Limes in Winter

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When I woke up the other day, the Weather Underground told me the temperature outside had plummeted to minus 18 Fahrenheit, with the wind making it feel like minus 34.  It’s times like these that I think of the five winters I spent in Florida, with my friends Danaya and Kendal. We lived outside of Gainesville, as far away from the beach in any direction as you could get, which seemed to me a cruel irony.  But I was there, after all, to work on my dissertation, not my tan, and there was one great compensation — Danaya and her Dad made  the world’s best margaritas, which was our reward for completing a hard-at-work day.  They would haul out an enormous citrus press from a cabinet beneath the blue-tiled countertop and a huge bag of limes from the double-door industrial fridge (neither Danaya nor her Dad every did anything in a small way!), and get to work.  In minutes, pulverized lime rinds littered the counter and the scent of lime juice filled the kitchen.  Soon, we were sitting out back with our drinks, listening to the scratching palm leaves high overhead, squinting into the deep blue sky, sneezing at the orange blossoms, and thinking life, even in the dead center of the state miles from its famous beaches, was not so bad.

I have been thinking a lot about my friends, those late afternoons, and the scent of limes lately.  But I can’t bring myself to make a margarita when it’s minus 18 degrees and there’s a foot of snow on my deck.  I need to chop root vegetables and crank my oven up high.

So instead of margaritas, I bake a lime quick bread, and roast shrimp with garlic, cilantro and lime, and cook Brussels sprouts and leaks in lime-ginger butter.  I don’t even like Brussels sprouts, but these are divine.  Now, it may still be minus-18-feels-like-minus-32 outside, but inside it’s warm and my kitchen smells like Danaya’s did on those Florida winter afternoons — which will have to suffice until I can return to central Florida for the best company, and the best margaritas, in the world.

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Brussels Sprouts and Leeks in Lime-Ginger Butter

Whenever I make this dish for company, I follow the recipe in Fine Cooking.  It calls for browning the butter in a separate pan, adding a nice nutty flavor to the vegetables. This step is definitely worth it.  But on a weeknight when getting one more pan dirty is just too much, I take the following shortcut.

  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 Tablespoon ginger root, peeled and diced
  • 1 Teaspoon fresh lime zest from one medium lime, washed and dried
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice squeezed from that same medium lime
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-1/4 pound Brussels sprouts, quartered
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 medium leeks, white and light green parts sliced into thin rounds, rings separated, thoroughly washed but not dried

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat.  Add the Brussels sprouts, toss in the oil, and sprinkle with salt.  Cover the pan, leaving the lid slightly ajar, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sprouts start to brown, about 10 minutes.

Remove the cover from the pan, turn the heat down to low, add the leaks, stir.  Arrange the vegetables in as much of a single layer as possible, and cook until the leeks are tender, about 15 more minutes.

Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the pan, swirling and stirring until melted.  Cook for one minute. Add the ginger, cook for one minute more.   Add the lime juice and zest. Stir, season to taste with a bit more salt if needed, and serve warm.

Cupcakes and Roses

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I ordered a bottle of rosewater to make loukoumia, or Turkish Delight, as the sweet is known outside of Greece.  But I quickly discovered that just a few drops of the extract go a long way.  And so I was faced with the challenge of finding more uses for the stuff.  Sachets?  Aromatic diffusers?  Martinis?

After much pleasant but idle thought, I hit upon cupcakes.  Surely someone somewhere had made rosewater cupcakes.  And so they had.

But the first recipe called for lemon icing. Promising, since lemon and rosewater get along so well in loukoumia.  This time, however, the lemon was loud and overbearing, drowning out the rosewater.

The second recipe called for ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – a party too crowded with flamboyant guests for the shy rosewater to stand out.  I wanted a cupcake whose flavors mingled companionably, a quiet yet memorable affair.

And so I closed my eyes and auditioned a parade of flavors: almond, orange, pistachio, bergamot, cardamom. Cardamom.  That ancient spice from southwest India, traded by Greeks since the 4th century B.C.  Known as the “queen of all spices,” and still one of the most expensive.  Surprising, enticing, assertive – and never too loud.

I set to work.  Cardamom cupcakes with Rosewater glaze.  Perfect. Perfect for breakfast or with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or as a light dessert after a spicy meal. I ate seven in two hours – the first one hot from the oven.  Guess I’ll be making a double batch next time!

Cardamom Cupcakes with Rosewater Glaze (makes 18-24 cupcakes)

  • 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs, brought to room temperature
  • 3/4 cup milk, brought to room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Place paper liners in muffin tins.

In a bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and cake flours, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda.

