Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Salad Daze

Now that the weather’s turned towards Summer’s warmth, (OK, sorry…..downright, screachin’ miserable hot in most of the country, and I feel for ya, I really do), a lot of people are thinking about salads.

Living in SoCal, I think of salads year ‘round.  We have 100-plus days in October regularly, and I’ve baked Christmas cookies in shorts, a tank top and with all the windows open more than once.  Plus, I’m just not a huge fan of cooked vegetables.  (Unless they’re battered and deep-fried, which may be why I take cholesterol-lowering medications, ya think?)  Some cooked veggies I do love, grilled corn on the cob, oven roasted or grilled asparagus, ARTICHOKES of course, oven roasted Brussels sprouts, maybe some caramelized carrots.  But steamed or boiled green beans, peas (fresh peas I’ll eat raw thankyouverymuch) or broccoli, sautéed zucchini, I’ll pass right by on those.  They just seem so *boring* to me.  I HAVE had some transcendent veggie sides in restaurants….so I know it can be done.  Maybe I just haven’t figured out how to cook them well.  As a component in a dish, like an Asian stir fry, I do OK.  But as a stand-alone dish….eh, not so much.  Maybe I get too distracted by the main, so I can’t give my full attention to the veggie side.  I dunno….in my little kitchen, unless it’s a salad of some ilk, or is the focus of the meal, veggies get short shrift.

But I LOVE the taste of raw veggies.  Raw broccoli, raw zuke, raw cauliflower, they rock my world.  Short of serving them just as crudités though, there’s not a whole lot of creative options out there for veggies au natural.

And of course, I’m always conscious of the ever-looming-now-discarded-and-replaced- by-the-FDA-food-plate, food pyramid.  I KNOW I need to get more fruit and veg into my diet than I currently do….

And so we return to salads.

This article is a mélange of salads.  A mash up of various salads I’ve made in the past few weeks.  It goes all the way back to a side dish salad I made to go with my red beans and rice, cruises nicely forward through a riff on a classic Waldorf salad, through an Asian-influenced cucumber dish, a unique method to incorporate Napa cabbage, tomatoes and avocados into a fresh side dish, and we’ll end with a “Way Back Machine” classic I took to a Memorial Day BBQ.  That one doesn’t necessarily hew to the “let’s climb on the veggie bandwagon” theme, but its still darn good, it’s a salad, it has veggies IN it, and you’ll like it !

Let’s make some SALADS !  Yummmm, SALADS !

First up, the headliner.  The day I made the red beans and rice, I knew I wanted something light and tangy to offset the heaviness of the entrée.  Something with a nice hit of acid to cut through all that smoky, porky goodness in the red beans.  So I riffled through the frighteningly large cookbook collection and found an idea in Lidia’s Italy, by Lidia Bastianich.  Whom I just LOVE.  She’s so cool.  I love her shows, I love her food and I love her cookbooks.  She’s almost, almost on the same level of cool in my book as La Julia.  And that’s huge praise.  Only Jacques Pepin is on the same level of cool as La Julia.  But I digress….

This salad is oranges and red onion.  That’s pretty much all.  Now, I’ve used citrus (both oranges and grapefruit) in salads with red onion before (I have a recipe from an old Mexican cookbook that has such a salad), so I know the taste combination is spot on.  That day, I had a huge red onion and I had blood oranges (such a great fruit, with so sadly such a short season….) that I needed to use.  Sounds like a winner to me.

So, first you peel your oranges.  Since I was making this just for me, I used only two, small oranges.  Cut off both the top and the bottom of the oranges.

Look at the hint of color in that slice.  It’s only gunna get better.

Blood oranges are so much more intense than regular oranges.  There’s a hint of muskiness in the flavor, a sort of “funk” (in a good way) in the background, behind the normal orange notes.  Plus, they’re pretty.  I *heart* blood oranges.

Then, following the curve of the orange, take your knife and cut down between the white pith of the peel, and the flesh of the orange, from top to bottom.  Try to get all of the pith, and as little of the flesh as possible.

Et voila !

Slice them crosswise and place them on your plate.  That color is just stunning, isn’t it?  Who wouldn’t want to eat that, just as it is?

