Homemade Giardiniera

One of the challenges (or joys, depending on your outlook) of flying by the seat of your pants is you can’t confidently predict an outcome. This is true for me in the kitchen, even when I am doing that flying through a familiar recipe. When I cook, I generally do not follow a recipe to the letter; rather, I follow my instinct to complete a meal using the ingredients I can find. This is why my mac and cheese is never exactly the same, and why I have so many meatloaf recipes in my repertoire, including a stuffed one that I made last winter that I never got a chance to share with you—but I will (it involves bleu cheese).

Last month, when I whipped up the Italian Deli Tortellini Salad, I made a promise that I would share my homemade version of giardiniera, which I had declared is far and away better than any stuff you’ll buy in a jar. I’m making good on my promise, but before I continue, I must explain that my on-hand ingredients this time produced a giardiniera that would be perfect for serving at, well, Easter.

It’s pink!!!

In my previous times making this quick-pickled vegetable medley, I have used sweet or yellow onions and I didn’t have this pastel outcome. But in the ruckus of preparing to remodel, I had to forego an extra trip to the market, and I just used the red onions that I had. It was disappointing at first, because I am a perfectionist who wants everything to be just so, especially if I am sharing it on my blog. But there is also great joy in some of these culinary surprises, and it got me wondering what would happen if I used purple cauliflower along with the red onions, and maybe even purple carrots?

No matter the hue, I find the homemade version to be not only more flavorful, but also far crunchier than the jarred versions. I grew to love this stuff when I worked in a supermarket, as a house-made version of it was always in the prepared foods section of our deli department, and it was a perfect side to a beef on weck sandwich (now there’s a recipe for my culinary bucket list)!

Giardiniera is simple to make, but I suggest you plan ahead because it requires a few days and a decent amount of space in the fridge, at least during preparation. When it is finished, you’ll need a tall jar or good-sized container for keeping it, and it will last in the fridge for a few weeks.

One more thing to mention about my variation of giardiniera—it is intended as a riff on the Italian version, not the “Chicago-style,” which is marinated in olive oil rather than pickled.


Ingredients

About 4 cups fresh cauliflower florets                                            

1/2 cup carrot slices

1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, or pepperoncini or cherry peppers

1/2 onion (remember that red onion will make the dish pink!), cut into slices

3 celery heart stalks (strings removed), sliced thickly on the bias

Other vegetables would be good in this as well, provided they are crunchy. If I had made that trip to the store for yellow onions, I would have also picked up a bulb of fennel—that would be fantastic.

1/4 cup kosher salt* (see notes)


*Notes

I use kosher salt for most of my cooking and especially when brining or pickling. It has a pure salt flavor and the large grains take up more space than regular table salt. The additives in table salt (iodine and anti-caking agents) can add an unpleasant flavor and will likely result in a cloudy liquid. If you only have table salt, it is OK to use it here, but I’d recommend using less of it—maybe 3 tablespoons plus a teaspoon.


Instructions – Day One

Combine all the cut-up vegetables in a large bowl. Pour salt over them and use your hands to toss until evenly salted. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and refrigerate several hours, up to overnight.


I’ll stop right here and admit that in my distraction over all the remodel prepping activity, I let my vegetables brine in the salt way too long, but it was not a disaster; a couple of extra rinses on the second day washed away the excessive saltiness.


Instructions – Day Two

Drain the released liquid from the vegetables and rinse well under cold running water for about two minutes. Taste one or two pieces for saltiness. If they are too salty, cover them in the bowl with cold water and let them rest half an hour, then drain and rinse again. When they taste seasoned, but not unpleasantly salty, they are ready for the next step of pickling.

This part of the recipe project felt like a scavenger hunt, mainly because I have packed away my spices based on which ones I figured we would likely need for easy cooking during our remodel.

Believe it or not, I used to know where everything was.

In case I have not mentioned previously, I have a lot of spices—enough to fill up both sides of this cabinet (and surplus spices, which live in a cabinet above the washer and dryer), and there are too many jars to fit in a single box for short-term storage. We expected to be put out of the kitchen two weeks earlier, and when the delays gave me time to make giardiniera, I had to go in search of my ingredients.


No worries. It will all be worth it when the kitchen is done. 😊


Pickling Ingredients

1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar* (see notes)

1 1/4 cups water

3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed*

2 tsp. each mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds

1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

3 Tbsp. cane sugar

2 tsp. kosher salt (slightly less if using table salt)


*Notes

I usually have two kinds of apple cider vinegar on hand. One is raw, which means unfiltered and unpasteurized, which I will use for salad dressings or health purposes, but it is expensive. The other is a grocery store brand that is clear, which means it is filtered and pasteurized. I use the latter for this purpose because the vinegar is heated and that destroys the probiotic benefit of the raw vinegar anyway.

Unfortunately, I was so consumed in my search for fennel seeds that I did not remember the garlic when I made this batch, but I recommend it for an extra zing of flavor.

