Sunday, July 16, 2017

Golden Couscous with Chicken, Carrots, Turnips & Summer Squash

I tend to think of braises and stews as being autumn and winter foods.  But recently as I looked at some of my farmers' market vegetables I realized that I had the makings of a traditional Moroccan-style couscous of chicken and vegetables.  I have always thought it was odd that these stews often feature a combination of what I think of as winter root vegetables (carrots and turnips) and summer squash (or zucchini).  But there they were...young carrots, golden turnips and yellow squash...all in my market basket at the same moment.  And I have to admit that as we sat down to our hot, fragrant and spicy bowl of stew and couscous on a recent rather sultry evening, the food seemed to be a perfect (although unusual for me) match for the day. 

I should say up front that the dish I prepared is by no means an authentic couscous.  An authentic couscous would use dried (as opposed to canned) chickpeas...and it would definitely not use our ubiquitous instant/pre-steamed couscous.  A true Moroccan...or Algerian....couscous is prepared in a special pot called a couscoussière.  The pot is constructed like a double boiler-style steamer.  The bottom portion is a typical stewing pot and the top piece has a perforated bottom so that the couscous (a dried granular, semolina pasta) can steam over the fragrant stew—taking on the perfume of the spices in the stew as it cooks.  The cooking process takes two or three hours and twice during that time the couscous is turned out onto a large pan (like a paella pan) so that it can be hand "fluffed."  I had the pleasure of participating in the making of a traditional Algerian couscous many years ago while I was working in France.  It took the better part of an afternoon, and although I enjoyed myself immensely, when I want to put dinner on the table here at home, I am grateful for our pre-steamed couscous—which only takes about 10 minutes to make (and is pretty much all that one finds at American grocery stores).

The preparation of the "stew" portion of the couscous follows all of the basic rules of braising and stewing.  I wrote a stewing basics post several years ago that goes into all the pertinent details.  If you are a novice to stewing...or aren't happy with the way your stews turn might take a few moments to read that post.  A well made stew or braise is, I think, one of the finest foods around.

When I made our stew, I chose to use all chicken drumsticks.  If you don't like to eat with your hands, drumsticks aren't the best choice.  But if you don't mind, they are perfect...the one end making a convenient little handle.  Just make sure you provide plenty of napkins...or even finger bowls of water.  You can also make it with thighs—which are a bit easier to tackle with knife and fork...or are easily deboned in the kitchen so that people don't have to wrestle with bones at the table at all.  I would discourage the use of white meat for this stew.  You must pull the white meat out when it is just cooked or it will be tough and dry.  The vegetables will then have to go on cooking until they are done.  The vegetables take 50 minutes to an hour to cook.  The dark meat pieces are a perfect match since they will cook to beautiful, flavorful tenderness in just this amount of time.

Finally, the choice of vegetable varieties is up to you.  I happened to bring home some lovely Gold Ball turnips along with my carrots and yellow squash.  The result—when combined with the saffron and turmericwas what I thought was a fantastically beautiful study in yellows, oranges and golds.  But you can obviously make this dish with regular white turnips.  And even though I have lumped the carrots and turnips together in the ingredient list, I would encourage you to use roughly an equal quantity of each.  The stew will be a bit sweet and one dimensional without the turnips..and will tend towards bitterness without the balance of the carrots.  You may also use regular old zucchini instead of the yellow squash.  In the fall, you could make this dish with winter—instead of summer—squash.  Add winter squash 10 minutes after the root vegetables have been simmering for 10 minutes.

Chicken Braised with Carrots, Turnips and Summer Squash

2 1/2 to 3 lbs. chicken drumsticks, thighs or a combination
2 T. olive oil, divided
1 1/2 T. butter
1 1/4 lb. carrots and turnips—in any combination that you prefer (see notes)—trimmed and peeled
10 to 12 oz. summer squash or zucchini
1 large onion (12 oz.), diced
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1/2 t. (slightly mounded) ground ginger
1/4 t. (slightly mounded) turmeric
2 c. chicken stock or no-salt canned chicken broth
Generous pinch of saffron, crumbled
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice...more or less as needed
1/3 c. finely sliced flat leaf parsley
1/3 c. finely sliced cilantro
2 T. Harissa (more or less, to taste)—purchased, or make your own (recipe below)