In a stand mixer with a paddle, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 5-7 minutes.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating until combined.

Slowly add the dry ingredients to the mixer in three batches, alternating with two batches of milk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Pour the batter into the prepared tins, filling each cup halfway.

Bake about 20 minutes, just until a toothpick comes out clean. Check the cupcakes after 15 minutes.  Do not overbake.

Place tin on a wire rack and cool for 15 minutes.  Remove cupcakes, place on a wire rack, and let cool completely.

When the cupcakes have cooled, make the rosewater glaze. Place 1/4 cup whole milk in a bowl.  Whisk in confectioners sugar, a 1/4 cup at a time, until the glaze is thick enough that it falls slowly from a spoon.  Whisk in 1 teaspoon rosewater.  Taste.  If you like, you can add more rosewater, a 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until you are happy with its intensity.  Use a spoon to pour glaze over each cupcake.

You can decorate your cupcakes with sugared rose petals, or sprinkles — or enjoy them as they are!

Jasmine Ice-Cream in Florence

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Only three days in Florence, with a gelateria on every corner .  I do what I can.  A scoop of chocolate as I stroll along the Piazza Santa Croce, Pistachio as I gaze over the Ponte Vecchio,  Stracciatella as I catch my breath in front of the Duomo, having just climbed the 400 or so steps winding up  Giotto’s bell tower – although in this case, I must admit, the gelato is (almost) trumped by the view.  I am quite pleased with myself, in an efficient, did-what-I-came-for kind of way.

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And then its my last night in the city.  I wander into a gelateria on the Piazza San Marco, a short walk from the Galleria dell’Accademia where I have just visited Michelangelo’s towering David, his eyes staring pensively into the distance.  “Gelateria Delice Glace,” a modest shop without a web site — could it live up to its name?

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While my niece and nephew blissfully eat their way through two scoops of vanilla (for Gabrielle), and chocolate (for Brian), I stand in front of the glass case separating me from rows of enticing flavors in a rainbow of equally enticing, bright summer colors.  What should I choose?  This might, after all, be my very last Florentine gelato for a very, very long time.

And then I notice it.  A tub of pale-as-cream gelato, garnished with a sprig of green leaves.  My eyes had skipped over it, dazzled by the competing citrus yellows, kiwi-greens and strawberry-pinks.  The tub is full; no one else has noticed it, either.  I lean down and peer at the faded, hand-scrawled label:  Gelsomino.  Sounds pretty. But is it good? And what is it, anyway?

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Jasmine.  Jasmine-flavored gelato.  The man behind the counter is enthusiastic.  I wonder if he’s sincere, or if he’s trying to unload a flavor flop.  Then I remember my grandmother’s small balcony in Athens, two jasmine plants growing in clay pots, reaching up to the bright blue sky, framing each side of our balcony door.  Every summer, the shrubs would blossom in a profusion of small, white, fragrant flowers.  Yiayia always said that her jasmine plants, while perennially vibrant, never flowered as gloriously as they did the summer my aunt got married, and the summer I was born.

So I order a scoop, a small, tentative scoop.  And then I am sorry.  I should have ordered two, or three.  The gelato tastes as light and fragrant as the jasmine flowers on Yiayia’s balcony. The man behind the counter smiles.  We are both very pleased.

Now, all too soon, I am a world away from Florence.  What can I do?  I live in Wisconsin, and no one has fresh jasmine flowers.  So I order some natural jasmine extract on the Internet, and take down my ice-cream maker.  Two hours later, I take my first, tentative taste.  I close my eyes and I feel myself standing once again in front of the pleased gelato man, in the gelateria on the Piazza San Marco, remembering my grandmother and her beloved jasmine plants flowering on our balcony in our long-gone house in Athens.

Jasmine Ice Cream

This ice-cream can be flavored with an infusion made from food-grade jasmine flowers, or with jasmine tea, or jasmine extract.  I made it using the extract.  The ice-cream tastes JUST like the flowers smell, so if you like jasmine tea, or jasmine rice, or jasmine rice-pudding, you will LOVE this.  My friend, who does not like any of these things, wrinkled her nose and said she felt like she was eating an incense stick.

The following recipe makes one quart.

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • Jasmine extract**

** I use 1 teaspoon jasmine extract, but you may find the flavor too strong. When the recipe calls for adding the extract, start with 1/2 teaspoon and taste. If the flavor is too subtle, keep adding more extract in 1/4 teaspoon increments.  Keep in mind that the flavor intensifies as the mixture cools.  You can also add a bit more extract just before pouring the mixture into the ice-cream maker if needed.

