Category Archives: Vegetables

heart-healthy red salad for your valentine

It’s not often that you’ll see me extolling a dish for its hearth healthy qualities. It’s not that I don’t care about good health, it’s more that I prefer to focus on eating a diet that is balanced, with the philosophy that “all things in moderation” will render it unnecessary to have to specifically seek out recipes that are low cholesterol or low fat or whatever. But at the beginning of this year, Marvin let it be known that he’d like us to eat less meat and more vegetables and grains. He specifically requested whole grain salads, which I already make from time to time and which are great for quick lunches when you have the hectic schedule of a freelance photographer.

I happily obliged by adapting a recipe from Once Upon a Tart (a great cookbook for soups and side salads) with wheatberries, beets and pomegranate. The recipe instructs you to fold in the beets and pomegranate at the end so they don’t stain the salad, but I wanted the dramatic, deep reddish-magenta hue to soak into the wheatberries… so much prettier and seasonally appropriate. The salad is quite good as it is, but even better with a little crumbled feta or fresh goat cheese on top. (This I would add at the last minute though, since I draw the line at pink cheese.) Although there’s no reason not to make this any time of the year, it would make a dramatic Valentine side dish- I plan to serve it alongside a venison tenderloin tomorrow. And you can serve it feeling comforted in the knowledge that you’re not potentially bringing about your loved one’s early demise with rich foods. If you do have a decadent main dish or dessert planned, no worries- it’s all about balance.

Wheatberry Salad with Beets, Pomegranate & Cherries (loosely adapted from Once Upon a Tart)
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Prep time: 15 minutes/ Cook time: 30 minutes (inactive)/ Serves 8 as a side dish

2 cups wheatberries, rinsed
1 lb beets, peeled with a vegetable peeler and quartered
¼ cup dried cherries, chopped (cranberries may be substituted)
1 shallot, minced
seeds and juice of 1 pomegranate
2 Tbs red wine vinegar
2 Tbs olive oil plus additional for roasting beets
½ tsp salt plus additional for cooking
2 tsp minced fresh thyme
a few turns of black pepper
optional: 2 ounces crumbled feta or goat cheese

Preheat oven to 425°. Toss the beets with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a foil-covered baking sheet. Roast until they are easily pierced with a fork, about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the wheatberries in a medium pot with a lid. Cover with plenty of cold, salted water. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until done (about 20 minutes)- they should yield to the tooth but remain pleasantly chewy. Drain, return to the pot, add the cherries or cranberries and cover (this helps plump the fruit).

While the beets and wheatberries are cooking, combine the shallot, pomegranate juice, vinegar, and salt. You can do this in the bowl you plan to serve the salad in.

When the beets have cooled enough to handle, cut them into ½-inch dice. Place all ingredients except olive oil in a serving dish and stir well to combine, adding the olive oil after the wheatberries have had a chance to soak up some of the vinegar and pomegranate juice. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt, vinegar or pepper as needed. If desired, serve with crumbled feta or goat cheese on top.

first dinner married

Ok, so technically our first dinner married (not counting the actual reception) was some carryout from Thang Long. But our first home-cooked meal- cooked as a joint effort, no less- was a simple but satisfying meal of grilled rib-eye steak, a green salad, some sliced heirloom tomatoes (left over from the wedding), and roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and lemon. (Oh, and a bottle of Zinfandel, also left over from the wedding, if you can believe it.)

It’s an understatement to say I’ve never been drawn to cauliflower. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate it, but it’s certainly not a favorite, especially when steamed or raw (allow me to insert an immature “blech“). So it was pretty uncharacteristic of me to pick up a head of it while we were shopping for dinner. But leave it to New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark to make something as unsexy as cauliflower sound appealing. I’ve been making my way through her book In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite as bedtime reading, and came across a section where she talks about roasting vegetables- when in doubt, crank the oven to 425°, give the vegetable(s) a sheen of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt, and in 40 minutes or so, you’ll have roasty caramelized goodness. I’m no novice when it comes to roasted vegetables, but sometimes it takes someone else’s enthusiasm to reignite interest in a tried-and-true method.