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper.  In a large braising pan (wide enough to hold all the chicken and deep enough to accommodate all of the chicken and vegetables) set over moderate heat melt the butter in 1 T. of the olive oil.  When the butter is melted, increase the heat.  When the butter foam subsides, add the chicken (skin side down if using thighs).  Carefully brown the chicken until the fat is rendered and the skin is crisp and golden.  Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain and active sizzle without scorching the chicken.  Drumsticks will need to be carefully rotated and will take longer—perhaps 20 to 25 minutes.  Thighs will primarily need to be browned on the skin side with only a quick surface sear on the side without skin and will take less time. 

While the chicken browns, cut the vegetables.  Cut the carrots on a short diagonal into 3/4- to 1-inch chunks.  Cut the turnips into a rough 3/4- to 1-inch dice.  Trim the ends away from the squash.  Cut into 1-inch chunks. 

Remove the browned chicken pieces to a plate.  Add the onions to the pan along with a pinch of salt (and more olive oil if the pan seems dry).  Cook the onions over moderate heat—reducing the heat if they onions start to brown too much—until quite soft...15 minutes or longer, if necessary.  Add the garlic, cinnamon stick, ginger and turmeric and cook until fragrant (about a minute).  

Add the broth and the browned chicken (along with any juices that have been released as the chicken sits) to the pan.  Bring to a simmer.  Crumble in the saffron and season with 3/4 t. kosher salt (less if you have used salted broth).  Add the carrots and turnips and bring to a simmer.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and simmer gently for 20 minutes.  Add the squash...making sure all the vegetables are submerged in the broth...return to a simmer, cover and cook another 20 minutes.  Add the chickpeas, cover and continue to simmer until the vegetables and chicken are tender—another 10 to 20 minutes.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  If the dish seems very sweet...or one dimensional...add a squeeze of lemon.  

Serve with cilantro and parsley scattered over.  Pass Harissa separately so each diner can drizzle it on to taste (or...if you prefer...and you know that everyone will enjoy the heat of Harissa, stir 2 T. of Harissa into the broth prior to serving).  Serve accompanied by Apricot & Pistachio Couscous.

Serves 4 to 6.

Apricot & Pistachio Couscous

1 c. couscous
3/4 t. kosher salt
1/2 c. sliced dried apricots (75 grams)
2 T. unsalted butter
1 1/4 c. water
1/2 c. pistachios, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 t. cinnamon

Place the couscous in a medium sized bowl.  Add the salt and apricots and toss to combine.  Cut the butter into chunks and scatter over the surface.  Bring the water to a boil and pour over, swirling the bowl gently to make sure the water penetrates all of the couscous.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for 10 minutes.  Uncover, add the pistachios and cinnamon and fluff with a fork.  Taste and correct the seasoning.


1 t. cumin seed
1/2 t. coriander seed
1/2 t. caraway seed
4 hot red dried chiles (I use chile de árbol)—about 2 inches in length, stemmed and seeded or you prefer...and rough chopped
2 cloves peeled garlic
3/4 t. coarse salt, or to taste
1 medium red bell pepper—roasted, peeled, and chopped coarse
1 t. tomato paste
1 T. olive oil

Toast whole spices and chiles in a dry skillet until fragrant, then cool.

With an electric spice grinder, a cleaned coffee grinder, or a mortar and pestle, grind seeds and chiles fine. Transfer ground spices to a small food processor and add garlic and salt.  Grind mixture to a paste.  Add roasted pepper, tomato paste, and oil and process until smooth.

The harissa will keep, covered in a jar in the refrigerator, for weeks. It is HOT, savory and delicious.  Serve as a condiment with couscous and tagine. Makes 1/2 cup.

  • I use a rounded measure for each of the spices...and I remove the seeds from half of the chiles. 
  • If using a spice or coffee grinder to grind the spices and chiles, let the grinder sit for a moment or two before opening to allow the spices to settle. If you open it right away some of the spices and more significantly some of the chiles will be airborne—which will irritate your eyes and nose. 

