Monday, July 28, 2008

Pine Nuts, Part II or When Good Pine Nuts Go Bad

Bleck. That describes the horrible taste still lingering in my mouth from the terrible dinner I just made. As I am on my mission to find a great orzo salad, I stumbled across a Mediterranean one that looked promising. The main ingredients: orzo; spinach; feta; red onion; pine nuts and a vinaigrette dressing. How can you go wrong with that? I will tell you - by using rancid pine nuts.

I guess I have finally figured out the problem from last week. It had nothing to do with cooking the pine nuts in oil. I just did some research and realized you need to be fairly particular about how you store them. Just from my little bit of research it seems like there are two good options: (1) Store them in a paper bag, not a plastic bag or plastic container, in a cool, dry area. (2) Store them in the fridge.

Not only am I going to have to throw this salad out because it is inedible, but I think it's going to give me nightmares, and I don't think I am going to be able to use pine nuts for quite some time. It really was that bad. I am telling you this because I like you and I never want you to experience the horribly bitter acidic taste of rancid pine nuts. (Can something be bitter AND acidic?) I'm going to eat some frozen soy creamy cherry chocolate chip yumminess from Trader Joes to make myself feel better.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Cabbage Lentil Pilaf

I've always had a soft spot for characters in movies or books deemed the underdog or pathetic types. Also, as a kid, I had a thing for stuffed animals that were raggy or strange looking. I felt compelled to love them because no one else probably would. Truth be told, even my dog is probably a bit funny looking to others, and perhaps this is why I love her so much and find her impossibly cute. This same principle applies somewhat to food. I seem to adore some of those things that the majority of people find unappealing. A couple that come immediately to mind are cabbage and lima beans. Who else can admit sincerely that they thoroughly enjoy, and even crave either of these lesser chosen items? I don't seem to be finding cabbage or lima beans highlighted on the menu in any restaurants that I know of. The one exception of course, is cole slaw, and while I do enjoy a well made cole slaw, cabbage has been pigeon-holed as the main ingredient to this side salad when it has so many other uses.

I learned this one summer when my CSA farm had an abundance of cabbage, and we were told we could take as much as we wanted. It's known to keep pretty well, so I helped myself to a bunch. Then, what to do with these heads of cabbage? Since I seemed to be lacking an underground storage area where I could bury the rations for the winter, I realized I did need to use it up somewhat quickly as it was taking up most of my apartment-sized fridge.
I experimented with several kinds of slaw - from traditional to more hip, modern versions with cashews and cilantro with no hint of mayonnaise. But, then I learned that cooked cabbage can be very tasty. I hadn't realized this was the case because the only way I had ever had it cooked was when my grandmother cooked the bejeezus out of it to make the traditional St. Patty's day dish: corn beef and cabbage. Truth be told, I actually even kind of enjoyed it cooked beyond recognition. So, my love for cabbage isn't just a whim or a new phase I am going through. This love is one that lasts.

During this cabbage experimentation period, I found a few dishes I liked quite a bit. I went to a farmers market yesterday where there were some beautiful heads of cabbage. I was reminded of these dishes I found and made one tonight.

Cabbage and Lentil Pilaf
There's two parts to this. You braise the cabbage in one pan and make the rice lentil pilaf in another, then mix them together.

Braised cabbage
1 tblsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 onion, chopped
4 cups shredded cabbage
salt and pepper

Lentil Pilaf
2 cups water
2/3 cup of white wine or veggie broth
1 1/3 cup rice (white basmati)
1/2 cup dried brown lentils
1/2 tspn dried tarragon, more if using fresh
salt and pepper

cherry tomatoes (optional)

1. Sautee onion in olive oil until soft, 5 minutes. Add cabbage and garlic. Cover and simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick. Then take the cover off and cook for another 20 minutes.
2. Bring water, broth and 1/2 tspn salt to a boil. Add lentils and rice and tarragon, cover and cook on low for 20-25 minutes, until the water is absorbed.
3. Mix the cabbage into the pilaf. Add cherry tomatoes cut in half if using. Serve.

Friday, July 18, 2008

How Not to Cook Pine Nuts

What exactly is a pine nut, anyways? Is it a nut? Actually, I'm pretty sure it's in the seed family. I looked it up a while back and now I'm not sure.
Anyhow, while I am on the topic of things to put into salads, pine nuts came to mind. Of course, they HAVE to be toasted. Most nut and seed type things are a gazillion times better in salads if they are toasted. My favorite thing these days are toasted sunflower seeds. If I already mentioned this 10 times, I apologize, but I really, really enjoy them in my salads.
With my recent move, I acquired a toaster oven, which makes the seed/nut toasting thing a lot easier since you don't have to turn on the big oven to toast just a handful of something. Prior to my toaster oven ownership, I would sautee my sunflower seeds in a small fry pan with a little olive oil and that worked out great. Last week, I cooked up a summer medley of zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes and fresh basil, and thought some toasted pine nuts would be a great addition with this when served over pasta. It was hot and I didn't want to turn even the toaster oven on, so utilized my pan/olive oil sauteeing method. The results were not good. I found it gave the pine nuts an unappealing flavor - bitter? too oily? I'm not sure how to describe it, but I wouldn't try it again. It may be because the pine nuts are oily to begin with, so adding the olive oil was too much. They also sat in a covered container overnight, so maybe they just soaked too much of it in. Whatever the reason, straightforward toasting is the way to go and adding a handful of these little guys can jazz up even the most basic of salads.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nectarines in a New Light

