If you follow A Love Letter to Food on Facebook, you may have seen this picture before. (And if you haven’t liked my Facebook page yet, I’d be most honored if you would!) A few days ago was my birthday, and as an avid–or obsessive, depending on how you look at it–home cook, I typically would rather make something truly spectacular at home for my birthday dinner than go out. This Stetson Chopped Salad was THE ONE dinner I knew would be birthday-worthy this year.
What is a Stetson Chopped Salad? (And who in their right mind chooses a salad for their birthday dinner?) Well, in the Phoenix area, the Stetson is a local food celebrity. It’s pretty impressive for any salad to attain celebrity status, but somehow, sometimes, it happens. After all, you’ve heard of Cobb, Waldorf, and Wedge. These famous salads are like the old Hollywood starlets of healthy American cuisine. Classic, standard, glam. The Stetson Chopped Salad, on the other hand, is like the up-and-coming Western girl hitting the big time. Its humble origin lies with Cowboy Ciao, a restaurant located, appropriately, on Stetson Drive in Scottsdale.
A few years ago, some friends had us over for dinner and served a homemade version of the Stetson. It was an edible work of art, with a taste no less extraordinary than the presentation. But we definitely found ourselves in “why-do-these-flavors-go-together-this-makes-no-sense” territory. Who the heck thought of putting sweet (dried currants) with savory (corn and tomatoes) with smoked salmon and a creamy basil dressing?
IT MAKES NO LOGICAL SENSE.
But trust me, there’s a reason this salad is famous. You just have to go with it. And when you do, you’re gonna be like…
Even when my husband and I eventually ate at Cowboy Ciao and of course ordered the “real” restaurant version, it didn’t quite compare to the one our friend had made. (She is a trained chef, so that probably helped.) With this memory in mind, I made my own birthday version, and it was indeed an awesome mix of flavors, textures, and visual appeal. Definitely a salad worth choosing for a special occasion.
Oh, and the other reason I chose salad for my birthday? Cause I knew this was coming afterward!
Raspberry Almond Layer Cake for dessert definitely rounded out the birthday meal experience. 🙂
Stetson Chopped Salad
For the salad:
- 6 c. arugula
- 1 c. cooked Israeli couscous
- 2-3 oz. smoked salmon, chopped
- 1 c. toasted salted pepitas
- 1 c. dried sweet corn (regular corn would also work in a pinch)
- 1 c. dried cranberries
- 1 c. tomatoes, chopped
For the dressing:
- 2 Tbsp. basil pesto
- 1/4 c. mayonnaise
- 1/4 c. buttermilk (or 2 Tbsp. sour cream + 2 Tbsp. milk)
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1/2 shallot, chopped
Assemble the salad:
- Spread arugula leaves evenly on a large, flat platter. Cover with layered rows of couscous, salmon, pepitas, sweet corn, cranberries, and tomatoes.
Make the dressing:
- Combine all dressing ingredients in a measuring cup and mix with an immersion blender until smooth.
- Mix salad tableside, if desired, and serve with dressing on the side.
Quick nutrition question: what do you know about omega-3 fatty acids? My guess is there are a few bits of info that probably come to mind when you think of omega-3s:
- they’re found in fish, walnuts, certain oils, and other foods
- alternatively, you can take them in pills that are pretty pricey and can tend to give you fishy burps
- they’re somehow supposed to be good for you, despite how unappealing the term “fatty acid” may sound
But have you ever wondered what exactly they are and why they’re good for you?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They are referred to as “unsaturated” because of their chemistry: the carbon in the fat is not “saturated” with hydrogen molecules surrounding it (as in, it contains less than the maximum number of bonds possible–when the maximum number of bonds are attached, it becomes “saturated”). Also, fun fact: like other unsaturated fats, omega-3 is liquid at room temperature, so if you could buy it in pure form at the store, you’d find it alongside the oils. Fill the carbons up with those hydrogen bonds, though, and you’ll get solid-at-room-temperature saturated fat, as in butter.
The reason these particular fats have the name “omega-3” is also chemistry-related. There is a double bond between carbon and hydrogen on the carbon molecule third from the end (called the “omega”–you know, like “the Alpha and the Omega,” i.e. “the beginning and the end”) of the chemical chain. So, if it helps you, think of omega-3s as the “third from the end” fats. I do!