Coincidentally, that morning I had come across an article in this month’s issue of Saveur by Lesley Porcelli entitled “The Soft Approach”, about cooking vegetables past what common kitchen wisdom would deem done. As someone who has never appreciated, say, the overly vegetal, grassy taste of a near-raw green bean, I recognized a kindred spirit. Porcelli talks about cooking vegetables as her Italian grandmother did, to the point where their sweetness develops; a stage many would call overcooked. This is exactly what I planned to do with my cauliflower: heat-blast it into submission.

I preheated my oven and cut my cauliflower into bite-sized florets. Into a large bowl it went, tossed with olive oil and salt, and then dumped on a baking sheet. If I’d been at home, I might have sprinkled on some additional seasonings at this point as Clark does in her recipe, like smoked paprika or even curry powder, depending on what I was serving it with. I put the cauliflower in the oven for 10 minutes before adding whole peeled cloves of garlic and chunks of red onion (also tossed in oil and salt). In retrospect I probably could have added the garlic from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure what the timing would be and didn’t want to risk it burning. When the onion and cauliflower were done, the garlic was soft and cooked through but not browned at all. Still, smashed and smeared on a piece of rare rib-eye and dragged through the tomato juices on our plates, neither of us was complaining.

To finish the dish, I sprinkled on some fresh chopped parsley and squeezed a bit of lemon juice over everything to brighten the flavors. Next time I might follow my friend Evan‘s lead and add capers and a dash of good-quality vinegar (a combination which I raved about in this post). For someone whose attitude toward cauliflower has been ambivalent at best, I was more than pleased at my results and would definitely repeat the experiment. In fact, if I’d had enough left over, I would have played around with a roasted cauliflower & garlic soup. Note to self: next time put an additional tray of veg in the oven to be used for this purpose!

All photos this post courtesy of the hubs. Check out his sweet new website.

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Parsley & Lemon
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You can change this recipe up in a dozen different ways- substitute a sweet onion for the red, or leave it out altogether; ditto for the garlic (although… roasted garlic!). Add spices as you see fit, or finish the dish with the simple parsley/lemon combination I used. In her version, Melissa Clark uses whole spices cumin, coriander and mustard seed for an Indian-influenced dish, adding sliced almonds in the final 5 minutes of cooking. I was away from home and didn’t have my spices, so I settled on this simpler version.

1 head cauliflower
1 large red or sweet onion (optional)
cloves from one head garlic, peeled (see note)
about 3 Tablespoons olive oil (less if not using onion)
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
juice of half a lemon, or to taste

Note: If garlic cloves are on the small side, add them with the onions after the initial 10 minutes of cooking so they do not burn.

Preheat oven to 425°. Rinse cauliflower and trim away any brown spots. Cut into small bite-sized florets, about 3/4″ to 1″. Place cauliflower in a large bowl with the garlic cloves and toss with just enough olive oil to coat. Toss with sea salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon, and pepper or other spices if desired.

Spread cauliflower and garlic on a baking sheet large enough to hold it all without crowding; ideally, there should be a little space between all the pieces so they roast and don’t steam. Place in the oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the onion into 1″ pieces; toss with olive oil and salt. When the 10 minutes is up, give the cauliflower a stir and add the onion. Cook for another 10 minutes and stir again. Continue cooking for a final 10-15 minutes or until cauliflower has plenty of browned spots (see photo). Transfer to a bowl and finish with the lemon juice and parsley to taste. Sample and adjust any seasonings as needed.

summer tomatoes and a savory zucchini bread {les culinettes}

Summer tomatoes may seem like an odd thing to post about right now, as most other North American food bloggers are fully in fall’s sway. But now that I have this silly wedding business behind me, I’m catching up with a few odds and ends- blog posts I’ve been sitting on; photos I’ve been meaning to edit; recipes I wanted to share. Besides, the particular recipe I have for you today- a savory zucchini-tomato bread- is actually more suited to this time of year, because who wants to turn up the oven on a sweltering August day? (Oh, that’s right, I did.) This bread, though- if you still have a glut of zucchini but are tired of sweet zucchini bread, this is the ticket. It’s rich, eggy, cheesy and perfect for a cool fall day, and it keeps for a few days because of how moist it is. Also, if you’re grabbing bushels of Roma tomatoes to make these roasted Romas, this is a great use for them. Mine were from last year (roasted and frozen in olive oil) but they held up beautifully. If you don’t have tomatoes you can throw in a handful of black olives, or even a little diced ham.