Combine the pickling ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt, then remove from heat. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables in a clean bowl and press the veggies under the surface of the liquid as much as possible. If it seems there is not enough liquid to go around, add equal splashes of vinegar and water to ensure good coverage.

Cover the bowl with plastic or a lid. Allow the giardiniera to cool, then refrigerate it at least overnight before enjoying it. For longer storage in the fridge, I transfer the giardiniera to a tall jar, and pour the pickling liquid through a mesh strainer to catch the seed spices and bay leaf.




Italian Deli Tortellini Salad

It does not seem possible that we are already heading into Labor Day weekend, the U.S. holiday that was established in 1894 to honor all the hard-working people whose efforts built social and economic strength for our country. But here we are, days away from the first Monday in September, and for most of us, that means an end-of-summer cookout, or at least some time in the great (hot) outdoors.

I promised a couple of weeks ago to present a few new ideas for easy salads that are perfect for backyard gatherings—I shared the tangy apple cole slaw, which brings a bit of tart fruit to the usual cabbage-and-carrots mix, and the tzatziki potato salad, leaning on the zesty flavors of a popular Greek condiment to bring some zip into one of our favorite summer sides.

To make good on my promise for a twist on pasta salad, I let my imagination run wild through an Italian deli case and all the salty, meaty, cheesy flavors one might find there. Initially, I had planned to use a basic pasta shape, such as penne or rotini, but I stepped it up and used cheese-stuffed tortellini instead. The result is this hearty, satisfying salad that could be a side dish (if you have the discipline to only scoop out a little bit of it), but we found it perfectly filling as a cool dinner salad, served up on a bed of fresh baby spinach and topped with halved grape tomatoes.

Since the time that I made this hearty salad, I have had the pleasure of visiting a real Italian deli, so I expect that my next version of this salad might hold a few additional flavors, but this was a good, flavorful start. 🙂

Mangia!

A small scoop of this salad would be a good side, but a large scoop on a bed of baby spinach was hearty enough for dinner!

Ingredients

1/2 package fresh cheese-filled tortellini* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise (optional, see notes)

4 Tbsp. prepared Italian vinegar-and-oil dressing (I used Good Seasons)

Several slices provolone cheese, cut into bite-sized pieces

Several slices uncured Italian salami, cut into bite-sized pieces

Several slices uncured pepperoni, cut into bite-sized pieces

About 1 cup giardiniera vegetables*, drained well and chopped

1/2 can garbanzo (ceci) beans, drained

Handful of fresh grape tomatoes, halved

Fresh baby spinach, for plating


*Notes

I used Buitoni fresh pasta, the kind you find in the refrigerated case near the ricotta cheese. Frozen tortellini would probably work well, too. Or you could go crazy and make it from scratch! If you want a lighter salad, substitute about half a box of penne or rotini pasta.

If you prefer a dressing that is not creamy, skip the mayonnaise and increase the Italian dressing by a tablespoon or two.

This was one of those times that I thought a store-bought ingredient would be “just as good” as a homemade one, but this giardiniera does not hold a candle to the one I make myself. Before fall officially begins, I promise I will share that recipe!


Instructions

  1. Cook the fresh tortellini according to package instructions, stopping just shy of tender. Drain it, and then immediately transfer the cooked pillows to a bowl filled with ice water to halt the cooking. Drain completely, and if you have enough time, chill the pasta by itself for an hour or two before adding the other salad ingredients.
  2. Prep all the other ingredients, along with anything else you think belongs in an Italian deli pasta salad. Be sure to drain any ingredients that are packed in water.
  3. Combine mayonnaise and Italian dressing until smooth.
  4. Toss the add-ins into the bowl with the cooked, chilled tortellini. Pour the dressing over the mix and gently fold with a spatula to combine and coat all the ingredients.
  5. Chill for at least one hour before serving. I found that this salad was better the second day, because the cooked tortellini tightened up a bit.
  6. Serve on a bed of baby spinach leaves, topped with halved grape tomatoes and a sprinkling of grated parm-romano cheese.

I tried to include all the great flavors of an Italian deli. Did I miss anything? 🙂


Tzatziki Potato Salad

There are as many ways to make potato salad as there are grandmothers, and although my own Gram never made this version, I know she would have liked it. Gram introduced me to yogurt when I was a young girl, and it’s a good thing she did, for a couple of reasons. First, I love it in all its forms—plain, Greek, drinkable, etc.—and second, I likely would not have tried yogurt at all because my mother hates it.

If the passion for food and cooking is passed down genetically, then all I can say is that it skipped a generation in my branch of the family tree. My mom is not a bad cook, just a basic (and infrequent) cook, and the meals she served when I was young never strayed from what she herself liked to eat. My friends, that was a short list. On the good side of things, this allowed me to experience Mexican food at an early age, and it is still a favorite. On the flip side, I nearly missed out growing up on so many things I love today, including cream cheese, eggplant, bleu cheese and, well, I could go on for days. Not only did my mom not enjoy those foods, but she would make disgusted faces about the very idea of them, and I might have grown up believing they were poisonous, if not for my grandmother’s influence.

