A Guide to Winter Salads & Spinach, Marinated Beets and Chickpea Salad

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (8 of 8)Doesn’t January feel link kind of a limbo? When all of the holidays end, I am usually left with contrasting emotions; On one side I am just fed up with everything about holidays, from the food to the laziness of the vacations. I feel bloated and full, no matter how much I tried to remain sane in my eating. On the other hand I feel nostalgic and kinda sad that the holidays are gone. 

The first thing however that gets me quickly back on the track is switching to a healthy and light diet. The next couple of months are going to be super busy and I should absolutely not waste time. There are many projects I’m involved with (the most important one: my master’s thesis! Yes, I’m still studying but I swear I’ll quit after this one!) and some are directly or indirectly connected to this blog. All of them in one way or another are about food. The thesis in particular is all about Lab Noon, but we’ll get to that later. Truth be told, there’s a lot of new stuff to try and experiment and I’m filled with that excitement of creating something new and being scared shitless of not being able to meet deadlines and other insecurities. My first step; I (desperately) need to get organized.

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (2 of 8)I started getting organized first in my eating habits. Started with some detox smoothies and went back to one sure type of dish I know I make very well, tasty, filling and nutritious; Salads. There’s no secret about it, I combine everything. Keeping in mind to insert enough proteins, carbs and fiber and to keep the dressing balanced with acidity and fat. My secret ingredients for more energy and substance are nuts and seeds. About 90% of times my salads are vegetarian but sometimes I might add some smoked salmon, tuna or chicken breast too. The problem with salads however is that they’re, er…, cold! Specially on chilly winter days. I suffer a lot from the cold. I often have chilled fingers and toes no matter how many layers of clothes I’m wearing and how boiling the heater is. So sometimes it becomes quite a task to get the veggies from the cold fridge and cut them, let alone eating them cold. That’s when, er, –this might sound a little crazy– I cook my salads! And not only typical warm salads with lentils or other legumes. Sometimes I even cook the poor lettuce, for just a minute or two. 

Basic Tips  for a Delicious & Nutritious Salad

Stick to seasonal produce. Do you really want a tasty salad in the middle of winter? Don’t put tomatoes in it!  Don’t use fresh tomatoes in any dish in the winter. Think different types of cabbage, spinach and baby spinach, all types of chicories, Brussels sprout, kale, cauliflower, beets and fennels. You can/should cook slightly most of these veggies but not necessarily. Just remember to take off the stalk off the kale leaves and shred the leaves thinly. Try boiled/roasted potatoes with broccoli, peas, sun-dried tomatoes, beans and onion.

Got nuts. Different types of nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecan, pine nuts etc not only add a good sum of energy, vitamins and minerals that are necessary for you health (specially if you consume little or no animal protein), but they also bring a wonderful, crunchy texture to your salad. They’re best if you toast them for a minute or two so that they can bring out their fragrance and essential oils. Don’t forget about seeds either, pumpkin seeds, linseeds, sesame, poppy seeds, you name it. Try radicchio, blue cheese, celery, walnuts and lentils with balsamic vinegar. 

Fruit is your friend. I absolutely love the acidic, sweet flavor of a fruit in a savory dish, specially a fresh salad. It brings out the flavor of salty or bitter ingredients. They match beautifully with cheese or bitter winter roots such as radishes. Go beyond ordinary, think of pears and blue cheese, orange and black olives, mandarine, persimmon with salmon, apples with radishes, pomegranate with kale. The combinations are infinite. Try arugula salad, roasted turnips, chopped chestnuts and pieces of Japanese persimmon with shavings of parmesan cheese. 

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (3 of 8)
Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (1 of 8)

Satisfy your sweet tooth. As I said, I love the sweetness in a savory dish. Even sweeter than fruit are the dried fruit. The one I love? raisins! As the classic coleslaw, raisins are beautiful in almost in kinda of salad, maybe except for the ones containing fish. Dried apricots are also great for a sweet touch in a salad. I use dry mulled berries and dry pine apple too. Try, shredded red cabbage, oranges, raisins, almonds and hard cheese dressed only with olive oil. 