(Harissa recipe courtesy of my friend Chef Nancy Stark)

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rigatoni with Broccolini, Garlic, Lemon & Ricotta

Last Saturday I came home from the farmers' market with a beautiful bunch of broccolini.  Since there are only two of us...and there was enough broccolini to make a side dish for four...or even six...I decided to make it the main event of our evening a pasta (of course).  It was delicious.  And since I noticed that I haven't posted any pastas yet this year(!), I thought I would share this one.

Although it still seems new-ish to me, Broccolini has actually been around for a while now.  Still, it is entirely possible that there are many who have not yet tried it.  Botanically it is a cross between broccoli and Chinese broccoli (sometimes called Chinese kale since it is a leafy vegetable with insignificant florets).  Broccolini has smaller florets and more slender stalks than broccoli.  I find that it has a flavor that is similar to broccoli but a bit more pungent—sort of turnip-like, in fact.  But since all of the broccolis, kales and turnips (as well as cabbages) are members of the Brassica (or mustard) family, the peppery quality is a matter of nuance and degree.  Considering this, Broccolini is relatively mild—some even say sweet—and should be well received by anyone who likes broccoli.

The slender stalks of broccolini are tender and cook just as quickly as the florets.  This makes it so that the stalks/spears can be left whole for cooking and be served as an elegant side much the same way one might serve asparagus.  Broccolini was originally called Aspiration...which probably came from a desire to suggest this style of serving (not because it is botanically related to asparagus in any way).

Like broccoli and kale, broccolini is complimented nicely by garlic, heat and lemon.  So with the addition of a little ricotta to add richness, my pasta practically made itself.  If it happens that you have never had broccolini, this pasta would be a great first bite.  And if you want to try it all on its own, just prepare as directed and serve without the noodles and cheese.

Rigatoni with Broccolini, Lemon, Garlic & Ricotta

1 bunch broccolini, trimmed of very thick/tough ends and cut on a long diagonal (about 1/2-inch thick)...florets halved if very fat (trimmed weight about 6 oz./180 g.)
2 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 very fat clove garlic, thinly sliced crosswise (use mandoline)
A generous pinch hot pepper flakes
6 oz./180 g. Rigatoni (or other short, sturdy, tubular pasta)
2 T. pine nuts, lightly toasted
Zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 to 1 1/2 oz. pecorino, grated medium fine
3 oz. whole milk ricotta

Remove the ricotta from the refrigerator and spread it on a plate so that it will warm to room temperature.

Bring a large pot of well-salted water (about a teaspoon of salt per quart).

Place 2 T. of oil in a medium sauté pan along with the garlic and pepper flakes and set over medium heat.  When the garlic begins to sizzle, drop the broccolini in the pot of water.  Cook for one minute, scoop out and add to the pan with the oil and garlic (which should be just beginning to turn golden at the edges...if it begins to color before the broccolini is ready, remove from heat and drizzle in some of the cooking water to stop the cooking).  The oil will sputter and pop when the water clinging to the florets hits the pan.  This is fine.  Continue to cook over moderate heat while the pasta cooks, stirring occasionally and letting it sizzle gently and even brown in spots, until cooked to the doneness you desire.  I like it to be tender, but not mushy.  It should still have some texture.  Set aside until the pasta is done.

As soon as you remove the broccolini from the pot, drop the pasta.  Stir to make sure the pasta isn't sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Cook until the pasta is al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid.  Return the pan of broccolini to moderate heat and add the pasta.  Scatter the pine nuts and zest over all.  Toss, taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.  If the pasta seems dry, add some of the pasta water.  Add most of the Pecorino and toss again.  Add more pasta water if necessary.  Finish with a drizzle of oil.  Toss again. 

To serve, divide the pasta among to plates and dollop small spoonfuls of ricotta over each serving.  Drizzle with olive oil, scatter the remaining Pecorino over and serve. 

Alternatively, dollop spoonfuls of the ricotta over the broccolini and pasta while still in the pan. Drizzle with olive oil and scatter the Pecorino over the top.  Serve from the pan.  (Do not stir the ricotta in.)  Serves 2.

