Today’s Salad: Greens & Blues

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Today’s salad is a simple but very satisfying combination of crisp romaine lettuce, crunchy and peppery watercress, and a little bit of chopped scallion greens tossed with an Easy Blue Cheesy dressing. I’m actually going to give the full-fat recipe as well as tips for a reduced fat version. Both are tasty.

I love watercress and its spicy herbaceous bite. It works miracles with milder greens like iceberg, butter, and romaine lettuces, creating nice textural and flavor contrasts. And when you toss it with a creamy dressing like ranch or green goddess or blue cheese the pepperiness gets tempered by the fatty richness of the dressing, making for a sublime eating experience.

When I make a salad like this I like to take one bunch of watercress, cut off (and discard) the woody stems, and coarsely chop the cress into pieces between a half-inch and an inch in length. I soak the watercress briefly in water to refresh it and then spin it dry. It’ll produce about two cups of loosely packed watercress. To this I’ll add about four cups of loosely packed chopped and cleaned and dried romaine and throw in about a third of a cup of coarsely chopped scallions.

When I toss the greens with a creamy dressing I use my (very clean) hands to gently cover the leaves evenly and lightly. Also I try to make very robust, flavorful dressings so that I can use comparatively less of it, which is something to keep in mind if you’re trying to eat cleaner and lighter. Yes, yes I recognize that this is a fatty, creamy dressing and it’s never going to be the healthy choice that say, oil and vinegar, is. But there’s no reason for a salad to be gut-bomb, is there?

A few notes: For this dressing I like to use a relatively mild blue cheese, a domestic like Maytag or Pt. Reyes or a Danish blue. Salt content varies wildly in blue cheeses, so you’ll have to trust your own palate for salt quantities. Keep in mind that refrigerated dressings will taste less salty than when at room temperature, so you may need to adjust your seasoning after you’ve chilled it and before you dress your salad. Keep in mind too that the full-fat version of this dressing will stiffen as it chills, which means you might want to whisk in a little water to adjust the consistency of your dressing prior to making your salad.

This dressing makes a killer dip for Buffalo chicken wings, btw.

Easy Blue Cheesy Dressing

• 1/2 cup blue cheese crumbles, plus a little more (see bottom of ingredient list)
• one small garlic clove, minced
• 1 teaspoon minced shallots
• 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
• 1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar
• 1/2 cup sour cream
• 1/4 cup mayonnaise
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 tablespoon water
• pinch sugar
• lots of cracked black pepper (kind of a coarse grind)
• kosher salt to taste]
• about one heaping tablespoon of fine blue cheese crumbles (for texture!)

Put all the ingredients (except extra cheese) into a blender and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the extra blue cheese. Refrigerate until ready for dinner.

Easy Blue Cheesy Dressing (Slight Return)

To make a reduced fat version of this dressing take out the sour cream and use fat-free Greek-style yogurt instead. Also, take out the mayo and use reduced fat Vegenaise instead.

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Feeding the Family

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A casual dinner by the Willamette River.

Regina, Bennet, Vivian, and I visited my father and step-mother in Portland, Oregon last week. Dad and Joan have an absolutely gorgeous place by on the east bank of the Willamette River. Their house is set on a bluff overlooking a wide expanse of perfect lawn that leads down to the river bank. My father is a dedicated plant man and he’s got stunning vegetable beds, fruit trees, and grape vines growing vigorously on their property. Kale and tomatoes, lettuces and potatoes, rosemary, lavender, fig, eucalyptus, red chard, bartlett pear, apples, and more. In the eight years they’ve been in Oregon they’ve managed to create and maintain a home that is inviting and charming and that’s a reflection of their progressive thoughts on nature, food, health, light, and community. And on a late summer afternoon there’s nothing better than sipping a glass of my Dad’s homemade white wine and watching rowing sculls flit across the river’s surface, competing occasionally with the wake-making antics of jet-skiers. Birds loop in the blue skies, adopted fuzzball cats get fresh with your legs, a breeze stirs the perfect green beans clinging from their trellis, the occasional passenger jet carves contrails impossibly high above us. It’s all so perfect. So perfect, in fact, that Regina and I got married on these fair premises last summer.

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Always superb salmon can be found in the Northwest.

When we visit I usually try to cook one good meal for my family; we only seem to have time for one as we always have so much on our plate — other friends and family to see, zoos to visit, and breweries to tour. We like to eat outside, watch the sunset, play board games as we nibble dessert, and perhaps sip a little cheap sherry (that would be only my father and me) as we yak about our lives, politics, and what-have-you. This past week talk of politics, the food industry, my much-missed absent sisters, and (naturally) The Olympics dominated. We try to make the most of what Dad and Joan’s garden has to offer, we take a casual pace, and we enjoy each other’s company.