In a medium saucepan, add milk, sugar, 1 cup of heavy cream and pinch of salt.  Warm gently over medium-low heat.

Pour remaining 1 cup cream into large bowl and set a fine sieve on top.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks.  Very slowly, add the warmed milk mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly.  Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan.

Place the saucepan over medium heat and continually stir until mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon.  Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream.  Add the jasmine extract (starting with ½ teaspoon and adding more to your liking) and stir until cool.  The jasmine flavor will intensify when the custard cools.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in your refrigerator.  Freeze in your ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Garlic Love

3 Jul garlicraw

Every week I go to the grocery store and absentmindedly pick up four or five bulbs of garlic.  I look briefly for achromatic ones that are free from mold, and plunk them into my basket.  I bring them home, cook them up, then return the following week to absentmindedly pick up some more.

But this morning, I decided to pay attention to garlic. After all, it is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, first used by the ancient Egyptians more than 5,000 years ago.

It is said that the Pharoahs fed garlic to their slaves to give them the supernatural strength that building pyramids required, that early Greek military leaders fed garlic to their troops before battle to give them courage, and that Greek travelers placed garlic at crossroads to appease the goddess Hecate and cause evil spirits to lose their way.   And of course, we all know how garlic has been used to repel Transylvanian vampires.

For vampire-repelling garlic mints, visit Bloom's Candy and Soda Pop Shop (candycarrollton.com)!

For vampire-repelling garlic mints, visit Bloom’s Candy and Soda Pop Shop (candycarrollton.com)!

But it wasn’t just vampires and evil spirits that abhorred garlic.  The 17th-century English declared it unfit for ladies because of its pungent odor, and 19th-century American reformers made its eradication an important tactic in their battle to uplift the immigrant masses and assimilate them into society.  Not until well into the 20th century did Americans begin to enjoy, without guilt or social embarrassment, this humble and powerful bulb.

Yet despite its long and prominent history, garlic today has become mundane.  It no longer seems to arouse passion in vampires, goddesses or social reformers.  Which is why, I guess, I never gave it much notice.  And that is a shame.  Because this morning I discovered that garlic CAN still ignite passion, especially among the small but increasing number of garlic enthusiasts growing hundreds of varieties in our country and throughout the world – “hot” varieties like Killarney Red or Spanish Rioja, “medium” ones like Persian Star or Nootka Rose, “mild” ones like Polish White or Siberia.

From Karen & Mike's web site, wegrowgarlic.com

From Karen & Mike’s web site, wegrowgarlic.com

Even in my own little neck of the woods, I can buy a thrilling assortment of organic garlic produced by Wisconsonites Mike and Karen, who began growing garlic as a hobby on their small farm north of Madison 12 years ago; or from Cathy and Greg who grow garlic on their family Copper Kettle Farm in Colgate; or from Dave-the-garlic-man-Peterson who taps maple sugar and grows garlic, among other things, at his organic Maplewood Gardens in Elderon; or from any of one of the 101 garlic producers listed on the Savor Wisconsin web site.

So I’ve decided that this week instead of going mindlessly to my local grocery store and plunking one of two standard, long-shelf-life varieties absentmindedly into my basket, I’m going to go on a local garlic tour – and I’m going to pay very close attention as I fill my basket with variety after variety of this surprisingly still humble, powerful, glorious bulb.

If you go on a local garlic tour and come home with a basket full of bulbs, try braising them in olive oil with herbs.  They will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks, and are great spread on crusty bread, tossed into a beet  or roasted pepper salad, pureed into an olive oil dressing, or used in any way you can imagine!

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Oil-Braised Garlic With Herbs

  • 4 cups peeled garlic cloves, about 10 heads of garlic
  • 2-3 dried bay leaves
  • 8 – 10 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary
  • 1 Tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • Kosher salt
  • A blend of half canola, half extra-virgin olive oil, enough to just cover the garlic, about 2 cups

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.

Place the garlic cloves in a Dutch oven or ceramic baking dish.  Add bay leaves, herbs, peppercorns, and generous sprinkling of salt.  Pour in enough oil to just barely cover the garlic. Cover with a lid or foil and braise until cloves are very tender, about 1 hour.  Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

Place the garlic and oil in a sterilized glass jar (see instructions below).  Press a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper gently down onto the surface of the oil.  Place another piece of plastic wrap over the jar’s rim and twist on the lid or secure with a rubber band.  Store in the refrigerator.  Each time you scoop out some of the garlic to use, be sure to use a clean fork or spoon, and replace a clean piece of plastic over the oil.