So, what are these fatty acids supposed to do for us, and why should we care? Evidence-based research shows that omega-3s help reduce inflammation in the body–always good for protecting our hearts from heart attacks and our brains from strokes, among other benefits–and may also lower blood pressure and triglycerides. Some studies have also shown them to have a cumulative positive effect on cognition.
For my part, I’d rather get my omega-3s through tasty foods than through pills (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking them in pill form). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend eating 8 oz. of fatty fish each week, which breaks down to about two servings. And I’ve got a recipe for one for you right here.
This Mediterranean-inspired Spaghetti with Tuna, Basil, and Lemon is a delicious source of those all-important 3s, as it’s packed not only with tuna, but a good dose of olive oil. And, like any other meal, this one is a sum of multiple nutrition parts, which includes whole grains in the spaghetti, immunity-boosting raw garlic, and a respectable chunk of calcium in the form of Parmesan cheese. Not only that, but it’s a super easy, flavorful dinner that can be thrown together in 30 minutes or less with inexpensive ingredients.
I’d say that’s a good deal for your heart, your brain, your stomach, and your wallet!
Spaghetti with Tuna, Basil, and Lemon
- 12 oz. whole wheat spaghetti
- 1/3 c. olive oil
- zest of 1 lemon
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 c. Parmesan cheese, grated, shredded, or shaved
- 2 6-oz. cans albacore tuna
- 1/3 c. basil leaves, torn into strips
- Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. In a large bowl, toss with olive oil, lemon zest, minced garlic, Parmesan, tuna, and basil. Serve immediately.
As a practicing Catholic, my observance of Lent began yesterday on Ash Wednesday. Like most Catholics, I have a love-hate relationship with Lent. No one likes sacrifice, which is exactly what this pre-Easter season is all about, but despite our sometimes begrudging feelings about it, we all can benefit from setting aside some of our own desires for awhile. As I like to remind myself, the hard things are usually the things worth doing.
For my Lenten sacrifice this year, I decided not to go with anything to do with my eating or drinking habits. (After last year’s “giving up” wine turned into a total failure.) This time I’m limiting my screen time, including not watching any TV or movies and not using my phone for any purpose while driving. It may sound like a small “sacrifice”–and really, it is–but even a day and a half in, I’m pleased with this choice because it has to do with my use of time, an area in which I’m constantly striving for balance. My former priest used to say “fast so you can pray,” meaning “give something up that will move you to pray.” And certainly giving up TV and movies and cutting back on my attachment to my phone will give me extra time in my day–time I can spend on other, more important priorities like prayer, studying for my upcoming nutrition licensure exam, or reading.
However, is it just me, or is the first week of Lent the absolute hardest? I can’t tell you how many times in just the last 36 hours my brain has tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Hey, you know what’s a great movie? Hey, you know what show I really want to watch?”
GET OUT OF MY HEAD, BRAIN!
Fridays, as all Catholics know, are the same way when it comes to the whole don’t-eat-meat issue. Saturday through Thursday you could be like those “women laughing alone with salad.” (Have you heard of this? It’s a whole thing on the Internet about how often you see pictures of women laughing alone with salad in marketing photos.) But come Friday it’s like…
But I have good news! Fridays during Lent (if you do Lent) don’t have to be meatless misery. This Cajun Lemon Tilapia with Dill Sauce is an easy, healthy, super flavorful fish entree to help curb those Friday cravings. And if you don’t do Lent, it’s still an easy, healthy, super flavorful fish entree for any day of the week! Cajun-seasoned tilapia topped with zesty lemon slices and paired with a creamy dill sauce make for an irresistible combination. I especially love to serve it over couscous with a side of steamed broccoli.
So…do you observe Lent? Or if you don’t, have you ever had and experience where self-sacrifice provided personal growth? I’d love to hear your encouragement, because I really want to watch some Netflix right now.
Cajun Lemon Tilapia with Dill Sauce
For the tilapia:
- 4 tilapia fillets
- 1 Tbsp. Cajun seasoning
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 lemon, thinly sliced
For the dill sauce:
- 1/4 c. mayonnaise
- 1/2 c. sour cream
- 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 tsp. dried dill
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.
- Sprinkle both sides of tilapia fillets with Cajun seasoning and salt and pepper. Place in prepared baking dish and top with lemon slices. Bake 12-16 minutes, depending on size and thickness of fillets, until tilapia flakes easily with a fork.