Note:  The recipe is easily multiplied to serve four or more.  Choose a sauté pan that is wide enough to hold all the broccolini in a snug single layer.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sweet Corn Coleslaw

I have been enjoying an unusual number of raw (or mostly raw) vegetable salads over the past month. It started with the shaved vegetable salad I posted in early June...and has continued as the local cabbage crop has hit its stride. I can't help but think that this is due in part to the large variety and quality of vegetables that I have been finding at the Brookside Farmers' Market this year. Every week I come home laden with fantastically beautiful produce...produce that is often so fresh and bursting with life that I just want to eat it raw. Lunch time has become an adventure in raw vegetable salads....salads that often don't even include lettuce.

The vegetable salad I'm sharing today is technically a coleslaw (which I learned recently is from the Dutch—koolsla—and simply means "cabbage salad"...).  I have to admit that I have never liked coleslaw very much.  But as has almost always been the case with me, I have found that this was probably due to the fact that I had a bad taste in my mouth from inferior versions—in this case courtesy of fast food and BBQ joints.  Cabbage salad...made with fresh cabbage combined with interesting ingredients and a tangy dressing (creamy...or not) delicious, addictive and oh so versatile.  It can be a side, a garnish...or the main vegetable component of an entrée. 

A couple of weeks ago the first of the sweet corn crop started to trickle into Kansas City's City Market. I make a special trip to my old market just to get corn.... I love sweet corn. And I love it roasted and tossed in a salad. So, inspired by a grilled corn slaw from Yotam Ottolenghi, I decided to add some to a batch of coleslaw. Combined with finely sliced fresh cabbage, grated carrots, julienned kohlrabi (also inspired by Ottolenghi), a tiny hint of shaved red onion...and doused with a generous quantity of a freshly made tangy & herby ranch made a fantastic and slightly sweet coleslaw (without having to add any sugar). We enjoyed it with a pork chop....and also with a pan-seared chicken cutlet. I know it would be equally good with a grilled burger...or some classic Kansas City style barbeque.

It was my intention to have this recipe posted in time for Independence Day. And I suppose it is technically in time... But I imagine most people already have their menus set for their celebrations. But if you do not...and you have access to delicious local cabbage and corn (and kohlrabi and carrots!) most certainly have time to add this to your menu—it comes together in a snap. If, on the other hand your plans are set, you should definitely make plans to make this slaw sometime soon. Corn...and cabbage...season has just begun. And even if you think you don't like should give this salad a might just change your mind.

Market Coleslaw with Sweet Corn, Kohlrabi & Carrots

1/4 of a 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lb. head of green/white cabbage, cored and finely shredded (about 4 to 5 oz. trimmed weight)
1 small kohlrabi, peeled and cut into a scant 1/8-inch julienne (about 3 to 4 oz. trimmed weight)
1/3 lb. carrots, peeled and coarsely grated (about 4 oz. net)
1/2 oz./1/4 c. very thinly sliced red onion (use a mandolin)—rinsed under cold running water (in a sieve) and well drained
1/2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more as needed
1/2 t. kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 large ears sweet corn, roasted and cooled
1 recipe Ranch Dressing, made with 2 T. lime juice, 2 T, minced parsley, 1 T. chopped dill and 1 T. minced mint (see note)
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the first four ingredients in a large bowl and add a half tablespoon of lemon juice and a half teaspoon of kosher salt.  Toss to distribute the salt and lemon.  Set aside for an hour (refrigerating if the room is warm).

Cut the kernels away from the corn cobs. Run the back of your knife down the length of each cob, going all the way around, releasing the "milk" and residual bits of corn. Add these scrapings to the kernels. You should have about 2 cups of cut corn.

Add the corn to the bowl of shredded vegetables and toss to combine.

Drizzle in about 2/3 to 3/4 of the dressing and toss to coat. Add as much of the remaining dressing as is necessary to coat everything and make a moderately creamy slaw. Taste and correct the seasoning with kosher salt, black pepper and lemon juice. If you like a very sweet slaw, you might need to add a drizzle of honey...but I find that the corn and carrots add plenty of sweetness without additional sugar.

If not serving immediately, chill. This slaw keeps well for 3 or 4 days. Serves 6 generously as a side.

Note: You may of course vary the herbs as you prefer. More dill will give a tangier impression...more mint a sweeter flavor profile.