The last meeting of our cooking club took place on August 12 and as we have a seasonal bent, we celebrated the tomato. Once again, I wondered how we would pull off 8 or so dishes with the same ingredient in common and not have it be “too much”, and once again, I needn’t have worried. From just-picked to barely cooked to long-simmered to roasted, the permutations were as creative as they were delicious. Sarah skewered fresh tomatoes with melons, basil and mozzarella for a salad on a stick. Molly puréed tomatoes from her garden with peaches and a little yogurt and garnished it with tarragon for a chilled summer soup, a riff on a Mark Bittman recipe. Amy, ever the fancy-pants (I say this with the utmost admiration!), stuffed squash blossoms with seasoned diced eggplant, fried them and set them on a bed of barely-cooked tomato sauce. Heavenly.

Speaking of heavenly, I want to digress just for a moment here to talk about our hostess Abigail and her stunning Ann Arbor home, which you can see a tiny glimpse of in a couple of these photos. I hope it doesn’t embarrass her if I say that I was absolutely enamored with her house and its decor, a perfect blend of old world/antique and whimsical modern. The house itself is in amazing condition, with original woodwork throughout, a gorgeous fireplace and many other cool details. And the landscaping- let’s just say gardening is Abigail’s labor of love, and it shows. Much of Abigail’s decor, including the “most beautiful chandelier in the world” (as she told her husband to convince him they needed to buy it and ship it back) was purchased during their time living in Italy. I’m guessing the heavy linens on the dining table were of European provenance as well- you just can’t buy stuff like that at a department store.

Of course it’s no surprise that such impeccable taste would carry over to the kitchen. Our hostess made two knockout dishes, one an appetizer with multiple components, the other a homey potato gratin (in a vintage enameled casserole, no less). The appetizer was composed of a whipped chive goat cheese and a deeply savory tomato-shallot-vinegar compote topped with a basil leaf, on little almond biscuits. The sweet cookie-like biscuits were unexpected but totally worked. It was a struggle not to devour too many, as we all wanted to save room for dinner.

It’s been well over a month since this dinner and I’m struggling to remember what Emily and Meghan brought- please forgive me, ladies! I believe the roasted tomatoes with capers and mozzarella were Meghan’s contribution, and Emily brought a simple salad of tomatoes from her garden. She was understandably much too busy to prepare anything more complex (not that she needed to anyway), as she was getting married the following weekend. Congratulations Emily! I don’t think I would have even been able to attend any social events the week before our wedding, as I was so busy taking care of last minute details, but she seemed much more organized than I.

As usual, we had a grand old time eating, drinking and making merry. We were privileged to have been joined by Abigail’s old school friend Chiara, who was visiting from Brooklyn on her first weekend away from her kids. I hope we showed her a proper good time. Kids, if you’re reading, she was fighting back the tears pining for you the whole time. Really!

Some say a bride experiences a let-down after the wedding, when there is no longer a big event to focus on, and the attention dwindles. I don’t feel this way in the slightest, at least not yet- on the contrary, I’m really excited to have time once again to cook and have dinner parties. I will of course post about the wedding very soon, once I get our photos and have some time to digest everything, so to speak. The ultra-short summary is that we had the time of our lives and the food was to die for. But I can’t wait to get back in the kitchen, so here’s hoping we’ll plan another Culinettes party ASAP!

Savory Zucchini Bread with Roasted Tomatoes and Parmesan
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The inspiration for this recipe is the savory “cakes” served in France as part of the apéro (pre-dinner drinks and snacks). The first time I made it, I used roasted tomatoes and black olives, but wanted to adapt it to make use of the overabundance of zucchini in gardens and markets at the end of summer. The results are a delicious departure from sweet, muffin-like zucchini breads.

