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Escarole, Leek, and White Bean Panzanella

5 Oct

This is the type of food that could be considered a kid-repellent. It boasts a combination of punchy bitter greens, smooth leeks, and the kick of red pepper flakes. However, it also contains white beans, crisp, sautéed bread, and parmesan cheese, three things for which, in my experience, children tend to go completely nuts. As you might sense, these discrepancies combine to make one very interesting conundrum.

It’s not really a conundrum, of course. The answer to the question of, How do I make a kid like this? is simple: I don’t feed this to my kid. The bigger question, I think, would be this: Does any kid like this? Does anyone, anywhere, ever somehow get a kid to eat a dish like this? A dish so delicious in its complexity of flavor, so pleasing in its collection of textures, that I could not stop myself from eating almost the entire thing over the span of a single afternoon?

Some friends of mine once had a great Ethiopian lunch with some Ethiopian friends of theirs. Their friends’ children were in attendance, and they were happy to sit down and tuck into plate after plate of spicy lentils, spice-filled stews, and, of course, injera, the fantastic Ethiopian flatbread that is used to scoop up bites of intensely flavorful food. My friends, watching the kids devour the food with aplomb, could not help but wonder how many American kids could be led to eat such food if only they were presented it at the right time, meaning, when they were babies and just discovering the joys of solid food

Sadly, I have no answer to their query. I have tried for years to get my kid to eat all types of foods, to no avail. Indian food? No (which breaks my half-Indian heart with great sorrow). Spicy food of any sort? No. Braised greens? No. Visible strands of onions, whether caramelized or crisp? No and no. I could go on, but I’ll resist. I know that my kid has a slightly more adventurous palate than many other kids (slight—not monumental), so I’ll take whatever vegetable or Thai food consumption I can get out of him. Until he learns to appreciate more foods, I’ll just have to keep doing what I have been doing for the past several years now. This means making foods like this wonderful panzanella for myself, and finding a slight bit of pleasure in knowing that, hey, if I’m the only person who will eat this, at least that means I get to enjoy every last bite of it on my own. It’s a paper-thin silver lining, but I’ll take it.

Last Year: Heirloom Tomato Cobbler with Cheddar and Scallion Biscuit Topping

Escarole, Leek, and White Bean Panzanella Recipe

3 cups torn or cubed crusty bread

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 medium leek, dark green end removed and light green/white end sliced in half lengthwise and then chopped into thin half-moons

4 large cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 very large head escarole, coarsely chopped

1 cup cooked white beans

salt and pepper to taste

optional: 2 to 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup chopped fresh basil leaves

In a large skillet set over medium-low heat, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When oil is just beginning to shimmer, add bread cubes in a single layer and allow to crisp on one side (this should take anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes). Turn bread cubes over, then allow to crisp some more, shaking the skillet ever now and again to keep the bread moving around in the oil just a tad. Remove bread cubes and set aside.

Wipe any bread crumbs from the skillet, then heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add chopped leeks, garlic, and red pepper flakes and sauté, stirring frequently, until the leeks begin to soften, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chopped escarole, stir and toss to combine, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and allow to cook for 5 minutes, until the escarole is wilted and has released some of its juices. Remove the lid from the pan, and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, until the juices have evaporated a bit, about 3 minutes. Add beans to skillet, stir to combine, and allow beans to cook with greens for about a minute. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Turn the heat off under the skillet. Add the toasted bread cubes and toss to combine thoroughly. Taste for seasoning.

Divide the panzanella amongst 2 or 4 plates, depending on how hearty to want your servings to be. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese (if using) over the servings, then sprinkle over chopped basil.

Serves 2 as a meal, or 4 as a starter.

Niçoise Cobb Salad

2 Aug

This is the type of salad that defies definition. It is also my favorite type of salad, boasting a variety of elements, tastes, and textures. Containing elements of both a Cobb salad and a Niçoise salad, it is the type of salad that, undoudtedly, some people will declare an unholy mess and then simply disregard. Those people are making a big mistake.

I’ve long been tempted by many elements in a classic Cobb salad, but there are a few things about it that temper my enthusiasm. One is the presence of blue cheese, a cheese that I enjoy in small amounts, but when paired with eggs, bacon, and avocado, seems to provide a bit of overkill. And now that I have mentioned it, I am no fan of bacon (I know, I know—this makes me wholly unqualified to talk about food, right? But there you have it). As for a Niçoise salad, I’m nearly always a fan, what with its high presence of crisp, textural vegetables and subtly tangy dressing, but my affection always seems to falter when the salad happens to be served with canned tuna, one of the few food items I can unrepentantly admit to absolutely detesting.

The only logical thing for me to do, of course, was merge the two salads together, along with a few unsanctioned ingredients that I thought seemed like a good fit. I’ve been on a big sweet potato kick lately (the dark, thick-skinned type that is often referred to as a yam), so when I was mentally constructing my hybrid salad, I knew I wanted to include a bit of sweet potato in lieu of the standard red potato often found in a Niçoise salad (except when it’s not, as some salad purists insist that a Niçoise salad must only contain raw vegetables). I also included cucumbers, because it’s tough to forgo their crisp coolness when constructing any type of salad, and since I was already bringing shame to the name of both salads, why not just keep going?

