January 31, 2007

Salad Smarts

For much of my childhood and into adolescence, I never quite understood the importance of salad. This was partially due to how very little attention I paid vegetables unless they were sitting on my plate, but more so it was due to the Muppets. Yes, like any other child growing up in a media-infested world, Sesame Street and the Muppets were the center of my universe. (Of course now children have their choice of Sesame Street, Baby Einstein, The Wiggles, and don’t forget Dora the Explorer, but that’s beside the point.) And the Muppet Movie, “Follow That Bird” was one of my favorites. At the beginning, there’s a scene in a diner and whenever someone orders a tossed salad, the Muppets wearing chef hats throw some lettuce into a bowl, place it on a catapult and literally toss the salad over to the customer. Lettuce flies everywhere and covers most of the diners who don’t seem to mind. (I must admit I’m smiling to myself as I write this – gets me every time!)

And such was my image of salad for most of my childhood: nothing to take note of unless flying through the air, launched by Muppets. But years have wizened me and I have come to love salad for its nutritious qualities and endless options. However, it wasn’t until last week that I truly understood the amazing possibilities. Paging through a recent Crate and Barrel catalog, I stumbled upon a kitchen gadget of sheer genius. It’s called the Toss & Chop. And I love it.

It looks a lot like a scissors with two parallel blades, if you can picture that. The idea is that when you hold the Toss & Chop vertically over a bowl of lettuce, the extremely sharp blades cut up the salad at you toss it. A handy safety lock ensures that I don’t chop off my fingers (being the klutz that I am) and it’s dishwasher safe, so clean up is easy. Thus, it is with a reluctant heart that I bid a final farewell to my tossed salad notions and fully embrace this new world of greens… that doesn’t include Oscar the Grouch.

You can find the Toss & Chop online on the Crate and Barrel site for $19.95.

Whether you’re lucky enough to have the Toss & Chop or you must resort to the old-fashioned knife and cutting board, this chopped salad is a must-try. It’s got a little bit of everything and an irresistible homemade dressing.

Kitchen Chopped Salad with Herbed Vinaigrette
Ingredients

Herb-Mustard Vinaigrette:
1 tsp. minced fresh garlic
2 tsp. minced fresh shallot
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 C. red wine vinegar
1 1/3 C. pure, mild-flavored olive oil
3 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese

Salad:
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, cleaned trimmed and chopped into 1/8 inch-wide strips
1/2 head romaine lettuce, cleaned trimmed and chopped into 1/8 inch-wide strips
12 large leaves basil, chopped into 1/16-inch-wide strips
2 C. (1/3 lb.) dry Italian salami, cut into thin strips
3 C. (2/3 lb.) shredded mozzarella cheese
1 C. chopped garbanzo beans
4 C. (2 lb.) ripe tomatoes, diced 1/2 inch
3 C. (1 lb.) turkey breast, diced 1/2 inch
2 Tbs., chopped scallions, 1/4-inch pieces

Directions

To make the dressing: Process all ingredients except oil and Parmesan using a hand-held, propeller-blade type mixer (or use a whisk in a small bowl). Slowly blend in oil. When all oil has been incorporated, stir in Parmesan. Set aside in the refrigerator. To make the salad: Toss first 6 ingredients and dressing together in a large mixing bowl. Transfer the salad to chilled salad plates. Surround each serving with a ring of diced tomatoes and top with diced turkey breast. Garnish with chopped scallions.

Also try these for yummy chopped salad options:
Cucina Cucina Chopped Salad
Fiesta Chopped Salad

January 30, 2007

Cooking with the Chili Pepper

There are certain truths in my culinary history for which I am admittedly sheepish. For example, before last week, I had never attempted to cook with a hot chili pepper. Growing up in an Irish family on the Midwestern plains of corn (yep, I’m from Indiana, a Hoosier if you will), chili peppers never figured highly in my kitchen experience. But, I love spicy food and have since educated myself on the health benefits of chili peppers and the relative capsaicin levels (the heat culprit) in the different varieties of chili pepper. With this knowledge, I was finally ready to cook Fish Masala last week.

In my inaugural tryst with the hot chili pepper, I was certainly timid. I did not want my Masala to be tear-your-head-off HOT, so I went for a nice Serrano pepper, just below Thai and Cayenne in the punch it packs. With no experience under my belt, I didn’t really know what to expect, and probably went a little overboard with my precautions. I used plastic gloves, washed my hands obsessively, and even, horror of horrors, removed all the seeds from the Serrano pepper (a large portion of the pepper’s heat). I knew I was going to add ground cayenne pepper and curry powder to make my Masala, and I wanted to be careful (read: I’m a wuss).

Sadly, the Fish Masala did NOT work. I was impressed by the pungent smell of the spices that filled my apartment during cooking, but in the end, it could have used more heat. Next time, the seeds stay in. Although, I think the greater obstacle to the success of this dish was the fish itself. Tilapia or Sea Bass seem to work well with the flavors of Indian and Thai cooking. I used Kingfish, which may very well be better suited to a proper grilling. My friend Adam’s summation of the recipe was this, “Eh, just use chicken.” Agreed.