Joan and Jeff (my bro) contributed some excellent Coho salmon — each filet about a pound, very lean, but very fresh. Full of pin bones, even though I yanked out most of them. I patted-dry the fish very well, cut the filets down to individual pieces, and seasoned them with sea salt, pepper, and a big pinch of some random Penzey’s spice mix (maybe like a poultry seasoning) that Joan had in her cooking arsenal. I cooked the filets by first searing the fish skin-side down in a very hot skillet with some olive oil. After the skin was crisped I then flipped the pieces and cooked the other side about a minute. I then transferred the par-cooked pieces to a baking dish. The baking dish I popped into the oven and finished the fish at 375º F for about five minutes.

The fish was just cooked through, moist and delicious.

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A simple salad — romaine, tomato, radish, etc.

Our salad was definitely a family affair. Jeff contributed a perfect large Persian cucumber from his yard-garden, Joan added a bulb of fennel and a head of fresh romaine from her lettuce bed, and just that morning I’d gotten a few excellent tomatoes, celery, and radishes from the small but very inviting Milwaukie Farmer’s Market. At the market I also picked up some great local and organic goat-milk feta cheese. I whipped up a simple cider vinaigrette with some garlic, shallot, and a bit of minced fennel frond (and S&P, of course).

I (mostly) peeled, seeded, and chopped the cuke. I shaved the fennel and soaked it briefly in cold water to firm it up. I cut, soaked, and spun-dry the romaine. Cut the tomatoes, finely cut some celery, shaved some radishes, crumbled the sublime and creamy feta. I tossed everything together with some of the dressing. Basically a Greek-style salad with no olives or peppers, it was light and refreshing and complemented the fish perfectly.

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Potatoes fresh out of the ground are the best!

Dad dug up some potatoes from a mixed patch that yielded some good glossy reds, some Peruvian purples, and a few starchy Russet-style baker-types. After hosing them down, drying them off, and cutting the spuds down to similar sizes (think 3/4-inch thick cubes, about) I tossed them (in a big bowl) in melted butter and olive oil. Over the top I sprinkled generous amounts of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. I also threw in some minced herbs from Joan’s herb pots — fresh rosemary, a bit of fresh lavender, lemon thyme, marjoram, and parsley. A couple large cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped, completed the potato seasoning. I spread the taters in a roasting pan and cooked them at 400ºF for about 35 minutes, until the potatoes were browned and crisp on the edges but soft in the middle. I turned and tossed and moved the potatoes around a couple of times during the roasting to ensure even cooking.

Everyone loved the potatoes, and it’s a good thing I made a whole lot as we ended up eating them the next day as well! The dish wasn’t particularly hard to make or inventive. It’s  all about fresh potatoes. Fresh potatoes are heads above your typical grocery store spuds. They are moister, richer, earthier, and butterier. Just excellent. And according to Dad, pretty much toil-free as a home crop.

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Very simple sauteed green beans.

Earlier that day Joan had picked some green beans. I trimmed these and blanched them in boiling salted water for about four minutes until tender. I shocked them in a ice bath to stop the cooking and then then drained them very well. I cut the beans into two-to-three-inch lengths. About five minutes before dinner time I heat up a big sauté pan and lightly browned (over medium-high heat) some chopped onion and garlic in a combination of butter and olive oil. I threw in the beans and cooked them for another minute. I added a splash of white wine (New Zealand Sauv Blanc), stirred the beans, and served them.

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Excellent lemon-garlic fettucine with butter, parmesan, lemon zest, and fresh breadcrumbs.

At the Milwaukie Farmer’s Market I also picked up a pound of very good organic linguine infused with lemon and garlic. First step in making this dish was toasting some homemade fresh breadcrumbs. I cut the crust off of a chunk of stale baguette and then cut the interior of the bread into smaller pieces, about a half-inch in size. I put the bread into a food processor and pulsed it down into crumbs. I then sautéed the crumbs in butter and olive oil until nice-and-crunchy; I pulled the crumbs from the pan and held them until later.

I set up a pot of salted water to cook the pasta. I set up another big sauté pan and melted a generous plug of butter in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Into the oils I added two cloves of coarsely garlic & once minced shallot. I cooked the garlic and shallot about a minute until softened and then turned off the gas. When the water boiled I cooked the noodles to al dente.

I drained the noodles but I retained a half-cup of the pasta-cooking liquid in a measuring cup. I put the hot drained linguine into the butter-olive oil mixture and tossed it well. I turned the heat up to high and added the cup of pasta-water. I threw in a handful of chopped red chard and about 5 basil leaves, which I tore up by hand. Over the noodles I added two tablespoons of lemon zest and the juice of one lemon. Using a pair of tongs I mixed the noodles to get everything together and then tested for seasoning. I added a bit of salt, a whole bunch of black pepper, and 1 cup of grated parmesan. I killed the heat, stirred the cheese in, and transferred the pasta to a big serving bowl. Finally, as a garnish, I topped the linguine with a big handful of toasted breadcrumbs. Voila! Garlic & lemon linguine with butter, chard, basil, parmesan & crisp breadcrumbs.

