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Recommendations for Sanibel Island…and Beach-Side Musings

The salty, gritty scent of the gulf rolling onto crushed shell-bone and white sand… Clear, cerulean skies and hot sun… And, predictably, my favorite part: late, sun-kissed dinners teeming with fresh seafood, warm bread, and goldfish garnered salads. 

I grew up coming to Sanibel as a child, and this week my husband Padraic and I spent a week there with my parents and one of my brothers. I’m not the best at relaxing on vacations — trust me, I spent much of the week in the condo in front of my computer, planning lessons, grading papers, and researching summer professional development opportunities. Any “color” I got is the product of Jergens Natural Glow. (Minus my two lobster red feet.) But as I get ready to board the plane back to my real life, I find myself eager to reminisce.

I talk about writing quite a bit on this site, and so it bears mentioning that I always associate my childhood Sanibel trips with writing and journaling and reflecting. And the book, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, given to me by my mother. There’s something about the pull and tug of the ocean that as a child/adolescent, called out my inner longings, surfaced my frustrations and fears, and got me in my feelings, in a broody, contemplative state that couldn’t have less to do with building an ambitious sand castle or getting a killer tan.

I also associate Sanibel with my mom, Jeanie. This is the only annual vacation she and my dad really allow themselves, and she always seems to take a bit of the island with her, sharing its breezy, pastel, wholesome elegance. Large bleached shells fill glass vases in their home, shell Christmas ornaments adorn their Christmas tree, and there’s even a Sanibel perfume that instantly makes me picture my mom’s master bath in her home in Saint Louis. 

But enough nostalgia…

This week Padraic and I indulged in daily yoga classes at Sanibel Pilates and Yoga including Vinyasa, Hatha, Aerial, and a Pilates class for good measure. If you have a fairly advanced practice, the classes feel pretty light, but it’s a beautiful studio with warm and inviting instructors. Other than yoga, we did a lot of walking on the beach… eyeing a few brazen dolphins swimming close to shore.

My parents have it down when it comes to the Sanibel restaurant scene, so allow me to tell you what I ate all week. Interested? Good. 

So night one was The Timbers: a bustling, family-friendly joint with a great seafood market to boot. They serve goldfish instead of croutons in their simple house salad, which is the kind of thing that wins me over to a place. I had a hankering for crunchy fried shrimp that night, which was a treat, but I have to say, what impressed me most was the roasted vegetable medley of zucchini, carrot, and broccoli — buttery and super satisfying. 

Night two was The Green Flash, located on Captiva Island. This place is a local favorite, and they don’t take reservations. I opted for turf — a steak with grilled polenta and sautéed spinach. The meal was solid, but the best part of the experience was the sunset ocean view and the service — our waiter was a robust Russian dude with a “professional waiter” aura. (I think in my next life I want to come back as tattooed waitress who provides kickass service and never needs to write anything down). 

More yoga… More walking… More furious typing on a computer… 

Our third night in Sanibel was very special. Padraic’s cousin and his family live in Naples, so we made a trip to their house, after perusing a few art galleries and walking through Naples’s historic downtown (mighty hoity toity for my taste…) Steven and Laura are both architects (in business together), and Laura is a phenomenal cook. She served us a spinach salad with jicama, diced apples, orange slices, and a cilantro/lime/olive oil dressing, followed by cheesy chicken enchiladas and refried beans… then homemade flan for dessert. 

More yoga… More walking… 

Sweet Melissa’s was night four. Easily the best meal I’ve had all year, and possibly one of the best meals of my life. This place does take reservations — if you’re ever in Sanibel, make a reservation! 

The family split salads:

Here’s my personal favorite: big chunks of tomato and watermelon drizzled with basil infused olive oil and garnished with a generous square of feta, a large cornmeal crouton, and a few olives:

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Here’s a head of grilled romaine lettuce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and Caesar dressing:

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And here’s a goat cheese and beet get-up:

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Three of us got the same entree: sautéed scallops and chunks of pork belly served over a buttery sweet potato sauce. Holy crap. Who would have thought that pig and shellfish got along so nicely on top of a yam? 

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Finally, last night, I rolled up my sleeves and did a little cooking to thank my parents for all the indulgent meals… with another indulgent meal…   Brown butter scallops, Parmesan risotto, and sautéed kale.

