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Super Crunchy Fennel, Apple, and Celery Salad

6 Mar

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I am neck-deep in a rather large project right now (nothing exciting or surprising, unfortunately), but, as I sit at my desk and worry about work, my thoughts keep wandering back to this excellent salad I made last week. The salad had pretty much every element that I love a salad to have: great texture, lots of crunch, a subtle yet tasty dressing, and a nice dash of protein thrown in. Thinking about this salad keeps me from slowly losing my mind about my current work project, which is interesting. Who gets calmed down by a salad?

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Perhaps I should be talking instead about how this salad, while soothing to me, was also rather exciting. Not that calling a salad exciting is any less questionable than calling a salad soothing, but hear me out on this one. Every week or so, we’ve been experiencing a day of relative dryness, when the rain stops, the sun comes out, and everyone who has been trapped inside for months on end by the grayness and the rain comes outside and soaks up the brightness. Some of us, making the correlation between warmer weather and a change in available produce, rush out to find whatever is available to make a fresh, new meal. I love polenta and soup, but when the weather gets warmer, I want light, crisp, fresh meals, not warm, hearty meals that will warm me from the inside. The weather may not stay warmish for long, but I like to make the tiny bit of warmth as meaningful as possible.

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So, I had the idea for a great, crisp salad, loaded with fresh fennel and crisp apples. I had celery on hand, so I threw some in. The tops of the fennel were chopped up at the last minute and sprinkled about, and the result was nothing short of phenomenal. With a super light dressing of just lemon juice and olive oil, followed by a handful of raw pepitas, the salad came to life, earning a spot on my list of top five most favorite salads. Super crisp, wonderfully flavorful, and a reminder of warm days to come, it’s definitely going to make a few repeat appearances around here.

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Last Year: Quinoa, Arugula, and Roasted Beet Salad with Ginger Sesame Dressing and Beet Greens and Chèvre Quiche–look at me, using every part of the beet.

Super Crunchy Fennel, Apple, and Celery Salad

One of the great things about this salad is the fact that the vegetables and fruit are sliced incredibly thin—we’re talking whip-out-the-mandoline-slicer thin—allowing each bite to cram in as much of each salad element as possible. As mentioned, I used a mandolin to slice everything as thin as possible, but you could also just use a super sharp knife and slice away.

2 cups fresh fennel, sliced super thin (about 1 large bulb), core removed, leaves set aside

2 cups super thin apple slices (about 2 small apples)

1 cup super thin celery slices (sliced across, not lengthwise, obviously)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil (using extra virgin olive oil will result in a much more punchy dressing, and using a lighter olive oil will give you a milder background of dressing)

big pinch of sea salt

big pinch of freshly ground black pepper

handful of fresh fennel leaves, roughly chopped

¼ cup raw pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

In a large bowl, combine fennel, apple, and celery.

In a smaller bowl, add lemon juice, then slowly whisk in olive oil until the mixture is thick and emulsified (this shouldn’t take more than about 30 seconds). Whisk in salt and pepper, taste for more seasoning, and adjust as you see fit.

Pour dressing over fennel, apple, and celery. Toss to combine. Add chopped fennel leaves and pepitas, toss just a couple of times, then serve.

Serves 4 as a side salad, 2 as a main dish salad.

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Spicy Green Apple and Cabbage Salad with Cashews

17 Jan

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Salads have a bad reputation, and I understand why. Let’s be honest: salad is, to many people, the food of punishment. You ate too many slices of pie over the holidays, so now it’s time to face a few weeks of salad while you get the house back in order. Faced with limp pieces of lettuce, sad slices of random vegetables, and some terrible bottled salad dressing, I wouldn’t be excited about eating salad either, if that was the way I had to face it. Luckily, I don’t consider salad a last resort, and that is why I can look at it as an opportunity to really build something that is more enticing than disciplinary.

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My first order of business with a salad is always texture. I like lots of satisfying crunch, so I try to use a variety of sturdier greens whenever possible. Then I turn to a variation in flavors, aiming to end up with a nice mix of tart, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter elements all thrown together. In this salad, super crisp napa cabbage gets combined with crunchy, tart Granny Smith apples and zesty fresh mint, then topped with savory toasted cashews. The third building block of a salad, the dressing—in this case, a super spicy chile and garlic dressing with lots of fresh lime juice—ties everything together, making each bite a fantastic mix of different flavors and sensations.

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Sometimes I think there is an art to building a salad. While it is certainly not the type of art that would warrant a solo gallery show or a major grant, you are at least awarded the opportunity to eat your work of art when you are done with it, and that, to me, is pretty much the best prize there is.

