Friday, May 30, 2014

Salad Days Are Here Again
What’s cooking? Spring Veggie Salad with Mint Vinaigrette

I started thinking about this post by looking up the term “salad days” in Wikipedia. Wouldn’t you know it, that rascal Will Shakespeare coined the phrase in 1606, when he used it in Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra laments her dalliances with Caesar and refers to “My salad days, When I was green in judgment...”

I remember my own salad days – crazy, fun days living and working and playing in Manhattan, with more than a few dalliances – and I marvel now that I made it through those days alive. Talk about green... And yet salad wasn’t a food I much liked. I knew nothing about making salad dressing, or the huge range of foods that can go into a good salad.

These days, I think more favorably of salads. They’re the Jackson Pollocks of the kitchen – free-form collections of wildly and widely ranging ingredients, from fruits and veggies to nuts and proteins and grains, tossed and turned with dressings that cover the sweet/savory waterfront. Europeans tend to serve salads after the main course, as a sort of refreshing break between the entrée and the cheese course or dessert. Most American restaurants serve it at the beginning of the meal, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. My dinner parties tend to be buffet-style, so the salad is just part of the buffet.

The best salads are seasonal, taking advantage of the textures and flavors available now. I think that’s what I like most about the salad I made last weekend – featuring asparagus, snow peas, and English peas, on a bed of mâche and sunflower sprouts – and I dressed it with a vinaigrette made with mint from my garden. The final touch is a sprinkling of fresh dill.

I love wandering farther afield than your basic salad greens – although a “spring mix” of baby greens will work as well in this salad. Mostly, I hate the tedium of tearing lettuce, so I’m thrilled when there’s a good alternative that doesn’t require tearing. Mâche (rhymes with gosh) is a soft-textured lettuce, also known as lamb’s lettuce or corn salad, that’s increasingly easy to find these days. Deep green in color and sold in packages of rosettes, the leaves have a shape that reminds me of cartoon speech bubbles. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and, according to Wikipedia, three times as much vitamin C as lettuce, in addition to beta-carotene, Vitamin B6, iron, and potassium. The sunflower sprouts – also available almost everywhere these days – are similarly packed with good stuff: high in fiber, protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, B complex, C, D and E. So eat your salad – it really is good for you!

Kitchen Goddess note: What I like most about this salad is the effect of the shaved asparagus and the julienned snow peas. You wouldn’t think these cuts would inprove the taste, but they do. I don’t have an actual scientific explanation, but in both instances, you’re exposing more of the sweet inner flesh of the veggie and less of the tough outer skin, so what your taste buds experience is more of the natural sugar of the plant. Also, more of the vegetable gets exposed to the dressing, and that may add to the effect. At least, that’s my analysis. (The mathematician in me wants to get into a discussion of surface area ratios, but I’ll spare you that.) So while you might think these cuts were just some display of Kitchen Goddess obsessiveness, there’s a real difference in the taste of the salad. And it does add to the look. 

By the way, the season for English peas is painfully short, so you need to try this salad now. While you’re at it, buy some extras and make Cold Spring Pea Soup.

Tips from a Professional

In his wonderful cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller – owner and chef of The French Laundry (Napa Valley) and Per Se (NYC) – offers three steps to help you dress your salad like the pros.

➊ First, drizzle the dressing around the inside of the salad bowl – not on top of the greens – so that the greens pick it up evenly as you toss them. Don’t overdress the salad – you want the greens just lightly coated. Add dressing sparingly, then offer guests a small pitcher of dressing on the side.

➋ The next step is to add salt and pepper, then toss again to distribute the seasoning.

➌ Lastly, sprinkle any herbs you want on top of the greens. Except for chives, which must be sliced, tear the herbs instead of cutting them, so you don’t leave their flavors on the cutting board.

This is a great salad for a dinner party, as you can prepare the snow peas, English peas, and asparagus well before serving and refrigerate them separately in zip-lock baggies so they stay fresh, then toss them together at the last moment. The mâche and sprouts come ready to use. You can make the Mint Vinaigrette the day before (it will last a week or so, but the color of the mint will fade) – I think you will love the light, fresh flavor it adds to the salad.

The quantities below should serve four, unless, like me, you become so obsessed that you sit down and eat the whole thing for lunch. And of course, the idea of counting out 36 peas is a bit absurd. I gave you these quantities as guidelines – feel free to use a pea more or less.