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Sitting down to a fine meal with fine people (clockwise from left): Jeff, Bennet, Regina, me, Vivian, Joan. (Missing from this photo: Dad, who took the pic, and my sister-in-law Kate, who had to work.)

Jeff brought some homemade beer (pretty yummy!) and we also drank lemonade and one of my personal faves — Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc (pretty decent and relatively cheap NZ white). For dessert we had this delicious crostata made from organic nectarines and a partially whole-wheat crust, which came out a tiny bit tough. I made a basic pate brisée but I think I screwed up the proportions of fat-to-flour. C’est la vie. Even the best of us screw up from time to time. Best of all, we topped off the crostata with vanilla ice cream from Graeter’s out of Cincinnati. Good, ole-fashioned iced cream.

Seriously, is there anything better than good food and family? Well, the view helped too. And the wine.

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Fresh nectarine crostata. Yummy!

Chilled Asparagus with Shaved Summer Truffles

Yummy tender asparagus gets fancied up.

This lovely dish is something I made yesterday as part of a late lunch.

I peeled the asparagus (about the lower two-thirds) and blanched the spears in salted boiling water until tender, probably three or four minutes. I then dropped them into an ice bath to shock them, stop the cooking process, and preserve that beautiful green color. I chilled them in the fridge for about 30 minutes and then drizzled a very simple vinaigrette over the top. The vinaigrette was your standard variety dressing with dijon mustard and and a little honey and white wine vinegar and olive oil, but this time I added just a teaspoon of white truffle oil to the mix. Truffle oil contains no actual truffle, but as a hint in the background it’s a lovely touch, used sparingly and infrequently.

Summer truffles are much milder than black Perigord truffles or the delectable white winter truffles that are so highly prized by European and American chefs. Still, they have a gentle flavor of mushroom and earth, with a little nuttiness and that ineffable “truffleness”. I love them like this or shaved over creamy pasta or made into tiny sandwiches. They are still a little pricey, but nowhere near the cost of winter truffles. I picked up these at the Beverly Hills Cheese Shoppe.

Give this dish a whirl some time. It’s easy and simple and it’s got a touch of wow factor!

 

For tips on vinaigrettes, check out: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/salad-dressing-simplified/

 

You might also like these other truffle posts:

Black truffle risotto: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/black-truffle-risotto/

Fried eggs and truffles: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/fried-eggs-with-shaved-black-truffles/

Summer truffle sandwich: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/summer-truffle-sandwich/

Haricot Verts are Awesome!

Beautiful beans!

Haricot verts [ar-e-ko-‘ver] is French for “little tiny baby green bean”. Okay, maybe that’s not a direct translation, but you get the idea. Green beans are picked young, while they are still thin, tender, and sweet. I love ’em!

Right now I’m seeing excellent haricot verts at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. They have the small green ones as well as an immature yellow wax bean. So good you can eat them raw, you really don’t want to cook these guys too much. I’ve been blanching them in salted water for just a couple of minutes and dropping them into a shock bath (ice water to halt the cooking). After I drain them I use them in salads, like a nice Nicoise with a hunk of grilled albacore tuna on top.

The other day I quickly sautéed a couple of fistfuls of both green and yellow haricot verts with one clove of chopped garlic, some butter, and olive oil. A tiny splash of white wine and a pinch of salt completed it.

The beautiful yellow and green baby beans were superb. Fresh and tender and mild — they were delightful accompanying my steak!

Aren’t my beans lovely?

Stir-Fried Baby Bok Choy

I love eating babies! Baby bok choy, that is.

A couple of days ago I made this very tasty stir-fried baby bok choy. I make some slight variation on this same stir-fry at least once a week, ’cause I gotta get my greens! Greens are delicious and healthy-as-hell, so I make a point of eating at least a small amount of some kind of hearty green — bok choy, kale, spinach, gai-lan, broccoli — every day.

Making this is pretty simple:

First clean the baby bok (I started with about 2/3 pound) by trimming off the bases (dirt can collect at the base of the stalks. The stem bases are totally edible, just wash them very well and trim any tough areas. Rinse and dry all the baby bok very well; you can even dry them in a salad spinner and then place them out on a kitchen towel to air out a little. The point is, you want as little moisture getting in the hot wok as possible.

Now mince up two or three garlic cloves. And then mince some fresh ginger — you’ll need about one big rounded tablespoon.