Yogurt is about as far from poison as you can get; it’s rich with protein and gut-nourishing probiotics, and I learned to love the little cups of it that my grandmother always seemed to have in the fridge when I visited. My favorite flavors, as I recall, were lemon and the ones with blueberry or peaches that you stirred up from the bottom. These tasty treats paved the way for me to love Greek yogurt in my adult years, and most often with no fruit or sugar added. This powerhouse food is strained to a thicker texture than regular yogurt, so that the protein is concentrated, making it a fantastic base for healthy breakfast smoothies. In our house, we regularly reach for Greek yogurt as an even exchange for sour cream, and we whip it into our scallion cream cheese to make it more spreadable.

As summer inches toward its end this year, I had been considering ways to liven up my basic potato salad recipe, and it occurred to me that tzatziki—the bold and zesty, Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce—could be a terrific addition to a potato salad. I am not crazy about having a lot of mayonnaise in my salads, and the idea of refreshing tzatziki sounded pretty darn good. I was right.

Cool, creamy, refreshing!

While you cook the potatoes, make the tzatziki. Begin by chopping or shredding a peeled and seeded cucumber, then use salt to strip it of excess moisture and blend it together with a healthy dose of Greek yogurt, garlic and dill. Combine that with a touch of mayonnaise and fold it into cold, boiled potatoes, and you will have a side salad that’s perfectly cool and fresh, served with burgers or any kind of meat kebab on the grill.


Ingredients

About 1 1/2 pounds red or yellow potatoes

1/2 good sized slicing cucumber, peeled

Kosher salt and black pepper

2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

2/3 cup Greek yogurt

Fresh or dried dill leaves

1/4 cup mayonnaise (I used canola mayo from Trader Joe’s)


Instructions

  1. Scrub the potatoes but leave the peel on. Cut the potatoes into large chunks and cook them in salted water at a low boil until they are just tender enough to pierce with a knife. Drain, cool and chill them at least two hours.
  2. Cut the cucumber lengthwise into quarters (like pickle spears). Use a paring knife to carefully slice off the center strip that contains the seeds. Discard them. Slice, then dice the remaining parts of cucumber into very small bits. Alternatively, you may cut the cuke in half lengthwise, use a spoon to scoop/scrape out the seeds, and then grate it on the large holes of a box grater.
  3. Transfer the cucumber bits or shreds to a paper towel-lined bowl and sprinkle with two generous pinches of kosher salt. Toss the cucumber in the salt, fold the paper towel over it and put the bowl in the refrigerator. After about 30 minutes, gently press the cucumber between layers of clean paper towel to remove the excess moisture.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine the Greek yogurt, minced garlic, black pepper and dill. It is unlikely that you will need additional salt, as the cucumber will bring that flavor to the dip. Fold in the salted, drained cucumber bits.
  5. Combine the tzatziki with mayonnaise. Adjust pepper and dill to taste.
  6. Fold the dressing into the chilled cut-up potatoes. Garnish salad with additional sprinkles of dill and a few cucumber slices.



Tangy Apple Cole Slaw

It seems funny to me that the three most popular summer salads are based on the most economical ingredients—macaroni, potatoes or cabbage. Nothing fancy and yet we love them! As we wind down summer (which I can hardly believe is happening, even as I write this), I will share a few of my own twists on these three summer classic salads, beginning with the easiest—cole slaw.

The most obvious benefit of cole slaw is that you don’t have to cook anything to make it. This easy summer side comes together lickety-split (especially if you buy the pre-shredded bagged cabbage), it pairs nicely with everything from grilled chicken to pulled pork to burgers and beyond, and with cabbage as the primary ingredient, it packs a pretty hefty nutritional punch, with loads of fiber, vitamins and minerals. If you don’t drown it in mayonnaise or sugary dressing, it’s pretty darn good for you.

I’ve taken my standby “KFC-style” slaw in a slightly different direction with this recipe, keeping the cabbage and carrots (though I used yellow and white ones this time) and adding shredded Granny Smith apple for a little extra tartness. For my creamy-style dressing (which does have some mayonnaise but also cultured buttermilk and regular milk), I’ve swapped in a specialty white balsamic vinegar that echoes the flavors of the Granny Smith apple. The result is a tangier offering than usual, perfect as a side for anything rich or meaty that you might be pulling off the grill through the last days of summer.


