A Good Salad Is Hard to Find

A salad seems like a simple thing to throw together, and it can be. When it comes to side salads, less is more: green leaf with parmesan, romaine with tomato, spinach with red onion and apple. I usually don’t bother emulsifying a dressing, but just drizzle the greens with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or a dash of balsamic vinaigrette. However, when you’re craving an entree salad of chain-restaurant proportions, you need a little more oomph.

I have to admit a level of excitement when I am invited to lunch to The Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen or even Applebee’s. I know that there’s a southwestern-style salad waiting for me, complete with tortilla strips, chipotle ranch, pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. One of these days, I will tackle that beast, but for now the guilt has been taken out of that particular pleasure by a favorite local restaurant, The Mixx.

Even though I can enjoy an oversized salad drenched in rich, creamy dressing while supporting local business, I still feel a little defeated ordering a no-cook item in a restaurant, so the tempting pretzel-bun sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries usually wins out. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to start making these more-is-more salads at home.

One of the magazine’s I subscribe to has a spread in each issue that is a formula for variations on a simple dish. For instance a spread on macaroni and cheese would lead you to choose the shape of your pasta, two different cheeses, a few vegetables and/or meats to stir in, etc. I call it the choose your own adventure recipe. Hopefully this post will serve as a similar guide to your entree salad adventures.

2 parts olive oil
1 part lemon juice or vinegar
mix-ins (in no particular order): mustard, shallot, capers, olives, sesame oil, bacon fat, honey, serano or jalapeno pepper

Whisk together. I usually use a 2-cup liquid measure and a fork. Otherwise, you can use a salad dressing shaker, which works okay.

Entree for 2
Sweet fruit: red apples, oranges, peaches, grapes, cherries, avocado, tomato
Mild vegetable: cucumber, carrot, red pepper, summer squash
Tart fruit: green apples, dried cranberries, grapefruit
Zesty vegetable: onion, shallot, radish, green pepper
Cheese: Try blue cheese or goat cheese if you use a lot of fruit, try parmesan or cheddar if you use more vegetables
Protein: beans, hard-boiled egg, ham, turkey
Crunch: toasted nuts, croutons, bacon
1 cup torn mild greens: green leaf, red leaf, romaine
1 cup torn bold greens: spinach, arugula, frisee

Wash and dry greens, preferably in a salad spinner.

Slice or chop all fruits and vegetables in a similar manner. Choose paper-thin slices, ¼-inch dices, or wedges.

Crumble, grate, or shave cheese. Try a vegetable peeler to make ribbons of parmesan.

Combine in an enormous bowl.

Toss with dressing and serve (these are my favorite salad servers).


A Cheesy Comeback

Just because I haven’t posted for more than a year doesn’t mean I haven’t been cooking. On the contrary, Glenn and I have used almost every new appliance, tool, and dish that has been added to our kitchen since our wedding. You may find a new immersion blender, jelly roll pan, and set of dishes in our cabinets, but the same old food processor is stashed away in there, too.

Not only have I not been writing blog posts, I haven’t been reading them either. Most of my inspiration comes from the magazines that Glenn’s grandma subscribes me to. I’ve cooked almost every recipe that’s been printed in Fine Cooking for the last 12 months, but I think this soup is the first recipe I’ve made from Southern Living since I began receiving it two years ago.

This Southwestern Cheesy Potato Soup isn’t really my style—it uses frozen potatoes—but I tested it out at a family Christmas gathering and it turned out to be a real crowd-pleaser. I was typing up the recipe to email my to my aunts and cousins when I realized, I already have a forum for that!  May this post be the first of many in a new year!

Southwestern Cheesy Potato Soup
1 cup diced red bell pepper
1 cup diced onion
3 poblano peppers, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ package frozen Potatoes O’Brien
¼ tsp. cumin
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2½ cups milk
28 oz. broth
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

In a skillet, saute red pepper, onion, poblanos, and garlic in oil until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add the frozen potatoes and saute until lightly browned, about 5 minutes more. Stir in cumin. Set aside.

In a large pot, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir with a fork or whisk to break up clumps. Cook until lightly browned, about a minute. Add the milk and cook over low heat until thick like gravy.

Add the broth then stir in the cheeses. Mix in the sauted vegetables. Cook until warm.

Chickpea Curry

A curry is a curry is a curry, or so I thought. My arsenal of weeknight recipes contained two curries: eggplant for summer and squash for winter. I’m excited to add this recipe as my third, but certainly not final, curry.

As I was paging through a new cooking magazine (a gift subscription from Glenn’s grandma), I was drawn to a recipe for chicken vindaloo. I took a closer look to see how it differed from my other curries and saw an odd ingredient — red wine vinegar. I couldn’t imagine how that would taste in the final dish, so of course I had to try it.

