Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In Praise of Salad

This time of year we're surrounded by rich, decadent meals and sweet, indulgent treats. They fill our tables, our Facebook feeds, and our favorite food blogs and magazines. So I'm here to offer some fresh veggie goodness that is no less flavorful than those scalloped potatoes and gingerbread cookies.

Now, I almost never make salad for just myself. But lately it has become my staple for potlucks, and I love when there's a bit left over so I can take it home and enjoy it again. And it's nice to have something fresh and light to balance the heavy casseroles and rich desserts. So I'm here to try to convince you to make sure salads are in your rotation for potlucks and dinner spreads this season. My top 5 reasons:
  1. Salad is easy. Throw a bunch of stuff in a bowl and call it a day. There may be some chopping, but maybe not a ton.
  2. Salad doesn't have to be kept warm. At my office potlucks, it's not uncommon for about ten different women to need access to the one oven/stove in our building to heat up their dish or keep it warm.
  3. Most of it can be prepped ahead. Whether you're hosting a dinner or attending a potluck, it's nice to be able to prep things ahead of time. You may need to keep some of the salad components separate until shortly before serving, or wait to cut that apple until you're ready to dress the salad, but you don't have to set a timer or babysit something on the stove.
  4. You can make your own dressing, and people will think you're a food goddess (or god). It sounds fancy to say you made your own dressing, but dressing is so simple and uses mostly pantry ingredients, and you can make just as much as you need for the one salad, rather than buying a bottle, using a tiny bit, and letting the rest sit in your fridge until it goes bad. 
  5. Salad ingredients are easily interchangeable. Don't like kale? Use spinach instead. Need some more protein? Add some beans, grilled chicken, or whole grains. Don't have red wine vinegar? Use white wine vinegar. Are grapes in season? Toss some in. Can't eat onions? Leave them out.
Okay, so I've convinced you (yay!). Now what? Here are several dressing recipes, along with suggestions for what to include with them.

Greens: Almost always I tend toward darker greens (kale, baby spinach, spring mix, etc.). They're chock full of nutrients and they tend to stand up well to flavorful dressings.

Instructions for all dressings: Put all ingredients in a jar and give it a good shake. Be sure to use a 3- or 4-cup jar so there's plenty of room for the ingredients to bounce around in there and get nice and emulsified (so the dressing won't separate as quickly).

Yield: Most of the time I use my 4-quart Pyrex bowl for salads, and I'm 98% sure that all the dressing recipes below will make enough dressing to moderately dress that much salad, probably with some dressing left over.

Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette
I can't remember where I found this one. It's now on an index card stuck to my fridge.

6 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
~1/4 tsp. dried basil

The rest of the salad:
Pretty much whatever you want. This dressing goes with just about anything.

Italian Summer Salad
from The Faux Martha. This is my absolute favorite for an Italian meal. Move aside, Caesar salad!

2 Tbsp. grated parmesan
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 clover garlic
Generous squirt of honey
6 cracks black pepper

For this one it's best to use an immersion blender or small food processor to blend the dressing and fully blend in the cheese and garlic.

The rest of the salad:
Greens of choice (I like Romaine for this one)
Cucumber, chopped
Cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
Green onion, thinly sliced
Pepperoncinis, lightly chopped (don't leave these out! they make the salad!)
Salted sunflower seeds
Feta or parmesan

Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette
a combination of a few different recipes I found on various sites

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil (or decrease by 1/2 to 1 Tbsp. and add in that amount of bacon grease)
1 Tbsp. maple syrup (the real stuff)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbsp. apple cider (optional)

The rest of the salad: 
Spinach, kale, or spring mix
Butternut squash or sweet potato, cubed and roasted
Bacon, cooked and crumbled
Pear or apple
Dried cranberries
Almond slivers
Goat cheese or feta crumbles

Shallot and Red Wine Vinaigrette 
adapted slightly from Food Network

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. minced shallot or red onion
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
Black pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp. olive oil
Squirt of honey or agave

