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Mexican Chef Salad

I am leaving the country for a few weeks and will be posting on anything that catches my eyes, ears, or tongue while away. Mexican food is what I miss most when I’m gone. Once I was served a chili pie in Kenya – the Tanzanian cook had looked up the recipe from some kind of flavors of the southwest cookbook – and as odd as it seemed eating chili pie in Africa, it did speak to me of home.

Like chili pie, Mexican Chef Salad isn’t exactly mexican food but it is so perfectly American in it’s conception that it seemed just the right parting post.

This is one of those curiously delicious Junior League-type recipes that might have come out of the 1980’s. This dish pleases. Every time my mother makes this I am reminded how much I love it.

I giggle every time I read our recipe card for Mexican Chef Salad – it calls for a 39 cent bag of Doritos corn chips. No need to adjust for inflation, just grab the big bag. I like to use a less-processed corn chip varietal. But choose any brand you like. Make this when you’re not feeling fancy. It feeds a crowd. And it might be the perfect meal to make before leaving, or returning, home.

Here’s what to do:

1) Saute 1 pound of ground beef and season using instructions on package of taco seasoning.

2) Combine in a large bowl with the cooked, drained beef:

1 head iceberg or romaine lettuce, chopped

8 oz cheese, preferably Mexican blend, grated

1 onion, chopped

3 tomatoes, chopped

2 avocados, chopped

1 bag corn chips, crumbled

1 15 oz can kidney beans or black beans, warmed

3) Toss salad with Thousand Island Dressing.

4) Serve immediately with your favorite hot sauce.

A friend gave me some kale cut right from her backyard and I really wanted to eat it that night. I usually just lightly saute the greens in garlic, olive oil and dried red chile. The only catch was that I had planned on making homemade pizza for some friends we were having over to watch the basketball finals. And, unlike the classic Celtics-Lakers matchup, pizza and sauteed kale just didn’t sound like a good combination. I wanted a fresh salad. So, I concocted this raw kale version which was fantastic.

The key is to dress the salad 30 minutes or so before you eat so that the kale absorbs the dressing a bit. Which makes it perfect to toss together when entertaining. In fact, I think you could dress the salad an hour or more before you ate it and it wouldn’t get soggy at all. This vitamin-packed dish is so good for you and delicious. Everyone gobbled it up.

And just because this salad is green doesn’t mean those wearing purple and gold won’t enjoy it.

Do this:

1) Wash and remove stems from:

1 large bunch of fresh dark green kale

2) Roll leaves and cut the rolled bundles into 1/2 inch strips (chiffonade).

3) Add a handful of:

dried sour cherries, or other dried fruit

4) Toss kale and dried cherries to taste with:

extra virgin olive oil

dash balsamic vinegar

squeeze of lemon

small drizzle of honey

salt and pepper

Riffs:

You could also add sliced, roasted beets to this salad. To roast the beets just trim leaves from  5 or 6 beets, leaving the tops, bottoms and skins on. Wrap loosely in foil. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes until pierced easily with a knife. Cool. Peel and slice beets.

Add toasted nuts and cheese and you practically have a meal. Might I have found one answer to Erin’s lunch dilemna?

Executive Privilege

All cooks have secrets: Licking brownie batter off a spoon and sticking it back in the mixing bowl; The quick dust-off of a biscuit that rolls off the counter, declaring it good-as-new; Passing off purchased items as homemade.

You know what I’m talking about. They don’t know what you’re up to in there.

Here’s a quandary: When does non-disclosure creep into ambiguous moral territory? When does protecting a chef’s secret enter the hazy area we associate with a president invoking executive privilege? The what YOU don’t know will be better for BOTH of us mentality.

How might executive privilege be brought to bear on entertaining? Not telling a vegetarian that the pie crust they are devouring was made with your coveted supply of lard. Assuring a vegan that the Humbolt Fog Blue is actually a new vegan “cheese alternative.” Promising a teetotaler that “all the alcohol burns off anyway,” to ensure harmony over a boozy dessert in the offing.