I adapted the recipe so that I could make it with items I had on hand, but kept the spices more or less the same. The vinegar gives the curry a fruity, full-mouth flavor and acts as a nice complement to the heat. Instead of chicken, I used chickpeas and carrots. I think potatoes would have been great in this dish as well.

Chickpea Curry
Serves 4
½ pound dry chickpeas
1 cinnamon stick
1½ Tbs. curry powder
2 tsp. paprika
4 Tbs. red wine vinegar
olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. minced ginger
1 yellow onion, sliced thin
1 carrot, sliced thin
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
cilantro, chopped

To cook chickpeas: Put dry chickpeas and cinnamon stick in a slow cooker and cover with 2-3 inches of water. Set on high heat and cook until tender, 3-4 hours. Drain.

To prepare curry: Combine curry powder, paprika, and vinegar in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a skillet. Add ginger and garlic, saute 1 minute. Add onion and carrot, saute until tender, 3-5 minutes. Stir in spices and chickpeas. Add tomatoes with juice and simmer until mixture is heated through. Serve with rice and garnish with cilantro.


A Thai Dish That Ties One On

I had Thai food for the first time when I was 16 years old and it took me almost 10 years to realize that drunken noodles were not relegated to Typhoon! in Portland, OR. I’m happy to say that it only took me two additional years to realize that I could easily replicate the dish at home.

I decided to experiment with drunken noodles when I saw Thai basil in the produce section of the grocery store. Since I didn’t have a recipe with me (or an iPhone), I went to the Asian food aisle and used the process of elimination to select a jar of roasted red chili paste to flavor the sauce.

The sauce I made was a pretty close approximation of the restaurant dish, even without the noodles. It wasn’t perfect, but this stir fry will definitely satisfy my cravings for drunken noodles until I make it back to Typhoon!

Drunken Stir Fry
Serves 3-4
¼ cup roasted red chili paste
¼ cup fish sauce
2 Tbs. soy sauce
2 Tbs. sugar
2 Tbs. water
Sriracha sauce to taste
peanut oil
1 Tbs. minced garlic
1 Tbs. minced ginger
1 pkg. extra firm tofu, pressed and cubed
1 red bell pepper, sliced
½ yellow onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced thin
1 green onion, sliced
Thai basil, stemmed and whole
cilantro, chopped
lime wedges

Combine the first 5 ingredients in a small bowl. Add a the Sriracha sauce one small squirt at a time until the sauce is as spicy as you like it.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until it smokes. Pour in enough peanut oil to coat the sides of the wok, about 2 Tbs. Add the garlic and ginger to the oil and stir until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove the garlic and ginger from the oil and set aside.

Add the tofu to the wok and let stand over high heat until browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Stir and repeat until browned on all sides. Remove tofu and set aside.

Add the onion and red pepper to the wok and stir until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Return the garlic, ginger, and tofu to the wok. Stir in the carrot, green onion, and Thai basil. Turn off the heat, pour in the sauce, and stir to coat. Serve with rice or stir-fried noodles. Garnish with cilantro and lime.

Mushroom Ragout with Polenta and Spinach (of Course)

This dish actually was not a ploy to make a dent in my 2½-pound bag of spinach, but that was a pleasant result. This mushroom ragout was just an initial embrace of cold-weather food. The earthiness of the mushrooms and polenta give an added warmth to an already hot dish, making it the perfect dinner to serve in a drafty old bungalow. If you’re a well-equipped cook, this is probably a pantry meal for you, which is an added bonus.

You can serve the ragout over pretty much anything—rice, beans, toasted baguette—but I loved it with polenta. Use coarse-ground yellow cornmeal and follow the package directions. Be sure to stir in plenty of butter and Parmesan at the end to make it nice and creamy.

Mushroom Ragout
Serves 2
olive oil
½ yellow onion, diced
½ pound fresh mushrooms, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
pinch of dried rosemary
1 Tbs. tomato paste
¾ cup vegetable stock
1 Tbs. butter
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
handful of chopped parsley

Heat about 1 Tbs. of oil in a skillet. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove the onion and set aside. Add some more oil to the pan and the mushrooms. Saute until they release their juices. Return the onion to the pan along with the garlic and rosemary. Continue cooking until the mushrooms and garlic begin to brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and turn heat to high. Add the stock, bring to a boil, return heat to low, and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Before serving, stir butter, vinegar, and parsley into the sauce.

How to Eat 2½ Pounds of Spinach in a Week

When Glenn and I moved out of my brother’s and into our own house, we joined Costco so we could stock up on basics like toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, flour, and rice. Now that we have a lifetime supply of these items, we’re not sure what to do with our membership. Last week I wandered into the produce section and nonchalantly tossed a 2½-pound bag of baby spinach into my cart. I didn’t realize the size of my mistake until I tried to put the giant bag into my fridge. So I consulted some old friends and came up with about 17 million ways to eat spinach.

