The warmth of summer is fading, and I’m not complaining. My favorite things to cook are autumn and winter foods, and I’m scheming to bring exciting new flavors into the new season.
But we still have to eat between now and then, and the grill has been our BFF this summer, especially as we have challenged ourselves to elevate our home-cooked meals while so many restaurants were closed. Here’s a quick look back at some of the fun grilled foods I’ve put on my plate since I launched Comfort du Jour:
Before the sun sets on summer 2020, I’m throwing down a Mediterranean twist on simple grilled pork chops. I love the flavors of souvlaki, the Greek specialty that highlights the brightness of lemon and pungency of garlic, and is often applied to chicken or pork on skewers, so why not just skip chopping the chops into chunks and just marinate them as they are?
And tasty grilled meat deserves a fresh grilled side, so I have also whipped up a flavorful, healthy salad made with fresh summer tomato, crunchy red onion and marinated grilled zucchini squash. Here we go!
2 thick sliced, bone-in pork chops
4 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of one lemon
1 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar (or any white wine vinegar + pinch of sugar)
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (I used Greek Kalamata)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
1 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into wedges
1 medium firm tomato, cut into chunks
2 thick slices red onion, cut into chunks
6 Kalamata olives, drained and chopped
Dressing: 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. white balsamic, a few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, whisk in 2 Tbsp. olive oil.
Feta cheese, cut into cubes
Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
Take a walk through the slideshow for visual instruction, and refer to the notes below if you need them. Remember, you can download the recipe in PDF format to try it yourself, and please let me know how it comes out for you!
Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
In a glass measuring cup, combine lemon juice, vinegars, oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle olive oil into the blend, whisking constantly, until mixture is emulsified. Stir in minced garlic.
Pour most of the marinate over the pork chops in a glass dish and set aside for 30 minutes. Turn once or twice during marinating time to ensure even distribution of flavor.
Pour the remaining marinade over the zucchini strips in another dish. Salt and pepper the zucchini and set those aside while you chop and prep the remaining salad ingredients.
Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
Prepare grill and pre-heat to about 450° F (medium). Carefully place the pork chops over direct heat and sear each side about 1 minute to seal in juices. Then reduce the heat to about 350° F. The olive oil may cause flare-ups, so keep that cold beer in your hand to splash if necessary. Just kidding; either keep a squirt bottle nearby or use a grill tool to try to put out the flare or move the chops.
Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
When you turn the chops, pile the zucchini onto the grill also, and turn them frequently to cook evenly and to get those beautiful grill marks.
Allow the finished chops to rest and chop the zucchini spears into bite-sized chunks. Immediately toss the grilled zucchini with the rest of the salad ingredients. Whisk the dressing briefly, then pour over salad and toss gently to combine. Scatter cubes of feta and fresh parsley over salad and serve alongside the pork chops.
You don’t have to visit Mexico to experience the delicious combination of flavors in elote, the beloved Mexican street food staple that is roasted fresh corn on the cob, seasoned with spices, lime and grated cheese. Here’s a pasta side salad that captures the essence of this simple street food. It’s sweet, spicy, savory, smoky and perfectly delicious next to the saucy ribs Les pulled off the grill.
Easy to put together, and mixing up south-of-the-border flavor with a timeless classic American comfort food, the macaroni salad.
I’m loving this!
12 oz. pkg. casarecce pasta* (see notes)
2 ears freshly grilled corn*
1/2 cup red onion, chopped
1 average-size jalapeno, seeded and diced
3 scallions, trimmed and grilled
Handful fresh cilantro, rough chopped for serving
Crumbled feta or parmesan cheese for serving
Additional slices fresh jalapeno (optional, for garnish)
1 small ripe avocado, cut into cubes
1/4 cup canola mayo
1/2 cup light sour cream
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (or avocado oil)
3/4 tsp. ground chipotle
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika
Freshly cracked black pepper
Casarecce pasta is a long, shaped noodle that looks like a rolled-up rectangle. I like it here because it has a firm, toothy texture that anchors all the other ingredients, which are cut into smaller pieces. Any substantial-sized pasta with texture will work in its place though, including penne, rotini or farfalle (bow ties).
Grilling fresh corn is one of the simplest pleasures. We strip the husk and silk, then smear with softened butter, salt and pepper. Wrap them up in foil and grill on direct 300-350 F heat for about 35 minutes. If you prefer, you could also pick up some frozen roasted corn and thaw before using. You will need about 1 1/2 cups.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Cut kernels from corn and prep all other vegetables while pasta is cooking.
Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk or stir until smooth. If dressing seems very thick, add another tablespoon of olive oil and another squeeze of lime.
Drain pasta and toss to evaporate excess moisture. Add a small amount of the dressing and toss to coat. This helps to prevent the pasta sticking together. Let the pasta cool a few minutes, then add corn, jalapeno and red onion to the pasta bowl. Pour in remaining dressing and toss to combine. Chill until cold, at least one hour.
To serve, top salad with chopped grilled scallions, parmesan or finely crumbled feta, avocado, jalapeno slices and cilantro.
The word “salad” can mean a lot of things, depending on the generation during which the recipe was introduced. For example, in the 1960s or ’70s, a “salad” could have been anything from an iceberg lettuce-based dish served ahead of dinner to a molded concoction of sweetened gelatin, cottage cheese, marshmallow or who knows what.
Blame our parents, if you need to, for those atrocities. But this salad is a real salad—vegetables, fruit, dressing—everything you want to complement what you’re serving for dinner in these modern times, especially if what you’re serving is coming off the grill.
Broccoli comes to us from the brassica family of vegetables, kin to brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, to name a few. Some of these veggies carry a slightly bitter flavor, but here’s a tip to knock it down: give it a quick swim in boiling water (only for a few seconds), then shock it cold again in an ice water bath. Not only will you strip away some of that bitter flavor, you’ll also see the broccoli transform to a much brighter green color. Be sure to drain it well before proceeding with the salad, so the dressing doesn’t get watery.
We love salads at our house, but my husband, Les, isn’t wild about broccoli by itself. A salad that features broccoli along with other flavors and textures is a great compromise, and he liked it. His son, Alex, has been with us for meals at least once a week since his return home from Europe at the start of the pandemic, and he announced at dinner that this dish has “all my favorite things in it.” I’m counting that a double success!
This dish is crunchy, cold, fresh and—despite the slight sweetness—still packed with nutrition. Approximately 6 servings.
2 broccoli crowns, washed (about 4 cups worth)
2 medium carrots, peeled and shredded
1/2 cup red onion, chopped
1/2 cup golden raisin-dried cranberry blend, soaked briefly in hot water to plump
1 granny smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 slices thin bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled (this is optional)
If the dressing seems familiar, you might be remembering my creamy cole slaw a few months ago. It’s pretty much the same, repurposed for a different type of salad.
1/4 cup light mayo
2 Tbsp. whole milk
2 Tbsp. buttermilk
2 Tbsp. lemon white balsamic* (or white wine vinegar or lemon juice, but double the sugar)
1 Tbsp. cane sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Dip the broccoli crowns very briefly into gently boiling water, then shock them in ice water and drain. This helps remove any bitter taste, and also brightens the color. You can skip this step if you don’t mind the slight bitterness of broccoli.
Trim leaves from broccoli crowns and cut up into small bites. You can chop the broccoli if you’re in a hurry, but I like to have cut off whole pieces rather than “crumbs” of broccoli. My general rule of thumb for bite size is this: If a piece is large enough to completely cover a quarter, it’s too big, so I’ll cut it in half.
Combine broccoli pieces with onions, plumped raisins, carrot shreds. Toss the apple pieces in the lemon juice to prevent browning. Add them to the salad.
Combine all dressing ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour over salad and toss to evenly coat. Refrigerate a few hours to allow flavors to mingle.
Scatter crispy bacon (if using) over salad just before serving.
We must be headed into summer, because I can hardly tear myself away from grilled food ideas. I’m dreaming about classic summer favorites, but I’m also having fun imagining new ways to enjoy fruit, vegetables, pizza and who knows what else on the grill. One thing you can expect from me in the coming weeks is a grilled watermelon gazpacho. True story, I woke up thinking about it the other day. After a bunch of rainy days and weekends, we’ve finally eased into some nicer days, and cooking outside is the best part of that!
Most of the time, mentions of grilling conjures images of burgers and ribs and heavy smoky things. But I’ve definitely been feeling it more for freshness lately, and craving lighter foods that will help me feel less sluggish after so many weeks of “comfort food,” Zoom happy hours and going absolutely nowhere.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be planning an expansion of our patio and some other embellishments to help make it even more inviting. And hopefully one day soon (or at least not too far off), we will be able to share the space with friends more than current circumstances allow.
