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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Spring is coming--time to think about composed salads

A couple of warm days hint that spring really will come again, even though the world seems out of whack. And that means it’s time to think about main dish salad—or composed salads.

No, composed salads are not jellied, not that pineapple and grated carrots that your mom used to do with orange Jello. Composed salads are simply salads where the ingredients are laid out on a plate instead of tossed in a bowl. Traditionally when you serve them at home, you lay the ingredients out on one large platter. Diners help themselves, but we all know that self-service can get kind of messy. For a small crowd—two to four—I sometimes serve individual salads laid out in a soup plate. You can dress the individual dishes or pass a small pitcher of dressing.

The nice thing about them is you can use almost any ingredients that strike your fancy. There are, however, two basic composed salads familiar to everyone who has ever had lunch in a bistro café. Both of these are often served on a bed of lettuce.

Cobb salad

Cobb salad started in the 1930s at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. Owner Bob Cobb went prowling in his restaurant’s refrigerator for leftovers, arranged them on a plate, drizzled French dressing over the dish, and there it was. Within days it was on the menu

Traditional ingredients are cold chicken breast, often diced, tomato (cherry tomatoes are good), green beans, tiny potatoes, cheese (sometimes blue, sometimes cheddar), avocado, bacon bits, sometimes artichoke hearts.

Cobb used French dressing on his salad but use your imagination. I think a good vinaigrette is nice because it accents the flavor of the ingredients without overwhelming them. But restaurants frequently offer a choice, so feel free to use ranch, blue cheese, Italian, honey-mustard, whatever suits.

Salade Niçoise

Whereas Cobb features chicken, salade Niçoise is built around tuna. I like to do it with high quality canned albacore in water.

Olives are also traditional, but I omit them because olives are on the short list of things I just don’t eat. But tiny baby potatoes, peeled, boiled, and cut in quarters if necessary, green beans, hard-boiled eggs are all common. I sometimes add asparagus.

Here’s a vinaigrette that I frequently use (enough for two individual salads):

Scant quarter cup chives, or substitute tops only of scallions

2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

1 small shallot, roughly chopped

½ tsp. honey   

½ tsp. Dijon mustard

½ cup vegetable oil

2 Tbsp. olive oil

Put it all in the food processor and whirl until greens are absorbed into dressing.

When the potatoes are warm, pour a small bit of vinaigrette on them. Also dress the greens lightly that you use on the plate. Drizzle remaining dressing over the salad.

The following two dressings are good on Cobb salads or salade Noicoise as well as a plain green salad.

Avocado salad dressing

1 lg. avocado, soft, ready to use; peeled and cut into chunks; it’s a good idea to mash it with a fork to make it easier to blend; if you don’t, chunks keep reappearing.

2 tsp. lemon juice

½ cup. Greek yogurt

Hot sauce to taste--I sprinkle a few drops

1/4 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves

3/4 tsp. salt

Throw it all in the food processor.

Creamy blue cheese salad dressing

2 Tbsp. each mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk

1 tsp. lemon juice

¼ tsp. pepper

¼ tsp. Kosher salt

1 anchovy fillet, mashed (optional)

Blue cheese – 2-3 Tbsp. to taste

1 finely chopped scallion

Mix all ingredients, adding cheese and scallion last. If dressing is too thick, sparingly add more buttermilk.

This is classic for wedge salads but also good on torn leaf lettuce and any number of other good things.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Cooking from the pantry

A friend wrote that she was not liking her own cooking in isolation, so she and her husband were resorting to take-out. It made me sad for her, because I am having fun with the challenge of what I can and do fix. Granted, much of the time I’m cooking for just me. We are only getting groceries either delivered or curbside pick-up, and there is a great time lapse between ordering and receiving, so it’s hard to plan. I may run out of ideas, but for now my mind is full of possibilities.

Some essentials: I find it is really important to have sharp cheddar cheese in the fridge and tuna in the pantry. And you always have a meal if  you have eggs:

Here are a few of the things I’ve done:

Baked a huge baked potato and mashed it with chopped green onion, crumbled bacon, grated sharp cheddar, and lots of butter. Re-stuffed the shells, and baked one for dinner one night, one for lunch a day or so later. I laid thinly sliced cheddar over the top of the lunch potato before baking it. Should have taken the picture before I tried to transfer it to a plate.