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A few notes on this recipe: 

  • The recipe title is a little misleading — the scallops aren’t actually cooked in brown butter; they’re sautéed in olive oil and then drizzled with some butter that’s been browned in a saucepan. 
  • You probably know this, but to get a nice sear on the scallops, pat them DRY. 
  • The risotto doesn’t call for any salt — the many ladles of chicken broth and pile of Parmesan cheese does the trick. That’s one reason I think this particular recipe for risotto is a good basic, bottom line risotto recipe to have in your repertoire, whenever you’re serving risotto as a side starch and not a main course. The instructions are simple and the result is scrumptious.
  • You probably know this, too, but when you’re sautéing kale or spinach in olive oil and you want it to cook down faster, add a splash of water… Helps soften and moisten the greens without making them oily. If I were at home, I would have added some red pepper flakes.
  • The whole plate is just crying out for a squeeze of lemon — I don’t know why the original recipe doesn’t mention lemons, for the love of God! 
  • Oh — one more thing — I seared all the scallops — large and small — for four minutes on each side. This worked out pretty well for me.

Okay… Home we go… Back to dead carrot fingers :/ I feel blessed, bloated, quite a bit spoiled, and totally overwhelmed by everything I have to do before Monday. Namaste. 

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Two Flank Steak Suppers

Still putting off a more substantive post on the Whole30 program and all that I’m learning about health, habits, and, let’s be real, expensive grocery bills, because I’m too impatient to share the delicious food that we’re enjoying. Both of these recipes come from Williams-Sonoma School  Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week but they are Whole30 compliant, with a few tweaks.

Both of these meals are elegant in their simplicity, but most importantly, incredibly healthy for you. Here goes:

Flank Steak Salad with Grilled Peaches and Red Onions

  • Make a marinade for 1 lb of flank steak: Whisk 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 1 large minced garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Dump your flank steak into a gallon Ziploc bag, followed by the marinade and shake to coat evenly. Refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.
  • Make the dressing: in a liquid measuring cup, whisk together 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons minced shallots, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Slowly add 4 tablespoons olive oil and mix to emulsify. Set aside.
  • Tear a head of romaine lettuce (or whatever kind of lettuce you like) into a salad spinner; wash and dry.
  • Slice 2 red onions into half rings. Pit 3 peaches and cut them into thick slices. Mix 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Brush the onions and the peaches with the olive oil/vinegar mixture.
  • Heat a grill and grill the onions and the peaches. (Or, if you’re feeling lazy, like me today, omit the peaches and caramelize the onions in a big frying pan over low heat with the same olive oil/vinegar mixture, plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper).
  • Cook the flank steak: remove from the Ziploc and slice into inch thick slices. Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and fill the skillet with some cooking fat (I used ghee butter). Add as many slices as you can without crowding the pan and cook on each side for 5 minutes, turning with metal tongs. Reduce the heat to medium or medium low as necessary.
  • Assemble your salad and if you’re not following Whole30, add some blue cheese or feta crumbles.

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My nephew and chef-in-the-making grilled all the onions and peaches on a puny little Panini Press! And sported my “onion goggles” in the process. We all enjoyed the fruit of his labor:

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Flank Steak with Avocado & Tomatoes

This is an even simpler recipe than the salad above. The cookbook version actually calls for skirt steak, which is essentially a little beefier and tougher than flank steak, but very similar, according to What’s the Difference Between Flank Steak and Skirt Steak? To make:

  • Cut 1 1/2 lbs skirt or flank steak into 1-inch or 1/2-inch slices, season with salt and pepper, and leave the slices to rest at room temp for 15 minutes.
  • Heat a frying pan over high heat and add some cooking fat (I used ghee butter, but you could use olive oil or coconut oil, or…??) Add the steak and cook until medium rare, 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer the steak to a cutting board or a plate, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.
  • Fill a bowl with 1 1/2 cups (9 oz) halved cherry tomatoes, 2 cubed avocados, 1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, and the juice of 1/2 lime. Enjoy 🙂

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Goat Cheese and Onions Part 2

I recently read an article (in Epicurous, I think) about the oft-neglected merits of something certain foodies consider super uncool: boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Unexciting, perhaps, but I’m a firm believer that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are indispensable. See this recipe for chicken and veggie quesadillas by Ree Drummond that has sustained the two of us for at least a week’s worth of dinners… a sprinkle of taco seasoning lends the diced chicken a bit of kick, and you can prepare it ahead, along with the sautéed onions and bell peppers, and throw together a quesadilla whenever you’re feeling hungry. Then, mix the extra diced chicken with romaine lettuce, shredded Mexican cheese, tomato slices, and this rich, basil and scallion-loaded green goddess dressing, and you’ve got lunch. Or (I digress) the dressing is so rich you may just want a plateful of lettuce and tomato, like so:

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But anyway. Boneless skinless chicken breasts. Yes.