For now, we’re thankful to have comfy patio chairs, a private backyard, and a great Char-Broil gas grill, and tonight we’re cooking up a grilled chicken Caesar. Not just grilled chicken on the Caesar, mind you—more than that, the Caesar will be grilled as well. If you have not yet enjoyed grilled romaine, it’s such a treat, and yet so, so simple. It’s basically a poster child for Comfort du Jour—a familiar comfortable food, but with a fun and simple twist to elevate your happy. Let’s get cooking!
1 romaine heart (the tender inside part of romaine lettuce)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp. bottled Caesar dressing (the simpler, the better)
4 anchovy fillets
Freshly shaved parmesan or pecorino romano cheese for serving
Check your brand of garlic pepper seasoning for salt content, and adjust your marinade ingredients to taste. We have McCormick brand, and the salt is just right. If yours is salt-free, you’ll probably want to add about 1/4 tsp. salt along with it, or season the chicken with salt before you add the marinade.
In our house, we’re careful to avoid a lot of highly processed ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and just about any version of soybean oil (it has no nutritional value and is usually genetically modified). We like the brand pictured in this post (Marzetti’s “Simply Dressed”) because it’s made with real ingredients and nothing that makes us cringe. Find it refrigerated in the produce section of your market.
Anchovies have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. For a long time, I assumed I didn’t like anchovies because other people didn’t like them. But in small amounts, and paired with the right things, they add a fantastic savory pop to a dish. If you haven’t tried them lately, give them a shot in this recipe!
Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and set aside while you prepare the simple grilling marinade.
In a small bowl, combine red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon and garlic pepper seasoning. Drizzle in olive oil in a slow and steady stream, whisking constantly to incorporate and emulsify. Pour the marinade over the chicken breasts in a covered glass dish or a zip top plastic bag. Put in the fridge until about 30 minutes before grilling.
Next, prep the romaine for grilling by trimming the end and any loose leaves, and cut in half lengthwise. Rinse under cold water, ruffling the leaves to let the water get inside the layers. Shake off excess water and place romaine halves, cut-side down, on a plate lined with a double layer of paper towels. Lay a damp paper towel over the top and put the plate in the fridge for several hours. The water will continue to drain from the cut leaves, and the romaine will get nice and crunchy during its chill time.
Preheat your grill or grilling pan to about 450° F. The chicken should rest at room temperature about 30 minutes. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it helps the chicken cook more evenly. Reduce the temperature to about 350° and grill the chicken until it’s nicely charred on the outside and the juices run clear. At this point in the recipe, I usually bid adieu to my husband, Les, who handles most of our outdoor cooking. He’ll tend the chicken while he sips on a cold one and catches up with his Facebook feed. I have my own business to tend—the dressing.
Straight honest truth, if you’ve ever had authentic, scratch-made Caesar dressing, you know that there simply is no equal. The lemon, egg, anchovy and garlic create a perfect harmony that literally is the Caesar salad. Without it, you have basically a pile of romaine. But on a busy weeknight, who has time to coddle eggs? Me neither. What we can do instead is elevate a store bought “Caesar” dressing (I’ve yet to find one that has all the right stuff) with the addition of a couple of simple ingredients.
Don’t start making faces now. Anchovies are surprisingly delicious if you don’t overdo it, and we definitely won’t here. I’m only using a few fillets of these salty little fishes, and they will add a whole new layer of flavor to my otherwise “OK” dressing.
Chop them into small pieces (so you don’t get too much in any single bite), then stir or whisk them into the Caesar dressing. If the dressing seems a little thick, also pour in a little of the oil packed with the anchovies. Give it a quick taste—if it’s too salty, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to tone it down. Grind some fresh black pepper into it for a little more bite. This is your salad, so make it work for your taste.
Pull the romaine from the fridge and move it to the next step by drizzling good quality extra virgin olive oil over the cut side. Allow the oil to trickle down between the leaves a little, but don’t drench it. Season the halves with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, then take it out to the grill.
When the chicken is nearly finished, place the romaine halves directly on the grill, cut side down. And leave it. The first time I made grilled romaine, this felt so strange—putting delicate lettuce on the grill? But it’s really an incredible difference it makes in the salad, and I look forward to grilling season for things just like this. Obviously, we can eat salad all year, but in our winter months, it isn’t always practical to fire up the grill. For sure, my hubby isn’t gonna stand out there in 20° weather. Especially in the dark (which is usually is at dinner time during winter). It is, of course, possible to do this on an indoor grill pan, but there’s something more special about it when it’s cooked outside.