Made soup out of things I found in the freezer—beans in tomato sauce, orzo pasta, corn, peas, slices of Polish sausages. Made a base of chicken broth and a can of diced tomatoes. When serving (to myself) I topped it with grated Parmesan.

Made tuna salad, after we scored a whole, very fresh loaf of good Jewish rye bread. Next up, I think I’ll do tuna salad, top it with cheese, and bake—a tuna melt. I still intend to make tuna pasties, but that’s a bit of a chore and I find myself getting lazy these days.

Last night, I baked eggs—a new discovery for me, and I loved it. Here’s a sort-of recipe:

½ slice sourdough bread

½ can chopped spinach (fresh would be better, but we don’t have it, so I’m making do)

Grated sharp cheddar

2 eggs

2 tsp. milk

Grease an individual casserole dish thoroughly. Line bottom with torn bread. Layer spinach on next and top with generous amount of cheese. Crack two eggs on top, being careful not to break. Salt and pepper to taste, and cover eggs with the milk so they don’t dry out.

Bake at 350 until eggs are set to your personal taste. I like them runny, so you can stir ingredients together.

Wish I’d thought to take a picture. You can vary the layers as you want—a different vegetable, another type of cheese. .Just use the technique.

A thread on the New York Times Cooking Community Facebook page (that’s a mouthful) had varying opinions on creamed tuna—apparently you either love it or hate it. For me, it’s comfort food, and it’s on my to-make list. Here is another sort-of recipe:

1 or 2 green onions, chopped

1 medium stalk celery, diced

1 Tbsp. butter more or less

1 Tbsp. flour more or less

About 1 cup milk

1 can water-packed albacore tuna, flaked

About a half cup or less petit green peas, defrosted

A splash of white wine

Salt and pepper

For serving: toast, rice, pasta, your choice

            Sauté onion and celery until just soft; sprinkle with flour and stir in thoroughly to make a roux. Slowly add milk, stirring as you do, until you get a sauce of the consistency you want. Add tuna and peas and cook over medium-low until warmed through.

I’m going to put mine on a piece of that good rye bread, toasted.

You can use this same technique for chicken or, even—dare I say it?—chipped beef, though for the latter you might want to omit the peas and wine and season with a dash of Worcestershire. Or maybe red wine? Garlic?

Tonight, smothered chicken thighs because I had them in the freezer from a curbside pickup mistake—thought I was ordering four thighs and got four packs of four thighs each. I'll feed the family. This weekend, when we finally get new groceries, we’re going to make a holiday dinner—turkey and dressing and green beans. Darn! Wish I had French’s onion rings, but crushed potato chips will do.

I think that’s part of cooking in quarantine—making do.


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Cooking in the time of quarantine

Hard to know what to say or where to begin. We are besieged with the contradictory news of bare grocery shelves and the need to have supplies in case the delivery chain breaks down. Should we use our stored staples or cook with fresh ingredients while we can get them? I know I for one am a bit reluctant to use the few cans of tuna I have because I might need them more lately.

I read on MSNBC this morning that toilet paper will soon be overstocked; pallets will sit in grocery aisles because everyone has stocked up and no one is buying. But, the article cautioned, some foods may be in short supply. Still, there will be plenty to eat; we just may have to adapt our menus.

Possibly, this change in lifestyle and the availability of goods will lead us to a more plant-based diet. One food that will be a staple, in my mind, is beans, beans of all kinds.

On the internet, I read lots of posts about people who are finding comfort in cooking. It’s something we can do while isolated, whether we cook for a family or for ourselves alone. One night this week I made a family staple—King Ranch Chicken. Tuna pasties, always a favorite of mine, are in my planning. But this is also the time to experiment, try new recipes. I have recipes for white bean stew with tomatoes, and I’m looking forward to trying that dish. Last Sunday night. I fixed cheese grits with black beans, avocado, and radishes—straight out of the pages of the New York Times, with thanks to Sam Sifton.