Ingredients


About 6 cups finely shredded green cabbage

1 cup carrots, finely shredded or cut into thin matchstick pieces

1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled (or not), cored and shredded

Juice of 1/2 small lemon (to prevent apple browning)

1/2 medium sweet onion, shredded and squeezed dry of juice* (see notes)

1/3 cup mayonnaise (I used canola mayo from Trader Joe’s)

3 Tbsp. whole milk

3 Tbsp. buttermilk*

3 Tbsp. green apple white balsamic vinegar*

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. white pepper

1/2 tsp. celery seed


*Notes

It is important that you press out as much of the onion juice as possible; otherwise the dressing will break down and become watery. I shredded the onion in my food processor and then pressed it through a mesh strainer. When assembling the salad, add the onion to the dressing rather than the cabbage blend.

Real cultured buttermilk works best, but you could have similar results with the same amount of plain,  low-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt.

The green apple white balsamic vinegar is a specialty item that my husband picked up on a trip to California a few years ago. Check with a balsamic and olive oil shop in your area to see if it carries “Gravenstein apple” balsamic, as that would be a perfect substitution. Otherwise, use 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar and 2 Tbsp. sugar to mimic the balanced sweetness of the balsamic.


Instructions

Combine the shredded cabbage and carrots in a large bowl. Add the shredded apple to the bowl, immediately squeeze the fresh lemon juice over the apple and then toss the apple to distribute the lemon juice. This will help prevent the apple from browning while you mix the dressing.

In a large glass measuring cup, whisk together mayonnaise, buttermilk and milk until the mixture is smooth. Add vinegar, salt, pepper and celery seed, and stir to blend. Add the shredded onion to the dressing and stir until it’s evenly distributed.

Adjust the dressing to your taste; if you find it too tart, add a teaspoon of sugar at a time until it is to your liking. Remember that sugar (or salt) needs a few minutes to dissolve in a dressing, so you may want to let it rest a few minutes to be sure you have adjusted correctly.

Pour the dressing over the cole slaw mix and toss to combine. Refrigerate at least an hour for best flavor, but this salad will also keep in the fridge for several days.




Zesty Three Bean Salad

There is nothing new under the sun, as they say, and when I start to feel flummoxed over what side dishes to make for summer meals, one of the best things I can do is revisit a classic and modernize it for my grown-up palate.

About the same period of time I became enthralled with the immense variety of baked beans at my great grandmother’s Fourth of July celebrations, there was a popular salad showing up on everyone’s dinner table. It might have been called a three-bean salad, including cut green beans, dark red kidney beans and little round garbanzo beans, which my dad always called “ceci beans.” But once in a while, yellow wax beans would also be in the mix, technically making it a four-bean salad but with generally the same flavors. This salad was often purchased ready-made, and as I recall, it was a popular item in the deli department of the grocery store where I worked as a young adult. The main thing I remember about it, besides its ubiquitous presence, is that it was sweet. Too sweet, in my opinion. I have no problem with a touch of sweetness in a salad dressing, but if it’s too sweet, it counters the benefit of eating vegetables.

Why diminish the goodness of these ingredients with a bunch of sugar?

So this summer, I have created an updated version of this otherwise good-for-you salad, shifting the flavor profile from sweet to zesty and herbaceous. The sugar in the recipe is nominal, and I’ve amped up the other side of the salad flavors with a hefty addition of minced garlic and a good bit of chopped fresh parsley and basil. The salad is quick and easy to make, as it relies somewhat on canned beans, and I’ve used ready-to-go fresh green beans to save time. If you’re lucky enough to have garden-fresh green beans, well, that would be awesome.


Ingredients

3/4 lb. fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces

15 oz. can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

15 oz. can garbanzo (ceci) beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup sweet onion, finely diced

1/2 cup green bell pepper, finely diced

1/2 cup red bell pepper, finely diced

3 large cloves garlic, finely minced

1 handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped

Small handful fresh basil leaves, chopped


Dressing ingredients

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 tsp. Dijon mustard* (see notes)

2 tsp. cane sugar

1/2 tsp. celery seed

1/2 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning

2 Tbsp. cold water

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil


*Notes

In lieu of regular Dijon mustard, I used the recently-discontinued Honey Pale Ale mustard from Trader Joe’s. Does anyone besides me have a gripe about how they pick and choose which products to keep? If you happen to have a jar of it, I think it’s terrific in salad dressings. Otherwise, just use regular Dijon.

Why, Trader Joe’s? I love this mustard. 😦

Instructions


  1. Heat a pot of water to a gentle boil. Add a generous pinch of kosher salt to the water, along with a half teaspoon of baking soda, which will help the beans retain their bright color.
  2. Make dressing for the salad; combine all ingredients except the olive oil. Whisk in olive oil gradually to create an emulsion. Salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Spoon the trimmed green beans into the simmering water and cook for about 6 minutes, or just until beans are tender enough to bite. Immediately spoon the cooked beans into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain beans to remove excess water.
  4. Combine green beans, canned beans, peppers, onions and garlic in a large mixing bowl.
  5. Pour in dressing and toss gently to combine. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Add fresh herbs and toss again. Chill salad several hours and toss lightly to redistribute dressing just before serving. The olive oil in the dressing will solidify in the fridge, so plan to remove the salad at least ten minutes before serving for best presentation.
This zesty salad is loaded up with bright color, texture and flavor!