When the romaine has a nice amount of caramelization on the cut side (you decide when it reaches that point), turn over the halves and allow the other side to grill for a minute or two.
To serve, rest the chicken breasts then slice into crosswise strips. Serve alongside the romaine half, drizzling both with the jazzed-up Caesar dressing and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese. If you prefer, chop the grilled romaine as well, and toss it together with the chicken and dressing, then divide on two plates and top with shredded cheese.
This probably should have been one of the first recipes I shared on Comfort du Jour. It’s been in my rotation of favorite simple sides for years, ever since I first discovered wheat berries in the bulk section at Whole Foods. If you’ve never had wheat berries (or maybe never even heard of them), let me introduce you to these versatile little gems.
What are wheat berries?
First of all, they aren’t really berries—at least not the way you’d think of fruit. Wheat berries are the individual dried grains of whole wheat. In their dried state, each grain is about the size of a fat grain of rice. When cooked, they plump up to triple in size.
Where can you buy wheat berries?
Most natural foods stores and larger supermarkets with a bulk section are likely to stock varieties of whole grains, including wheat berries, oat groats, barley, and sometimes even rye, spelt or farro. You can also generally find them online from Bob’s Red Mill, though they’ve been in short supply during the pandemic. For this recipe, I’ve used Kamut, which is considered an ancient variety of wheat grain. I prefer it because it’s organically grown and hasn’t been hybridized and modified as conventional wheat has; it’s pretty much the same as it was thousands of years ago. Kamut is technically a brand name for the wheat variety Khorasan, native to Egypt and grown in abundance today in Montana and western parts of Canada. My aunt lives in Montana, and she sent the Kamut berries to me from her favorite natural foods market.
How do you cook wheat berries?
It’s a similar process to cooking beans from dried. Wheat berries are a natural product, so they need to be sorted and rinsed before cooking, in case of random small stones or other debris. After rinsing, combine them with water (at least 2:1 ratio) in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the wheat berries are tender (about an hour), then drain and proceed with your favorite recipe. To use them in a cold dish, cool and refrigerate first.
What can you do with wheat berries?
Pretty much anything you can do with rice, you can do with wheat berries. They have a pleasant chewy texture, like al dente pasta, so they work really well in a main dish such as chili, soup or salad. If you’re into making homemade bread, knead about 1/2 cup of cooked wheat berries into the final dough to add more whole grain goodness. Of course, because they are wheat in whole grain state, you can also mill dried wheat berries into flour, if you happen to have the right equipment to do so. I’ve read recently that Kamut flour makes exceptional pasta, so I’m putting that on my culinary bucket list.
What do wheat berries taste like?
Wheat berries have a mild, almost nutty flavor that is similar to brown rice. Because they are neither sweet nor savory, you can take them in either direction, depending on what you add to them. Besides the chilies, soups and salads I’ve already mentioned, you could also easily toss them on top of Greek yogurt with fresh berries and cinnamon and just call it breakfast.
Now that you’re well acquainted with wheat berries, let’s talk about this salad!
We’ve been eating entirely too many rich, heavy foods at our house lately. It’s interesting to me that most of the foods we think of as “comfort foods” are completely on the wrong side of healthy. Foods with simple starches, sugars and fats in abundance are usually what we reach for when we are under stress or facing uncertainty, so it’s not surprising, and maybe you’ve experienced the same.
Allow this salad to bring you back to a healthy place of comfort, with crunch, chew and fresh flavors, dressed in a light, Greek-inspired vinaigrette that’s easy to make from stuff you probably already have in the spice rack and the door of the fridge. Seriously, learn to make your own dressings and you’ll never buy it in the stores again.
We served this on a bed of baby spinach as a fresh, cool side to the meatless moussaka we had for a recent family dinner. If you can’t get your hands on wheat berries right away, any small size whole grain pasta would make an excellent stand in.
2 to 3 cups cooked wheat berries (or other whole grain)
1 can garbanzo beans (drained)
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
1 Persian cucumber*, trimmed and sliced
About 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, rough chopped
1/4 cup pepperoncini, chopped (optional)
chopped fresh parsley or dill for serving (optional)
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. Sicilian lemon white balsamic vinegar*
1 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning* (see notes)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*
1 Tbsp. cold water
Any kind of cucumber works here; I like the Persians for their compact size and minimal seeds. You want about 1 cup of cucumber slices or chunks. I’ve used my handy garnishing tool to strip part of the peel away, leaving a little bit for texture and the little bit of bitterness it adds to the salad. You could do the same with a small, sharp paring knife—or just peel the whole thing.