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To sterilize your jar:

Place clean, empty jar(s) in a large pot.  Completely cover the jar(s) with water.  Bring to boil over high heat.  Once the water reaches a vigorous boil, continue boiling for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and carefully remove jar(s) from water with tongs and fill.  If you are not quite ready to use your jars, you can leave them in the hot water for one hour – any longer, and you’ll need to sterilize them again.

P.S. — I discovered that I just missed the 2nd annual June Braise Garlic Fest in Milwaukee!!!  I’m putting it on my calendar NOW for next year!

Ladybugs

10 Jun swirl(10)

Four thousand ladybugs arrived all the way from Ohio to my home in central Wisconsin today.  They came Priority Mail.  A very concerned postman delivered them – the box was labeled “Live Ladybugs,” and it was a bit dented.  He was worried the ladybugs had been squashed; having never been responsible for delivering live ladybugs before, he wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  He also wondered why anyone would order 4,000 ladybugs from the Internet.  “To eat the thousands of aphids infesting my cherry tree,” I explained.

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I had waited expectantly all week, and they finally arrived.  They were shipped in a mesh bag, four thousand ladybugs cuddled together.  A small cold pack had been taped to the box next to the mesh bag, keeping the ladybugs’ body temperature low, so they would make their long journey in a calm, sleepy state.

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The sheet that came along with the shipment instructed me to keep the critters in the refrigerator, until it was time to release them.  At that time, I was to spray a sweet liquid nectar on the cherry tree leaves to attract the awakening ladybugs, who were sure to be very hungry.

We followed the instructions to the letter, carefully squirting the trees with the sweet nectar, gingerly opening up the mesh bag, and then coaxing the wobbly visitors toward their first aphid feast.  They stumbled, stretched their wings, and settled in.

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Ladybugs, of which there are more than 150 species in the United States (LadybugLady), love aphids, mites, and mealy bugs, among other tasty morsels that pester fruit and vegetable gardens.  They are considered harbingers of good luck the world over.  In Greece, they are called Paschalitsa because they are found abundantly around Easter time. In Turkish, they are called Uğur böceği, insects of fortune. In Catalan they are called Marieta, little Mary, after the Virgin.

I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and go check on my Paschalitsas.  I hope they will be having a hearty breakfast of aphids, followed by a hearty lunch and dinner, with a few Hobbit-ish elevensies thrown in.  And perhaps after all that feasting, late in August, I will be able to pick the fruit from my aphid-free sour cherry tree, and share with you my Yiayia’s recipe for Visino, one of Greece’s most favored sweets – a sour cherry preserve.

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If you want to learn more about buying ladybugs responsibly online, check out a post by Chicago urban gardener and blogger Ramon Gonzalez on  Treehugger.

Honey, Olives, Octopus

22 Apr Thassos Olives

If you can’t travel to Greece this summer, go down to your local bookstore and order a copy of Christopher Bakken’s Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table.  When it arrives, set up your own little table under a shade tree in the back yard.  Fill a bowl with olives — preferably the black, wrinkly ones from Thasos, though any Greek variety will do!  Fill your glass with wine.  When you are ready, open your book, take  a deep breath, and drop into the backseat of the little car driven madly by Tasos of Thasos, as he careens around switchbacks snaking along his island’s southern point, taking him, the author, and you, to his olive groves for a day of harvest.

Thus begins Bakken’s culinary travelogue, which takes us to Thasos and Crete, Serifos and Naxos, Chios and Kythira, tasting intensely local breads, cheeses, olives, roasted goat, Imam bayildi, raki, barbounia, fasolada. Bakken leads the way as we stroll passed white-washed houses, and dive for octopus in cobalt seas, and accept spoon sweets from black-clad, wizened women.  We sing with Cretans and throw our legs up high, our dance fueled by raki and kefi until dawn.

But Bakken, unlike so many culinary travel writers whose books now crowd the shelves, doesn’t stop at such outward, simply nostalgic signs of Greece.  He has written an idyll, not a fairytale.  He does not block out Athens, or the European Union, or the crushing economy, as no Greek can for very long.  He lets the modern world intrude quietly but profoundly, as it does, in village life:  through the snail making its imperceptible way up the leg of a plastic garden chair; through the stainless steel counters installed in the kitchens of an old taverna; through the roar of an Italian-made, gas-powered tsougrana (mechanical olive-picker) that drowns out, as Bakken writes, all “placid conversation” and precludes “the traditional harvest songs I imagined we’d sing.”