Option 1: Toss a salad. Perhaps the most obvious solution to the spinach problem, but eating a salad for every meal until kingdom come doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds. You can peruse Bittman’s list of 101 Simple Salads for the Season to get a few ideas or, to get ideas for this season, pick up a copy of Bittman’s Kitchen Express.

Option 2: Saute it. Many winter dishes taste fabulous with a pile of sauteed spinach on the side, on top, or mixed in. We happened to have a pot of dal in the fridge, which was perfectly complemented by a few handfuls of sauteed spinach. We also ate the sauteed stuff piled on top of mushroom ragu and polenta, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Option 3: Use an actual recipe. I was surprised by how many recipes I had saved that featured spinach. Believe it or not, we didn’t have enough spinach left to try this soup from the Pioneer Woman, but we did make a tapas dish from Smitten Kitchen. However, Glenn and I thought that since it had a protein, a vegetable, and a starch, Espinicas con Garbanzos was a well-balanced dinner and we ate it as such.

Option 4: Variations on a theme. I learned several years ago how to make spanikopita from a college friend with a Greek family. It makes an impressive party dish, but is really too much trouble for a weeknight dinner for two. Rather than buttering (and inevitably tearing) countless sheets of phyllo, I served the spinach, onion, and feta over whole-wheat pasta. It was both delicious and simple.

Spanikopita Spaghetti
Serves 2
½ lbs. whole-wheat pasta, cooked al dente
4 Tbs. butter
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
4 cups baby spinach
¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
grated Parmesan cheese
lemon wedges

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onion. Turn heat to low and cover. Cook about 30 minutes or until onion is caramelized.

When the onion is brown and caramelized, add the garlic and saute 1 minute. Add the spinach, stirring until the leaves are wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add ¼ tsp. nutmeg if you want to be really Greek.

Scoop half the noodles onto each plate, top each with half the spinach mixture, half the feta, and some grated Parmesan. Serve with a lemon wedge.

Roasted Winter Vegetable Baklava

I have been living in denial of the season change and wholeheartedly avoiding all fall activities. My sweaters remain sequestered in the basement, but I dug this recipe out of the archives in spite of the fact that it contains the word winter in the title.

I cannot believe that I haven’t posted this recipe before. I also can’t believe that it hasn’t appeared on Smitten Kitchen or The Pioneer Woman or some other big-time site. It originally appeared in Gourmet, a magazine that I know for a fact those authors subscribed to. So, what is their problem?

Perhaps they thought it was too dry, which is what Glenn and I thought the first time we made it and, probably, why I didn’t blog about it. It was, apparently, so dry that Glenn and I had a serious debate about whether or not it could be served to company. After proposing several solutions (ranging from creating an accompanying yogurt sauce to steaming the vegetables), we agreed on a few simple alterations.

The altered (perfected?) recipe is below. To sum up the changes: we used more vegetables, sliced everything thinner, and added broth to the cooked veggies. Perhaps the best addition was the accompanying salad: spinach, goat cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette, which was a tart, refreshing side.

Roasted Winter Vegetable Baklava
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup bread crumbs
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, halved and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 sweet potato, peeled, halved and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 medium fennel bulbs, halved and sliced lengthwise 1/2 inch thick
3 parsnips, sliced diagonally 1/4 inch thick
4 carrots, sliced diagonally 1/4 inch thick
1 large onion, halved and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 cup broth
1 package dill, chopped
fennel fronds, chopped
1 stick butter, melted
half a package of large phyllo sheets

Process the walnuts and breadcrumbs in a food processor until finely chopped.

Preheat oven to 425 with racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven.

In a large bowl, toss all vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Divide between two four-sided sheet pans and roast for 35 minutes, stirring vegetables and switching positions halfway through.

Pour 1/2 cup of broth over each pan of vegetables. Combine in a large bowl and set aside.

Have ready a 9 by 13 baking dish, melted butter, phyllo dough, walnut mixture, and a basting brush. If you’ve worked with phyllo before, you know the drill. Unroll the dough from the package. Brush the top sheet of dough with butter and carefully peel it up and place it perpendicular to the dish on one side, allowing the dough to hang over the edge. Brush the next sheet with butter and place it on the other side of the pan. Sprinkle some of the walnut mixture over the entire dish. Make another layer of dough using two sheets of phyllo and sprinkle with walnut mixture. Repeat a third time. If the dough is hanging over the edge of the pan, fold it inside.

Dump the vegetable mixture into the phyllo-lined baking dish. Brush another sheet of phyllo with butter, fold it in half and place it over the vegetables. Repeat until the top of the dish is covered. Sprinkle the remaining walnut mixture over the top of the dish.

Bake at 425 until the phyllo is golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.