Apropos of nothing



Orange & Honey-Ginger Fruit Salad

You didn’t know it when you opened this post, but you are about to witness something that doesn’t happen all that often in my kitchen—a simple, two-ingredient twist that will transform a basic fruit bowl into a mouthwatering side dish that is almost as sumptuous as dessert. Unlike some of my other “make-the-whole-thing-from-scratch” ideas, this one really is ridiculously simple. You can apply this easy twist to virtually any kind of fruit, including pre-cut if you are short on time, and the fruit itself does not have to be fancy. Look at my salad again—it’s only pineapple, grapes and berries. What elevates this simple fruit combo into an elegant and special treat is the dressing.

Nothing fancy about this fruit.

It may be that you have never considered “dressing” a fruit salad, but why? We don’t often see a vegetable salad served dry, and fruit is just as worthy of dressing up a bit. Dressing a fruit salad is not only tasty; it also helps the fruit retain moisture and color. Try this once and you’ll be craving fresh fruit salad every day.

The dressing for this salad depends on two special ingredients that can only be purchased in a boutique olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop, and they are worth every penny. You have probably seen one of these stores, with all their shiny stainless steel containers lined up on a high table. Those containers, called “fustis,” hold exquisitely flavored extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars, ingredients which have uncanny power to change the way you cook. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that I used to work in one of those shops here in my city, and it was one of my most fun jobs ever—a true foodie fantasy, come true!

These days, nobody is paying me to share about these products, but I feel compelled to do so because of the one question we received over and again at the shop, from customers who enjoyed the flavors but asked, “what would I ever do with it?” Part of my job as a sales associate was taking home various products and coming back with inspiration for the home cooks who shopped our store. I guess you could say I took my job seriously, because I’m still doing it. 🙂

These flavors work great together!

The combination I’ve used for this fruit salad is blood orange-fused extra virgin olive oil and honey-ginger white balsamic vinegar. The vinegar has a slight tartness to it, but it is mostly sweet with the warmth of honey, and the ginger is subtle but present. The olive oil is rich with the flavor of blood orange, because the oranges and olives are pressed together during production. The result is so good, it makes itself at home in sweet and savory dishes alike.

At the end of the post, I’ll share some other ideas for using up these two ingredients.


Ingredients

2 cups fresh pineapple chunks, cut into bite-sized bits

1 heaping cup fresh strawberries, sliced into quarters

1 cup fresh large blueberries

1 cup fresh white seedless grapes

3 Tbsp. honey-ginger white balsamic vinegar* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. blood orange whole fruit-fused extra virgin olive oil*

Lime zest or fresh chopped mint or basil, optional for garnish


*Notes

I wish I could offer up a universal brand name for the olive oil and balsamics that I use, but they are bottled under various franchised shop names. Here’s a tip—if you have this type of store in your community, ask for the name of the supplier. If it is Veronica Foods, you’re in the right place. 😊


Instructions

Wash your fruit just before assembling the salad, and it’s best to add berries just before serving or they tend to get mushy. Combine all the fruit in a bowl large enough for easy tossing in the dressing.

Pour the honey-ginger white balsamic into a small bowl, or a glass measuring cup for easier pouring. Slowly pour the olive oil into the balsamic, whisking quickly and constantly, until the mixture is thick and syrupy.

Immediately pour the dressing over the fruit and toss gently to coat the fruit. Serve right away or refrigerate up to one hour before serving.

If you would like to put a little extra pizzazz onto the salad, sprinkle with fresh lime zest or thin strips of fresh mint or basil.




Looking for more ways to use your blood orange-fused olive oil?

Substitute for the equal amount of oil in your favorite carrot cake recipe

Use it in a marinade for chicken or fish

Drizzle a teaspoon over dark chocolate ice cream (yes, really!)

Toss vegetables in it before roasting

Use it in your favorite pancake or waffle recipe


Need ideas for using up the honey-ginger white balsamic?

Try it an any salad dressing, especially Asian-inspired salads

Use it in a marinade for chicken, fish, shrimp or pork

Add a splash to a cocktail or white sangria

Drizzle it onto vegetables after grilling or roasting

Add a tablespoon to your water bottle for flavorful summer hydration



Bleu Cheese Potato Salad

Here’s a truth I have learned in the past couple of weeks: you don’t realize how much you use all of your fingers until one of them is out of commission. It has been almost two weeks since my little accident with the mandoline slicer, and I’m constantly reminded of my limitations in the kitchen. I am not in any kind of pain, mind you, but the urgent care doctor was specific to instruct that I should not let my injured right ring finger get wet during the healing process. That means asking for help (not one of my strong points) with washing dishes, prepping vegetables and moving hot pots. Everything takes longer than usual, and my husband, Les, has done half (or all) of the cooking, or we have ordered takeout.

