Inspiration for Winter Salad Season

Mixed Greens with Beet, Grapefruit and Avocado with Grapefruit-Thyme DressingYou might think a person’s natural “Salad Season” would occur in the summer.  Since I started photo-documenting the food we eat, I have discovered our true salad season occurs in the deep winter.  We certainly don’t have a dazzling array of garden and local produce available, but even so, we do our best to choose the best produce and canned goods available to get by.  This is probably the season when we need hearty salads the most here in the Midwest.  Our bodies are hiding in bundles of clothing, we spend our time mostly indoors and in natural darkness, and we inevitably encounter a number of virus threats on a weekly basis.  I consider these light, bright, crunchy, energizing, nutrient rich, colorful salads, [along with sleep] to be one of the secrets to a maintaining a pretty reliable immune system.  They are also my January-February hope that when spring arrives, I will feel and look more springy than a person feels in the depths of winter.  Shaved Carrot, Purple Cabbage and Sunflower Seeds on Romaine

Our first salad, shaved carrot, Parmesan,  radish, white bean and raw sunflower seeds on romaine. Cukes, Halved Grape Tomatoes, Celery Chunks and Kidney BeansI start preparing our salads by adding its prominent components to a bowl.  Chop something crunchy (celery), add a protein (kidney beans), add any other vegetables you have on hand and wish to include (here, cukes and halved grape tomatoes) , toss with greens, (here, romaine and spinach).  If you care to, add a flavor/texture  “treat” such as seeds, nuts, avocado, egg or a bit of cheese.   This is the way to make a great winter a great salad.Radish, Celery, Cuke and Kidney Beans with Spinach and RomaineI typically toss greens with either some citrus juice, lime, lemon, orange or grapefruit or a flavored vinegar.  My favorite vinegars are red wine, balsamic or tarragon vinegar.  Then I drizzle just a few drops of olive oil and toss the greens.  It is surprising how little oil you need to bring all of the flavors together.  Sometimes I add a tablespoon or two of Dijon mustard, or a teaspoon of honey or jam to the oil and vinegar/citrus mixture before mixing vigorously to add further flavor and help the dressing to emulsify before tossing the liquids with the greens.   Chopped fresh herbs or dried herbs along with salt and pepper added according to taste complete the dressing.  Beet, Bosc Pear and Cucumber on Mixed GreensThis salad is composed of beets, peeled bosc pear and sliced cucumber on mixed greens dressed with leftover grapefruit juice and fresh thyme dressing and a little pepper and salt.  Don’t hesitate to open a can of beans, beets or citrus canned (hopefully BPA free) in its natural juice.  There are many health benefits and few sacrifices when you add these nutrient-rich ingredients the easy way.  ourwour

The next salad is composed of sliced radish, sliced pear, white beans and a few slices of brie on spinach with citrus-preserve dressing. Black Bean, Corn, Radish, Grape Tomatoes and Pepitas

Another great salad is composed of corn, black beans, peeled and quartered cukes, minced scallion, halved grape tomatoes and pepitas dressed with lime juice, olive oil, honey and chili flakes over romaine.  Beet, Avocado and Grapefruit dressed with Grapefruit Juice and Thyme on Mixed GreensIn my book, this winter salad is special, grapefruit supremes, sliced avocado and red beets on mixed greens with grapefruit juice and olive oil dressing with thyme leaves. Shaved Carrot and Chickpeas on RomaineHere is another hearty and satisfying salad we’ve enjoyed composed of shaved carrot, celery, chickpeas, sliced radish and provolone on romaine-spinach mix.

Salads in winter are limited by the produce in season, but those limitations can open up room for creativity.  Salads like these complete a meal as a healthy side dish or stand as a meal on their own.  Certainly, they brighten your plate and the winter— try ’em.


Cucumber Days

Take two, I had a few issues with my first post made from my Ipad, so I’ll try that again… 

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3 years into gardening, this is the first year we’ve had any success with cucumbers. This year, we are enjoying them regularly in salads, on tacos and most commonly sliced thin, perhaps peeled, and tossed into a bowl with cracked pepper, sliced purple or white onions, snipped fresh herbs, such as chives, flat-leaf parsley, or dill all soaked in white vinegar and a splash of water. This is a taste from childhood that I learned to love at my Grandma’s house, fresh from her garden. We are harvesting spicy Serrano and hot, citrusy Lemon Drop peppers every day.  I have been chopping these and tossing them into the vinegar-water mixture. It mellows their bite enough to make them a perfect, punchy but palatable addition to the mix.  I consider this sliced cucumber, onion, hot pepper and herb mixture a perfect summer side dish, snack, condiment and salad.

There are two schools of thought on the ubiquitous sliced cucumber side dish, one vinegary, like mine, and the other, a creamy version made with sour cream. Check out this recipe for the creamy version of sliced cukes on Deucecities Henhouse, a favorite Twin Cities based blog haunt of mine.