Prep: 20 minutes
Yield: 2 large loaves or 4 small loaves

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
5 ounces Parmesan or other hard cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
5 large eggs
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups shredded zucchini
1 cup roasted Roma tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup grated shallot or onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (or other fresh herbs of your choice)

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease 2 loaf pans or four mini loaf pans.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cheese, salt and pepper. In another medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the wine and olive oil. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the egg/wine mixture in. Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet until fully incorporated; do not over-mix. Lumps are fine. Fold in the vegetables and rosemary. Divide the batter evenly among the pans and bake until the top is golden and crusty and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes for small loaves and an hour for large loaves (please note that I didn’t make large loaves so I can’t vouch for the timing- keep an eye on them and test to be sure).

asparagus salad with pistachios & ricotta salata

Although I like to do my share of experimenting in the kitchen, you’ll never hear me claim to be on the cutting edge of cooking or food trends. Even still, I suffer a bit of pique when I finally get around to making something that many others have already blogged about, and it’s so good, and seems like the most obvious thing in the world that I wonder why the heck it took me so long to try it. I hesitated a bit to write about this salad since it’s kind of reaching a saturation point in the foodblogosphere. But then I figured if it’s new to me, it’s likely there are those among you who still haven’t had it, and it really is so worth trying, bandwagon be damned.

Although a current trend, shaved asparagus salad is far from cutting edge- I found a recipe for it in a Chez Panisse cookbook (I believe it was this one), so it dates at least from the ’90s if not before. But it certainly seems to be enjoying a bit of a moment right now. I think my initial pause, if you could call it that, was in the fact that I assumed (wrongly) that raw asparagus would have more of the slightly stinky, bitter edge than cooked asparagus does. I say this as an asparagus lover, mind you, and a fan of most all green vegetables. But I never felt a particular urge to try asparagus uncooked as a salad, any more so than I would, say, cauliflower or okra or green beans.

Until recently, that is, when we were on our third or fourth bunch of asparagus in just about as many days (I went a little nuts when the Michigan asparagus finally arrived, later than usual after the weeks of unseasonably chill weather). We’d had it roasted, steamed, stir fried and grilled, and it was time for something new. I got out my vegetable peeler and got to work.

When I had a bowl piled high with pale green tangles, I dressed it lightly with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. I crumbled ricotta salata on top, along with toasted, chopped pistachios whose hue echoed that of the asparagus ribbons. I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I hoovered the entire dish down in minutes, it was so good. The salad had a sweetness to it that I hadn’t expected, and none of the “raw-tasting” quality I’d subconsciously feared- at least not in a bad way. It tasted raw in the sense of fresh, light and healthy; just what you’d crave on a warm day.  I made it again the next day and ate nothing besides that for my supper, polishing off the fat bunch of spears all by myself in what amounted to two oversize servings.

I’m looking forward to playing around with asparagus salad as long as it’s in season- I figure I have a couple more weeks at least. I already have a sesame-ginger dressing in mind, and I’d like to try the Caesar treatment as well à la Sassy Radish (although I think for that, I’d slice it very thinly on the bias, since my peeler produces very thin slices that wouldn’t stand up to a heavier dressing). Have any of you made asparagus salad? What’s your favorite preparation? And if you haven’t made it yet, you must- now that I’m on the bandwagon, I’m recruiting passengers.

Shaved Asparagus Salad with Pistachios and Ricotta Salata
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It would be bold of me to call this a recipe, so I won’t; just think of it as a starting point for your own slurp-worthy creations. The quantities are all approximate and as always, you should rely on your taste buds.  This salad will quickly become droopy as it loses its liquid when salted, so it is best only to make a quantity you think you’ll consume in one sitting (but trust me, that’s not hard to do).

1 bunch asparagus (fat spears work best)
¼ cup toasted and roughly chopped pistachios
about 2-3 ounces crumbled ricotta salata (feta could be substituted)
olive oil
half a lemon
salt & pepper

Rinse the asparagus and trim away or snap off the tough ends. Hold a spear flat against a cutting board with the tip in your left hand, and using a vegetable peeler, peel from left to right, leaving the tip intact, to create long ribbons of asparagus (reverse for left-handers). I found the easiest way to do this is to place the cutting board so that it slightly overhangs the counter, so you can get the peeler horizontal with the asparagus and get the proper leverage. Discard the first and last strips of each spear, which will be mostly peel. Repeat with all of the asparagus, reserving the tips for a risotto or omelette.

Dress the ribboned asparagus lightly with olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon; add salt and pepper to taste, tossing to distribute. Sprinkle the cheese and nuts on top and eat immediately, sharing only if necessary.

kale salad with lemon feta dressing, and an accidental smoked trout {charcutepalooza}

I may be accused of chutzpah for labeling this post “Charcutepalooza”, but so be it. Last month’s posting deadline (April 15) breezed past without fanfare like I wish this cold, rainy spring weather would, and although I had the hot-smoking challenge in the back of my mind all month, I had no specific plan as to how or when to execute it. So when my friend Todd invited a few of us over and said he was firing up his smoker, right after Molly and I had just bought a whole fresh lake trout (scored at Eastern Market for $1.99 a pound!), it seemed like kismet.