I am pleased to report that on Thursday, the two-week mark after my second COVID jab, we ventured out to a real, honest-to-goodness restaurant—one of our favorite casual, but delicious, places in our city. We sat inside (gasp!) and enjoyed a lovely dinner that included this incredible plate:

This plate was a work of art, and as delicious as it was beautiful!

OMG, it was sooo delicious! The grilled shrimp accompanied a salad of arugula with candied bacon and vinaigrette, flanked by walnut-crusted goat cheese medallions, chilled, roasted carrots and dollops of fresh pesto with microgreens, artfully arranged on a roasted carrot puree. We even ordered an appetizer and a glass of wine, and I literally wanted to lick my plate. It was a real treat, and so good to see the friendly, familiar staff at West End Cafe after such a long separation.

At the same time, with the CDC announcement last week that vaccinated people can relax a bit, we are eagerly anticipating some in-person time with friends, and excited that our social re-entry will coincide perfectly with the start of summer grilling season. For practice, we prepared one of our favorite grilled items—the coffee-rubbed grilled tri-tip steak that Les shared yesterday, and an easy side that takes a favorite steakhouse combination down into casual mode. This bleu cheese potato salad was Les’s idea, as we were pondering what to make as a side for the bold and spicy tri-tip. Think of it as a bleu cheese-stuffed baked potato, but cold. And creamy.

The slight funk of bleu cheese is such a great complement to grilled steak, and it worked out great in this easy potato salad.

The bleu cheese flavor is assertive, which is exactly what we wanted, but the combination of mayo with sour cream gives the salad a creamy texture without the slick greasiness of too much mayonnaise. This potato salad was a perfect complement to the tri-tip, and equally good over the next couple of days with sandwiches. I love that his creative flavor idea and my kitchen instincts made it such a winner on the first effort. Yeah, this teamwork thing is working out pretty well.


Makes about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes, boiled tender and chilled

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

A few shakes granulated garlic

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup bleu cheese crumbles

2 large scallions, cleaned and sliced (white and green parts)

Small handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Romaine or leaf lettuce leaves, for plating (optional)


Instructions

  1. Cut up the chilled cooked potatoes into bite sized chunks.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine mayonnaise and sour cream, plus granulated garlic, salt and pepper. Fold in bleu cheese crumbles and half of the scallions. Fold in chopped parsley.
  3. Add the chilled, cut-up potatoes and gently fold to combine with the dressing mixture. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Plate onto a lettuce-lined platter and sprinkle with remaining sliced scallions.

Easy to notice that I was working with one good hand. My lettuce-lined plate is a little lopsided!

Catering tip: When serving any kind of side or salad for a group, present it on a platter rather than in a bowl. It allows guests to serve themselves from both sides of the table, and it looks prettier and larger!



Dilly-Dilly, Double-Heat Potato Salad

There is a common thread that runs through the culinary fabric of the U.S. South. And that thread, in a word, is sweet. Whether it’s beverages, desserts, BBQ sauces or even potato salad, the foods you find on a southern menu will surely satisfy your sweet tooth. That’s a bit of a challenge for people like me, who prefer more savory flavors. In a salad, I want freshness, with tangy, herbal and briny flavors.

When I spotted an online recipe for potato salad with dill and horseradish recently, I got excited about the brightness of flavors and especially the absence of sugar. I found inspiration in that recipe, so I made it (with my own tweaks, of course), and my husband and I enjoyed it so much I’ve made another batch and it will make its way into our recipe rotation. Me being me, though, and always pushing the envelope on flavors, I’ve adjusted it yet again. This time, I doubled down on the dill, adding chopped dill pickles to the original idea of fresh chopped dill. I heaped jalapeno heat on top of the horseradish and crowned the finished salad with chopped hard-boiled egg. Oh, happy Spring! 🙂

This salad is fresh, bright, herbal and zesty!

Best of all, for me, is that there is no sugar in sight. The salad is very dill-forward, and that freshness makes me eager for all the other light foods on the way for Spring. The heat, though doubled, is subtle in the background. The yogurt (or sour cream, if you prefer) contributes a creaminess that isn’t all mayonnaise. And the capers and chopped egg provide a little something extra, as a salad you might expect to find in a good delicatessen.

The result is this dilly-dilly, double heat potato salad, delicious as a cool, savory side to sandwiches, hot foods off the grill or anything you might be serving as a casual meal for Passover or Easter.


Adapted from The Spruce Eats: Dill and Horseradish Potato Salad

Ingredients

About 3 pounds waxy potatoes, peeled* (see notes)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup Greek yogurt or sour cream

1/3 cup chopped dill pickles*

1/4 cup minced red onion or shallots

2 Tbsp. fresh dill, chopped*

2 Tbsp. pickled jalapenos, chopped*

2 Tbsp. prepared horseradish

1 Tbsp. capers

Salt and pepper to taste

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (for garnish)


*Notes

The best potatoes for this recipe are those that do not fall apart too easily. Red, yellow or white potatoes are all good options. Russets, not so much. Their starchy fluffiness makes them more prone to mashing.