Watching the cukes grow has been almost as much fun as eating them. Ours are growing in all sorts of unconventional shapes. I spend time every week tying tomato plants to chicken wire and winding twine around bamboo poles to support green beans, peppers and peas. Cucumber vines take the initiative of sending out tendrils that stretch out until they find other plants and structures nearby, then curling the tendrils tightly around so they hang tight. Cucumbers are fully capable of supporting themselves.

Dijon and Herb-dressed Potato Salad for the Heart of Summer

I love the heat, energy and fireworks explosion of people out enjoying life in every possible way that takes place in July; but to me, August is the heart of summer.  I savor August days when the pace of life slows down, the garden booms and I can pause to soak in warmth, the natural wonders, brilliant flavors and the easy pace that life settles into at this time of year.  I enjoy being able to base my seasons on what is happening outside, instead of on the school year or the sport’s calendar.  It helps me keep the summer feeling alive to the last second when the fall chill genuinely takes hold.  I understand that for many people, the first sign of a cooler evening, a fallen leaf or the school year looming close marks a change.  Even so, it is too early to shift to autumn-cooking mode while the garden and farmer’s market is overflowing with beautiful summer vegetables and fruits.  If you have a potluck, picnic or BBQ left on the agenda, trotting out the classic potato salad is probably starting to seem a little dull and repetitive.  This is when it is time to turn the traditional potato salad on its heel–add some veggies to the ingredient list, subtract the typical mayo-based dressing.  With a few tweaks, you have a bright, fresh twist on a classic potato salad that capitalizes on August abundance and tastes and looks so different, you will forget the creamy classic potato salad recipe you wore out in June and July.

Dijon and Herb Potato Salad– Yield:  6 generous servings, 20 minutes hands-on, 50 minutes total time.

  • 2 pounds small Yukon Gold or Red potatoes scrubbed
  • 6 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and halved or quartered
  • 1 cup Fresh Peas or String Beans, or a combination of both
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tablespoons chicken or vegetable stock
  • 3 tablespoons Tarragon vinegar
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons Grainy Dijon mustard
  • 8-10 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 minced shallot
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons basil leaves, chopped, plus small, whole basil leaves for garnish
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper


Drop the  potatoes into a large pot of boiling, lightly salted water and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until they are just cooked through.  Drain the potatoes in a colander, then place them in a large bowl with the fresh peas or string beans on top and cover with a clean towel.  This allows the beans or peas to steam along with the potatoes for 10 minutes more.  Note, this approach worked for me, though if you are nervous about the peas or beans being cooked, add, them to the pot of boiling potatoes for the last few minutes, or steam them separately.  Cut the potatoes in half or quarters if they are large.  If you used Yukon Gold potatoes, you can slip off the skins right off at this point if you like. Toss the potatoes gently with chicken stock.  Allow the liquid to soak into the warm potatoes before proceeding.  

Combine the vinegar, mustard, olive oil with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Shake vigorously to make an emulsion.  Add the vinaigrette to the potatoes. Add the shallot, dill, parsley, basil, salt and pepper and gently toss.  Just before serving, toss in the halved tomatoes and top the salad with halved hard-boiled eggs, fresh cracked pepper and small basil leaves.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