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Last Year: Chicken Biryani–one of my favorite dishes of all time–and Shallot and Herb Biscuits

Napa Cabbage and Green Apple Salad with Cashews

There are a lot of great textures going on in this salad, but I think you could get away with adding even more. Adding a cup or two of finely shredded or chopped purple cabbage would provide a lovely burst of color and flavor, and, if it’s in season, a handful of finely chopped fennel ribs would be borderline magical in here. Also, a note on the dressing: it is hot. I like a lot of spiciness, so I used an entire super hot chile pepper (ribs, seeds, and all), but, if you are not as tolerant of spiciness, you could certainly use just half of a chile, ribs and seeds removed.

Dressing:

1 serrano chile

1 large garlic clove

1 teaspoon Vietnamese fish sauce

¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

pinch of sea salt

pinch of sugar

Salad:

4 cups finely shredded napa cabbage

1 small Granny Smith apple, cored, then cut into thin matchsticks

¼ cup roughly torn mint leaves

1 cup toasted cashews

Using a microplane zester or a fine grater, very finely grate the chile pepper and garlic into a small bowl. Alternately, you could use a mortar and pestle to pound the chile and garlic together. Using the back of a spoon, mash the chile and garlic together until they form a bit of a paste. Add the fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice, salt, and sugar, then whisk to combine.

In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, apple slices, and mint. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine. Add the toasted cashews. Taste for seasoning. You may decide you want more salt (some fish sauces are much saltier than others, so personal judgment is in order here). If you do add more salt, sprinkle it on sparingly, then toss thoroughly to combine.

Serves 4 as a side dish, 2 as a main dish.

Cinnamon Apple Cake

9 Jan

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Sometimes the simplest things can be the best things. It’s not that a cherpumple or a three-layer chocolate cake are bad things (although, truth be told, my personal jury is still out on that cherpumple), but, amongst all the fanciness and multiple layers of many things, it is often times quite nice to just roll with something straightforward, humble, and nearly perfect in its simplicity.

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It may seem far-fetched, but a similar line of thinking could also be applied to friendships. My best friend’s husband once asked her why she and I rarely go out together, and her response was hilarious in its point-blank frankness, “It’s not what we do,” she told him. And it’s true. When she and I hang out, we are almost always on her couch (because we never, ever hang out at my house, only hers, because, again, hanging out at my house is “not what we do”), there is almost always something horrible on the television, and there is always a running commentary going on that concerns how bad everything is on that television. Someone once told us that there should be a television show about the two of us watching television, and, after thinking about it for a bit, we sort of agreed. Of course we agreed. We are best friends. We can center an entire evening around one couch, and we don’t even need to involve any alcohol. With respect to our spouses, we’ve had a comfortable, married-type relationship for well over 15 years, and I don’t care how boring that sounds to other people, because my super-mellow relationship with my best friend is one of my most favorite things about life.

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And here is where my cake comparison comes into play. While a super fancy cake can be a nice thing, more often than not, the most satisfying cake you can have is a simple, beautiful, everyday type of cake. This apple cake is my take on the classic and somewhat legendary New York Times recipe for Teddie’s Apple Cake, circa 1973. The cake was meant to be a proven example of how not all cakes needed to be laborious, time-consuming affairs. This apple cake was about as straightforward as you could make a cake: you chopped, you mixed, you baked, you were done. Though nearly perfect in its original form, I’ve made this cake a number of times, and each time I do, I change a little something here and there. Predictably, I have reduced the sugar, and swapped out a bit of the regular sugar for brown sugar. I’ve added more spices, used an apple with a bit more bite to it, and, inspired by my son’s desire to have more cinnamon in everything at all times, I’ve added a crunchy cinnamon sugar lid that, while subtle, adds a lovely dimension to each bite. I may have made the cake evolve a bit, but, at its core, it’s still the same, simple, endlessly pleasing cake.

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Fittingly, for no reason at all, except because everyone needs some cake once in a while, I gave this cake to my best friend. When I told her I wanted to make her a cake, she was delighted. When I asked her what she wanted, she requested something not too big, and rather simple. Of course she did. She knows.

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This cake is part of my Go Mighty goal of making 50 cakes for 50 people. You can read more about it here.

Cinnamon Apple Cake

Adapted from Teddie’s Apple Cake, in the New York Times

Butter for greasing pan

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided

½ teaspoon ground ginger

pinch of nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 cups peeled, cored and thickly sliced tart apples, such as Granny Smith

For sprinkling on top of cake:

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour a 9-inch tube pan. Beat the oil and sugars together in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or beat in a large bowl using an electric mixer. After about 5 minutes, add the eggs and beat until the mixture is creamy.

In a large bowl, toss the apple chunks with 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, then set aside.

Sift together 3 cups of flour, the salt, the remaining 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and baking soda. Stir into the batter. Add the vanilla. Fold in the cinnamon apples.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared tube pan pan. Combine the ½ teaspoon of cinnamon with 1 teaspoon of sugar, and sprinkle evenly over top of cake. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan before turning out. Serve cinnamon-sugar-side-up, at room temperature.

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