That being said, I’m also aboard the bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh trend. Which brings me to goat cheese and onions. Here’s how I adapted Ina Garten’s Chicken with Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato a few weeks ago:

  • Chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. In my experience, thigh meat tends to be fattier and more succulent than breast meat, and I feel I can justify the treat because thighs are smaller than breasts.
  • Her recipe calls for herbed goat cheese – I had plain in my fridge, from my aforementioned experiment with goat cheese caramelized onion bruschetta, so I added a fresh basil leaf under the skin instead. (If you have an herb garden, you could always mash in your own fresh herbs and an improvise your own herbed goat cheese. Right now my chives are out of control, so maybe I should have done that. Aw shucks, I suppose I’ll have to buy another log of goat cheese and start all over again… 🙂 )
  • I also did not have sun-dried tomatoes on hand, so I put a roasted red pepper (that came in a jar) under the skin. (Another reason to buy these jarred, roasted red peppers is that they layer sweetly on your standard, homemade grilled cheese sandwich and add nice, vinegary notes to salads. If you happen to have fresh bell peppers lying around, plus olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and a little fresh garlic (optional), you can make your own. See another, goat-cheese centric Ina Garten recipe (this one I haven’t made) for more specific instructions on how to pickle peppers.

Onions, you say?

I’ve made this Ina Garten recipe for herb roasted onions a few times, say, if I’m cooking meat and I have no vegetables or salad ingredients on hand to go with. It’s something of a revelation to me that onions are a vegetable that can be roasted like anything else, and stand on their own. Quarter and separate a few onions – mix them with olive oil, mustard, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper – roast them on a sheet pan, and voila: a cheap and surprisingly delicious side dish. (This time I made the recipe with yellow onions only, because that’s what I had – but I think adding a red onion to the mix is really worth it. Adds extra sweetness).

I rounded out the roasted chicken and roasted onions with some roasted carrots – really simple — olive oil, salt and pepper, and in my case, copious amounts of fresh dill.

Here’s how dinner ended up (I forgot to mention that crisp (cheap) white wine is always an important factor in the goat cheese and onion equation, but perhaps that just goes unsaid…)

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To goat cheese, to onions, to alfresco dining, to life, to life, l’chaim….

“Healthy Dish of the Day”

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.56.45 AMA cheesy frittata packed with spinach, a pea salad dotted with pieces of feta and mint — two of my favorite dishes from “Healthy Dish of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Year,” a Williams Sonoma cookbook by Kate McMillan. It’s a book for celebrating the seasons, for embracing the variety and abundance of seasonal produce and the color and vibrance of healthy cooking.

In addition to “seasonal vegetables,” the introduction proclaims an emphasis on “lean proteins… whole grains and good fats…” Each month’s recipes start with a calendar of meals, accompanied by a brief explanation of reoccurring themes and ingredients for the season. In my view, the calendar would be far more useful if it was organized around using up ingredients in successive recipes. Instead, it’s a way to whet your appetite at a glance, with each day’s dish calling for its own separate set of fresh, aka expensive ingredients. Take the first and second of March — a “spicy vegetable hash” calling for both sweet and Yukon gold potatoes, jalapeño pepper, plain yogurt, lime wedges and fresh cilantro, among other things, right next to “stir-fried pork and sugar snaps with soba noodles,” requiring Asian sauces/vinegars/oils, green onions and fresh ginger in addition to the title ingredients. Especially with the emphasis on fresh ingredients, you’d think Ms. McMillan would repeat more of them and organize the meal plan accordingly. Then again, it does bear the Williams Sonoma brand, so frugality may not be a fair expectation 🙂

That said, the monthly calendars can just as easily be used as a source of inspiration for ingredients to try. Say you’re visiting your local farmer’s market in March. A quick peek at the March spread might nudge you toward more generous helpings of swiss chard or fava beans, as opposed to that helpless feeling when confronted with large quantities of fleeting, seasonal produce. The large amount of recipes — it’s practically a tome — means that every five or six suppers receive their own full page photograph, which makes perfect sense but is still a little disappointing, in this digital age where food blogs display ten or twelve process photos for a single recipe. You can’t help but gravitate toward the dishes that are photographed. On the plus side, each recipe is accompanied by a note that either summarizes the essence of the dish — “fluffy ricotta-and-artichoke-stuffed ravioli sit in a pool of light, fragrant vegetable broth” — expounds on its nutritional value, provides historical context or suggested variations.