Because the trout was going to be in the fridge for a few days before the get-together, I salted and sugared it (no measuring, I just threw on what I thought was an appropriate amount). I had already used my share of the steaks, which I braised in a Thai red curry coconut milk concoction, so I had my half of the fillet left to smoke. Molly went the opposite route, saving her steaks for the smoker. Despite my lackadaisical approach, I did attempt to create a pellicle by  placing the uncovered fish on a rack in the fridge the morning of the party. (I mention this as a pathetic bit of evidence that I actually sort of “did” the challenge…)

I was requested to bring a vegetable side dish, so I decided to give raw kale salad a try. It’s something I’ve been reading all about on various blogs and wanted to try for a while, but they always call for lacinato or “dinosaur” kale which I can’t easily find around here. I decided to make up a recipe using regular (curly) kale instead and see how it came out. The verdict? According to the other guests, it was great. I was totally satisfied with the flavor, but I think texturally it could have been improved upon slightly by chopping the kale a little finer, almost like tabbouleh. A mezzaluna would have come in handy for this task, but I don’t have one currently. Another item for the wedding registry!

Apparently we were supposed to be there 2 hours before we actually got there (I recalled the email mentioning 7pm but apparently this was the sit-down-to-eat time, not the arrival time…. damn ADD) but fortunately we showed up just as the burgers were coming off the smoker and people were getting ready to dig in. Our host presented us each with a Cuba Libre (translation: rum & coke with a lime) and we loaded our plates and headed out to what Todd fondly refers to as “the magical front porch” to eat. It was a bit chilly, but the great food, drink and company distracted us enough from the cold.

After dinner, we moved the party out back where the fish was still smoking and a fire was roaring. I figured the trout would be a snack for those later-on beer munchies, but then Evan busted out a phenomenal lemon gelato with something like 20 egg yolks, so understandably no one was much interested in fish at that point. (I’m suspecting, and hoping, that those who stayed past us drinking had a go at it later). I of course had to at least sample some for posterity’s sake. The fillet was light and delicate, with just a thin darker layer where the smoke had adhered. The steaks, which had been on longer, had a fuller, meatier and more intense smoke flavor. Both were incredibly moist and delicious. I’m kind of kicking myself that I didn’t steal a small piece to take home to put on a morning bagel, but our hosts had been generous so I wanted to leave it for them. A good reason to actually attempt the hot smoking challenge on my own at some point (or, a reason to put a smoker on our registry!) . I do have a souvenir, though- my coat still smells like smoked fish.

Raw Kale Salad with Lemon Feta Dressing
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Most of the kale salads I’ve seen on the interwebs are variations on Melissa Clark’s recipe and call for pecorino and lacinato kale…  I had feta and regular kale on hand so I developed this recipe instead. Featuring feta, lemon and oregano, the flavors are more Greek than Italian, and the copious but light dressing works well with the curly kale. The salad holds up beautifully for days without wilting, so it’s a great make-ahead dish.

2 bunches kale
1 cup olive oil
1/4 to 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3-4 lemons)
2 oz. plus 4 oz. feta in brine
2 garlic cloves, crushed and roughly chopped
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp sugar
optional: cherry or grape tomatoes or strips of red or yellow bell pepper

Using the full 1/3 cup lemon juice makes what I consider a pleasantly tart dressing. If you are less of an acid-head than me, feel free to start with 1/4 cup; you can always add more.

In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, oregano,  pepper flakes, sugar and a couple pinches of salt.

Cut the tough stems away from the kale leaves and discard; roughly chop or tear the leaves and wash and dry in a salad spinner. Finely chop the kale (think tabbouleh or a little coarser) and place in a bowl large enough to toss the salad.

Put the olive oil, garlic and 2 ounces of feta in a blender and process until smooth. Add the lemon juice mixture and process again until fully combined. Taste for balance, adding more lemon juice or an additional pinch of salt or sugar if necessary.