A Taste of Cat Man Do, The Sample Room and Basil’s

This is the second in a short series of posts about a few restaurant experiences we’ve had around the Twin Cities in recent months.  
Cat Man Do – 1659 Grand Avenue, Saint Paul, MN Telephone:  (651)528-7575
I read about Cat Man Do a few months ago on a local food blog that I like to visit and knew it was a place we should try.  Cat Man Do is a cozy restaurant in our neighborhood that offers authentically prepared Nepali food.  Its menu is filled with interesting choices for vegetarians and omnivores alike.  We have now eaten there twice, and we enjoyed both meals.  After our first visit, I woke up the next day craving another Samosa, a savory pouch stuffed with potatoes and peas, served with a spicy-sweet sauce (not pictured) and considered going to the lunch buffet solely for the purpose of having another one.  On our first visit, I tried the Chow Chow noodles with vegetables with medium spice.  The noodles were pleasantly spicy, but I wouldn’t be shy about ordering them hot in the future.  Bjorn tried Mo Mo, a steamed dumpling, shaped into a little coin purse stuffed with seasoned meat.  On our second visit, Bjorn ordered Chow Chow with chicken, and I ordered M.A.P.P. curry with mushroom, asparagus, potato and peas which had a wonderful balance of warming seasonings.  On both occasions the dining room was nearly full, about half of the diners were college age and half were couples in their twenties through middle age.  This is both a fair representation of the neighbourhood’s residential composition and a testament to the tasty, enjoyable and interesting menu choices, and the reasonable price point at Cat Man Do.  Cat Man Do has earned a regular spot on our Saint Paul dining rotation.  We enjoy the satisfying, well-seasoned dishes at Cat Man Do.  Cat Man Do offers different flavors and preparations than the food we make at home, with results that are no less homey, craveable, and comforting.
The Sample Room – 2124 Marshall Street NE, Minneapolis, Minnesota Telephone:  (612)-789-0333
One rainy Sunday we went out for a drive in North East Minneapolis.  We had no particular destination in mind, but we knew dinner would be involved.  There are many solid options that we’ve enjoyed in visits to this neighbourhood, Psycho Suzi’s, The Modern Cafe, Northeast Social, Mill City Cafe, The Red Stag, and The Bulldog Northeast are all reliably good.  On this particular evening, we ended up at the Sample Room.  We’ve driven by many times on our way to listen to music at 331 Club, and finally managed to stop in for a meal.
I started by ordering a flight of wine.  When it arrived I stopped taking pictures.  Oops.  The aptly named Sample Room offers small plates of cheese, charcuterie, pasta, salads, meat, seafood and vegetables and a variety of interesting condiments, made in-house.  We started by sharing a house salad of mixed greens, aged ricotta, red onion, radish and pepitas with a red wine vinaigrette and a “Pickled Plate” which included pickled egg, an assortment of pickled veggies and mustard.  For my “main” I had the fresh fettuccine with wild mushrooms and kale in a sauce of chive crème fraîche, butter and white wine garnished with shaved parmesan and cracked black pepper.  I liked the fettuccine, but I didn’t love it.  I am pretty spoiled these days when it comes to fresh pasta.  Between living down the street from Scusi where you can get a killer fresh pappardelle any night of the week, the wonderful bowl of egg fettuccine with green garlic and grape tomatoes I recently enjoyed at Broder’s Cucina Italiana, and the pretty darned good pastas I’ve been rolling out at home, I have a high bar for fresh pasta.  Maybe I’m being too hard on the noodles, the real issue I had with the pasta was the kale.  I’m afraid to admit this for fear of losing all of my vegetarian cred, but I’m not sure that I’m sold on kale.  Admittedly, I haven’t made much of an effort to fall for this frilly, dark, cabbage-like green.  The kale on my fettuccine makes a good example of why I have a hard time jumping on the kale bandwagon — it had a mineraly-metallic taste that almost reminds me of meat.  The difficult flavor and texture of kale overpowers whatever feel-good vibes eating this super-nutritious green gives me.  In further damage to my vegetarian rep, I feel the same about collards.  I’ll stick to spinach, thank you very much.  I can’t blame the Sample Room for my personal views on the vegetable in a dish I opted to order, unless they sautéed the kale in a cast iron or aluminum pan which would be the cause of the pervading iron / B Vitamin flavor in the dish.  Bjorn had crab cakes and the Bison-Pork-Beef Three Meatloaf with smoked tomato ketchup, which was recently named the “Best Meatloaf in the Twin Cities 2012” by the Citypages.  Bjorn liked the meatloaf and as wonderful as it probably is, I cannot believe the Best Meatloaf in the Twin Cities isn’t made by somebody’s mother!  My mother’s meatloaf would surely be a contender if she made it in the Twin Cities and I hereby give it an unofficial nomination for Best of the Twin Cities 2013.  What is more, I cannot believe “Best of” rankings include meatloaf!  It seems like we’re going a little far with that, but I wouldn’t have been shocked if “best bike rack” made the list, so I guess meatloaf deserves its place.  The Sample Room gives you the opportunity to sample a variety of their local charcuterie, house-made pickled things, unique condiments and interestingly prepared meats and seafood offerings without committing to a massive portion or price.  It is another solid spot to add to the list of reasons that that Northeast Minneapolis is one of our best ‘hoods.
Basil’s Restaurant – 7th Street & Marquette Ave, Minneapolis, MN Telephone: 612.376.7404
Next on our Twin Cities tour is a lunch I had last week by myself at Basil’s, a slick restaurant circa yesteryear in the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis, overlooking the Crystal Court in the IDS Center.  For out-of-towners, the IDS Center is the tallest building in Minnesota, and provides office space to scores of law firms, stockbrokers, venture capital firms and consultants of every ilk.  I chose Basil’s blindly, wanting to eat a salad in a calm place where I could write at noon on a Wednesday.  I found my way to Basil’s on the third floor taking the elevator in the hotel lobby and requested a table for one.  The host honestly seemed a little freaked about my request and spent several minutes nervously scrolling through his computer screen, uttering “uhhhh.”  I didn’t know how long this would continue so I interrupted to ask if the restaurant was booked with reservations.  He finally took the cue and showed me one of many open two-seater booths, which was in fact, kind of perfect for one person.  I chose to sit with my back to the kitchen door, instead of facing it where he had directed me.  There were a few more “uuuhs” and he told me to sit on whichever side I felt comfortable sitting.  I got the feeling he was maybe a bit uncomfortable with me having lunch by myself.  I waited quite a while before my presence was noted by a server.  By now, my discomfort was mounting.  I looked around the room and realized that the only escape was the elevator bank past the host stand, so there was no turning back on lunch without even more awkwardness.  When my waitress arrived, she was warm, experienced and didn’t seem at all bothered to serve a table of one.  I quickly ordered and enjoyed a few stolen moments of quiet to do my own thing.  Soon my Grilled Caesar salad arrived.  It was no more or less exciting than I expected, but it was totally good, and I immediately felt better about lunch.
I have noticed that nicer Italian restaurants are now grilling a head of romaine lettuce, and serving it whole in a deconstructed Caesar salad, rather than chopped or torn, with all elements combined.  Nowadays, said Caesar salad is probably going to arrive with either a whole anchovy, perhaps some chopped kalamata olives or some crunchy, lacy, toasted Parmesan cheese and an artistic crouton somewhere on the plate.  Maybe grilled romaine is standard everywhere else, but, it is my position that it is a newer offering in Minnesota.   I surmise that serving the lettuce grilled and the salad deconstructed challenges diners and adds enough interesting possibilities for presentation and accoutrements to allow the chef to keep the ubiquitous Caesar salad on the menu without feeling like they’ve given up on their dreams.  Basil’s and the grilled Caesar are both trying to be fresh.  The grilled salad did so more convincingly than the aging power-lunch spot — an out-of-step microcosm in the surreal universe of the IDS Center — where silver-haired suits hesitantly broker the passage of a torch forged of intensely-burned midnight-oil during long absences from home in the western ‘burbs to smartly be-spectacled nouveau-yuppies in short trousers and argyle socks poised to board a bicycle bound for South Minne at 5:01 p.m.  Me?  I just wandered here looking for a salad and to seize a minute to write in the middle of a downtown workday.