One reason I picked this recipe was that son-in-law Christian loves grits and radishes. He may be the only person I’ve ever met who is so crazy about them. But at dinner, I caught him picking the radishes off his entrée and putting them on his salad. I couldn’t help but ask, and he confessed he liked them best cold, not on a hot dish. So there goes that recipe I cut out for pork chops with roasted radishes. And, frankly, the radishes didn’t do as much for me as they apparently  do for him. So color them optional.

Cheese Grits with black beans

What you need to serve four for a main dish:

Chicken broth – about 3 cups

Whole Milk – 2 cups.

Grits – 1 cup.

Black beans – l large can

Cayenne pepper to taste

Butter – 2 Tbsp.

Avocado – 2, sliced

Radishes – 3, sliced

Any other diced vegetable you want - tomatoes, bell pepper, scallions, celery, etc.

            Make grits by stirring together 2-3/4 cups chicken broth, 2 cups whole milk, and 1 cup grits. Cook over low heat—I used my soup kettle, because grits bubble wildly, even on low, and I didn’t want hot grits on my hands or the wall. Stir this occasionally and after about 25 minutes, you should have a creamy, smooth pot of grits. Take it off the heat and stir in a cup of grated sharp cheddar (the original recipe calls for a half cup, but I like them extra cheesy) and the butter. Stir until thoroughly blended in.

For the black beans: drain and rinse, put in saucepan with remaining ¼ cup chicken broth and the cayenne. Cook to heat and let the sauce thicken a bit. Mash a few beans to make it more of a sauce.

Put the grits in four soup plates, top with beans, and garnish with avocado, those optional radishes, and any other vegetable you choose.

PS: Leftover grits are great for breakfast!

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A gourmand experience

Our front row seats right by the kitchen
Know what a gourmand is, as opposed to a gourmet? I once worked with a woman who thought gourmand equated with glutton but not always so: the dictionary tells us a gourmand is a person who enjoys eating, a connoisseur. So, for tonight, for this blog, we’ll ignore the side implications about someone who eats too much and is greedy, because I had a gourmand experience last weekend.

My two daughters, two grandsons, and I met an old friend for dinner at Savor, the laboratory restaurant of the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. From start to finish, the meal was outstanding. The restaurant itself was not as imposing as I expected—no white linen tablecloths but bare wooden tables and a sort of sleek modern look and a more casual atmosphere. The kitchen was open so we could look in and watch the budding chefs at work; one of the most fascinating aspects to me was watching them close down the kitchen at the end of the evening. We had front-row seats, right by the kitchen.

Corn soup

With six of us, we ordered a variety of things. I began with a Caesar salad, followed by corn soup. Several at our table had the risotto, and my oldest daughter had mussels. You could choose either three items or four (the price varied accordingly—the pricing was not expensive, except that between us we consumed a lot of wine which drove the total up considerably).

I did not have an entrée, but the two most popular at our table were the tenderloin and the yellowtail. Jacob tried roast pork with pork belly, despite my warning that pork belly is a fancy name for fat. His mother was dismayed at the piece of fat on his plate, and the roast meat was too dry. Otherwise, everyone said their entrees were wonderful.
roast pork
beef tenderloin

The frites we ordered for the table were perfectly seasoned and delectable. It would have been a sin to put ketchup on them, and none of us asked—not even the two thirteen-year-old boys among us.

For dessert we had tarts, which I somehow didn’t get a picture of.

Throughout, the presentation of every dish was as outstanding as the taste. It truly was a wonderful evening.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

An epic fail and a standby

One of my neighbors recently lucked into several bunches of leeks and generously shared the wealth. Problem: I’ve never cooked with leeks—a funny admission from someone who likes to cook as much as I do. I dithered about what to fix—Prudence, the giver, was making a leek quiche, but quiche wouldn’t go over well here. I narrowed it down to leeks au gratin or potato/leek soup. Decided to serve it on Sunday night when we were having hash (the other part of today’s story), so I thought the soup would be too much potato.