The rest of the salad:
Walnuts, toasted
Goat cheese crumbles

Lemon Parsley Vinaigrette
adapted from All Recipes

1/4 cup lemon juice (fresh or bottled)
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
Squirt of honey

The rest of the salad:
Greens of choice
Onion of choice
Tomatoes, cucumbers, or other veggies of choice
Black olives and/or pepperoncini peppers
Feta or parmesan

Kale Citrus Salad
from Minimalist Baker

3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Pinch of kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 Tbsp. honey
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. orange juice (optional)

The rest of the salad:
Kale, chopped and massaged
Canned mandarin oranges (or fresh grapefruit or orange)
Tart apple, chopped (I actually left this out)
Pomegranate arils and/or dried cranberries
Toasted nuts of choice
Quick pickled red onion (it's easy, I promise. Instructions are in the recipe linked above)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Autumn Recipe Roundup

It's no secret that autumn is my favorite season. And fall foods are my favorite of all the seasonal foods. So with October 1 just around the corner, here are some yummies to enjoy this season!

Pumpkin Apple Cider - Take the classic spiced hot apple cider and inject some pumpkin into the mix.

Pumpkin Coconut Pancakes - Coconut and pumpkin may not be obvious friends, but their flavors go together so beautifully.

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls with Maple Bourbon Glaze - A labor of love, but oh is it lovely to eat these!

Harvest Galette with Gruyere, Acorn Squash, and Caramelized Onions - Don't let the poor quality of my photo scare you off. (Seriously, what is happening with that onion situation?) This galette is one of my favorite dinners I've ever made.

Pumpquinoa - Pumpkin stuffed with quinoa, sausage, cheese, herbs, and veggies . . . what's not to love? See also version 2.0.

Sausage- and Apple-Stuffed Acorn Squash - Again, not a great photo, but these squash boats are super tasty and not very hard to make. And although I make a big deal about pumpkin, acorn squash is secretly my favorite.

Balsamic Roasted Pumpkin and Friends - A simple roasted side dish. Chopping everything does take some time, but the end result is worth it!

Pumpkin Oatmeal Cinnamon Chip Cookies - Easy and delicious!

Pumpkin Monkey Bread - Need I say more? Really?

And a few from around the interwebs:
What are you looking forward to making this season?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Prickly Pear Lemon Bars

Today I bring you prickly pear lemon bars. They're a great way to use up a bit of prickly pear juice, and they're a fun twist on classic lemon bars. I've made these a few times and have received many compliments from people who normally find lemon bars to be too sweet and puckery, but like the milder sweetness and balance of flavor found in these bars.

Initially, I was suspicious of how well pecans would go with prickly pear, but I trusted the recipe and went for it, and I must say these flavors play together exceedingly well. The pecans add a lovely richness and...well...nuttiness that helps balance the tartness and sweetness of the dessert.

Prickly Pear Lemon Bars
Yield: one 9 x 13 pan (halve the recipe for an 8 x 8 pan)
Adapted slightly from Cupcake Project

Crust Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 cup butter, slightly softened

Filling Ingredients
1-1/3 cups sugar
4 egg whites
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 to 1-1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp. prickly pear juice
1 tsp. baking powder
2-4 Tbsp. powdered sugar (for dusting)

Preheat oven to 350. Spray a 9 x 13-inch pan with cooking spray.

Use a pastry blender, forks, or a food processor to combine all the crust ingredients until crumbly. Press into your baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes.

Mix together all filling ingredients except powdered sugar (I use an electric hand mixture). The mixture will be really runny. This is good.

Pour filling mixture on top of the pre-baked crust. It's perfectly fine if the crust is still hot. Bake for 20 minutes, until filling is set. Let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar, then cut into squares and serve.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Shrimp Jambalaya

What's a girl to do when she has 10 jars of crawfish stock in her freezer? Seriously, I'd love some ideas.

But to get things going, I gave jambalaya a shot, and was super pleased with how it turned out. The shrimp was perfectly cooked without going all rubbery. The flavors were complex and balanced, with the perfect amount of heat for me (which means it was pretty mild. Apologies to any New Orleans natives out there who are shunning me for this.)

