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Fennel and Tomato Pasta Salad with Balsamic Dressing

12 Jul

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Last year I admitted to you all that I am no fan of pasta salads. The gloppy, the soggy, the mayonnaise-laden bowls of unappetizing sadness. Man, I’m really coming down hard on pasta salad, aren’t I? It’s almost as though I have forgotten how there are good pasta salads out there, but, sadly, not enough people seem to know about them. I am to change that, which is why I come to you today, armed with this utterly tasty and crisp, fresh and flavorful pasta salad.

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Found long ago on Epicurious, I’ve been making a version of this pasta salad for a few years now. Though I don’t follow the ingredient list to the letter, one element of the salad that remains unchanged is the dressing. With a perfect balance of flavors, this is a pasta salad dressing to keep on file for the duration of your life, and preferably the lives of your offspring as well. Never again shall you be steered towards the unsavory land of bland, droopy pasta salad dressings, for this dressing will make you demand a change for the better.

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It’s not dressing alone that makes this dish a stand out, however. Folded together with piles of fresh, crisp vegetables, the measure of pasta to not-pasta is spot on. The original recipe called for tomatoes and thinly sliced fennel to adorn the salad, but I love adding in whatever I have on hand to make the flavors and textures a bit different each time. Sometimes I throw in roughly chopped spinach leaves, thinly sliced ribs of red and yellow bell pepper, or a couple of cups of baby arugula. One thing I never leave out, however, is the fennel. It’s a must-have in this dish, adding a crunch and flavor that is impossible to replicate with anything else. Add this pasta salad to your summer repertoire, and I think you’ll agree.

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Last Year: Grilled Pineapple and Jalapeño Salsa and Lime Pecan Bars

Fennel and Tomato Pasta Salad with Balsamic Dressing

Adapted from Epicurious

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 medium garlic cloves, finely minced

3 cups diced, seeded plum tomatoes

2 cups thinly sliced fresh fennel (from about 1 large bulb)

1 cup chopped fresh basil

½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

6 green onions, white part only, chopped

½ cup coarsely chopped Kalamata olives

juice from 1 large lemon

salt and pepper to taste

1 pound pasta (penne or farfalle work well here)

optional: Instead of 3 cups of tomatoes, use 1 cup of tomatoes, 1 cup of sliced bell peppers, and 2 cups of chopped spinach leaves

also optional: ½ cup crumbled feta cheese

Whisk olive oil, tomato paste, vinegar, and garlic in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Combine tomatoes (if you’re using a combination of vegetables here, leave out the spinach leaves until you toss everything together with the pasta right before serving), fennel, basil, parsley, green onions, and olives in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss to combine, and allow vegetable mixture to stand at least 20 minutes, or up to 2 hours, tossing occasionally.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water. Drain, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, then toss and set aside to cool a bit. Toss every few minutes to keep pasta from sticking together, and to help it cool.

When cooled, transfer pasta to a large bowl. Squeeze over lemon juice, and toss to combine. Pour dressing over the pasta, and toss to combine. Add vegetable mixture, and toss once more. If using, toss in crumbled feta. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if desired.

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Strawberry Pecan Bread

31 May

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In some parts of the country, it’s strawberry season. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it is almost strawberry season, which is sort of like saying it is almost Christmas or almost baseball season, meaning that we’re in that odd limbo period wherein one can start to feel sort of excited about what is to come, but there is still a rather hazy period of waiting that needs to pass before the real excitement kicks in. At least, this is how one feels if strawberries are the type of thing that qualify as excitement-worthy. As you can probably ascertain, this is how I feel.

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While the strawberries in my own garden still require a week or so of warm weather before they are properly ripened (in other news: it needs to stop raining and being 60 degrees, because 1) I loathe that weather, and 2) the strawberries, they need to ripen), there are local berries (grown in greenhouses, I can only assume) popping up at various markets around the city. When the local strawberries begin to appear, you know that summer is not far behind.