Printable Recipe (for salad)
Printable Recipe (for dressing)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Cabbage...Buttered...with Peas & Prosciutto (and a bonus recipe for Cabbage & Kohlrabi Slaw from Ottolenghi)

I used to think of cabbage as a winter food.  It is of course a "storage vegetable" (it keeps well...and for a long period of time).  But my thinking probably had more to do with the fact that I didn't really add cabbage to my diet until I started enjoying Colcannon Potatoes every year for St. Patrick's Day.  It is always abundant in the stores at that time (more for cabbage and corned beef than for Colcannon I suspect...).   And since I am part of a household of just two, there is always a lot of cabbage left from the head I purchase for our Irish feast.  For a couple of weeks after St. Patrick's Day we always enjoy it in various forms—soups, pastas, winter slaws, warm salads and etc.  I'm not sure why I don't purchase it more really is quite versatile. 

As I wrote when I shared her recipe, it didn't dawn on me that summer was the season for cabbage until I ran across Suzanne Goin's Cabbage and Sweet Corn Sauté with Bacon a few years ago (a wonderful recipe...most definitely worth trying if you think you don't like cabbage).  When I first made that recipe, I noticed that a few growers at my old farmers' market had cabbage....but it wasn't particularly abundant.  But at the market I began frequenting last year, many (if not all) of the vendors grow cabbage.  Beautiful Napas, tiny little cone shaped cabbages (perfect for a small household), 

big firm green/white and red well as Savoy. 

This year, I have been trying to change my ways...keeping cabbage on hand right now, while it's fresh locally.  We have been enjoying it in both its raw and cooked form.  Most people are familiar with coleslaw...but that is just the veriest tip of the iceberg when it comes to raw cabbage salads.  Depending on how finely you slice/shred it...and how long you allow it to sit in the dressing prior to can have a prominent or delicate crunch.  Like coleslaw, cabbage can comprise the majority of a salad...or, it can be just one element...adding texture and interest to other ingredients.  It can be the star of the plate in a big, entrée-style (lunch) or side salad.  And it can also take the form of a garnish (finely shredded and tossed with citrus, herbs, onion...maybe a radish or two...and served as an accompaniment for a piece of grilled or sautéed fish...or perhaps a soft taco or tostada...)

This month a cookbook group that I am a part of on Facebook is cooking through recipes from the Ottolenghi cookbooks.  I haven't had much time this month to try new things in the kitchen, but I took the time to try a raw cabbage salad from the book Plenty.  I noticed the salad because it included not only cabbage (which I happened to have), but also all kinds of things that are available at my farmers' market right now (kohlrabi, alfalfa shoots, dill).  It was very good...tangy and refreshing on a hot day.  With the exception of one minor tweak, I made the recipe exactly as written.  Because I didn't really change it, I wasn't going to post it.  But then I considered the fact that it includes kohlrabi...and I changed my mind.  If you have been wondering what to do with that kohlrabi that appeared in your CSA share, you should definitely give this salad a try. 

In its cooked form, cabbage is good in the aforementioned stews and quick sautés.  But I think I like it best lightly cooked in a slight film of buttered, simmering water.  When cooked in this manner it is soft and tender...but not mushy at all.  Furthermore, it cooks quickly so it doesn't take on the strong "cabbage-y" aroma of long boiled cabbage.  It is in fact mild and sweet when treated this way.

Recently I added a few fresh peas to my cabbage as it cooked...along with some prosciutto and fresh herbs.  Cured the form of bacon and air-cured a traditional accompaniment to both cabbage and peas.  Combining them all in the same pan seemed like a no-brainer.  Served with some fresh, wild sock-eye salmon that happens to be in season at the same time as the cabbage and peas, it made a simple, subtle and utterly delicious early summer meal.  Sadly, where I live, peas are going out of season...but hopefully you have been able to freeze a few.  If not, fresh corn, cut from the cob, would make a delicious substitute.  Cabbage is definitely summer food.