The recipe and techniques weren't difficult unless you struggle with cooking rice. And if rice is your enemy, check out the original recipe for an oven cooking method that the writer claims is much more fool-proof than the standard stove top method.

Pro tip: before you start cooking everything, check to make sure you have the right kind of rice. I didn't bother to check since that's such a basic pantry ingredient, and it wasn't until things were already sauteeing merrily on the stove before I realized that, while I had plenty of brown rice, wild rice, a five-rice blend, brown arborio rice, and white arborio rice (and a whole slew of other grains), there was no plain old ordinary long-grain white rice on my shelf. Fortunately, the white arborio rice worked quite nicely in this recipe! Brown rice could be really yummy, too, but it's not as easy a sub since cooking time is so much longer for brown rice.

Shrimp Jambalaya
Adapted from REMCooks
Yield: 2-3 servings as a main dish

1-2 lbs. peeled and deveined shrimp (see notes)
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup diced onion
1 cup thinly sliced green onion
1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
1 cup seafood stock (store bought or homemade)
1/2 cup uncooked white rice
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

Pour the shrimp into a colander or strainer and rinse under cold running water to start thawing it. Drain well. Set the colandar inside a bowl. Combine cayenne, 3/4 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper and sprinkle over the shrimp. Toss to coat, then cover the bowl and colander with plastic wrap and put in the fridge to continue draining and thawing gently while you do everything else.

Chop all the veggies and herbs.

In a medium pot, melt butter over high heat. Add tomato sauce. Continue cooking the butter and tomato sauce over high heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches a rich, dark color and the butter separates out (here's a photo from REMCooks). This took me about 6 minutes with this small batch, but would probably take a bit longer with a larger batch.

Add the onion, green onion, bell pepper, garlic, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Continue cooking on high heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the seafood stock, rice, and remaining salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice.

Reduce heat to a low simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Now retrieve your shrimp from the fridge and stir it into the hot rice mixture. Re-cover the pot and let it sit for 10 minutes. If your shrimp is fully thawed, you can remove the pot from the burner, and the heat from the rice mixture will cook the shrimp perfectly. Mine was still a bit frozen when I pulled it out of the fridge, so I left my burner on the lowest possible setting for these 10 minutes.

Remove the lid, remove the bay leaf, stir, and serve.

  • I used 1 lb. shrimp, and it was fine, but definitely heavy on the rice. The next time I make this, I plan to use half shrimp, half andouille sausage. The original recipe called for half shrimp, half crawfish tails. So mix and match your proteins to your preference.
  • If you like your food spicy, use more cayenne (up to 3/4 tsp.) and more black or white pepper (an additional 1/4 tsp. or so)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Best Refrigerator Dill Pickles

If you know me, or if you have read many of my posts, you know I’m not the most superlative person. While it does come out in some areas of my life, I’m not usually one to gush on and on about a recipe being the best [fill in the blank] I’ve ever tasted and this is my new favorite recipe of all time, etc., etc., etc.

But these pickles are the best. And the only reason I’m willing to cross into “the best” territory is because everyone with whom I’ve shared these pickles has raved about them. And not just in a polite “you gave me food so I’ll compliment it” kind of way. Effusive praise has ensued. A couple people have even gone so far as to declare these the best pickles they’ve ever eaten.

What’s so great about them? I think it’s their simplicity. You get a few fresh, quality ingredients, add a few more basic ingredients, and you’re done. The simplicity allows the freshness of the cucumbers and dill to shine through, and nothing overpowers anything else.

Bonus points: these pickles are extremely easy to make. You put some cut cucumbers in a jar and add some garlic, dill, and a couple spices to the jar. Then you dissolve some sugar and salt in vinegar and water, pour that into the jar, and you’re done.

It’s important to note that these are refrigerator pickles so, as they name suggests, they need to be kept in the fridge (they’re not shelf-stable). That means that there’s no actually canning process to go through, which means they’re super quick and not scary to make (canning still scares me). I think they taste best if eaten within a week or so, but they’ll keep up to a month in the fridge. The longer they sit, the less crunchy and more pickled they’ll get, and the more the garlic, pepper, and coriander flavors will come out.