Break Bread. Oh the good company that bread is to a salad! You can make croutons, you can break flat bread upon a salad to give it crunchy texture or you can simply eat your salad with slices of a good (whole grain and dark?) bread, even using it like a cutlery to help your fork. It’s something I’ve learned in Italy, when you have good extra virgin olive oil in your salad, you must it with bread. Try cutting your old bread, splash a little bit of water on it, then cook it in an oiled pan with garlic powder and sea salt and add to your salad.

Dress it up. Most salads are uneatable without their dressings. Use good cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Do not exaggerate with your acid. Remember this Jamie Oliver’s rule of thumb of 3 parts fat, 1 part acid. Try different vinegars ( balsamic, red wine, white wine, sherry, apple cider etc), lemon juice and the juice of other citrus fruits. If you already have an acidic element in your salad such as fruit, skip the acidic part in the dressing. One of my personal favorite dressings specially when there’s cheese in the salad is the balsamic cream which comes in different flavors and turns almost any dish to a luxurious marvel. From cheese to meat, from strawberries to even ice cream. A Dijon mustard also makes a lot of difference. I am not a fan of mayonnaise though. I prefer using plain white yoghurt, lemon juice and seasonings for a similar effect. It’s great with potatoes salads and other ones with meaty proteins. 

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (1 of 1)

Some winter salads from around the internet that have inspired me:

– This colorful crunchy salad with red cabbage and apples with a special dressing by Noghl-e Mey‘s Mahroo, my good friend. 
– This intriguing vegan Cesar salad with roasted chickpeas and almonds by Edible Perspective
– This so-my-type-of-dish Autumn salad with figs, prosciutto and blue cheese by From the Kitchen
– This shiny and bright Fennel-Roasted Carrot + Shallot Salad with Shaved Apples by Dolly and Oatmeal.
– And last but not least, the long list of beautiful winter salads on Food52 among which I have particularly enjoyed this Roasted Grape and Butternut Squash Salad with Kale and Parmesan.


My Warm Winter Salad or It is too dry to be a soup! 

My warm winter salad at a certain point could happily become a soup. After all, I make a classic sauté with onions, carrot and celery for the chick peas. (I used canned ones, but you could totally cook your soaked-over-night dry chickpeas together with this sauté.) I even added a little bit of white wine for extra tanginess. I like that bold rich flavors in salad. I am so lucky I had received hand-picked dried mushrooms from Finland that once soaked in hot water for half an hour, bring an earthy flavor to any dish, be it a salad or a soup. And when the chickpeas are flavored I place the spinach on top, covering with the lid and letting it soften by the steam. Maybe the only proper salad ingredient is the lemon juice marinated beets. But I like it that way. I need to get organized in many fronts of my life, but I’d like to stay messy in my recipes. Recipes where you’re free to experiment, to add or to omit and to make tasty food that’s good for you, without having to fit it in a name, a category or a nationality.  Continue reading

In Praise of Winter Celebrations & a Festive Chicken Pomegranate

Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon
“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.”