Here’s a brief sampling of each month’s themes and ingredients:

January

The emphasis is on root vegetables and “warming spices, such as turmeric, cayenne, curry paste and red pepper flakes.” Traditional comfort foods are made healthier with alternate cooking techniques, such as pan-searing instead of frying, and the abundant use of rich and creamy vegetables. As you might imagine, stews and soups are a natural way to create healthy food out of comfort food: A version of minestrone uses extra vegetables and low-sodium chicken broth, and “Asian-Style Chicken Soup” transforms your basic chicken noodle into something greener, spicier and more piquant. A vegetarian cassoulet replaces the traditional pork and breadcrumb mixture with meaty mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, beans, celery, carrots and potatoes.

February

McMillan encourages the reader to infuse winter dishes with color and fresh produce, and to pay attention to the flavor enhancing properties of sauces and garnishes. Winter’s inclination toward meat and potatoes is acknowledged, but the protein and carbs are lean — scallops, salmon, lentils eggs, quinoa, barley and whole-wheat penne. I’m especially keen to try the “Moroccan-Spiced Roasted Vegetables and Quinoa” and the “Roasted Salmon with Avocado-Grapefruit Salsa.” Oh, and “Broccoli Rabe and Olive Pizza.” Oh, and “Cauliflower Steaks with Caper-Anchovy-Garlic Sauce.” Okay, I’ll leave it at that.

March

The March dishes place spring’s green produce center stage — asparagus, snow peas, arugula…the list goes on. A platter of grilled endive and asparagus, boiled fava beans and orange slices tossed with orange juice, olive oil, salt and pepper is an unusual, textured take on a spring salad. On March 31st, McMillan tosses blanched asparagus, baby carrots and sugar snap peas with angel hair pasta, tomatoes, fava beans and Parmesan cheese.

April

The emphasis on green, seasonal produce continues, alongside grilled meats and spring herbs like dill and chives. “Roasted Asparagus Farrotto” takes the nutty, magnesium-rich grain farro and cooks it (with olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted asparagus) in the style of risotto. Here’s the pea salad whose praises I was singing earlier:

 Pea, Feta & Mint Salad

3 cups shelled English peas
2 T. olive oil
2 T. minced fresh mint
Salt and pepper
1 T. red wine vinegar
3 oz crumbled Feta cheese

1) Blanch the peas for 1-2 minutes in a pot of rapidly boiling, lightly salted water. Immediately transfer them to an ice water bath. Drain and pat them dry.

2) Toss the blanched peas with the olive oil, mint, 1/2 tsp. salt and a crackling of pepper. Just before serving add the vinegar and the cheese.

May

May celebrates lighter, al fresco dining — think salads, fish, grilled pizzas. Polenta is also frequently used as a foil for spring veggies: on May 1st, McMillan braises artichokes and serves them with shallots, peas and fresh herbs over a bed of polenta. On the 29th, she roasts asparagus and cherry tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few tablespoons of parmesan cheese, accompanied by wedges of grilled polenta. Apparently polenta contains “cartenoids,” which is good for your eyes and heart.

June

June presents simple combinations of fresh summer vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. I’m into the June 15th salad that mixes roasted peppers, eggplant and zucchini with goat cheese and crisp red leaf lettuce. And the idea of grilling whole wheat pizza dough and topping it with nothing more than a simple salad of mixed greens, sliced plum tomatoes and parmesan shavings. Or on June 27th, brining pork chops in cider vinegar, brown sugar, berries and red pepper flakes and serving it with grilled plums, peaches and nectarines.

July

Corn and tomatoes get their due in July — tomato and arugula frittatas, scallops with avocado-corn salsa, smoky grilled chicken and corn, tomato and bean salads with toasted bread crumbs… McMillan also suggests grilling traditional summer dishes to vary flavors — for example, “Ratatouille on the Grill.”

August

“Vine vegetables” are recycled throughout the month, such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. For example, eggplant is broiled and puréed with Greek yogurt, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, mint, salt and pepper, then spread across grilled Naan and topped with grilled red onions. On the 22nd, zucchini and peppers are julienned and sautéed, then served with buckwheat fettuccine, melted goat cheese and fresh herbs.