I’ve made a lot of jars of dill pickle spears and only one jar of slices. For whatever reason, the day I was photographing pickles, my quart of slices looked more photogenic than my half-pints and pints of spears. So slices are what you see in the pictures, but spears are more what you’ll find in my fridge—and several friends’ fridges!

Refrigerator Dill Pickles
Yield: 2 pint jars (or 1 quart jar)
Adapted slightly from A Couple Cooks

1 lb. cucumbers
3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
Handful of fresh dill (6-10 sprigs)
1 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds
1 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
2/3 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp. sugar
1-1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt

Trim the ends off the cucumbers and quarter them into spears (or slices). If the cucumbers are long, cut them in half as well so the spears are short enough to fit in the jars.

Pack the cucumbers into two clean pint-sized mason jars, along with 3 garlic clove halves and 3-5 sprigs of fresh dill per jar. Add the coriander seeds and peppercorns to the jar.

In a suitable container, warm the vinegar, water, sugar, and kosher salt, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved. I’ve done this in a glass measuring cup in the microwave, and in a small saucepan on the stove. The stove actually seems easier to me. The original recipe calls for putting everything cold into a third mason jar and shaking it until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Do what works best for you.

Pour the liquid over the cucumber goodness in the jars. Tap the jars on the counter to release air bubbles. Cover jars tightly with their lids, and refrigerate immediately. Let them hang out in the fridge for 24 hours, then dig in.

  • I was worried that I should peel the more bitter cucumbers but forged ahead without peeling because A Couple Cooks said nothing about peeling. I have not detected any bitterness at all in any of the pickles.
  • The first time I made these I had ground coriander but no whole seeds, so I sprinkled in some ground, and that was fine. For a cheaper alternative, you could probably use some fresh cilantro instead of the seeds.
  • The original recipe also calls for 4 small chili peppers (2 per jar) but I left those out.
  • This recipe is obviously very scale-able depending on how many cucumbers you have or what sizes of jars you have available. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Coleslaw for Haters

Not long after finishing second grade, I set out on a quest.

You see, my family moved from the land of green bean casserole and strawberry-rhubarb pie to the land of barbecue brisket. Which meant that now, any time we went to a catered meal of some sort, there was a really good possibility that it would feature barbeque meat(s) served with a handful of sides that always included coleslaw. You know the stuff. Kinda soggy chopped cabbage swimming in mayo-based soup that's occasionally too peppery and usually too sweet.

As you might have guessed, coleslaw and I did not become fast friends. But since we were so often in each other's company, it seemed only right to learn to at least tolerate each other. So I began my quest to develop a liking for coleslaw (and baked beans and potato salad, for that matter).

Through the years I've grown to like coleslaw okay, but usually only a few bites before the soggy, creamy sweetness is just too much.

Then one day I met mayo-free coleslaw.

She's happy and bright and tastes like summer. She's fresh, crunchy, and SO not fussy, and she’s got a bit of sassy tang. Mayo-less slaw has become my go-to sidekick when going to a cookout, especially if I’m short on time. I've brought her to a LOT of gatherings in the last few years, and nearly every time, someone says a variation of, "I don't like coleslaw, but this is really good."

I couldn't agree more.

Mayo-Free Coleslaw
Adapted from Marc Matsumoto
Yield: 6-8 servings

Zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup lemon juice (I use the juice from the zested lemon, then supplement with bottled lemon juice)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 bags of coleslaw mix, about 14 oz. each*

In a jar, combine lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, salt, and pepper.** Give it a good shake. Dump the coleslaw mix into a serving bowl and pour the dressing on top. Toss well. That’s it.

I prefer to serve mine within 30 minutes to an hour after dressing the slaw. If you like a softer, more pickled slaw, store it in the fridge for a few hours.