Culinary liberties in full effect, this salad came together wonderfully. The lemony shallot dressing provides a lovely balance to the creamy egg and avocado, and the piles of fresh vegetables just make everything seem so crisp and friendly. The best aspect of the salad, I think, just might be that, with its ratio of vegetables to protein, it makes a suitable, satisfying meal for both cold nights and warm afternoons. Totally inauthentic as it may be, it’s still awfully fantastic.

Niçoise Cobb Salad Recipe

Strictly speaking—though there is nothing really strict about this salad to begin with, it being a total deconstruction of two different salads—both a Niçoise salad and a Cobb salad include fresh tomatoes, but I didn’t have any lying around. Feel free to add some. You can also add some really nice, salty olives to the salad, as found in a classic Niçoise salad.

Dressing

1 tablespoon finely minced shallot

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon fresh chopped tarragon, or a pinch of dried tarragon

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Salad

1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt and pepper

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast

2 large eggs

4 ounces turkey bacon or regular bacon

handful of fresh green beans, ends trimmed

½ an avocado, peeled and sliced into cubes

½ a small cucumber, sliced into coins, then half moons

1 small head of Bibb lettuce leaves, or a similar type of tender lettuce (I used some Tom Thumb lettuce from our garden), rinsed and drained

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

On a heavy baking sheet, combine diced sweet potatoes, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss with your hands to evenly coat the potatoes with oil, then place in oven and roast for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are soft on the inside and caramelized underneath. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

While the potatoes are roasting, season the chicken breast on both sides with salt and pepper, then grill over medium-high heat (an indoor grill pan is just fine for this) until cooked through, about 5-7 minutes per side. Remove from heat and set aside to cool a bit, then dice into cubes.

In a medium saucepan, place eggs in just enough water to cover them. Place pan over high heat until the water comes to a steady boil. Immediately remove pan from heat, cover, and allow eggs to cook in hot water for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, remove eggs from pan and place in ice water to cool. When cool, peel then slice each egg in half lengthwise.

While eggs are cooking, cook turkey bacon or regular bacon until crisp, then remove them to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool a bit. When cool, crumble into medium-small pieces.

Drain the water from the saucepan in which you cooked the eggs, then refill with about 2 inches of water. Bring water to a boil over high heat, then add green beans and boil rapidly for 2 minutes, until the beans are crisp-tender. Drain immediately and rinse under very cold water.

To make the dressing, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk together until thoroughly emulsified and quite thick.

To assemble plates of salad, divide half of the lettuce leaves amongst two plates. Divide and arrange half of the sweet potatoes, chicken, eggs, turkey bacon, green beans, avocado, and cucumber on top of the lettuce leaves on each plate. You can arrange everything in neat rows, as in a Cobb salad, or you can place things in individual piles around the lettuce, as in a Niçoise salad. You can also just dump everything on top and call it good. Drizzle salads with dressing.

Makes 2 large salads. You can also divide the recipe amongst 4 plates for lighter servings of salad.

Watermelon, Cucumber, and Feta Salad with Mint

16 Jul

This might be the ultimate summer salad. I know, I know—how can someone say something so definitive about a salad when the salad in question contains only one single vegetable? In a season of garden abundance, can such a simple salad really be labeled as representative of the entire season? Well, yes.

That is, if the salad in question contains fresh, juicy chunks of watermelon, crisp slices of cucumber, cool hits of fresh mint, and tiny little squares of salty, flavorful feta cheese. On a hot day, I can’t think of anything better to eat, really. Well, aside from a nonstop conveyor belt delivery of popsicles, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more nutrition and heft, you might consider this salad.

The thing is, perfect as I think this salad is, while I was making it I kept on dreaming up other things I could do to it. I held back—mainly because I was going to be serving this salad to a crowd that contained children, and I didn’t want to completely repel anyone (though pairing watermelon with cheese certainly won me a few suspicious looks from the under-12 crowd)—but while writing down the recipe for this salad, my mind kept wandering over to thoughts of adding a diced jalapeno or serrano pepper, or maybe a light dusting of cayenne over each serving. I also think adding a bit of crumbled chèvre in lieu of the feta would be just lovely. If your garden is bursting with basil right now, a combination of basil and mint would pair nicely in here, or maybe forget the mint all together and just go with the basil. I know I just said this salad was perfect (and it really is, I swear), but I like to think that perfection doesn’t limit itself to one single incarnation. So try this salad as is, in all it’s glory, or maybe go in a slightly different direction and spice it up a bit. You can’t go wrong.

Last Year: Cherry Almond Strudel–so many flaky layers!

Watermelon, Cucumber, and Feta Salad with Mint Recipe

4 cups cubed watermelon

1 large cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded, then sliced into half-moons

juice of ½ a lime

1/3 cup fresh mint leaves, stacked on top of one another then cut into ribbons

4 ounces feta cheese, cut into tiny cubes

pinch of black pepper or cayenne pepper

Combine watermelon cubes and cucumber slices in a colander set over a large bowl. Refrigerate and allow watermelon to drain for at least 30 minutes. At this point, you can leave the draining watermelon and cucumber in the refrigerator for several hours if you want to prep the salad ahead of time.

Remove drained watermelon and cucumber to a serving bowl. (You can either reserve the drained watermelon juice for another purpose, or just go ahead and do what I did: drink it, because it is so very delicious.) Squeeze the lime juice over the mixture, then sprinkle on the mint, feta, and pepper. Toss gently with a large spoon. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 10 people.

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