Spring Veggie Salad

Serves 4.

2-3 ounces mâche (or a mix of baby greens)
2-3 ounces sunflower sprouts
12 snow peas, julienned (sliced thinly)
4 medium-thick asparagus, shaved
36 English peas, uncooked
Mint Vinaigrette (recipe below)
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh dill leaves

Toss together the mâche and sprouts, then sprinkle them with the snow peas, asparagus, and English peas. Dress with Mint Vinaigrette (recipe below), add salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle on fresh dill before serving.

Mint Vinaigrette

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1½ teaspoons honey
½ teaspoon minced shallot
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup grapeseed oil or good olive oil
10 fresh mint leaves, stems removed

At least an hour before serving, combine the lemon juice, honey, shallot, mustard and salt in a blender and blend until smooth (15-20 seconds). While the machine is running, add the oil in a slow stream and continue blending until the mixture emulsifies (comes together), about a minute.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother’s Day! One of Those No-Cook Days
What’s cooking? Gazpacho

My mother was a little bit crazy. Okay, occasionally she was a lot crazy. But she meant well.

I called her “Mumzy” ever since one summer day when I was home from college, a day when I guess my brother and I had made one too many requests. “And stop calling me ‘Mama,’” she said. “It’s so boring. ‘Mama, Mama, Mama’ – why can’t you call me something with a little more pizzazz? Something like... ‘Mumzy.’”

I thought that need to be slightly exotic was part of her personality as an artist. Our house in San Antonio was a private showcase for her art, which hung in every room. I still have works of hers – in watercolor, oils, mosaic tile, collage, and India ink. Her friends were always asking her to paint something for them, and she gave a few pieces away. But her best-known – and least serious – work was the powder room in our house, where she decorated the walls with a pattern of smiling mermaids. Like many of her projects, it took more time and effort than she had imagined in the planning stage; she was so tired of smiling mermaids by the time she finished that she painted the last one frowning. You could only see it when the door was closed, and my brother and I never tired of pointing it out to our friends.

I didn’t inherit her talent, but she taught me an appreciation for line and form and color, along with the courage to wipe the canvas clean and start over if you don’t like what you’ve done. I make use of that courage in the kitchen these days.

She wasn’t a perfect mother, but who among us is? I lie awake at night sometimes, thinking of the things I myself should have done differently as a mother, and being thankful that my sons turned into such nice people in spite of my efforts. Mumzy gave it her best shot, which I think is all any of us can do. And my brother and I never doubted that she loved us.

* * *

My mother’s love of the exotic made itself known in the kitchen, though the dishes she produced in that vein were only exotic in the 1950s and ‘60s. Gumbo, steamed artichokes, fresh spinach salads, and pickled eggs made regular appearances, and her parties might feature chicken liver pâté or mango champagne cake. Gazpacho was also a favorite dish, and while I don’t have her recipe for it, I do have one from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook that is to die for.

It works well for this post, because Mumzy didn’t really like everyday cooking. So this recipe doesn’t require any. It’s simple and easy – the key is that the ingredients really need to marinate together overnight, so start the day before you want to serve. The sweetness of the red onion and tomatoes balances the slight bitterness of the green bell peppers and cucumber, and there’s a fresh vegetable-ness that comes through loud and clear. Yet, departing from tradition, it’s served as a fine purée, so you don’t get that sensation of chewing your way through the produce aisle.

The balsamic reduction is a sparkly garnish to the soup – only a few dots on top will do the trick – but it’s not mandatory. The soup will be glorious with or without it. The reduction takes only time – almost no effort – and can hang out in your pantry for months next to the oils and vinegars. I keep mine in a plastic squeeze bottle, like this. Or you can garnish it with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche or even fresh ricotta.

Gazpacho is light and refreshing as part of a summer meal, but I love serving it as an hors d’oeuvre for a party any time of the year. I keep a good supply of 2-ounce shot glasses for that purpose, several styles of which are available on I put out a tray of filled glasses, and nearby I leave a pitcher of more for refills.


Adapted from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook.

Makes about 8 cups.