* I usually use 1 bag regular mix (green cabbage, red cabbage, and carrots) and 1 bag broccoli slaw.
** Alternatively, you can add all the dressing ingredients to your large bowl, whisk well, and add the slaw mix on top. I like the jar method because I usually end up taking the slaw and dressing separately to wherever I’m going and dressing it as soon as I get there.

Marc Matsumoto sometimes uses vinegar or lime juice instead of lemon, or brings whole grain mustard into the mix. I imagine cilantro would be a delightful addition with lime juice and lime zest. For years now, I’ve had great intentions of trying one of these variations, but I like the original so well that I have never strayed! So if you try one of the variations, I’d love to hear how you like it!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Crawfish Stock

My friends suggested that the first step in this recipe's instructions be, "Start with a jar of crawfish carcasses." It does make for an exciting start, don't you think?

We did a crawfish boil last week at house church, and partway through the meal I decided that I wanted to make crawfish stock out of the claws, heads, and shells that otherwise would have gone in the trash. They thought I was joking until I brought out a half-gallon mason jar, filled it with crawfish remnants, and forced them to drink the rest of the tea and prickly pear limeade I'd brought so I could fill those jars with crawfish as well.

A few observations about the stock-making process:

  • It felt resourceful to make homemade broth from stuff that would normally be thrown away. If I were really resourceful, I would make a habit of tossing into the freezer carrots, half-used onions, and other trimmings that I won't be able to use before they go bad, so I could use those for stock instead of buying all fresh veggies for this.
  • Prepping the ingredients was extremely quick and easy. Since all the solids get strained out, it doesn't matter how roughly everything is chopped. I didn't even peel the carrots or garlic.
  • What took me a long time was washing pots and colanders between batches. I don't have a pot large enough to do this entire recipe in one batch, so I had to split it in half and do two rounds in my 7(?)-quart stock pot. I think I spent more time washing dishes than chopping, cooking, and straining everything.
  • Crawfish stock is basically the color of mud. It looks kinda gross, I'm not gonna lie. I felt discouraged when I saw the end result. But it tasted fine when I sampled it, and tasted even better when I used some to make jambalaya a couple days later.
  • If you have some shrimp tails, toss those in as well.
  • Open your windows to help the fishy smell dissipate.
  • Who knew a cross-section of a head of garlic could be so pretty?

Crawfish Stock
Adapted from crawfishboil.org
Yield: A little over 1 gallon of stock, which yielded 10-1/2 pint-sized mason jars, since you have to leave some head room in each one

6 quarts crawfish shells
2-1/2 large onions
10 stalks celery
5 large carrots (about 1 lb.)
2 heads garlic (whole heads, as opposed to individual cloves)
2 lemons
5 Tbsp. butter
2-1/2 small bunches fresh parsley (or 2 medium bunches)
10 bay leaves
1-1/4 tsp. dried oregano
12 stems fresh thyme
15 whole peppercorns
Very modest sprinkle of salt

Roughly chop the onions, celery, and carrots. Lay each head of garlic on its side (so the stem end points to the side rather than up or down) and slice down once through the whole head. Quarter the lemons.

In batches, rinse the crawfish shells very well. You want the stock to taste like crawfish and veggies, not like crawfish boil seasoning.

In a large stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the crawfish shells and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients to the pot, then add water so the ingredients are almost covered. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about an hour.

Now it's time to strain the stock. There's not one correct way to do this, but here's how I did it. Place a large colander inside another large pot or bowl. Scoop ladlefuls of stock (with solids and all) into the colander. This will take care of all the big pieces of vegetables and crawfish, but you'll still have some thyme leaves and flecks of stuff in your broth. So now pour or ladle the broth through a fine mesh strainer. Discard all the solids.

Don't be worried that your stock is the color of mud. It will still taste good.

Portion out the broth into jars for freezing, being sure to leave an inch or so of head room since liquid expands when it freezes. Since this is shellfish, I would suggest cooling it as quickly as possible (i.e., in the fridge, freezer, or an ice bath...not by leaving it out on your counter for a couple of hours). Use the stock within 3 days or freeze it.