Yes, those are both blood oranges.  That color variation is normal.  Some will be vividly reddish-fuchsia, and some will be mostly orange.  But no matter the color, they still have that blood orange flavor.

Then slice your red onion very thinly into half-moons.  Scatter the onion over the top of the oranges, and mince up some flat-leaf parsley.

Sprinkle salt and coarse-ground pepper over the top of the oranges and onions, then drizzle with some very good quality extra-virgin olive oil over that.  Sprinkle the minced parsley over and swoon.  No acid needed, since the orange juice will provide it.  So simple...so very very simple, but so good.  Thanks for the inspiration there, Lidia !

And the finished product, once again.  It’ll taste just fine with regular oranges, even though it won’t look nearly as sexy.

No pictures of the next one, and I don’t really even remember what entrée I made it to go with, but it was one of those “AHHHH-HAAAAA” moments in the kitchen for me.

I needed a side dish.  And I had some fruit (a pear and a couple of apples) that were getting a little past their prime, shall we say.  I had initially thought of making a pear/apple crisp for dessert, but, well, the pear was, sadly, unsalvageable.  Bye, Mr. Pear.  Sorry (really sorry) I wasted you….

So I thought…apples….I’ll make a Waldorf salad.  I love Waldorf salad.  It’ so….retro.  The classic is, of course, chopped, tart apples, chopped celery, chopped nuts (classically walnuts, but I use pecans because I do NOT *heart* walnuts), and a dressing of mayonnaise mixed with a bit of mustard.  Yummy.  I even had homemade mayonnaise stashed in the fridge.  SCORE !

Then I remembered…..the mayo had a boatload of garlic in it.  Yeah.  Prolly not gunna go real well with apples…

On my way to the jar of Best Foods, I was about to pass by a jar of commercial Roquefort dressing…..and the light bulb went off.

Yeah.  Bleu cheese and apples is classic, right?


Wow.  Just wow.  I don’t think I’ll ever make Waldorf salad the “normal” way again.  I did use some Best Foods mayo to thicken it up (the dressing was pretty runny), but the Roquefort cheese just sang with the apples.  No mustard needed.  It rocked.  No pictures, too stupid simple to warrant them.  But also stupid delicious.  In lieu of the Roquefort dressing, you could certainly use crumbles of bleu cheese mixed in with the mayo, but I’d also lighten the mayo up just a touch with some sour cream, or maybe a squirt of lemon juice.  But, seriously, the bleu cheese is brilliant.

OK, salad number three.  I’d made a spicy tangerine shrimp stir fry (another “Way Back Machine” recipe of mine) and needed….guess what…a side dish.  Well, aside from rice.

I had a cucumber, and cukes always lend themselves well to Asian food.  At least in my little brain.  So a cucumber peanut salad was in order.  Except, I had no peanuts, so it became a cucumber cashew salad.  Worked for me.

In a serving bowl, combine some rice wine vinegar (for a cup of sliced cukes, you want about 1/4C vinegar) and some red pepper flakes (to taste).  Add in some sugar (2 teaspoon-ish) and salt to taste.

If you’re using a “standard” cuke, peel it.  Hothouse cukes don’t need to be peeled, but both need to be seeded.  The best way I’ve found to do this is with a grapefruit spoon (with the sort of serrated edges)…

so you get sort of half-moon shapes when you slice them fairly thin.

Slice up some more of that red onion left over from the orange salad, into slivers, and toss it and the sliced cuke into the vinegar.  Stir around a bit, and let sit for at least 15 minutes at room temp.  The longer it sits, the more flavorful it gets.  Right before serving, chop up some cashews (or peanuts) and sprinkle over the top.

And we have Salad Number Three !

Yeah, I didn’t sliver the onion, I chopped it.  Sue me.

Salad number four was the day of the “I Blame the Brisket” dinner.  Again, I knew I needed something with a hit of acid to counteract what I’d THOUGHT (damn you brisket !) would be a fatty, rich main course.  Well, we all know that didn’t work so good, but the salad was fine.

Napa cabbage, tomato and avocado salad.  I had a Napa cabbage I needed to use, I had an avocado I REALLY needed to use and I had tomatoes.  I always have tomatoes.