I only eat nectarines in the summer and don't think about them much for the rest of the year. When they are good, they can be so yummy, sweet and messy. I typically just have them as a snack and don't think to consume them as part of anything else. However, I recently remembered that I've had them in a salad before. I bought a bunch of them last week, so thought I'd try it. I put them in a salad with a balsamic vinaigrette the other night, and thought that was tasty. Then, last night I made "taco salad" again (see prior entry), and thought I'd try them in that. I was a little hesitant, not knowing how it would mix with the fruity salsa. I ended up liking it a lot and thought it was a great addition.

While I eat lots of veggies, I don't necessarily eat as much fruit as I should. Most days I eat a banana, and I go through periods where I will eat apples regularly (usually in the fall when they are in season). But, this experience with nectarines has inspired me to experiment more with fruit in my salads. I sometimes add cranberries, or chopped up apple in specific salads I make, but I think there's a lot more opportunity for fruits to make an appearance as part of dinner. There's a salad I had in SoHo once that had pieces of tangerine in it. I made it a bunch in the past and will dig that recipe up. Also, a co-worker recently told me about a combination that sounds great - blueberries and goat cheese over greens. Strawberries and raspberries have lots of potential. And what about plums? Pineapple? Mango? Would they work well in a salad? I'm guessing bananas wouldn't be the best, but who knows? I just may try it to satisfy my curiosity...

So, I look forward to messing around with different salad combinations over the next few weeks and will post my favorites. Let me know if you have any!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Black Bean and Couscous Salad

The other day I was looking to pack a picnic lunch (I love picnics - more on that at a later date), and I thought I'd like to bring something made with couscous. So, I pulled this recipe off the internet, and it wasn't until I was in the midst of making it that I realized it was almost exactly the same as yesterday's Quinoa Black Bean Salad, except with couscous. I figured it's still worth posting though because there are a couple of different ingredients, and this one has slightly less chopping and couscous cooks faster than quinoa, so it's a bit easier to make. If you were feeling especially daring, you could even mix up some of the ingredients between recipes, like put tomatoes in this one, and corn in the quinoa version. Whoa! (This is an indication of how exciting my 4th of July weekend has been.)
By the way, you will notice when beans are called for in my recipes I always list them as canned beans. While I would love to get in the habit of using dried beans and cooking them myself, I just don't have the time for this, or haven't made it a priority. I figure someday when that trust fund kicks in (I just know there's one out there from some long lost Aunt that wants to support my dream of opening a cafe), and I no longer have to spend a large portion of my days workin' for the man, then I will discontinue my use of canned beans and spend my extra hours planting my own herbs and soaking beans. Plus, I'm guessing that all two of my readers (one being my mother) are in the same boat and are more likely to use canned beans as well. But, if you have the time, by all means, use dried beans!

Black Bean and Couscous Salad
1 cup uncooked couscous
1 1/4 cups water
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
8 green onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 15 oz. cans black beans, drained (the recipe calls for 2 cans, but I only used 1. If you're looking for a more beany salad, use 2)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring the water to a boil in 2 qt or larger saucepan. Stir in the couscous. Cover, and remove from heat. Let stand for 5 minutes. Note: Most couscous cooking directions usually call for a 1 to 1 ratio of couscous to water, but I find this makes for a dry couscous. I typically use slightly more water or put some olive oil in the water as it's boiling.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, vinegar and cumin. Add green onions, red pepper, cilantro, corn and beans and toss to coat.
3. Fluff the couscous well, breaking up any chunks. Add to the bowl with the veggies and mix well. Season with salt and pepper. Serve right away or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Black Bean and Quinoa Salad