Toss about 3/4 of the dressing with the salad and assess the results, adding the remaining dressing to your taste. Crumble the remaining 4 oz feta on top. If desired, garnish with additional vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, etc.

corned beef & cabbage, and soup! {charcutepalooza}

Have you noticed it’s been a bit heavy on the meat posts over here lately? I have some non-meat-centric recipes up my sleeve, but am trying to be timely for St. Patrick’s Day and the Charcutepalooza deadline (which I’ve already blown by 2 days). This month’s challenge was brining; specifically, corning (is that really a verb?) our own beef. (I told my friend Fred on the phone the other night what I was up to, to which he replied, “I like to hear a lady say she’s corning her own beef”. Yes, Fred can make innuendo out of just about anything. What would that even mean? Never mind…)

This was probably one of the easiest challenges- not that I know what the others will be yet, but as far as curing and charcuterie goes, this was a snap- make up a simple brine (salt, pink salt, spices and water), brine the meat for 5 days, and then simmer with more spices until cooked. No humidity or temperatures to monitor; in fact the biggest challenge was probably finding room in the fridge for the container of meat and brine.

I bought a brisket from Gratiot Central Market that was almost 8 pounds, the smallest they had. The recipe called for a 5-lb brisket, so I cut off the round (the thicker end) and stuck it in the freezer; I’ll probably do some kind of braise with it later. I made my own pickling spice according to the recipe in Charcuterie, which now has me wanting to pickle anything and everything just because I have a whole jar of it and it’s awfully pretty and intoxicating (photo shows coriander, peppercorns & mustard seed I toasted). But if you really want easy-breezy, it’s fine to use a pre-mixed pickling spice.

For our first corned beef meal, I made this braised cabbage instead of boiled. I just feel like it’s a little dressier, or maybe it’s just my comfort zone since I don’t make many boiled dinners. I used the corned beef cooking liquid instead of chicken broth for the braising liquid and it was fabuloso. The meal got big thumbs up from Marvin, who called the corned beef “sprightly” from the coriander and praised the cabbage’s sweetness. He was still carrying on about it the next day, saying it was the best corned beef he’s ever had. So there you have it- homemade really does make a difference!

Once we got down to about a pound of corned beef left, I decided to make a batch of corned beef and cabbage soup, loosely based on one at a restaurant where I used to work. Now, I know there are probably a thousand recipes out there for this soup, and I make no claims to any sort of originality or authenticity with this, but for you other Charcutepaloozers out there, this is a solid recipe and a good way to use up leftover stock and meat. It incorporates the highly flavorful cooking liquid from simmering the beef (waste not, want not!) and is ridiculously easy to throw together.

In other (sort of related) news: My latest SimmerD column is out; it’s a profile of P.J.’s Lager House in Corktown and you can read it here.

Corned Beef & Cabbage Soup
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1 lb corned beef, cut into whatever you determine to be appropriate bite-sized pieces
1 lb green cabbage, shredded on a mandoline or thinly sliced
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
2 medium yellow onions, cut to your preference (I like vertical slices but you can also dice them)
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup sauerkraut with its juice
1 large russet potato, peeled and shredded (optional, see notes)
6 cups broth from cooking your corned beef (if very salty, use 4 cups broth + 2 cups water or whatever ratio tastes balanced)
olive oil

Notes: If you didn’t cook your own corned beef, you could try making this with deli corned beef- for the cooking liquid, use beef broth, and put a tablespoon of pickling spice in a tea strainer or cloth spice bag to cook with the soup. I didn’t use a potato since I’m off the white starch for the moment, but I probably would have otherwise. I didn’t miss it though. Your call.

Directions: Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot.  Sauté the onions and carrots until the onions are softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Raise the heat slightly and add the cabbage. Continue to sauté until the cabbage is wilted and softened, about 15 minutes, adding more oil if needed so nothing sticks.

Add the tomatoes, broth, meat and potato, if using. Simmer until cabbage and carrots are cooked to your liking. Stir in the sauerkraut and taste to check the balance of flavors, adding more salt, water (if too salty), sauerkraut juice etc. as needed. Serve with hunks of pumpernickel or rye bread and butter.

achieving wok hay

Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than  dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.

With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.

So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.

Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.

I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:

  • Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
  • Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
  • Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.

Scallop & Asparagus Stir-Fry (adapted from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young)
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Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.

1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other  vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic

Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)

Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.

Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.

Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.