life.

As far as I’m concerned, these results are terrific news. I’m a huge fan of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes minimally processed foods primarily from plant sources; seafood; copious amounts of olive oil; some dairy, poultry, and beef; and red wine. Equally important, it values the social aspect of food, such as sharing meals and conversation with others while eating (hello, family dinner!).

All of which leads me to the recipe I’m sharing with you today. It’s a simple tapas recipe whose country of origin is Spain, one of the countries whose cuisines contribute to the Mediterranean diet. I first tried the dish at Jaleo, the Washington D.C. tapas institution, and, as is my custom when I experience something simple and delicious in a restaurant, I wanted to replicate it at home. Fortunately, I found a recipe on Jaleo’s Facebook page that I was able to use as a starting point.

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Roasted Green Beans and Red Pepper with Harissa and Pistachios

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Have you ever wondered why some cuisines feature spices more prominently than others?

I think of this question whenever I’m eating at the home of my mother-in-law, who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. Dinner at her house nearly always includes traditional family favorites such as pelmeni (a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli), salads made with various root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets, for example) in a mayo or sour cream-based dressing, chicken cutlets (patties of ground chicken bound with egg and fried in oil) and smoked and preserved fish, all seasoned primarily with salt, some pepper, and occasionally a few herbs such as dill and parsley. But spices such as paprika, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and cumin? Never heard of ‘em!

In contrast, other cuisines that I love are practically defined by their reliance on specific, often indigenous spices. True Mexican food (not Tex-Mex) is spiked with chiles, both fresh and dried, as well as cinnamon. Thai cuisine is redolent with lemongrass, galangal (a root related to ginger), and Thai bird chiles. Star anise, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns shine in the regional cuisine of China’s Sichuan province.

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Asparagus, Green Bean and Edamame Salad

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One of the things I like most about summer is the abundance of vegetables that can be made into salads. No, I’m not talking about salads consisting mostly of lettuce greens topped with a few lonely chunks of cucumbers and tomatoes and doused in some uninteresting dressing. I’m talking about salads made up entirely of vegetables that, while more typically eaten as stand-alone side dishes, can be combined in innovative ways and livened with inventive seasonings.

Vegetables were definitely on my mind one recent Saturday afternoon as I was pleasantly meandering through the vibrantly photographed recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. Ottolenghi is an Israeli-born, London-based chef who has published several wildly successful cookbooks, two of which, Plenty and its successor Plenty More, have focused exclusively on vegetables. I have both, and they are terrific. They’re delicious proof that vegetables don’t have to be limited to playing second fiddle to meat but can be the star all by themselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are times when I crave a big steak or a superbly roasted chicken as much as the next person. Indeed, what would a summer barbecue be without a big hunk of meat slathered in a tangy barbecue sauce? But there are other times where I want the focus to be on the vegetables. Summer, with its grocery store bins and farmers market stalls overflowing with freshly picked vegetables in a rainbow of colors, is definitely one of those times.

Today’s post features an adaptation of Plenty More’s Spring Salad recipe. The original version caught my attention because it includes two vegetables that I adore but which I had never thought to combine in one dish, asparagus and haricots verts (a.k.a. skinny French green beans). It then takes the dish in an entirely different direction by adding sesame oil, sesame seeds and a diced red chile to an otherwise standard lemon and olive oil-based dressing. The result is an unexpected but delicious blending of Mediterranean and Asian flavors in one dish.

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Stracciatella with Meatballs and Pasta

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Since when did we start naming snowstorms?

That was the thought that occurred to me as I was perusing the news about the storm that dusted the Washington, D.C. area with snow this week.  (I say “dusted” since, in comparison to the amount of snow New England is getting this year, everyone else’s accumulation can only be called a dusting.)    Several articles made reference to Winter Storm Octavia.  Others referred to the storm that hit New England over the Valentine’s Day weekend as Winter Storm Neptune.  Where did this naming thing come from?  Is it a last ditch effort at appeasing some Roman god of winter, snow, and ice?

Well, after a bit of online sleuthing, it turns out that we owe this new naming trend to the Weather Channel.  Apparently, it began the practice in 2012, generating a blizzard of controversy in the process.  (Pun definitely intended.)  Some feel that unilaterally naming winter storms is not good science, will mislead the public, and is really just a big publicity stunt.  Others just see it as an opportunity to lampoon the Weather Channel and its new practice.

I don’t know about you, but whether a storm has a name is not what I’m thinking about when I look out my window and see a thick blanket of snow covering my driveway.  Nope, what I’m thinking about is what can I make today that will keep me, my kids, and my snow-shoveling hubby (thank you, sweetie!) toasty warm.

How about a piping hot bowl of Stracciatella with Meatballs and Pasta?

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