I made the gratin the way I do for Brussel sprouts and artichokes, with a sauce of mayonnaise, aa bit of lemon, some sour cream and celery salt. What I didn’t take into account is that the artichokes and sprouts are pre-cooked, and the leeks needed to maybe be poached in broth or something. They were too crisp, their flavor too harsh—when I had assured my family they had a delicate flavor. I have fished out and enjoyed the artichoke hearts and am saving the sauce, but today may be the day to pitch the whole thing.

When I was feeding my kids, I always made hash out of leftover turkey, potatoes and gravy. So I don’t know why I’ve never thought of making hash any other time than post-holiday—or with any other meat. (With the exception of canned corn beef hash which I have been known to enjoy slathered with ketchup.)

Last week I presented Jordan with several recipes I thought might be good for Sunday supper, and she chose chicken hash. Like a newbie cook, I followed the recipe slavishly—until I realized I’ve been making hash for years and knew how to do it. Here’s what I did: 

Chicken hash

1 large baking potato

1 whole chicken breast (you could use breast of a rotisserie chicken)

2 Tbsp. butter, more if needed.

½ cup coarsely diced onion

1 small stalk celery, with leaves, sliced

1 large garlic clove, minced

Pinch of thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup chicken broth (I used the Better than Bouillon concentrate)

¼ c. heavy cream

            Boil the potato. Set aside to cool; peel and dice coarsely—pieces about ½ inch square

Poach the chicken with salt, pepper, a bay leaf, some celery leaves, whatever you have. Set aside to cool and then dice like the potato.

Sauté onion, garlic, celery until onion is soft and translucent. Add potato and sauté until browned and a bit crisp. Add the chicken. Stir in thyme, salt, and pepper and then broth and cream. Cook over medium heat until liquid is absorbed, giving it an occasional stir. If it gets too dry—mine did—add a bit more broth. The hash should take on a lovely golden-brown color.

Serves two generously, four with smaller helpings.

Who knew that old-fashioned hash could be so good? I didn’t even need ketchup.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

More on Sunday suppers

Smashed potatoes

   If you’ve followed my blogs at all, you know Sunday supper has been a big deal for me and my family for many years. It’s a time for the family to come together, share our week past and our hopes for the coming week. All over food, which I truly believe binds people together almost as much as prayer.

I’m also a fan of the almost daily email column from Sam Sifton, food editor at the New York Times. So I was delighted to find that Sifton has a new cookbook, out this week: See You on Sunday. Sifton believes, as I do, that people want a sense of belonging, and where better to find it than at the table. When people show up, he advises, feed them.

His book is a guide to preparing meals for a group larger than the average American family of four. (I used to feed about 15 on a Sunday night when my kids were in high school.) Pushing it on the TODAY show, Sifton fried chicken. The recipes seem chosen for the average cook, a refreshing change from a man whose recipes often call for dukkah, za’atar, harissa and houlamie. Certainly the table of contents is reassuringly familiar, with chapters on pasta and pizza, big meats, big pots, birds, and salads.

In the chapter on seafood, for instance, there are directions for roast fish, grilled fish, fish chowder, fish cakes, and so on. Your basics. A chapter on rice and beans offers discussions of white, brown, and wild rice, followed by a recipe for pilaf and then goes for the gold with paella. And red beans and rice, of course.

One of my weaknesses is that I copy or print recipes that sound wonderful but are so complicated that I know I’ll never fix them, cooking as I do on a hot plate and or in toaster oven. One such I recently found was for cabbage rolls stuffed not with beef and rice but with a chicken mixture and in a velvety cream sauce instead of the traditional red. I’m quite sure Sifton’s book doesn’t offer me those temptations.

But here’s what I did last Sunday night:

Salmon filet

1 lb. salmon

Olive oil

Minced parsley

Chopped garlic

Grated Parmesan

            Slather the filet with oil. Top with parsley, garlic, and cheese. Wrap in non-stick foil and bake at 400o for 15 minutes. My family thought it underdone, and we put it back for another five minutes, but I like my salmon closer to underdone than overdone. With this I served smashed potatoes. The fish was delicious and the potatoes good but not as crisp as I’d like.