Chicken with Coconut Curry Sauce

Ingredients

6-7 chicken breast fillets
60g (2oz.) ghee

Coconut Curry Sauce:
30g (1oz) ghee
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 stem lemon grass, chopped finely
2-3 small red chilies, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cardamom
2 tsp. curry powder
340ml can coconut milk

Directions

Melt ghee in pan, add chicken, fry gently until golden brown and tender; drain, slice. Serve topped with coconut curry sauce. For sauce, melt ghee in pan, add onions, garlic and lemon grass, sauté until onions are soft. Add chilies, cinnamon, cardamom and curry. Cook, stirring, about a minute. Stir in coconut milk and simmer, uncovered 5 minutes. Remove from heat, blend or process until smooth, strain and reheat.

January 29, 2007

National Corn Chip Day

That’s right ladies and gentleman – although you all woke up this morning unaware of this important event, you are now cognizant of one of the most random “holidays” to grace the American culture. Although technically it shouldn’t be called a “national” holiday – all national holidays must be mandated by Congress – it certainly merits mention in our most dedicated of foodie blogs.

For me, the corn chip immediately evokes feelings of childhood. I grew up in a home where fruit roll-ups, sugary cereal and pop were all forbidden. I opened my lunch bag every day to find a sandwich on wheat bread (and not the wheat bread they market now that still tastes like white bread, this was the wheat bread that doesn’t really bend) and dutifully ate my fruit leather. For those of you who aren’t familiar with fruit leather, it’s supposed to be a healthier version of fruit roll-ups made with real, dried fruit and little to no sugar. This is exactly how it tastes. And to a 10 year-old whose friends are chowing down on a full three feet of sugary goodness, something called “leather” just wasn’t enough. (Author’s note: It happens that I’m extremely grateful to my mother for instilling such excellent eating habits into my brain as a child – it’s just that it doesn’t quite serve my purpose here. As an adult, I highly recommend fruit leather.)

Clearly, I’ve digressed on my I-was-deprived-of-sugar-as-a-child tangent. But because of the lack of Doritos, Cheetos and other unnaturally cheesy snacks, I hold a special fondness for Fritos as they were somehow acceptable in my mother’s view. And even years later when I have banished all chips from my pantry (except Stacy’s pita chips, of course!), my peanut butter and jelly just isn’t quite the same without those yellowish corn chips by its side.

Though my private love affair with corn chips was somewhat limited to Fritos, tortilla chips certainly fall into this category as well. And what better than to use tortilla chips for than dip? You can browse Recipe4Living’s extensive Dips and Spreads category if you’re looking for inspiration, but here’s my absolute favorite:

Grandma Annette’s 7-Layer Taco Dip

Ingredients

2 cans bean dip (Fritos’ is my favorite)
3-4 avocados
2 Tbs. lemon juice
1 1/2 C. sour cream
1/2 C. mayonnaise
1 pkg. taco seasoning
2-3 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 small can black olives, sliced
Shredded cheddar cheese

Directions

Pit avocados, mix with lemon juice and set aside. Combine sour cream, mayonnaise and taco seasoning until well-blended. Layer ingredients starting with bean dip, then avocado, taco seasoning-mayo mixture, tomatoes, green onions, olives and finish off with cheddar cheese on top. This works best if you use a platter with a lip so the dip doesn’t slide.

January 25, 2007

Wonders Never Cease

The editors here at Recipe4Living.com recently started a listmania list on our Amazon profile called Cool Cooking Gadgets. The idea is for us to share our love of all those slightly over-indulgent cooking tools that bring so much joy to the kitchen. While we might not need an avocado slicer, how much fun is it to have one?!? And besides, need should never, ever be applied to the culinary arts. Here are some of my favorites from that list.

Zak Designs E-Z-Rol Garlic Peeler- It might not look like much but this thing is amazing! A couple of weeks ago, I was making a delicious sea bass dinner called Pagro Alla Romano with white wine, mint, and plenty of garlic at my sister’s place in Wicker Park. Across the small kitchen in her loft space, she tossed me a couple cloves of garlic which I began to tear apart hungrily with my fingernails. “Old school Caley,” she scolds, and confiscates my cloves. She rather smugly slips a garlic clove into this rubbery doohickey, rolls it on the counter for a millisecond, and hands me back a perfectly peeled and not at all nicked garlic clove. “Coooool.”

KitchenAid Multi Food Chopper- Lots of companies make these handy little choppers, but I just happen to like the pretty blue color of this one. You push down on the top of the chopper to control a row of blades which rotate after each motion, chopping an entire onion at super-human speed. Sure, it doesn’t have the elegance of a wood chopping board, but it’s clean and certainly efficient. When I want instant guacamole (and I am really uncomfortable with those mixes), I put some fresh avocado, tomato, garlic and onion together in the chopper and create a perfectly-textured guacamole in a serving made just for me.

Apple Corer and Divider- One of my favorite salads to bring to a dinner party is Apple Tortellini Salad. At its simplest, the salad contains salad greens or just spinach, cheese tortellini (Gouda is a great choice), apple, and a vinaigrette dressing made with apple cider. While multi-colored tortellini helps, the key to proper presentation in this salad is perfectly even apple slices. An apple corer and divider gives you just that, and it’s fast to boot. And I feel as though I am utilizing every inch of the apple I possibly can making me a tiny bit less of a wasteful American eater. Woot.

So what are your favorite kitchen thingamajigs? Do tell.

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