Last week I went to a cookout and offered to bring a pasta salad. I was having difficulty recalling some of the usual summer salads I make, and was feeling like making something new, so poked around and found a recipe that sounded tantalizing. It was called something like Summer Citrusy Salad, and seemed like just the thing I was looking for. The recipe even called for cooking the pasta in turmeric to turn the pasta yellowy-orange, and I had never done that before so was excited to try it. The rind of one orange was needed and I couldn't find my rinder, but I figured I'd make do. I should mention that I didn't know most of the people at this cookout, and was meeting them for the first time. I'll cut this short by just telling you that the end result was not good. It was not offensive, just not tasty. I did learn a couple of lessons during this experience that I will share with you:
  • Consider your audience and don't experiment with new recipes on a group of people you are meeting for the first time, and are likely to see again at similar events in the future. I fear I will carry the reputation of the weird vegetarian girl who makes bad pasta salad.
  • There is no substitute for a rinder. You'd think a cheese grater might be able to stand in for a rinder, right? It doesn't. The salad may have actually been o.k. if I was actually able to use the rind it called for since it was an integral part of the recipe.
Anyway, I figured it was time to pull out some of my favorite summer salad recipes. Here is one of them that I got from one of my Moosewood cookbooks. If you start poking around for quinoa recipes, you'll notice quinoa is often paired up with black beans. They do make a good combo, but I'd like at some point to get more imaginative in regards to quinoa. This is basically the summer version of the Quinoa and Black Beans I posted this winter.

Quinoa Black Bean Salad
1/3 cup quinoa
1 cup water
1 tspn olive oil
4 teaspoons fresh lime juice, or more to taste
1/4 tspn ground cumin
1/4 tspn ground coriander
1 tblsp finely chopped fresh cilantro (if you are a cilantro person, you could add a lot more)
2 tblsp minced scallions
1 15 oz. can black beans, drained
2 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup diced bell peppers (red, yellow, green or mixed)
2 tspns minced fresh green chiles
salt and pepper to taste

1. Rinse the quinoa in a sieve under cold water. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil, add the quinoa, cover and simmer on low heat, about 10 to 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl, combine the oil, lime juice, cumin, coriander, cilantro and scallions.
3. Stir in the beans, tomatoes, bell peppers and chiles.
4. Add the quinoa, and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Taco Salad and the Return of the Salad Spinner

Moving is tough. Not only is it a lot of work, packing boxes and carrying them from one place to another, but it's also mentally exhausting. It forces you to consider how much stuff you have and mostly don't need. It's almost depressing, really. I find myself feeling weighed down by the burden of owning so many things and trying to figure out what to do with them. Do I keep it and bring it with me to my new place? Give it away? Who could I give it to? Sell it? Throw it away? There are so many little decisions to make in regards to all this stuff. Some of it has sentimental value or monetary value which complicates the decisions.
When I moved into my studio apartment a few years ago, I needed to simplify my belongings. I found this liberating, and for a long time I was very good about scrutinizing each of my purchases. In the end, I became more lax about this, and for that I am sorry. My recent move will hopefully rejuvenate my desire for simple living. The kitchen is one place where you can get especially out of control. There is a gadget or appliance for everything and every specific purpose: an avocado slicer; a rice steamer; plastic discs to make the perfect fried egg; a hand-held immersion blender; a mini food processor to chop small amounts of vegetables. When I downsized my kitchen space, I realized that what I needed were the basics: a good set of knives; pots and pans; a nice cutting board, and some basic utensils. All else seemed frivolous and unnecessary.
....O.k. ALMOST all kitchen gadgets could be classified as frivilous and unnecessary. There are a few exceptions. My little plastic lemon squeezer that allows you to squeeze the juice of the lemons without getting seeds in things is one of the better kitchen gadget inventions. Also, now that I have more space, I have been able to pull out my salad spinner. These two items have greatly enhanced the quality of my cooking life. Do you have any idea how much time I have spent picking lemon seeds out of salad dressings and drying lettuce with dish towels?
Tonight, in celebration of the freeing of my salad spinner from the box it's been in for the last several years, I decided to make taco salad. Actually, the driving factor was really that it was to darn hot to turn the stove on. Of course you can imagine that this is not the taco salad you'd find at Chili's with some big fried taco shell full of ground beef and sour cream. This is a slightly edited version. It probably has nothing to do with a taco, really, but I'm not sure what else to call it. There's lots of variations and options, so I'll give you the basics.

Taco Salad
Lettuce torn into little pieces. 2 c. per person. I typically use red leaf.
Onion: either red onion sliced into thin pieces or scallions.
Cheese: I've used shredded cheddar or crumbled feta
Black beans, rinsed, 1/4 of a cup per salad
"Dressing": A fruit/spicy salsa. Mango peach is a good option.
Bell pepper, red, yellow or orange, sliced into thin pieces
Tortilla chips. Rectangle strips work well, but anything will do

Other options for toppings:
Avocado, chopped into small pieces
Carrot, shredded
Cucumber, chopped into small pieces
Jicama, shredded
Lime juice

1. Lay greens onto separate serving plates. Add all other toppings except for salsa and chips and lime juice, if using.
2. Spoon salsa on top, and squeeze lime juice on top, if using. I usually start with about a 1/4 of a cup of salsa per salad, and add more as I eat it. Place chips all around side of salad or crumble on top.
3. I don't think I need to tell you how to eat, but I typically use a combination of a fork, and the tortilla chips to scoop up the salad. It's a fun salad to eat and the tortilla chips add a nice crunchy texture.