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While I’ll never tire of simply eating strawberries as they are, deeply crimson and perfectly sweet, it’s pretty much impossible for me to eat something while not thinking about the various ways I could incorporate or transform it into something different. Strawberry desserts, not surprisingly, are always top on my list of strawberry favorites, but a light strawberry snack should never be ignored. This bread falls somewhere in between a dessert and a snack, although, with only ¼ cup of added sugar to sweeten the whole loaf, I would argue that the scale tips more towards the latter. With hints of cinnamon and lemon zest, little bits of crunchy pecans, and mellow pockets of juicy strawberries, this welcoming bread would make a great picnic staple, but it’s also a welcome companion to a hot cup of coffee in the morning or afternoon. If you’re looking for a way to dress this fellow up, top a slice with a scoop of ice cream and call it dessert. Thus far, I’ve found no inappropriate way to enjoy this almost-summertime treat.

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Last Year: Ginger Cardamom Cake with Lemon Glaze, Stuffed Picnic Sandwich with Olive Tapenade, and Strawberry Lemon Cream Puffs

Strawberry Pecan Bread

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup vegetable oil

¼ cup light brown sugar

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest

1 ½ cups sliced fresh strawberries

½ cup coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease and flour the inside of a 9”x5” loaf pan.

In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, oil, brown sugar, and applesauce. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients, and stir lightly until just combined. Add the strawberries and pecans, and gently stir and fold to combine.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth the top of the batter, then bake in the center of the oven for 75 to 90 minutes, until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the middle of the loaf emerges mostly clean, with just a crumb or two attached.

Allow bread to cool in pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack. Turn loaf right side up, then allow to cool almost completely before slicing and eating.

Cauliflower and Herb Spread

3 May

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It’s picnic season! I knock on wood as I say this, but Portland has really been delivering some fine spring weather this year, and I can’t wait to keep our outdoor time at its maximum level. Playing outdoors, eating outdoors, sleeping outdoors—it’s all in our future.

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My love of picnics is no secret, but I do sometimes wonder how I can shake up our picnic spreads without diverting too much from what makes a picnic meal so enjoyable for me. Picnics are casual affairs for us, without a reliance on silverware or fussy presentations. While we do sometimes pack a picnic that includes a salad or two thrown into a lidded container, it seems almost antithetical to the very spirit of a picnic to make your food fork or spoon-required. This means our picnics tend to include a lot of cheese selections to pair with bread, a good amount of fruit and vegetables in their most casual form, and, of course, a treat or two…or threeoh, fine to round out the meal. It’s a lovely way to eat, but, tough as it may be to imagine, even I, at times, get a bit overloaded by cheese and sweets.

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Last week, when thinking of ways to diversify our picnics, I started dreaming of my favorite white bean spread. It’s a nearly perfect item to slather over a hunk of crusty bread, and, with silky pureed cauliflower swapped in for the creamy white beans, I began to imagine a new picnic food to audition this year. As it turns out, this combination of sweetly sautéed onions, fresh herbs, and smooth cauliflower is even better than I thought it would be. It’s even better, dare I say it, than cheese. For your friends who are allergic to legumes, it makes a great alternative to hummus or other bean spreads. For your vegetarian friends, it’s a super flavorful topping for bread that needs no meat to make it shine. For your vegan friends, try swapping the butter for ¼ cup of good olive oil, and sauté the onions and garlic slowly, until they begin to really melt. For everyone, make a batch of this right now, grab yourself a picnic blanket and a baguette, and head outside.

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Last Year: Crisp Baked Vegetable Wontons and Spinach, Fennel, and Pear Salad with Brown Butter Hazelnuts

Cauliflower and Herb Spread

1 medium head of cauliflower

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium onion, finely diced

2 tablespoons fresh garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, finely chopped

2 pinches red chile flakes

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Trim cauliflower of leaves and tough inner stem. Cut cauliflower into small florets, then place in a steamer basket. Over a pot of boiling water, cover and steam cauliflower florets for 10 to 12 minutes, until the florets are tender. Remove steamer basket from pot, and allow cauliflower to cool a bit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

In separate saucepan, melt butter over medium low heat, then add onions, garlic, herbs, and chile flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent about 7 to 10 minutes. Add steamed cauliflower. Mash or puree with a food processor or stick blender until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove to a dish or bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and serve with crusty bread.

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