Hearty Salad of White Bean, Broccoli, Spinach, Sprouts and Avocado with Soft Egg and Toasted Cheese Bread

If you are anything like us and you like to eat 3 square meals a day, it tends to be a good idea to throw a salad in the mix once or twice a week.  The other night I came home with just such a meal in mind.  I started with an inventory of the fridge.  I gathered up the remaining vegetables that we had on hand, and along with a few items from the pantry, this is what I put together for our supper tonight.

Hearty Salad of White Bean, Broccoli, Spinach, and Avocado with Soft Egg                            Yields 4 Hearty Portions

  • 4 Cups Spinach
  • 1 Cup of Romaine Lettuce – Washed and Cut into bite size pieces
  • 1 Broccoli Crown – Cut into Small Florets
  • 1/8th Cup of a Red Onion – Finely Diced   
  • Large Handful of Julienned Carrots
  • 1—8 ounce can Cannellini Beans – Rinsed and Drained
  • 1 Avocado – peeled and sliced, drizzled with a squeeze of lime juice.
  • 4 Eggs
  • 1 Can of Tuna – optional

Once I had assembled all of the vegetables I heaped the lettuce and spinach into a medium-sized mixing bowl, began rinsing and chopping the other vegetables, and placed them in the bowl.  At the same time, I started a small saucepan of water heating on the stove to cook the eggs.  When the water came to a boil, I placed 4 eggs in the sauce pan of water, reduced it to a simmer, and set the timer for 6 minutes.  When the bowl seemed to be filled with an ample rainbow of vegetables, I whisked together the ingredients for a spicy and flavorful vinaigrette in a separate bowl. 

Spicy Red Pepper, Honey and Mustard Vinaigrette:

  • 2-3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil – optional: use one or two tablespoons of garlic infused olive oil
  • 3-4 Tablespoons Flavored Vinegar – I used Champagne and Tarragon vinegar
  • 1.5 Tablespoons Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon Honey
  • 2 Tablespoons Spicy Mustard – I used Kühne, a hot prepared mustard from Germany
  • Course Ground Black Pepper – to taste

While I worked on the salad dressing, Bjorn split several yellow, eggy buns in half and topped them with thinly sliced, reduced fat Colby-Jack Cheese, and then placed the buns on a foil-lined sheet pan in the oven at 350 degrees for a few minutes to melt the cheese.  He also heated a small bowl of leftover spaghetti sauce in the microwave, for dipping the toasted cheese bread.

When the eggs had cooked 6 minutes, I removed two for our supper and carefully peeled them.  I let the remaining eggs continue to cook a few minutes longer so that they would be hard-boiled, making them easier to pack for our lunches tomorrow. 

I drizzled the dressing over the bowl of salad, tossed the salad gently with tongs, and served it on a platter.  I placed the avocado slices on top, and gently sliced the eggs just before serving to expose the warm, soft yellow yolk.  I’m seeing “soft eggs” everywhere, in blogs, such as this tasty-looking and classic presentation on Smitten Kitchen, in magazines and in restaurants on bruschetta, pizza, and salads.  Talk about having a classic food item go trendy!  I’m all for it though, eggs are a versatile, simple yet exquisite food.  Bjorn added about half of a can of tuna to his plate, and mixed it into the salad.  Adding tuna to the omnivore version of this salad added protein and healthy omega 3 fatty acid, a heart-healthy fat.  The Avocado and the Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the dressing also added heart healthy fats to both of our plates.

The spinach, romaine, sprouts, carrots and broccoli gave the salad a nice crunch and were full of antioxidants, calcium and potassium.  The white beans and egg added a contrasting soft texture to the salad, and protein which made the salad a hearty meal.  The vinaigrette had a pleasant kick of dijony, red-pepper heat, and set off the flavors of the soft egg, avocado and red onion.  The toasted cheese bread made a yummy side dish dipped in the warm spaghetti sauce.  We enjoyed it all.