1 cup diced tomato (½-inch dice)
1 cup diced green bell pepper
1 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced English cucumber
1½ teaspoons minced garlic
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons best quality olive oil
¼ cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups tomato juice or V-8
sprig of fresh thyme

Combine all ingredients into a large pitcher or bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove the thyme sprig and process in a blender until the mixture is smoothly puréed (2-3 minutes). Chill until ready to serve.

Garnish with any of the following:
■ a few drops of Balsamic Reduction (also called Balsamic Glaze), and/or celery stick or endive leaf or toasted crouton
■ dolop of sour cream or crème fraîche or fresh ricotta

Balsamic Reduction/Glaze

Place 2 cups of balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan on medium heat. When steam begins to rise from the vinegar, reduce the heat to keep the vinegar at that “steam” point. You don’t want to generate any bubbles. (If you can’t reduce your heat enough, you may want to use a heat diffuser.) Keep the liquid at this “steam” level for 2-3 hours, without stirring, until it becomes thick and syrupy. You’ll have about ½ cup of liquid. Store in a squeeze bottle in your pantry.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What to Do with All Those Roasted Red Bell Peppers
What’s cooking? Roasted Red Pepper Aioli, Romesco Sauce, and Polenta Canapés

My husband is away on a golfing trip, so I’ve been on my own for a few days now. And even as I pull away from the curb after dropping him off at the airport, I’m already thinking about what I can cook while he’s gone. In what now has become something of a routine, I don’t even return home but head straight for my favorite supermarket to stock up on foods that (a) he doesn’t like, or (b) I want to play with in the absence of any pressure to fix dinner.

It gets a little weird after a while. The first night he was gone, I decided to try roasting broccolini (brushed with a bit of lemon olive oil and salt, baked at 375º for 15-20 minutes), and it was so good, I ate the entire bunch. (I broiled a piece of cod to go with it, so you don’t think I’m completely off center.) Then last night, I sautéed chicken gizzards for dinner, which I got around to at about 9 p.m.

I love chicken gizzards – and no, I’m not going to suggest that you try them. It’s a little like feasting on rubber bands. But my grandmother loved chicken gizzards, so I took it on faith that they were a delicacy; and for many true southerners, that remains the case. My friend, Diane, from Georgia, is the only person I know who will happily gnaw away with me on a basket of gizzards from Lucy’s Fried Chicken.

We all have those foods, don’t we? Akin to comfort food, those items we secretly love but don’t often admit to. Another of mine is a can of Campbell’s Pork & Beans – not heated, just straight from the can. You wouldn’t think the Kitchen Goddess capable of such blasphemous behavior, would you?

On to the Roasted Red Pepper Sauces

Remember these? Did you make some? If not, you'll want to now. Or buy some, and keep reading.

I did spend most of Saturday working on what I promised you, which is a couple of ways to use those delicious roasted red peppers from my antipasto post last week. You did make them, didn’t you? It’s not critical – the recipes here will still be good using the ones in a jar from the grocery store, but you really should at least try roasting your own. It’ll take a couple of hours, but the process is easy and the result is a stash of this condiment that’s amazingly flexible. Also, the ones you roast and jar on your own are waaaay better in delivering a smoky/sweet red bell pepper flavor.

Kitchen Goddess note: The grocery store peppers in a jar will most likely be packed in a brine. If you use them, be sure to rinse them and blot them to remove the brine. Huffington Post did a recent taste test of 13 brands, which you can check out here.

So here’s what we have today, and both are as easy and simple to make as you can imagine – no cooking required:

Roasted Red Pepper Aioli – Although the name comes from the Provençal words for garlic and oil, aioli is more of an emulsion like mayo, though not as thick. This version doesn’t need any extra garlic, as the peppers are already flavored with it. In addition to the smoky sweetness from the peppers, the sauce gets a tangy tweak from the mustard and lemon juice. Served cold, it’s great as a dipping sauce for crudité or cold shrimp, and it often accompanies cooked seafood like crab cakes, fried clams or fried calamari. Use it as a sandwich spread, a dressing for a pasta salad, or even as a sauce for grilled chicken or flank steak.

Romesco Sauce – This nut- and red pepper-based sauce comes from the Catalonia region of Spain. I made my version with almonds, but you could substitute pignoli nuts or hazelnuts, or use a mixture of almonds and hazelnuts. I had only plain, slivered almonds, so I toasted them under the broiler and added an extra bit of salt to compensate for the call for “roasted salted almonds.” The nuts give the sauce a creaminess that works really well with the peppers. This sauce – served hot – is great on fish or pasta (choose a shape like fusilli, with some nooks and crannies) or polenta, and can even be cooked into the polenta (a.k.a. grits, y’all). I took polenta squares with dollops of Romesco (at room temp) to a dinner party and got excellent reviews all around.