And what moral boundaries do you dare flirt with when feeding your most food-saavy friends? Do you tell your grass-fed-free-range-only buddies that you just served them the feedlot special?…And, by the way, that juicy hen you’re slathering with gravy did not enjoy its final days pecking organic, vegetarian feed, the Pacific breezes fluffing its feathers. Can you disclose that the seared beauty of a lamb chop resting on your pal’s plate is more processed, frozen (ew!) than contented, Irish ewe?

I’m not about to serve Panda burritos or anything but I wonder what people should and do try to get away with. When, if ever, is it okay to invoke executive chef privilege? When is the invocation morally unjustifiable?

No doubt I raise an eyebrow when a server assures me that the chilean sea bass on the menu is NOT the kind hooked via albatross-killing longlines. Yeah, right. So long as that vexatious albatross can be removed from the diner’s neck, he can order and eat guilt-free.

The cook’s and the diner’s dilemma is that once you decide to care about these things you risk being unsettled all the time, unable to make food choices without deep investigative journalism. So, you hope and trust that your server is telling you the truth – but you kinda know she’s not.

Is it in a food-lover’s best interest to live in ignorance about the origins of her food? And if you’ve choose to learn and care about the facts, are you ready, willing and able to follow your convictions? At some point, while navigating the menu of choices and moral quandaries – if you don’t just give up along the way – you eat something.

Because at some point we get hungry. Then we eat.

Worth Doing


This is worth doing. I made this sandwich for a road trip no less than five years ago and received rave reviews. Why it’s taken me that long to re-create it, I’m unsure. Perhaps it’s because it required me to shop for things that aren’t always in my pantry. Regardless, my husband almost cried when he saw it.
Regardless, do as I tell you. This is a great sandwich to take on the go too, I like to call it the Hitchhiker Sandwich.

Hitchhiker Sandwich

1 round boule loaf
2 tablespoons pesto, homemade or purchased from the store
1/2 pound proscriutto
1/2 pound Monterey Jack cheese
1 jar roasted red peppers
1 medium tomato sliced

Cut the top from the bread in a cone shape. Remove as much of the interior of the bread as possible while maintaining the structural integrity of the loaf. Smear the insides of bread with pesto then layer the meat, cheese, peppers and tomatoes in to your liking. Put the top on the loaf and press firmly. Slice.

If you’re an over achiever you could slip in some baby arugula if it’s not being prepared too far in advance.



Lamb Pita

I adore the flavor of lamb.

Once Erin served me some kind of homemade lamb meatball in a homemade pita (she must reveal her secret bread-making strategy to you soon) and I almost wept. Something about these mid-eastern flavors just hit me in the right place. I can’t get enough. That memory was the inspiration for this quick lunch idea.

Here is what I did:

1. Sautéed garlic and sliced onion in olive oil.

2. Added ground lamb that I had seasoned generously with:

cinnamon

cumin

dried oregano

lots of salt and pepper (I think the meat in this dish should be really salty and flavorful).

3. While that was browning away I made the cucumber yogurt sauce by combining:

diced cucumber, not using the seedy parts

greek yogurt

salt and pepper

4. Then I sliced a few radishes and shaved a carrot because – why not?

5. I popped store-bought pita into the oven to warm.

6. By the time the lamb was done I heaped everything into the warm pita and silently thanked Erin for her inspiration.

I didn’t have any mint on hand but you could add mint to the meat mixture or to the yogurt dressing or just torn mint straight onto the sandwich before biting into it. That would be a good move.

Food Paparazzi

The term food paparazzi has arrived. It refers to people (let’s be honest – bloggers) who storm restaurants, often arriving in groups with fellow food documentarians, snapping photos of their meals. Tales of setting up tripods and flash-pops going off in sedate dining rooms give bloggers with cameras a bad name. Some fine restaurants have even forbidden picture-taking.