-Rumi

The Light, The Darkness & Winter Celebrations

Days have been getting shorter, and the nights longer and longer. The wind has been growing colder and sharper. Morning light comes up late and lasts only for few hours. It’s the journey of Earth through the seasons, the alchemy of mother nature. We keep our hectic work-shop-work-shop Christmas rhythm as if nothing was happening. But we’re wrong. We have been dwelling in darker days since the beginning of Summer and in a short time, on December 21st to be precise, the night will be the longest of the year. And just as it always happens in life, after the longest time of darkness, light is born. The cold season arrives but there will be an instant of more daylight and then sun will set later and later, just until the first day of Summer. The eternal cycle of life and death, the light and the darkness. The dance of the Earth and the Sun.Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon The Winter Solstice has been an ancient feast in many pagan cultures and has influenced many other winter celebrations during time. It marks the birthday of The Light, Mehr or Mithra, the Zoroastrian deity of light. In Iran, it has been celebrated for thousands of years, by the name of Yalda, the longest night of the year, in which people stayed up late, gather friends and family, brought the fresh and dry fruit and grains they had stored since harvest, lit many candles and read poetry or told stories to chase away the demon (the darkness) and welcome the light of the new day. Most winter celebrations have deep roots in this seasonal change and the battle of light and dark. The Roman Mithra was born on December 25th, and so was Sol Invictus (The Unconquerable Sun), marking the Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, a festival to celebrate the sun. The Jewish Hanukkahalso known as the Festival of Lights falls around the same period. And last but definitely not least the most popularly celebrated winter celebrations of all, Christmas is also celebrated on the same December 25th.

All these winter celebrations, as distant and different as they seem to each other now, have been influenced by the birth (nativity?) of the new light and have left their finger prints on one another. I am madly fascinated by finding the similarities and the common roots of ancient customs around the world.  The human race has imaginatively managed to interpret the nature’s unceasing-yet-constant changes into many many beautiful local or global celebrations.
As I told you, I haven’t grown up with Christmas, as it’s not celebrated in Iran. However I have grown up with Yalda. The usual celebration in modern-day Iran is not that complicated. The essential elements are dry or fresh fruit. The dry fruit or Ajil consists of unsalted nuts, raisins, dry apricots and/or peaches. Fresh fruit must absolutely include pomegranate (it symbolizes light!) and don’t-ask-me-how, watermelon! I have no idea how the summer fruit has made its way all through winter (it is said people stored in cold basements to keep it for the winter), but in this period since I can remember grocery stores in Iran burst up with pomegranates and watermelons. Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon Traditionally friends and family gathered and sat around Korsi (a low table with a heater beneath and covered with a large blanket) and topped it with sweets and fruits. They read poetries and told stories to pass this long night. (I will be holding a Yalda storytelling workshop for chidlren, in Maxxi muesum of Rome on December 20th & 21st, in the occasion of the exhibition Unedited History, Iran 1960 – 2014 in the same museum. If you happen to be in Rome by March 29th don’t miss it.) 

The Food & Persian Food Bloggers Recipe Round-Up

Since Yalda is a major Persian feast and winter celebration that is really little known around the world, we (some of Iranian food bloggers) have decided to make another recipe round-up just as we did in the beginning of Autumn to celebrate Mehregan. Please check out the beautiful Persian-inspired recipes by these talented people at the bottom of this post. I’m sure you will find great ideas for this festive season, no matter which of these feasts you celebrated. You can find and tag our content for Yalda in the social media by #PersianFoodBloggers and #PFBshabehYalda hashtags.Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon I won’t be surprised if I find pomegranate in many of these recipes since it’s the main protagonist of this celebration. My recipe definitely does. We have some great recipes containing pomegranate molasses which is a heavenly ingredient. As great as it tastes, I have found out that the commercial product whether in Iran or outside is full of chemical agents, additives, preservatives and way too many ingredients. So thanks to a tip from Jamie Oliver I decided to make my own. All you need is 100% pomegranate juice (it’s worth the search, trust me), a couple of tbsp of sugar and a pinch of salt.

This recipe of chicken pomegranate is simple, healthy (though not quite light, as it’s the holidays season) and undoubtedly a crowd pleaser. The sauce is sweet and sour to right point and freshened up by the pomegranate seeds. The chicken is crispy on the outside and tender inside, wrapped in the aroma of saffron. And last but definitely not least, the texture and richness created by chopped almonds and pistachios turns it from a normal chicken pomegranate to a real holiday dish. It would be great to be served with Persian steam-cooked Basmati rice, but it’s not necessary. We ate it with some homemade sourdough bread and it was just as fine.Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon A word on chicken: On normal days I avoid supermarket chicken all together as industrially produced chicken is pure cruelty and also unhealthy. If I do have to buy chicken though, my options would be 1. get free-range chicken directly from the farmer (which is very very difficult where I live), 2. look for free-range chicken in organic shops, 3. look for free-range chicken in normal supermarkets. Fortunately here in Italy you can usually find pollo ruspante, or free-range chicken in big supermarkets. The color of the chicken is a live yellow, unlike the pale industrial chicken.