If you do prefer a slightly sweet flavor, substitute bread and butter pickles for the dills. The dill flavor will still be present, but the sweetness will help to soften the savory edges of this salad.

This is the right time of year to find fresh dill in the supermarket, but if you do not have access to it, substitute dried dill leaves, but only about a teaspoon. Remember that dried herbs are much more potent than fresh.

Can’t stand the jalapeno heat? I promise it is subtle, but if you don’t want or like jalapenos, leave them out. This is my recipe, but you are always in charge of the decisions in your own kitchen, so make it the way you like. Want it hotter? Well, now you sound like my husband. Go ahead, add more. 😊


Instructions

This is one of the simplest recipes, but I’ll share the steps in pictures anyway. Keep scrolling for written instructions and a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.

  1. Cut up the potatoes into large, “three-bite” size. Boil gently until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain them and cool completely before cutting them into smaller pieces. If you wish, cook them a day ahead and refrigerate overnight. Cut the cooked potatoes into cubes about the size of croutons.
  2. Combine all remaining ingredients, except eggs, in a large bowl, seasoning the dressing with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Fold the cut-up potatoes into the dressing. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours.
  4. Serve with chopped hard-boiled eggs scattered on top of the salad.

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Chunky Bleu Cheese Dressing

It’s natural, I suppose, for kids to assume the taste and preference of their parents—either based on what they are told or perhaps based on the fact that they don’t really get to experience the flavors of foods the parents dislike.

For many years, I had the impression that “bleu cheese is terrible” was truth. My mother does not have the sense of adventure for food that I have, and come to think of it, my father doesn’t either. Over and over growing up, I heard negative opinion about certain foods from them, and bleu cheese fell into that category, at least with my mom. It had not occurred to me that my own opinion of those foods might be different.

That is, until the day that my grandmother served a casual salad at dinner with a thick, creamy dressing we spooned from one of the Depression glass bowls that was not set aside for special occasions.

I love the creaminess of this dressing, and the fresh taste from the buttermilk and sour cream. And those funky chunks, oh yes!

“What kind of dressing is this, Gram?” I asked. She informed me it was her “homemade” dressing. And I really liked it! Later, when she dropped the truth that it was her homemade bleu cheese dressing, I felt betrayed and compelled to act offended, as I’d been taught. That wild, funky flavor though! Yeah, I couldn’t fake not liking it, and I guess that was one of the first “aha” moments when I realized I was a separate person from my parents.

I loved bleu cheese and I was not ashamed.

If you aren’t making your own salad dressings, you’re missing out on a simple joy and a world of flavor. For the sake of a true story, I can’t claim for certain that my grandma taught me how to make this bleu cheese dressing, but I know she made her own salad dressings quite regularly, and it was one of the first things I began to make on my own when I got serious about cooking. Whether a vinaigrette, Italian dressing or creamy dressing such as ranch or bleu cheese, homemade dressing is remarkably simple to make. I rarely ever buy it anymore.

This is my version of bleu cheese, and unlike most of the dressings you’ll find in a supermarket, it is not loaded up with soybean oil and preservatives. Unlike many restaurant versions, it is not just a mayonnaise-y mess with bleu cheese crumbles (I hate when it gets that awful greasy sheen to it when you serve it with something warm). No, mine is generous with the bleu cheese, both in the base and in chunky texture, and it has buttermilk and sour cream for a lovely, creamy tang. Gram would certainly have approved.

I hope you enjoy this dressing—for its simplicity and its flavor. Use it this weekend to dress up some mixed greens or a wedge salad or a tray of real Buffalo-style chicken wings. Oh yeah, now we’re talking!

Let me know in the comments section what dressings you like, and I’ll share more of my easy recipes. 🙂


Ingredients

3/4 cup mayonnaise* (see notes)

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sour cream

4 oz. wedge of deli-quality bleu cheese*

1 tsp. red wine vinegar (or fresh lemon juice)

1/4 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. white pepper


*Notes

My preference for mayonnaise is canola rather than soybean. If you have a Trader Joe’s, they make a terrific version of mayo that is made with expeller pressed canola oil. It keeps its creamy texture and doesn’t have a greasy flavor.

Bleu cheese is made in various places, and they all seem to call it something different. Roquefort, stilton and gorgonzola would all be acceptable substitutes, so choose your favorite. I usually go with Amish or Danish, and for sure, I recommend a wedge of bleu cheese rather than pre-packaged crumbles.