The salad was huge and made plenty for two servings at supper time, two servings for lunch the next day with a little more to spare.  The salad was hearty enough to be a satisfying, complete meal, and had a healthy rainbow of veggies, good sources of protein and healthy fats to make it a nourishing meal, nutritionally speaking.  It is wonderful to toss together a variety of vegetables and pantry staples into a salad.  It makes for a simple, healthy and satisfying supper that makes you feel good, and that you can feel good about eating.  Give it a try!

Hot and Cold Mac and Cheese Salad

A cacophony in the kitchen that sung in harmony on the plate.

Sometimes I come up with odd combinations of foods for us to eat for supper.  Tonight was one of those nights.  I came home with the idea of making macaroni and cheese. I didn’t want to eat a huge portion, but I didn’t want to go hungry with a tiny plate of pasta.  We happen to have a fridge full of veggies and I wanted a salad that was satisfying enough to be a meal.  I also wanted roasted veggies.  These ideas danced in my head for awhile, and an idea emerged — I will make a salad, Mac & Cheese and roasted veggies and put them into the salad rather than serving the three separate things side-by-side.  Obviously, pasta tossed into a salad is nothing new, I make this constantly in the summer for our back yard BBQ’s.  I recently read a blog post about a tasty salad combination of Penne, Chickpeas, Sun-dried Tomatoes and baby Arugula on Skinnytaste which looks pretty good.  I know I’ve heard mention of hot and cold salads.  When Bjorn gave me a thumbs up to having a sort-of salad for supper, away I went.

I started by breaking off florets of broccoli and cauliflower to roast for the “hot” part of the salad.  I tried to picture the amount I would want for 4 servings of salad so that I didn’t make too much.  My goal is to prepare enough to feed us twice.  Two plates at supper and then leftovers for lunch.

I dumped the broccoli and cauliflower, along with some sliced button mushrooms on a sheet pan coated with cooking spray, and threw it in the oven, which was heated to 425 degree Fahrenheit.  I didn’t add any oil to the veggies.  A drizzle of olive oil tastes great on roasted veggies, but I was planning to dress the salad before serving, so I didn’t use any.  It really isn’t necessary.
When you roast veggies without oil, they tend to char a little more than when they are tossed lightly in oil.  That char is tasty.
While the veggies roasted, I put a small saucepan of water on the stove to heat, and salted it lightly.  While that heated, I chopped a half of a red pepper into chickpea-sized chunks, and rinsed and drained a can of chickpeas.

I assembled an assortment of greens.  We had a great variety in the fridge.  Our salad tonight had baby spinach, Butter and Romaine Lettuce and Pea Shoots.  When the Broccoli, Cauliflower and Mushrooms had roasted for about 8 minutes I used tongs to toss it around so that all sides would get exposed to heat.  I also added a few handfuls of whole grain pasta shells to the saucepan of salted water to cook until al dente, according to the package directions.

While the pasta cooked and the vegetables roasted, I began assembling the cold portions of the salad:  two on plates for dinner tonight, and two in portable containers for our lunches tomorrow at work.  I whisked a little balsamic vinegar with olive oil, and added a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes and a good shake of Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salut to dress the salad.

When the pasta was done cooking, I stirred in a spoonful of light cream cheese, a small handful of grated sharp cheddar, and a shake of nutmeg.  I didn’t go to the effort of making a cheesy roux for the Mac & Cheese.  I just tossed the cooked pasta with the cheese.  The cheese melted and coated the noodles nicely.  It was easier to make this way, and actually better to have the pasta coated in cheese, rather than a creamy sauce, since I was planning to toss it into the salad.

I divided the roasted vegetables between our plates and two small containers for our lunch.  I dressed the two plates of salad for our supper lightly and tossed them before adding the mac and cheese, since I didn’t want too much dressing on the pasta part of the salad.  If I hadn’t been saving half of the salad for our lunch, I would have tossed the hot and cold vegetables with dressing in a bowl before placing in it on our plates.

I happened to use all of my homemade dressing up on our dinner portion, so I packed a small container of Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinaigrette* to take to work.  I added a pinch of red pepper flakes and some grated Asiago so that the salads would still have a good flavor even without the balsamic vinaigrette that we had at supper.

Once our plates were assembled, we charged to the dinner table and dug in.  I put out a nice chunk of Asiago cheese and a grater, salt and pepper for us to adjust the flavor at the table.  A Hot and Cold Mac and Cheese Salad might sound a bit of an off the wall, but it was great.  The balsamic vinegar and spicy red pepper flakes were a punchy contrast to the warm, cheesy pasta.  The variety of colours was visually appealing.  The crunchy lettuce and red pepper contrasted with the soft noodles and chickpeas.  The roasted vegetables added warmth and charred flavor, and were roasted perfectly to retain their bite.  Chopping, assembling, roasting, boiling, dressing and stirring together three different dishes raised a mild cacophony in the kitchen, that sung in harmony on the plate.  I started with three ideas, and ended up with a meal that satisfied a hunger for Mac & Cheese, but kept the portion size reasonable, it was a plate packed with antioxidants and vitamins as well as great flavor and texture contrasts.  We’ll make it again!

*Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinaigrette is my current grocery store salad dressing favorite.  It contains champagne vinegar, white wine, Worcestershire sauce, and Dijon mustard, and clocks in at 50 calories for two tablespoons.  It is light and zingy, and it is a legit way to have some bubbly at noon.

A Vibrant Quinoa Salad for a Dark Winter’s Day

Some days there is nothing more refreshing and satisfying than having a hearty salad as a meal.  A salad can be extremely handy too, when it is built to last so that it can reappear the next day as our lunch.  That is the sort of meal I had in mind today.  The salad I made was loosely based on a recipe for a Wheatberry Salad that I read about on Macheesmo, a blog I like to visit.  I’ve been trying to follow more recipes because I want well-developed flavors and predictable results when I cook.  Even though I’m trying to follow recipes, I still have to strike a balance.  I am not one to plan meals in advance, and I don’t like to run to the store when I decide to make something.  I began by gathering ingredients.

In my salad, I subbed Quinoa for Wheatberry.  I’ve glanced at a bag of Wheatberry in the grocery store, but haven’t purchased that grain so far.  I am still working on integrating Quinoa into my regular cooking routine.  I also subbed fresh spinach for kale, and half a block of drained and crumbled tofu for feta cheese.  We’ve been working our way through a bag of organic parsnips from the Farmer’s Market that we bought at Thanksgiving, so I decided to add a few.  I started cooking 1 1/2 cup of quinoa in an equal amount of water, and while the quinoa cooked, I chopped the vegetables into small, uniform chunks.  They say you eat with your eyes first; the vibrant rainbow of crunchy vegetables chopped for this salad was a visual feast.

The salad is dressed with the juice of a lemon, the lemon’s zest, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.  It gives the salad a lot of kick with zero added fat.  Healthy!!  The lemon juice has the added benefit of keeping the avocado from turning brown.  If I make this again, I will cut back on the lemon zest a little bit.  The zest of a lemon is pretty punchy, especially when you eliminate a creamy dairy component which was included in the original recipe.

Did we notice the substitutions I made to the original recipe?  A little.  Crumbled tofu has a similar texture to feta cheese, but it lacks the tang.  There is also a certain creaminess that feta would add, which would also probably help balance the pungent citrus in the salad.  Neither of us are huge fans of feta, and so it was a fair swap to make, and healthy too.   I am all for subbing spinach for the kale called for in the original recipe.  I have yet to delve into kale, and I love how easy it is to add a big bunch of fresh spinach to almost anything you are cooking and allow it to steam in just a few minutes.  We both enjoyed the salad with a dash of Habenero Chili hot sauce that we brought back from Mexico.

This salad was a success for several reasons.  It contained an antioxidant rainbow of healthy vegetables.  It also contained the healthy fat found in avocado.  The texture was the best part of the salad; it had crunchy carrots, celery, onions, parsnips, peppers which balanced well with the creamy avocado, supple quinoa, tofu and tender steamed spinach.  There was plenty of kicky flavour without any regret with the spicy-citrus dressing.  It was also a win from a vegetarian-protein perspective since it contained both tofu and chickpeas. All in all, it was a light, uplifting, healthy and hearty entrée salad that hit all of the important notes that it needed to pick us up on a grey day in January.  Yes!!

Bjorn said the salad was tastier than he expected, and we both ate it again the next day.  For me, it was both breakfast and lunch.  I need to make a crunchy, kicky, creamy, low-fat, high flavor, protein-rich salad more often.

A Lesson in Pesto

If it hasn’t already become extremely obvious, pasta is one of my all-time favorite foods.  There are so many variations, from basic buttered noodles to whatever-you-have-in-the-fridge, to traditional recipes: stroganoff, Bolognese, or pasta all’Amatriciana.  I’m usually a “concept cook” who has something in mind [e.g. pasta with veggies] and the actual ingredients I use depend on what I’m in the mood for or what needs to be used up.  I haven’t been one to follow many recipes.  I enjoy the freedom of my slapdash approach to cookery, but I have tasted enough really good food in my years to know that recipes, carefully chosen ingredients, timeless techniques and even a little precision are equally as necessary in the kitchen as passion and creativity.  It also pays to take a few tips from the experts.  I have long loved food blogs, food magazines, food television, cookbooks and hanging out in other people’s kitchens.  Reading about cooking, talking about it and observing other cooks in action are my source of inspiration.  These are as much my hobbies as cooking and writing about food.   I became aware of the noticeable difference that good technique and ingredients yield in restaurant meals, but the breakthrough did not occur at home until I learned about the perfect pesto.

It was just another Wednesday night.  I found myself watching short programs on the Chow network on our Roku on cooking and food.  There was an episode on soup dumplings,* and on the perfect beer,** and then a segment on the perfect pesto aired and changed my approach to pesto forever.