I have been inspired by a recipe from the north of Iran called the pomegranate stew. Not to be confused with the classic and world famous Persian chicken pomegranate stew with walnuts called Fesenjan. Continue reading

Ho Ho Ho! Home-Made Edible Christmas Gifts

Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas

It’s that time of the year again. The time of red heavy coats outside and the overdose of cinnamon, candied fruit and chocolate (and a little booze) inside. As you might know by now, being raised in Iran, I haven’t grown up with Christmas. Traditionally it’s not celebrated by the majority of Iranians. During the eighties when we were children, we knew it was Christmas time because there would be Mickey’s Christmas Carol on TV and that alone was a legit reason to wait for Christmas every year.The first couple of years of living in Rome taught me a lot about Christmas, specially how it’s celebrated in Italy. It’s remains inside the family, the sacred family, your own family (first & second cousins included) and your in-laws family (first & second cousins included).

Years passed, and it grew on me like good habits you try to insert to your daily life do. Like waking up early and having breakfast can make their ways to your morning routines and stay, I have inserted Christmas to my yearly ritual, and it’s here to stay.

Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas

I don’t have childhood memories of Christmas; I have never wondered if Santa really exists or not. I have never waited by the fireplace hoping to find a long, colorful stocking full of presents. But I have learned how to cherish Christmas. I love that collective image of the wintery-snowy woods, with little animals (often chewing on nuts), tiny lights and tiny snow flakes motives, that deep emerald green and that velvet ruby red. I love smelling the burning wood and hearing its crackling sound and think it feels like Christmas.

I love cracking walnuts and almonds open. The warm smell of oranges, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and anise star sets my soul free and mulled wine filled with these essences is a drink from heaven to me.Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas

The one thing about Christmas that I really don’t like is that crazy & avid rush towards the shopping malls, long lines, misusing a huge amount of money on Christmas Gift shopping. Most of the times they turn into soul-less, did-my-duty sort of gifts. The gift giver remains with stress and a headache from all that SHOP-SHOP mayhem and probably much less money, the receiver might be content but wouldn’t really feel warm at heart, and the only ones really happy would be the big people of the big companies who have made bigs sales in the holiday seasons.

Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas
Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas

In the years of learning to love Christmas, something that has really touched me is making your gifts with your own hands. Bless the ones who first thought of this. And since it’s the season to eat and drink and being merry, what would be a more delightfully generous gift than sharing, sparing and creating something to eat or drink? From scratch, with care, obsession and attention. Perfecting it time after time. This warms up my heart in the chill of this season and makes me smile from deep down my soul. It would be a mindful Christmas, in every level. Get your hands busy in crushing, stirring, brewing and whisking the tokens for your loved ones. Create your own edible Christmas gifts and meditate while you do so. Let this season bring you inner joy. Not just headache and stress from never-ending work to do. Sign your gift “Home-made with love” and rest assured it’ll be more than cherished.

Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas
Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas
Home Made Edible Christmas Gifts | Regali Commestibili di Natale | Lab Noon #LabNoonXmas

This year I have (so far) created these three gifts. I have kinda thought about a menu; A cocktail to start with (pomegranate gin), a seasoning for the main dish (various types of flavored sea-salt) and a condiment for dessert (clementine curd). Cookies are also all-time favorites and you can pile them in pretty tin boxes. Last year I did a LOT of chocolate cookies/ornaments. You can make candies, chocolate truffles, and toffies. I have particularly liked these awesome quince paste bites by Juls’ Kitchen. This years I’m all about jars and bottles that I have collected during times. So my gifts are bottled.

And by this, I give you my early Christmas greetings. Have a great one everybody! Continue reading