Smashed potatoes

12 small potatoes (new red potatoes work but I used Yukon gold, about the size of a golf ball)

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper

3 Tbsp. butter, melted

I have seen far more complicated directions, with herbs and a complex sauce, but I went for simplicity and am glad I did. Boil potatoes until you can put a fork through them, but they are still firm, not mushy. Grease a glass baking dish with the olive oil. Put the potatoes in the dish and use a potato masher to smash each one individually. Paint the potatoes with olive oil, using a pastry brush. Salt and pepper to taste and pour butter over them. Bake 40 minutes at 350o.

I think too much butter prevented them from crisping up. My daughter put leftovers in a toaster oven, and they got crisp. You might try a higher temperature or a quick broil at the end of cooking time.

And here’s what I did with a tiny bit of leftover salmon: added one chopped green onion, about four slices cucumber, peeled and diced, juice of half a lemon, and enough mayonnaise to bind. Don’t make soup by adding too much mayo.

Happy Sunday dinner. Now I have to figure out what we’ll have this coming Sunday. Wish I already had Sifton’s book.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A recipe with a back story

One of my kids’ favorite dishes growing up was something I called green noodles. It’s quick and easy, vegetarian if that matters to you, and relatively inexpensive. It is not low-fat, at least not the way I do it. But there’s a story.

Way back when my brother was a bachelor Navy pilot in Corpus Christi, he courted a woman who had two children and little money. She used to tell that one night he was coming for supper and she had no money for groceries. So she cooked with what she had—spaghetti, pasta, and lemon. She made the simplest version ever of a lemon sauce—and he liked it. After they were married, I ate this dish many times at their table. (She is also the one who used to sauté sauerkraut in butter, slowly sprinkling it with sugar and turning, until it caramelizes—neither my brother nor I have ever mastered that since).

When I had children of my own, I gradually began to change the dish. The first big change was to use spinach fettucine in place of spaghetti. Then I thought chopped green onions might add a bit to it. Sliced mushrooms came next, and I loved the way they absorbed the lemon flavor. Quartered artichoke hearts came next, and like the mushrooms, absorbed the lemon flavor in a delicious way. Finally, I thought if you add Parmesan to traditional spaghetti sauce, maybe it would be good on green noodles. It was (though nowadays I prefer pecorino).

For many years that was how I served green noodles. But in recent years, I’ve had bumper crops of basil, more than I could use in daily cooking. So I made pesto and froze it in old-fashioned plastic ice cube trays so that I could pop one out whenever I needed it. A cube of pesto added the finishing touch to green noodles.


            Pine nuts are traditional in pesto, but being a good Texan, I prefer pecans.

Combine in food processor:

3 c. packed fresh basil leaves

4 cloves garlic, peeled

¾ c. grated Parmesan

½ c. olive oil

¼ c. chopped pecans

½ c. chopped parsley

Process until smooth. Will only keep in the refrigerator three or four day but freezes well.

Green Noodles

1 16-0z. pkg. spinach egg noodles

1 stick butter (you may want to use less, but I like plenty of sauce)

8 oz. mushrooms, sliced (I always buy whole and slice them myself)

4 scallions, chopped

1 can quartered artichoke hearts, drained

1 ice-cube size piece of pesto, thawed, or about 1 Tbsp.

Juice of one lemon

Cook and drain noodles. Melt butter in the skillet. Sauté the mushrooms and scallions in the butter. Add lemon juice to taste—I like lots. Toss in the pesto and stir to blend. Add noodles and toss to coat. Top with grated cheese.

My daughter-in-law Melanie used to do a slightly different version for her daughters when they were young. At a young age, both girls seemed to prefer savory to sweet, so Melanie cooked angel hair pasta and buttered it liberally; then she added lemon juice and capers. I watched in amazement one day as she dumped capers in out of the jar, not bothering to drain them (as I always do, with some difficulty). “Oh, yeah,” she said, “the juice adds a really good taste.” I tried it, and she was right.

Buon appetito!
I can't resist adding a funny thing with an Italian twist that I saw on Facebook. Police raided the home of an Italian family, looking for marijuana I suppose, and came up with 50 lbs. of dried basil. Gosh, I hope they don't come search my freezer!