Photographing in restaurants always makes me self-conscious. And so seldom do the images turn out well. You could be about to enjoy the most delicious meal you’ve ever put in your mouth but the photo of the meal will, invariably, not do it justice. It isn’t easy to take great photos of food, especially in a dark restaurant where every dish ends up looking like brown lumps of some amorphous substance. Not a good look. And not fair to the chef.

I’ve hesitated from blogging about restaurant visits because I lacked pictures that I deemed good enough to accompany the post. Plus, snapping photos while sitting down to a great meal isn’t exactly relishing the moment, which is supposed to be the whole point, right?

If I believe that my experience is one that others might find interesting or enlightening or helpful I should be able to find another way of sharing my culinary adventure. Taking pictures of meals may be, at times, desirable, but the photos do not necessarily have to be of the food and not necessarily taken in the midst of an intimate dinner with my companions. Literal pictures cannot always translate an experience accurately. So, I aim to find ways to share my experiences without joining the paparazzi.

I don’t want to be that blogger when a live sweet shrimp scampers across my plate and throws my camera back in my face.

Here are some of my best/worst photos from my brief former life as a food paparazzo:

This was a succulent beyond succulent cassoulet that I enjoyed in the Bordeaux region of France. A family restaurant with long-cooked deliciously complex and heart-warming food in an old rustic space, serving fabulous wine. Would you want to go there based on this photo?

Same restaurant below. I guess I am glad to have this reminder of the barely-cooked tomatoes with mild grilled chiles – I like the idea of this dish. Maybe I’ll try it at home. But it was so much better than this lame picture.

I don’t know what this next one is or where it was taken but based on this photo I wouldn’t want to go back.

Ok, this one isn’t TOO bad; However, I felt stupid taking it because I was in Paris at a lovely sandwich shop and everyone else was just enjoying their meal with elegance and I was busy worrying about getting a good shot.

This is next one represents one of the best food experiences of my life. My husband and I arrived at this little inn, Auberge Basque, in the Basque region of France starving and exhausted. This is a highly regarded food inn run by chef star Cedric Bechade. We had a room reserved in the inn but no reservation that night for the restaurant. We sat in the bar and the chef INVENTED (!) this soup to warm our bellies. We had no idea how lucky we were. You can’t just show up without a reservation and be served anything at this place. We wept with our good fortune and the most remarkable soup we’ve ever enjoyed. But this picture, while I am glad to have it, is not going to give you even an inkling of our experience there. And I think the sommelier was giving us the hairy eyeball while I “subtly” readied my camera phone.

I like this one better. I clearly have a yen for pastry.

This is another amazing meal we had in the Basque region – this time in San Sebastian, Spain. Looks like a giant mess to me. I am sure it was lovely.

This risotto looks dirty:

I like this one of me perusing the tapas selection better.  I am thinking, “Chorizo… cheese…smoked fish. Ok, five of each!”

Inspiration: I recently read an article about how cooked radishes are the new new thing. The next week, I enjoyed a delicious meal in a restaurant that featured a tapas portion of roasted radishes with blue cheese and saba. Later that week, I received a bunch of pink beauties in my CSA box.

In my family, radishes get sliced over a salad. That’s it. I hear in French families radishes are served alongside creamy butter and salt for an elegantly rustic bite. I’ve done that too. What to do? How about follow the trend and experiment with cooking radishes? I accepted my own challenge.

This is what I did:

Cut trimmed radishes into quarters.

Heated some olive oil in a saute pan.

Added radishes to saute for a few minutes to brown them.

Stirred radishes and continued cooking until they were as soft as I wanted them – a few more minutes.

Salt and pepper.

Takeaway: Cooking radishes mellows out their flavor. They end up tasting a little like a turnip. A good alternative to slicing them for a salad if you’ve got a bunch on hand.