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Sunshine and smiles

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I've been driving around for what seems like months with wool socks and thick mittens stuffed into the big warm boots in my car, a wool blanket in the trunk and my ear poppers in the glove compartment.

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I've been living on a diet of thick, hearty soups and stews. In the meantime, my friends have been flying off to warm, sunny places like Mexico, Costa Rica and islands in the Caribbean. The each return with a tan and a smile. They exclaim about the juicy, fresh fruit they've eaten. They show pictures of enormous tropical flowers, blue water and sandy beaches. They rave about the dishes they feasted on while they were gone.

I might not be able to head to the tropics, but I can bring some sunshine into my life with a sunny salad of fresh greens, bright citrus and aromatic spices.

Sunshine Salad is full of fresh, bright flavors, with healthful ingredients that provide antioxidants, vitamins, protein and fiber. Chicken breasts are seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder before browning and roasting. This mixture of black pepper, cloves, fennel, anise and cinnamon can be found in the spice section of most grocery stores.

Once you add it to your spice shelf, you'll discover it is a great addition to sweet treats as well. Perk up quick breads, cakes and cookies with this fragrant blend.

This medley of fresh ingredients is a quick meal when you do some preparation ahead of time. I like to toss the spinach leaves and crinkly shreds of Napa cabbage together and store them in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator. I keep the red pepper strips and sliced red onion in two more separate covered containers. The citrusy vinaigrette can be made a day or two ahead of time and stored in a jar in the refrigerator.

Even after serving this salad, you will probably have some of the vinaigrette leftover for another day. And, if you really want a fast meal for a busy day, roast the chicken breasts ahead of time. They don't need to be warm when served with this salad, so just wrap the cooked breasts up tightly and store them in the refrigerator for a day or two.

I still have all my winter survival gear in my car and my skin is winter white. But I've got all the ingredients for Sunshine Salad in my refrigerator, and there's a smile on my face.

Sunshine Salad

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 teaspoon five-spice powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic, about 3 large cloves

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 medium-sized oranges

4 cups thinly sliced Napa cabbage

5 ounces baby spinach leaves, washed, any thick stems removed

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips

1/2 cup golden raisins

2 firm ripe avocadoes, sliced

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (1 lime)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Trim any fat from chicken breasts and rinse thoroughly. Pat the chicken breasts dry with a paper towel. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix five-spice powder, salt and pepper. Rub the mixture onto both sides of the chicken breasts.

In a cereal bowl, mix dark brown sugar, minced garlic and Tabasco sauce. Set aside. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken breasts. Cook until browned on one side. It will take about 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Turn chicken breasts over and pat the brown sugar mixture over the top side of each. Transfer the skillet to the preheated oven. Roast the chicken breasts until just cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast should read 165 degrees. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let rest. It will continue to cook a bit.

While chicken is resting, make the vinaigrette. With a sharp knife, segment the oranges by cutting away the skin and white pith from the fruit. Working in a small dish, such as a glass pie plate or dinner plate, carefully cut the segments away from the membrane. Squeeze the juice from the membranes into a bowl before discarding them. Pour any juice from the work dish into the bowl, also. Add lime juice, mustard, cumin, salt and pepper to the orange juice. Whisk to blend. Gradually pour olive oil into the citrus mixture, whisking as you pour.

In a large salad bowl, toss spinach, cabbage, red onion, red bell pepper, orange segments and raisins together. Drizzle just enough vinaigrette over the salad so that the ingredients are lightly dressed with the mixture. Halve, pit, peel and slice the avocadoes Add to salad and gently toss. Cut chicken breasts into 1/2-inch-thick slices and serve with salad. Makes 4 meal-in-a-dish servings.

Tip from the cook

--Often called Chinese cabbage, Napa cabbage is oblong shaped with white elongated ribs and pale green crinkled leaves. This crispy cabbage has a mild, sweet flavor. It is available year around in the produce department at local grocery stores and Asian markets.

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