Buttered Cabbage with Peas & Prosciutto

250 grams/9 oz. green/white cabbage
2 small spring onions (or scallions), white portions plus some of the green, finely sliced (to make a generous 1/3 cup)
1 1/2 to 2 T. butter, divided
1 T. picked thyme, roughly chopped
1/2 T. chiffonade fresh sage leaves
1 oz. (2 slices) thinly sliced prosciutto, cut cross-wise in 1/4-inch wide ribbons
Zest of 1/2 a small lemon (1 t.)
1/2 c. peas (thawed, if using frozen)

Halve the cabbage through the core.  Cut into manageable wedges (about 1 1/2- to 2-inches wide) to yield the weight that you need.  Return the remainder to the fridge for another use.  Cut the cores out of the wedges.  Slice the wedges cross-wise into 1/4-inch ribbons.  You should have about 200g/7 oz. of sliced cabbage.  Set aside.

Melt a tablespoon of the butter in a medium-sized wide sauté pan (with a lid) set over medium heat.  Add the spring onion along with a pinch of salt and cook 'til tender...about 5 minutes.  Add another 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of butter along with the herbs and a couple tablespoons of water and increase the heat slightly. When the butter is melted and the water is simmering, add the cabbage with a pinch of salt and toss to coat in the butter and onions.  Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer gently until the cabbage is tender but still has texture—maybe 4 or 5 minutes.  Add the peas (if using fresh), prosciutto and zest.  If the pan is dry, add a splash of water.  Cover and continue and simmer until the peas and cabbage are tender (but not mushy)...another 2 to 5 minutes. 

If using frozen peas, wait to add until the cabbage is tender (adding the prosciutto and zest when the cabbage is half cooked). 

Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Serves 2

  • This recipe is easily multiplied; simply increase the size of your sauté pan as necessary so that it will accommodate the cabbage when covered. 
  • This is delicious with pan-seared wild salmon. Heat a sauté pan (large enough to comfortably hold all of the fish) over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating, season the fish on both sides with salt & pepper. Add a thin film of oil to the pan. When the oil is very hot, add the fish, skinned side up ("service side" down). Cook until golden brown and crisp—about 2 to 3 minutes, regulating the heat as necessary to prevent smoking but at the same time, maintaining an active sizzle. Turn and cook the fish (either on the stove or transferring to the oven), until barely opaque in the center—another 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets. Give the filets a generous squeeze of lemon juice and serve. 
  • I noticed when I linked to my post of Suzanne Goin's Cabbage with Corn and Bacon recipe that these two recipes are actually quite similar. Clearly I have absorbed her recipe into my cooking psyche! I think of this one as a softer, gentler version....and I love the all green flecked with pink...set off and echoed by the pink salmon. 

Cabbage and Kohlrabi Salad

1 medium kohlrabi (8 to 9 oz.)
1/2 white cabbage (8 to  9 oz.)
1 garlic clove
6 tablespoons lemon juice
6 heaped T. roughly chopped dill
1 cup dried tart cherries (roughly chopped if very large)
grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 c. olive oil
2 cups alfalfa sprouts
salt and pepper to taste

Peel the kohlrabi and cut into thick matchsticks that are about 1/4 inch wide and 2 inches long. Cut the cabbage into 1/4-inch-thick strips.

Using a microplane zester, grate the garlic clove into the lemon juice and let sit for five minutes or so.

Put the cabbage, kohlrabi and lemon juice with garlic, along with all the remaining ingredients except the alfalfa sprouts, in a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, massage everything together for about a minute so the flavors mix and the lemon can soften the cabbage and cherries. Let the salad sit for about 10 minutes.

Add most of the alfalfa sprouts and mix well again with your hands. Taste and adjust the seasoning; you will need a fair amount of salt to counteract the lemon. (If the salad seems well-seasoned and it is still a bit sharp for you taste, give it a small drizzle of honey and toss again.)

Use your hands again to lift the salad out of the mixing bowl and into a serving bowl, leaving most of the juices behind. Garnish with the remaining sprouts and serve at once.  Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Salad of Late Spring Vegetables with Mint, Feta & Black Olives ...and a great Basic Vinaigrette

One day last week I joined a friend at a small bar & grill near my home for lunch.  I ordered a Reuben.  I couldn't resist.  And it was delicious.  But as is so often the case, it was very large...too large.  And even though I only ate half of it, it was just too much—so much heavier than the kinds of things I normally eat for lunch.  When the dinner hour rolled around I still wasn't very hungry.  What I really wanted was a plate of raw vegetables.