Previously, I have only had a modest appreciation of pesto.  The first pesto pasta I ate was a lunch back in my teenage years at the now-shuttered Grandma’s Restaurant in Fargo, North Dakota.  It was so heavily garlic-y that I was afraid of both pesto and garlic for almost a decade.  I still shudder to think about how much raw garlic I consumed before realizing it would be with me for days.  More recently, I have tasted a pretty good silk handkerchief in a mild, dark green pesto at Bar La Grassa.  Having grown basil in our garden, I’ve also made basil and parsley pestos at home that have been fine on toasted sandwiches and roasted vegetables.  None of these looked anything like the marvelous green pesto I saw that evening on the Chow network.

According to the food writer, Marcia Gagliardi who appeared in the segment, perfect pesto can be had in San Francisco at a restaurant called Farina, on a pasta dish called mandilli al pesto.  I do believe Marcia is right.  When you read about Farina, you get a sense that they are better at what they do than everyone else.  The chefs of Farina make known their belief that only Italians can cook the true foods of their region.  I am not going to dispute that or attempt to prove them wrong.  But I am going to try to learn as much as I can from them about making pesto.  In the segment I watched, Chef Paolo Laboa of Farina explains the process of making pesto while shifting naturally from English and Italian, translating himself, and pausing to emphasize the importance of each detail of his approach.  What becomes immediately clear even through the television is the fact that his pesto is different.  It is bright green and creamy and is almost a perfectly emulsified, glistening paste.  When Chef Paolo adds the pesto to the pasta, it melts, enveloping the thin sheets in a perfect, translucent, green coating.  I’m guessing it is a meal that dreams are made of.  Just looking at it makes you want to be in the Mission District for supper tonight.  Or at our house…

Back to a winter day in Minnesota…  I may never duplicate Chef Laboa’s pesto, but in listening to him, I learned a few things about how to make a better pesto.  First, for a pesto worthy of freshly rolled pasta, you have to ditch the food processor and use a mortar and pestle.  Fortunately for me, I just received one for Christmas from Bjorn.  The one he selected for me is a nice small size that I can comfortably manage to hold.  It is made of non-porous porcelain and a smooth wooden handle and a red exterior that I am happy to store on the open shelves in our kitchen.

I learned from Chef Paolo that the origin of ingredients matters a lot.  Basil pesto universally contains basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese and salt.  Sure, you can make pesto out of these ingredients produced anywhere, but to begin to approximate Paolo Laboa’s pesto, you need basil that is similar to that grown in Genoa, Olive Oil from Liguria, Pine Nuts from Pisa, and carefully-selected Parmesan.  And you need time.  Lots of time.  After watching the segment and trying to make it myself a few times I realized the making of Paolo’s pesto takes longer than it appears to take on TV.

I did the best I could gathering ingredients.  It is winter, and the basil I found at the store wasn’t the best.  I do believe that the Genovese basil from our garden will be an improvement on the basil available at the supermarket in a clamshell package in January.  I didn’t spring for $18 Italian Pine Nuts but got some from Spain instead.  I tried a few of Chef Laboa’s tips.  Since Ligurian olive oil is not available to me I used light olive oil instead of extra virgin which is too strong and kills the taste of the basil.  I soaked the basil leaves in water because, I learned if you don’t soak the basil there is too much chlorophyll in the leaves.  I crushed the pine nuts with garlic and coarse salt and added 15 basil leaves.  I put my heart into the process of grinding all of the ingredients together and then mixing in the oil.  When the pesto was ready, I added a little pasta water to the pesto to melt the cheese before tossing hand-rolled handkerchiefs of pasta in the pesto.  The end result of my effort did not yield the solid bright-green cream produced by Chef Laboa.  Not even close.  Even so, we thought the result was delicious and immeasurably better than the oily, basil-heavy, oxidized, chunky sludge that I’ve made in the food processor.  If pesto is worth making, it is worth making well.  Will I spend 45 minutes with the mortar and pestle to make pesto every week?  Certainly not.  It is a time-consuming process and a rich dish you can’t eat every week.  Come summer though, when the basil is bursting forth I will make pesto again.  I might not achieve “perfect” pesto, but delicious will be good enough.

*The segment about soup dumplings made me want soup dumplings which are little pouches made of dough that are stuffed with meat and fatty broth that liquefy upon cooking.  Are there vegetarian soup dumplings out there?  I want to try them!

**The writer of the beer segment claimed Supplication Ale by Russian River Brewing Company to be the best beer in the world.  I’m sure I’d like it, but that I’d disagree about it being the best.