But again, the modern world under Bakken’s pen is about more than these outward sights and sounds.  It’s Kyria Eleftheria, a sublime bread-maker from Crete, sharing a quiet meal with Bakken in her cottage, momentarily engulfed by a loneliness that advances and retreats like the tides, her children long gone, having been lured away by the promises of the city.  It’s about Maria of Serifos, uncharacteristically soured into suspicion by experience, accusing Bakken of trying to plunder her culinary secretes for his own profit.  It’s about the old woman who trudges up the hill each night to light her abandoned village’s only street lamp, so she doesn’t feel so alone. It’s about Eleni and Yannis, stewards of Kythira’s bees, staving off the colony collapse disorder threatening hives and humans world-wide.

Bakken understands this darker side.  He feels the deep sadness and inherited anxiety carried by a people who have endured centuries of catastrophic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, brutal wars and military occupations, and more years of hunger than of plenty.  He understands the Greek resignation in the oft-heard phrase, “alla ti  na kanoume” (“but what can we do?”)  He also understands the inextinguishable optimism that allows the three brothers-in-spirit, Tasos and Bakken and Georgos, whose cancer has recently returned, to dream up plans of conquering Mount Olympus next autumn, and to seal their promises with a toast, entangled in grief and joy, heard at the end of every glorious Greek summer, to “tou xronou,” to “next year.”

Bakken is a poet, who was raised in Wisconsin and now teaches at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He first visited Greece more than 20 years ago, and has been returning whenever possible ever since.  When he writes of Chios and Naxos and Crete, of Tasos and Georgos and Eleftheria, I respond with deep recognition.  I know that the portrait he offers is not just accurate, which is easy, but true.  And I am grateful that he has written this book.  At a time when the country is wracked again by pain and anxiety over an uncertain future, we really need to be reminded of everything that is beautiful about Greece and its Greeks, from its hard, scrubby mountains, fertile valleys and breathtaking seas to its spirit of endurance, generosity and hope.

When I finally close the cover on Bakken’s book, I do so reluctantly, saddened to leave the places I’ve visited and the friends I’ve made.  Such is Bakken’s power, and his gift.  So go down to your local bookstore and when your book arrives, set out a little table under a shade tree in your yard.  Fill a bowl with olives and a glass with wine.  Open the book’s covers, take a deep breath, and drop down into the car driven madly by Tasos of Thasos, joining him as he careens toward his olive groves and an increasingly uncertain, but still hopeful, future.

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Spring?

20 Mar

It’s the first day of spring. The world is white.  Snow has been falling steadily, the road underfoot is crusty with ice,  and the thermometer reads 9 degrees F.

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I am getting restless.  I think of gutting my 1970s kitchen, replacing its drawers that won’t open and its doors that won’t close.  I think of purging old memories asleep in boxes of stuffed animals, once-favorite coffee mugs and too-small concert T-shirts from my basement.  I think of writing a book, flying to Tahiti, joining the gym.

But it’s much too soon.  Spring won’t properly arrive for weeks.  I must ward off the fever.

And yet I’m thwarted.  The days are longer and just a wee bit brighter, and yesterday I spotted in a corner of my garden, the one facing the morning sun, a bright green shoot, a daffodil brazenly emerging from the earth.  I was in a hurry and didn’t stop to linger. When I returned this morning, it was buried in snow.  I trudged to the corner where I swore I had seen it and dug and dug until my knees were soaked and my fingers numb.  It had been there – it’s still there – I’m sure.

In this weather, my body craves winter food:  stews served with steam still rising, dense bread, deep red wine. But today I think I, too, will be brazen.  I will set the table with flowers from the supermarket.  I will serve a spring salad, with a light crusty bread, and even a glass of “white” wine, which, if I look closely enough, is not white at all, but tinged with the bright yellows and greens of spring.

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One of my favorite cookbooks is “The Food You Crave” by Ellie Krieger. Whenever I need “spring,” I turn to her Chickpea and Spinach Salad with Cumin Dressing, which serves four.  It’s great on the side or as a main dish with warm bread.  Adapted from “The Food You Crave”:

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  • One 15.5 ounce can low-sodium chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 finely diced shallot (or 1 small red onion)
  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons plain yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice
  • ¼ Teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • ¼ Teaspoon honey
  • Bunch baby spinach leaves, rinsed and dried (I like to pluck off any long stems)
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh mint

In a medium bowl, combine the chickpeas, parsley, shallot (or onion).

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, zest, cumin, salt and pepper.  Pour the dressing over the chickpea mixture and toss.

In a third bowl, whisk together the yogurt, orange juice, zest, and honey.

Just before serving, place the spinach leaves in a bowl and toss with the chickpeas.

Divide salad onto four plates, top with yogurt sauce, and garnish with mint.

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