As I looked through my vegetable drawer, I realized that something fresh, light and raw was definitely within my reach.  The market this time of year is serving up young, crisp root vegetables (radishes, carrots, white top "salad" turnips), crunchy head lettuces (like iceberg and romaine)...and peas of all kinds.  As I looked at all of this bounty I remembered a salad I taught in a recent class.   The salad features shaved radishes and lightly blanched snow peas...but it's mostly an idea for how to combine and enjoy the best vegetables of late spring in their raw and lightly cooked state.  Suddenly the light and fresh meal that I craved was taking shape. 

Two things set this salad apart:  the vinaigrette...and the combination of the olives, feta and mint.  Over the past couple of weeks I have made this salad with lots of different combinations of vegetables, but always the same dressing and garnish.  It has been delicious every time. The vinaigrette is my current "house" vinaigrette.  It is from Monique Jamet Hooker's Cooking with the Seasons and is appropriately dubbed "Basic Vinaigrette."  It is tangy and flavorful, but neutral enough to go with all kinds of different ingredients and styles of salads.  You can even turn it into a creamy vinaigrette by adding some heavy cream (add a tablespoon of cream for every two tablespoons of vinaigrette).  It is a great vinaigrette to keep on hand.  It doesn't separate (the presence of the Dijon...and mixing it in a blender...contribute to a stable emulsion) and it stays liquid in the refrigerator, ready to be used without having to be set out to warm up and become liquid again.

As for the garnish, the salt in the feta and olives does a fantastic job of drawing out the flavors of each vegetable.  This is what the classic pairing of radishes with butter and salt is all about—elevating a simple raw vegetable and allowing it to shine.  Similarly, if you have never enjoyed a carrot, cut into slender sticks and accompanied by a little pile of salt in which to dip them, you should give it a try.

The mint too seems indispensable to me.  It adds the perfect cool and fresh tone to the salad.  I'm pretty sure I would miss it if it weren't there.  It does not seem like a coincidence to me that at the same time the young root vegetables and peas are thriving on the farms in my region that the mint in my garden is at its best—reveling in the cool days of spring.  Mint is a wonderful partner for the vegetables of spring.  If you don't have mint, I'm sure other soft herbs would be good too...flat leaf parsley...perhaps some dill...or basil...  But I don't think any of them would have quite the same effect as the mint.   

The manner of cutting the vegetables is important too.  Everything should be finely/thinly sliced or shaved.  The lettuces, since they are inherently thin, can be cut into a small rough chop, but I think they look pretty when shaved/thinly sliced.  Carrots, radishes, turnips and fennel should all be thinly sliced on a mandolin or the salad becomes an exercise for your jaw more than anything else.  Snap peas and snow peas benefit from a one minute blanch in boiling water.  It sets their bright green color and softens their crunch just a bit.  It would be better to eat them raw than to cook them to mush though....a minute really is sufficient.  And make sure you rinse them under cold running water or drop them in an ice bath to stop the cooking (and then spread them on towels to dry so the water clinging to them won't water down your vinaigrette).  After blanching, the peas can be added to the salad whole...or sliced on the diagonal into two or three pieces.  English peas are also pretty in this salad—tossed in raw or blanched.  I have even added asparagus...thinly sliced on a slight diagonal.  You can blanch it...or not.  Asparagus can also be shaved into long ribbons with a vegetable which case you would add it raw. 

Shredded Iceberg, radishes, sugar snap peas, asparagus, sunflower shoots and mint
I would advise against using too many different kinds of vegetables.  In addition to the lettuce, a medley of four or five (or less) seems like a nice number...each item remains identifiable in the mix.  Too much more than that and the individual interest of each one is lost.  As with the original snow pea and radish salad that inspired mine, you can dispense with the lettuce altogether (if you don't have it...or don't like it), but I find that a little adds fluff and a bit of lighter crunch in the midst of the more serious crunch of the root vegetables.  

Finally, when you are choosing your vegetables consider whether they are hot and pungent...or sweet and mild...and balance them accordingly.  I personally like a salad of at least a third...preferably half...sugar snap or snow peas.  Peas are naturally sweet...and their crunch is delicate.  The salad would seem more like a relish or root vegetable slaw without them.