Heat a wok over the highest flame you can muster. When it actually starts smoking you’re ready to rock…er, wok. Swirl in the bottom of the wok two or three tablespoons of vegetable oil (or peanut oil). Throw in the garlic and ginger and stir around for about two seconds. Add the baby bok choy and stir it in the oil, moving rapidly. Add in a 1/4 cup of xao sing (Chinese cooking wine, sub sherry if you must). When most of the liquid has evaporated add about two tablespoons of hoisin sauce. Throw in some cracked black pepper, a pinch of ground white pepper, and salt to your taste (for me, probably a teaspoon of kosher salt. Mix it all up and test for doneness and seasoning. The stems should still have a little crunch and the greens should be wilted but not totally soft. Total cooking time is probably three to four minutes, depending on the BTU output of your home stovetop.

This meal also included a pretty stupendous grilled salmon. Add a little rice and a small salad and you’ve got a nicely rounded, healthy dinner for anyone.

Skillet Green Beans with Garlic & Cashews

A hot skillet makes everything taste great.

This side dish was one of those off-the-cuff veggie things that I do on occasion.

The dish started with schmaltz. Schmaltz is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat, which is used as a cooking oil in kosher-keeping kitchens. It makes a great cooking oil, lending robust flavor to anything that’s cooked in it. Often, when I make a big vat of chicken broth, I’ll cool the broth overnight to remove the fat. The fat rises to the surface and can be pulled off in chunks after it solidifies at refrigerator temperatures. I’ll melt this chicken fat and strain it very well, leaving behind a highly-flavored (and highly-cholesteral-laden) cooking medium. It’s great to pan-fry anything — from eggs to chicken cutlets to veggies. So anyway, I had some schmaltz on hand, a nice supply of good green beans, and a little know-how.

I heated my trusty seasoned skillet over medium high until a droplet of water splashed on the hot surface skittered and hissed away instantaneously. I added a tablespoon of the chicken fat and about 12 thin slices of fresh garlic. The garlic browned very quickly, and when it did I threw in some raw (trimmed) green beans. I added about two tablespoons of dry white wine and covered the pan to steam the beans. After about one minute I uncovered the skillet and seasoned the green beans with plenty of salt and pepper. I added a tablespoon of butter and stirred it around. After a couple of minutes, when the beans got a little wrinkly and slightly browned, I tossed in a big handful of roasted cashews. I cooked that another thirty seconds or so and then removed the beans from the pan. It was dinnertime!

This yummy side dish made a perfect accompaniment for crispy pork chops. I think it would be nice with chicken or steak or fish as well!

 

 

Garlicky Rau Muong: “Water Spinach” in the Vietnamese Style

Rau Muong is great with loads of garlic!

Rau Muong is the Vietnamese name of ipomoea aquatic, a staple leafy green vegetable that grows all over Asia in tropical and subtropical regions. It grows quickly and plentifully in moist environments, in moist soil or shallow water, and is therefore cheap and widely available. It’s known by seemingly a whole host of names, including water spinach, swamp cabbage, Chinese spinach, kongkang, water convolvulus (whatever the hell that means), morning glory, ong choy, phak bung, and “hollow vegetable” which is a transliteration of a (to me) unpronounceable Chinese word.

Very healthy and quite mild, rau muong is a snap to cook and worth the trouble of finding. In the US you should be able to get them in most good Asian grocery stores, especially in areas of concentrated Southeast Asian populations like here in Los Angeles. If you can get your hands on the stuff, first trim off any woody or dried-out stems. Also, discard any unwholesome-looking leaves. Cut the veggies into lengths about two-to-three inches and rinse well.

When my mother cooks it she blanches the rau muong for about three minutes in salted boiling water until slightly tender and then she rinses it in cold water to halt the cooking process. She allows it to drain until dry and then heats up a wok until very hot. She swirls in a little vegetable or peanut oil to coat the bottom of the wok and then adds the greens. As they soften she’ll add about six cloves of minced garlic (starting with about two pounds of cleaned greens) and season with salt, pepper, a bit of sugar, and a little MSG. Naturally the MSG isn’t mandatory, but a tiny bit will go a long way and it kicks up the flavor quite nicely. When she adds the spices she’ll put, say, about a teaspoon-and-a-half of salt, a half-teaspoon of pepper, a half-teaspoon of sugar, and a quarter-teaspoon of MSG in a quarter-cup of warm water. She pours the seasoned water over the veggies and tosses the whole thing with big cooking chopsticks to evenly distribute.

The stir-frying part of the cooking process is only about five minutes. So in no time you’ll have an amazing, healthy side dish to go along with all kinds of fish, poultry, meats, and rice.

When I’ve cooked the stuff I like to add fiery chillies, a splash of fish sauce or soy sauce, sometimes shallots or scallions. Sometimes ponzu or toasted sesame oil. Add whatever you like. Rau Muong is versatile. And yummy.

Quickly sautéed, rau muong remains crunchy and delicious.

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