Napa cabbage is that long, sort of ruffly cabbage that’s used a lot in Asian dishes.  It can be cooked, it’s frequently pickled, and can also be eaten raw.  It would certainly work well in a slaw, but not one with a heavy dressing, since the leaves are a bit thinner than regular cabbage.  If you’re not familiar with Napa cabbage, you should try it.  It’s more delicate in texture than regular, head cabbage, but somehow the taste is more “cabbage-y”.  The ribs are much heavier and tougher than the leaves, even more so than head cabbage,  and probably wouldn’t be so good raw, but they’d be totally fine in a stir fry or in a soup.

Here’s a shot of the Napa leaves, after I’d pulled them from the head, and rinsed them.

Yes, that's a glass of wine in the upper right corner.  Thanks for noticing !  It went in me, not into the salad.

The cabbage is draining on a towel.  Always dry your salad makings really well.  We don’t want to water down that dressing.  We’ll also need some lemon zest and juice, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, an avocado and tomatoes (no……REALLY????  For a cabbage, avocado and tomato salad???  Who’da thunk?).  Cherry or grape tomatoes work best, but you could totally substitute larger ones, chopped up a bit more.  I won’t tell.

By the way, slick tip of the day…when you get cherry or grape tomatoes, other veggies or herbs (or even berries, I just did the same thing with some boysenberries tonight)  in those plastic “clamshell” containers….just rinse them off right in the container !  Open the lid, let the water run over the veggies, herbs or fruit, then close the lid and set on edge to drain.  Those containers always have vents on the bottom so the water will flow out.  Saves you getting a strainer dirty, or loosing tomatoes down the disposer.  Plus, you can wash all the goodies at the same time.  Even if you don’t use them all at once, they’re clean and ready to go, or to pop into your mouth for a little nibble as you pass by.

Zest about 1 teaspoon of lemon zest into a bowl, add the juice from half the lemon, a teaspoon of Dijon and salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk that around, then stream in the olive oil, you’ll want about 1/4 cup, whisking, to emulsify the dressing.  Tear the cabbage leaves from the thick rib, into bite-size pieces.   It will be quite obvious to you which part is the rib, and which part is the tender leaf.  Peel and pit the avocado and cut into about 1/2-inch pieces.  Cut the tomatoes in half (if they’re the small guys).  Toss all that into the bowl with the dressing, and toss to coat.

My avocado was a leeeeetle too soft, and so the salad wasn’t as nummy as it would’ve been with a less mushy one.  Go for ripe but not guacamole-stage and it’ll be a hit.

Salad five….last one up.  Not as overtly veggie-centric as the first ones, but I promise you, make it and you won’t be disappointed.  Always a hit when I bring it to a potluck or gathering, and it is probably my favorite of the “pasta salad” breed, most of which I really rather dislike.

Here’s whatcha need for “Fiesta Pasta Salad”.

That’d be some pasta (short, twisty ones are best, though penne could work too), a zucchini, bell pepper, lime, jalapeno, cilantro, mayo, scallions, tomatoes and sour cream.  Salt and pepper too, but I don’t need to tell you that.

As I said, another one from the “Way Back Machine”, and again with this one, I don’t remember where I found this recipe, I’ve been making it for so long.  I suspect off the back of the mayo jar….

In a large bowl, mix together a cup of mayonnaise, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, packed, 2 tablespoons lime juice and 1-2 jalapeno peppers (seeded to the extent you desire), minced.

To that, add 2 large tomatoes (or the equivalent amount of small guys), chopped, one chopped yellow or green bell pepper, a sliced medium zucchini and three sliced scallions.

I had about a half of a leftover red bell that needed used, so that went in with some of the yellow one.  And my zucchini was MASSIVE, so I cut it in quarters before slicing, and only used a half of it.

Cook the pasta (I used a 12-ounce package) like the package tells you too.  Drain, rinse and cool (this is the only time you should rinse pasta, for use in cold salads), then plop on top of the veg and dressing.

Stir it around to coat everything in the mayo-y, creamy goodness, and cover and chill.  Transfer to a prettier bowl for serving, and sprinkle with additional chopped cilantro to gussy it up a bit.

Serve and graciously accept the compliments.

Happy Summer people !

(Yes, Rosie and Lulu Vulture Dogs got copious amounts of appropriate veggies during the salad blitz.  But NO onion....never onion for our doggies.)

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