September

More tomatoes and zucchini, and a transition into fall with light soups and stews. A grilled portabello burger with tomato-ginger jam and sautéed red onions looks particularly scrumptious.

October

This month’s meals emphasize the expected assortment of fall produce such as pears, apples and butternut squash showcased via more pastas and whole grains. For example, there’s a roasted butternut squash whole-wheat pizza with goat cheese, Parmesan and arugula, and a whole-wheat flat bread with caramelized shallots, Monterey jack cheese and thin slices of grilled chicken and raw apple. Here’s the recipe for the spinach frittata:

Frittata with Spinach, Roasted Peppers & Gruyère 

8 large eggs
2 T. low-fat milk
Salt and pepper
2 cups baby spinach
2 olive-oil packed roasted red peppers, drained and chopped (or a cup fresh)
1/4 cup shredded Gruyère
1 T. unsalted butter
2 T. olive oil
2 T. finely chopped yellow onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh chives
1 tsp. fresh parsley

1) Whisk together the eggs, milk, 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Add the spinach, peppers and cheese.

2) Preheat the broiler. Meanwhile, melt the butter and oil in a 12-inch ovenproof frying pan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes and the garlic for an additional minute.

3) Pour in the egg mixture, reduce heat to low and cook until the edges are firm, about 4-5 minutes. Lift the edges with a spatula, tilt the pan and let the uncooked eggs run beneath. Cook 4-5 minutes longer, until the eggs are almost set.

4) Broil the eggs for about 2 minutes, until the top sets and browns slightly. Transfer the baked frittata to a flat serving plate and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temp.

November

For heartier, fall fare, more protein is mixed in during November, such as turkey, pork and lamb. Star produce items include cranberries, pumpkin and dark greens. For example, on the 29th, McMillan stir-fries lamb with broccoli and mushrooms and on the 25th, she fries chard, eggs and polenta in olive oil and tops them with a yogurt garlic sauce. But even in November, the produce has a fresh, crunchy flair, including an apple-jicama relish for “Pulled Chicken Sliders” and a pineapple-avocado salsa for Mahimahi.

December

McMillan suggests lightening the rich foods of the holidays by using olive oil as a substitute for butter and root vegetables (again) as complex carbohydrates. In addition, whole grains pepper the menu, such as “Spaghetti with Collard Greens, Hazelnuts and Caramelized Onions” and “Kale, Turkey Sausage and Barley Stew.” I’m also drawn to a dish of seared scallops garnished with shredded brussels sprouts and prosciutto.

The great thing about cooking with so many vegetables is that most of these meals can be enjoyed year round, even though it’s ideal to enjoy produce at its peak. I made the October frittata this spring. Happy eating, and healthy cooking 🙂

Something Simple

Alice Henneman Eggplant CC BY 2.0How shall I describe this roasted eggplant salad — it’s meaty and succulent, with big chunks of sweet eggplant, and it’s got bite, with tangy touches, including pickled red onions, diced feta, and a swig of red wine vinegar.

I wanted to write another post about Teacher Wars, the new book about the history of the teaching profession by Dana Goldstein that I just finished, but the lazy writer in me is having an easier time finding words for roasted eggplant.

What can I say — the history of teaching is intricate, enigmatic, and cyclical, with many of the same debates being tossed around for decades, and many of the same ineffective policies being stubbornly reinstituted in the name of innovation.

Roasted eggplant salad, on the other hand, is just plain good. There’s a saying that we write to experience life twice, which is especially apt for food blogging, I think. Here’s the recipe, adapted from Smitten Kitchen:

Ingredients

2 medium eggplants or 6 small, Japanese eggplants, cut into bite size chunks
4 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup diced feta
1/2 cup pickled red onions*

Tools

Large mixing bowl
Spatula
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Sheet pan

*To pickle the red onion, dice half a medium red onion and place the pieces in 1/4 cup cold water mixed with 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, a tablespoon of salt, and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Drain it when you’re ready to add the pickled onions to the roasted eggplant.

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  • Combine the eggplant, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Spread the eggplant evenly on a sheet pan and roast it in the oven for about 25 minutes.
  • Remove the roasted eggplant from the sheet pan and allow it to cool in a large bowl… such as the bowl you started with. Then add the remaining ingredients. Eat with a fork or enjoy on top of toasted bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and drizzled with olive oil.
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