Roasted Red Pepper Aioli

Adapted from

Makes about 2 cups.

2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
6 ounces roasted red peppers
½ cup goo quality olive oil
½ cup grapeseed oil*
1½ teaspoons salt
4 good grinds black pepper
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine egg yolks, mustard, lemon juice, and red peppers in the bowl of a food processor. Purée 30 seconds, then with the machine running, add the grapeseed oil in a slow, steady stream, then the olive oil in the same manner. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne and pulse briefly to mix.

*Kitchen Goddess note about grapeseed oil: This oil has a clean, light taste and a high polyunsaturated fat content. It adds almost no flavor, and thus keeps the aioli from tasting too much like olive oil. If you don’t have grapeseed oil, use canola oil. 

Romesco Sauce

Adapted from Gourmet magazine, March 2006

Makes about 2 cups.

7 ounces roasted red peppers, blotted with paper towels to remove marinade or brine, depending on whether your peppers are homemade or purchased
1 slice white sandwich bread, toasted on both sides
¼ cup roasted salted almonds (not smoked), or 2 tablespoons almonds plus 2 tablespoons roasted hazelnuts
1 large clove roasted garlic (or plain if you don’t have the roasted kind – and by the way, why is there no roasted garlic in your fridge?)
½ cup good quality chicken broth
¼ cup good quality olive oil
1 teaspoon Sherry
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or ¼ teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes, or to taste

Tear the toast into pieces and combine in a blender with the remaining ingredients. Purée until smooth, about 2 minutes.

You will want to heat the sauce if you are serving it over pasta or polenta, and it’s an excellent idea to top the dish with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

And now for the Polenta Canapés with Romesco ...

I tried to get these to be nicely spread out on the plate, but the undersides are a bit moist, so they kept sliding toward the center like amoeba trying to attach to each other. Next time, I'll use a flatter plate.

Back in November, I posted a lovely recipe for Creamy Polenta. The method below uses the same ingredients, requires more constant attention, but takes half the time. Your choice. Leave out the butter if you’re planning to serve it in squares, canapé-style.

Creamy Polenta

Serves 6

2 cups milk
2 cups good quality chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta (not quick-cooking) or yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Combine the milk, broth, and salt in a 3-quart heavy saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add the polenta in a fine stream, whisking to keep clumps from forming. Reduce the heat to whatever level allows the polenta to simmer, and cook, stirring frequently with a long-handled wooden spoon, for 20-25 minutes, or until the texture is no longer grainy. (The mixture will resemble a lava pit as it bubbles, and that long-handled spoon will keep you from getting burned.) Toward the end, you may want to add a couple of tablespoons of water if the mixture is stiff but still al dente. Once the polenta is creamy, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter until smooth. Serve immediately. Remember to leave out the butter if you are serving it canapé-style.

For main-course polenta: Polenta begins to congeal within 10 minutes as it starts to cool. If you are serving it in bowls but don’t plan to serve it immediately, pour over a thin film of milk to cover the top of the polenta, put a lid on the pan, and turn your heat to the lowest possible setting (or let the pan sit on the warm stovetop) until you are ready to eat. Then just before serving, turn up the heat slightly and whisk the milk well into the polenta until smooth.

For canapé-style polenta: Pour the cooked polenta (to a height of ½ inch) into a lightly greased quarter-sheet baking pan (9 x 13 inches) and let it sit for 30-40 minutes. Cut into squares no larger than 2 inches, and transfer the squares to a large rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Squares can be covered with cellophane wrap and refrigerated at this point for several hours or even overnight. Re-heat them 10-15 minutes in a 350º oven.

When you are ready to serve, brush the tops lightly with olive oil. Set oven to broil, and toast squares until

they are just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and top each with a dollop of Romesco sauce.

Kitchen Goddess note: Extra polenta squares – without the sauce – can be frozen for the next time you have to produce an hors d’oeuvre on a moment’s notice. Re-heat 10-15 minutes in a 350º oven.