I don't very often eat such a light meal for dinner, but on the evening in question—served with a bit of nice bread—it was just the thing.  It will probably be the rare occasion when this salad appears on my dinner table as anything but a side (it would be great with grilled burgers...or fish...or chicken...).  But since that first dinner, I have had it for lunch several times.   Each time the composition of vegetables and lettuces has been slightly different.  And each time it has been a delicious little celebration of the light and fresh foods that are filling my farmers' market right now. 

Salad of Late Spring Vegetables with Feta, Olives & Mint

1 lb. (trimmed weight) young spring vegetables—use a mix of three or four of the following:  radishes, carrots, fennel bulb, white top salad turnips, asparagus spears, sugar snap peas, snow peas
6 oz. (more or less) chopped or thinly shaved ice berg lettuce or romaine hearts
Salt & Pepper
1/2 c. mint chiffonade
About a half cup basic vinaigrette, plus more for drizzling
1/2 c. olives, pitted and cut into lengthwise strips
1/2 to 2/3 c. crumbled Feta

Prepare the vegetables:  For sugar snap and snow peas, remove the strings. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil.  Add the peas and blanch until the water returns to a boil—about a minute.  Transfer the peas to a bowl of ice water.  When cold, lift out and spread on kitchen towels.  Blot dry.  They may be left as they are, but I like to cut them into 1/4-inch strips on the diagonal.

Asparagus may be cut in thin slices on a short diagonal and added raw or blanched (like the peas), or they may be shaved into long strips using a vegetable peeler and added raw.

Fennel and young root vegetables should be trimmed and sliced thinly crosswise (at a slight angle if appropriate) using a mandolin.  Peel the carrots and salad turnips first, if you like.  I would recommend peeling if the skin is especially tough or dirty.

Place the vegetables, lettuce and mint in a large bowl.  Season well with salt & pepper.  Drizzle in about a third cup of the vinaigrette.  Toss until everything is well coated...adding more vinaigrette as necessary.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  You may add the Feta and olives and toss to combine—or plate the salad (on individual plates or in a large serving bowl) by layering handfuls of salad and sprinkling of feta and olives in between the layers, finishing with a final scattering of feta and olives and a drizzle of vinaigrette, if you like.  Serve right away.  If you have not used any lettuce, the salad may be held briefly in the refrigerator before serving.  Serves 4 as a light entrée or lunch...8 as a side salad. 

  • Quantities of vinaigrette, mint, olives and Feta should be to taste.  I have given amounts only as a starting point.  You should alter to suit your preferences and your palate.
  • I think this salad is best when 1/3 to 1/2 of the vegetables are made up of sugar snap or snow peas.  As you consider the vegetables you will add, think about the character of each...whether they are hot and pungent...or sweet and mild...and balance them accordingly to obtain a pleasing whole.
  • The quantities in this recipe are easily divided for an impromptu lunch for one...or multiplied for a large party or buffet platter.  In general, the amounts given are a guideline.   You should use amounts and quantities that suit your appetite and your palate.
  • Sprouts and shoots make a delicious addition to this salad.  More substantial varieties can be tossed in with the lettuce and vegetables...more delicate ones should be scattered over the finished salad.

Basic Vinaigrette:
1 T. finely minced shallot
1 small clove of garlic, minced
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 T. Dijon mustard
3/4 c. oil—olive oil, or half olive oil and half vegetable oil
1 T. finely minced parsley

Place the shallot, garlic, vinegar, pepper and a half teaspoon of kosher salt in the cup of an immersion blender...or regular blender.  Let sit for five minutes.  Add the mustard. With the blender running, add the oil in a thin stream to form a thick, emulsified dressing.  Add the parsley and process briefly...or simply stir in.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Makes 1 cup vinaigrette.

The dressing keeps at least two weeks in the refrigerator.  If all olive oil is used, it will solidify under refrigeration and you will need to bring to room temperature before using.  When made with half vegetable oil it will still be pourable when cold.

Note: You may add the parsley with the Dijon...just be aware that your vinaigrette will have a pale green cast to it.