Instructions

  1. Trim the white, non-veiny part of the bleu cheese to blend into the dressing.
  2. Combine buttermilk, sour cream and white part of bleu cheese in a smoothie blender or regular blender and mix until smooth. No blender? Mash this portion of bleu cheese with a fork and whisk vigorously with the buttermilk and sour cream.
  3. Transfer dressing to a bowl. Stir in mayo, vinegar and spices.
  4. Crumble remaining bleu cheese and gently fold into the dressing.

This recipe makes about two cups of dressing. It can be served right away, but the texture is greatly improved after a night in the refrigerator. Keeps in a sealed jar or bowl for about a week.


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Harvest Turkey Salad

Thanksgiving leftovers are a little bit like family—you can wait ‘til they arrive, and you sure are glad to see them go. So far, we’ve enjoyed full leftover plates, grilled cheese sandwiches made with leftover turkey and other accoutrements, and of course the comforting leftover turkey gumbo that I shared yesterday.

On the fresher side of things, how about a fall harvest-themed salad option that makes the most of leftovers in a bright new way? There are plenty of autumn ingredients in here, but lots of fresh and healthful things to soften the reality that you’re still eating leftover turkey.

For me, a salad must hold a variety of interesting flavors and textures, so this one has shaved fennel for a little crunch, dried cranberries for a little chew, roasted bites of butternut squash for soft sweetness, thin slices of gala apple for a little snap and an easy citrus-maple vinaigrette for a whole lot of mouthwatering goodness in every bite. The prep is minimal and the salad is pretty.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I made this salad more than a month ago, with a roasted turkey breast that we purchased at Costco for sandwiches and salads. It was filling but light, and it gave my taste buds a bit of that autumn pizzazz I was craving so much. But I know this salad would be just as good today with leftover roasted or smoked turkey breast, or if you downsized Thanksgiving this year for safety reasons and didn’t do a turkey, you could easily swap in cubes of deli roasted chicken. Heck, leave out meat altogether and make it vegan. As always, I hope you find inspiration and flavor in my recipe. Enjoy!

It’s fresh and light, but satisfying with so many fall flavors.

Ingredients

2 cups butternut squash cubes

Extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and black pepper

1 fat handful fresh washed kale leaves, rough chopped and thick stems removed

1 fat handful baby spinach leaves

4 romaine heart leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 cup chopped leftover turkey (or deli chicken)

1/2 fresh gala apple, washed and sliced thin

1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced thin

1/2 small red onion, sliced thin

1/4 cup dried cranberries

2 Tbsp. roasted, salted pumpkin seeds

Citrus-maple vinaigrette (recipe below)

Challah or brioche croutons (instructions below)


Citrus-maple vinaigrette w/sunflower oil and thyme

2 Tbsp. orange muscat champagne vinegar* (see notes)

1 Tbsp. maple syrup*

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

1 Tbsp. toasted sunflower oil

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil                                                                                           

2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped

*Notes

The orange muscat champagne vinegar is a product from Trader Joe’s. If you cannot find it, I’d recommend substituting half apple cider vinegar and half freshly squeezed orange juice.

If you need to swap the maple syrup, I’d recommend half as much honey or a teaspoon of regular sugar.

Instructions

Most of this recipe needs no instruction; I don’t need to tell you how to slice an apple or sprinkle on dried cranberries. But here’s a bit of info you may find helpful for the prep of the other ingredients.

  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil.
  2. Toss squash cubes with a tablespoon of olive oil, and arrange the cubes on the cookie sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 minutes, or until fork tender and lightly caramelized. Cool completely.
  3. In a large, deep bowl, drizzle a tablespoon olive oil over the chopped kale leaves. Using your hands, reach into the bowl and “scrunch” the kale throughout the bowl. As you massage the greens, they will soften up and wilt in volume. Give it a light sprinkling of kosher salt and pepper and then let it rest while you prep the other salad ingredients.
  4. Make the dressing: combine vinegar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl or glass measuring cup. Gradually stream in sunflower oil and olive oil, whisking constantly to emulsify the dressing ingredients. Alternatively, you could combine all dressing ingredients in a lidded jar and shake the daylights out of it. Whatever works for you.
  5. Massage the kale once more, then add the spinach and torn romaine leaves and toss to combine.
  6. Drizzle about half of the citrus-thyme vinaigrette over the greens and toss again. Transfer the greens to a platter or individual serving plates.
  7. Add the cubed turkey to the salad. Scatter the pieces of onion, apple and fennel evenly over the greens. Sprinkle with dried cranberries and roasted pumpkin seeds and drizzle the remaining dressing over the entire platter.
  8. Serve with croutons, if desired.

Homemade Croutons

Cut up stale challah or brioche into large cubes or torn pieces. Drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and arrange the bread pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 300° F for about 30 minutes, tossing occasionally to ensure they dry uniformly. When they are crisp but still slightly soft, remove from the oven and cool completely. For this salad, I pulled leftover sourdough pumpkin challah from the freezer. The cubes roasted up nearly the same color as the butternut squash! 🙂

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