A Tale of Three Salads…

I like making a foods that are a concept more than a recipe.  A concept dish has a central idea to it, that you can run with in any direction that you please.  Dishes in this category include pizza, many pasta dishes, a stir fry, a sandwich, many soups and stews, pasta salad, or any salad for that matter.  The structure of a concept dish is based on a few central and necessary components.  For a pizza, this would include a crust and toppings.  It can go anywhere from a traditional tomato sauce/cheese/pepperoni to topping a gluten free pizza crust, vegan “renotta*” and roasted red peppers.   Foods like these accommodate my cooking style.  They allow for imprecision, experimentation, and using whatever is fresh from the garden or farmer’s market.  A conceptual recipe can be influenced by a certain cuisine, or an ingredient in the fridge that needs to get used up.  They can even have multiple influences, such as the salad I’m about to share; one of the most enjoyed meals of the summer which had no less than 3 sources of inspiration.   The first inspiration is the Cobb Salad at Salut in Saint Paul.  I ate this salad several times a week in the count-down days leading up to our wedding when our nightly meal had an agenda and was a business meeting more than a relaxing al fresco dinner at a bustling brassiere across the street from my apartment.  The Salut Cobb salad was a great supper for me in the days leading up to our wedding.  It was a salad, but it was hearty, and it was huge.  I ordered the Cobb with the chicken and bacon on the side, which we took home and added to Bjorn’s lunch the next day.  I also had enough salad left over for my own lunch at work even after being totally satisfied by my supper**.  The Salut Cobb is was a pretty standard Cobb, ingredients-wise:  romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, avocado, hard-cooked egg, blue cheese and garnished with toasted parmesan crisps.  The salad comes dressed, but the dressing is light.  Still, the salad is rich because of the avocado, blue cheese and eggs.  The salad I made contained the tomato, avocado and egg elements, but the Salut’s main influence on my salad was the fact that I made a salad for supper.  After living on the salad for 2 meals a day for the months of May and June 2009, I became a believer that a salad can be supper.  The second source of inspiration for my salad was a traditional Salad Niçoise.  I don’t eat tuna and anchovy which are central elements of this salad, but I planned to use green beans, eggs, and potatoes (in addition to the already mentioned tomato) and the Niçoise is a salad that says “yes you can” to these ingredients in a cold salad.  The third and most influential inspiration for my salad was the Ensalada Mixta pictured in Summer Made Easy Special Issue of Everyday Food Magazine in an article called Bask Country with food prepared by Aran Goyoaga.  I have already mentioned, this article inspired me to return to blogging after 3 month hiatus earlier this summer.  Aran Goyoaga prepared an Ensalada Mixta for a tapas party featured in the article.  An Ensalada Mixta is a traditional Spanish salad.  Aran Goyoaga served hers stylishly deconstructed, and allured me with its casual elegance and its peeled, soft cooked eggs with their tops cut off.  A behind the scenes photo-journal appears on Aran’s blog, and the salad is pictured, in the center of the first photo, and then again, larger, toward the end of article.  With elements of all of these salads in mind, I made a salad supper we loved with veggies from our backyard square foot garden and the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market which were fresh and lovely and crying to be a part of an uncomplicated summer meal.

I arranged all of the elements of the of Cobb/Niçoise/Ensalada Mixta-influenced salad deconstructed, on a large platter that we were given as a wedding present.  The preparation was extremely simple.  I boiled and then roasted fingerling potatoes from the farmer’s market with olive oil, crushed garlic and chopped rosemary from our garden and sprinkled a little champagne vinegar at the end to make their flavor bright***.  I boiled and peeled eggs, but didn’t manage to get them off of heat in time to make the lovely soft-cooked eggs from the Ensalada Mixta.  I picked and rinsed green and Bibb lettuces and frisée from the garden, and sliced garden tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.  I sprinkled a little salt and fresh-ground pepper to the potatoes, eggs and tomatoes.

I blanched green beans from our garden and corn from the farmer’s market corn and cut it off the cob.

For a dressing, I blended avocado with parsley, salt and pepper and light mayonnaise in the food processor.

I was aiming for a Green Goddess-type dressing.  The avocado concoction began with great ingredients, but turned out heavy with too much mayo, and missed the mark.  I put Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, salt and pepper on the table to allow us to dress our salads to taste on our plates.

There are great salads that contain a set list of vegetables and proteins that are dressed in a particular way, such as a Cobb, a Niçoise, or a Caesar.  My salad was a concept; a sum of it parts –the ideas and ingredients that influenced its creation.  In spite of a less than exceptional dressing, and hard, instead of soft-boiled eggs, it worked out.  We enjoyed its simplicity, and were satisfied by it because so many of its elements were hearty.  Bjorn commented that the meal had a European feel to it, which makes sense in light of elements being inspired by salads native to France and Spain, both cuisines that prize great ingredients, and prepare them without excess complication.   It has its American note to it also, in the Cobb ingredients, avocado and square foot garden-raised vegetables.  I am slowly learning that great ingredients, prepared without unnecessary complication and served simply have such a refreshing and satisfying result.

*I don’t think I can be convinced that a pizza is a Pizza without cheese.  I guess if it became medically necessary for me to eat pizza without cheese due to sudden, extreme lactose intolerance, a pizza like the one I recently read about on the Food in my Beard could perhaps, fill the sad, cheeseless void in my belly.

**I won’t lie.  I always ate the salad with a hunk of Salut’s bread and some cold salty butter that they bring out to start your meal.  This was totally justified, by my choice of a salad as entree, right?  I’m sure the chewy bread and butter helped make a salad so satisfying.

***Thank you to our friends Jenny and Ben for introducing us to this wonderful way to prepare potatoes, based on a recipe by Jamie Oliver.