- Meanwhile, prepare the sauce by combining all ingredients in a small bowl. Serve alongside the fish.
If it seems like it’s been quite awhile since the last post here blog, there’s a reason for that. The hiatus wasn’t intentional. Apparently, someone on the other side of the world hacked my site, putting all kinds of trashy-trash links to their trashy-trash ads on my site, creating an entire day’s work for my husband (saintly technology pro that he is) to fix it.
Thanks, random person in Romania!
Honestly, it’s a lesson learned the hard way that I need to stay on top of my website updates (which guard against this sort of thing)–and a sad reminder that there are people who have no qualms about spewing their trashy-trash barfy-barf all over someone else’s content. Not that I’m bitter.
On a happier note, I’ve been waiting two whole weeks to share these Salmon Kale Caesar Wraps with you, and now I finally can! If you’re the kind of person who has issues with fish–“fissues”?–either because A) It’s too expensive, B) It’s hard to justify eating it for sustainability reasons, or C) It tastes too “fishy,” this recipe is for you. First of all, it takes only three-quarters of a pound of salmon and stretches it to make four servings, cutting the cost of fish per serving to about half of what it would be in a typical salmon dinner. And using less salmon perhaps allows for a splurge on more a sustainably farmed/caught (and therefore more expensive) fish. Also, because the salmon gets tossed with several other flavorful ingredients and wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla, it’s definitely not your usual fishy-fish entree.
I know, right? Mind. Blown. No more reasons to not eat fish. (Well, maybe you have your reasons. Maybe a fish robbed your grandmother…or hacked your website.)
Anyway, add to all this goodness that this recipe is mega-healthy and dead-easy to make in the space of half an hour, and you’ve got yourself a foolproof weeknight dinner or casual lunch.
Salmon Kale Caesar Wraps
A Love Letter to Food Original Recipe
3/4 lb. salmon
drizzle olive oil
salt and pepper
6 c. kale, chopped
1/3 c. purchased or homemade Caesar salad dressing
1/4 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
4 whole wheat tortillas
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a small baking dish with cooking spray. Place salmon in the dish and squeeze 1/4 lemon on top, followed by a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Bake 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.
- Meanwhile, assemble the salad: in a medium bowl, toss kale with Caesar dressing and Parmesan.
- Add cooked salmon to the salad and toss to combine.
- Fill tortillas with completed salad, wrap, and serve.
I tell you what, this Nutrition internship is throwing me for a loop. I genuinely enjoy my work at the hospital–performing nutrition assessments and follow-ups, charting on interactions with patients, observing other nutritionists teach classes on healthy eating for various disease states, etc. But when you’ve been home raising kids for over 8 years, even going back to work for two 8-hour days a week is a real game changer. I told my husband I feel like I enter a time warp Monday night and get spat out Thursday morning rubbing my eyes going, “Oh yeah, this is my regular life.” Is this how all working moms feel? If they do (and even if they don’t), moms who work full-time certainly have my respect. I can only imagine myself as a hot mess of nervous breakdown when I ponder the possibility of adding even one more shift to my schedule. I know, I’m a big baby.
The operative concept on the days I do work is to make things at home as easy as possible, and that means quick and easy meals. If I want our family to continue to eat well and not fall into bad habits (like those delicious but terrible Costco cheeseburgers in my freezer–have you seen these? It’s an ENTIRE microwaveable cheeseburger, bun and all! Why did I buy these frozen temptations???), I’m discovering I have to be extremely strategic and intentional about planning workday dinners. If it takes longer than 45 minutes from prep to table, it’s out. Which leads me to this wonderfully quick, totally tasty, so-simple-a-cat-could-make-it pesto salmon. With only three ingredients, it’s really more of a dinner idea than an actual recipe, so you’ll have to forgive me for that, but in the end, you might also thank me–for a weeknight meal that saves your bacon when the going gets tough and you need something whole-food healthy that comes together fast.
Pesto Tomato Salmon
A Love Letter to Food Original
1 lb. salmon, filleted into four pieces
1/4 c. purchased or homemade basil-based pesto
1-2 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coat the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with cooking spray.
- Place salmon fillets in baking dish. Spread 1 Tbsp. pesto over each fillet and top with sliced tomatoes.
- Bake 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.