The lemon balsamic vinegar is a specialty item, purchased from one of the gourmet oil and vinegar shops that seem to have popped up everywhere. If you can’t find it, no problem—substitute a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a pinch of sugar.
Check your garlic pepper ingredients (or taste it) to see how much salt is in it. If you have a salt-free version such as Mrs. Dash, you’ll also want to add a couple pinches of salt to the dressing. We have McCormick brand, and the salt level is just about right. Lemon pepper seasoning would also be terrific.
There are so many choices for olive oil at most markets. This is a good recipe to bring out the “good stuff.” I generally use a more neutral flavor of olive oil (but still extra virgin) for everyday cooking and sautéing, but for a fresh dressing, I reach for the more pungent “grassy” varieties. If it has a little bit of bite or bitterness on the back end, it means it’s high in polyphenols—the stuff that makes it so good for you!
The salad will come together on its own—you don’t need my help combining these simple, fresh ingredients. But if you’ve never made your own vinaigrette, it’s time you learn this simple and valuable trick. It takes less than a minute, and you don’t need any special tools or bottles. I usually make a vinaigrette in my glass measuring cup, just before I assemble my salad. For this one, work ahead a little bit so the dried oregano has time to soften and rehydrate.
Combine the vinegar and lemon white balsamic (or lemon juice and sugar), garlic pepper and dried oregano. Then drizzle the olive oil into the mixture in a slow, steady stream, while whisking constantly. This will help the oil and vinegar come together without separation. If you prefer, combine all the ingredients together in a covered jar and shake the dickens out of it. Allow the dressing to rest in the refrigerator for about an hour, then whisk or shake again and pour over the salad mixture and toss gently to combine.
The salad can be made ahead and it keeps in the fridge for several days. Fold it gently to redistribute the dressing just before serving, and sprinkle with fresh parsley or dill for an extra pop of color and flavor.
There’s no good reason to depend on bottled cole slaw dressing, made up mostly of ingredients we’d never find in our own pantry cabinets. Not when it’s so quick and easy to make our own dressing from the fresh things we do have in our cabinets or refrigerators.
Whether you like the slightly tangy-sweet creaminess of a mayonnaise-based cole slaw (KFC-style) or an elegant, vinaigrette-type dressing that stands up better to extended time on a picnic table, you can handle it yourself in only a few minutes. The one thing for sure is it’ll taste infinitely better than the soybean oil-xanthan gum concoction you’d otherwise pick up in the dressing aisle.
Begin with a basic combination of 4 to 5 cups shredded or chopped cabbage (red, green or both—you decide) and carrots. Use a food processor to save time or chop by hand for a more rustic texture. Then, choose your style and dress it up!
Creamy Slaw Dressing
About 1 Tbsp. finely grated onion* (see notes on this)
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I used canola mayo)
2 Tbsp. whole milk
2 Tbsp. buttermilk*
1 Tbsp. white vinegar or white balsamic vinegar*
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice*
2 Tbsp. cane sugar*
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
A couple pinches white pepper
Grate the onion and use a paper towel to absorb as much excess juice as possible before proceeding with the recipe.
Real cultured buttermilk works best, but you could have similar results with the same amount of plain yogurt or Greek yogurt.
I am a big fan of flavored balsamic vinegars and olive oils, and whenever I have it on hand, I substitute the “Sicilian Lemon” white balsamic for the combined amounts of vinegar and lemon juice in this recipe. If you have access to this product from a specialty store in your area, it’s worth the expense.
Reduce the sugar by half with the white balsamic substitution.
Empty the grated onion into a glass measuring cup. Add remaining dressing ingredients and use a mini-whisk or small spoon to blend into a smooth, even mixture.
Pour half of the dressing over the shredded cabbage and carrots and toss to coat, then add more dressing as desired. As the creamy dressing settles in, the cabbage will soften and shrink a good bit. It’s easier to add dressing than to take it away. Cover salad and refrigerate a couple of hours until ready to serve.
Poppy Seed and Lime Vinaigrette Slaw Dressing
1/2 small onion (sweet, yellow or red—whatever you like)
2 tsp. poppy seeds*
2 Tbsp. sugar
Juice of 1/2 fresh lime
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. dry mustard powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup canola oil (or other neutral-flavored oil)
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*
Poppy seeds are sold by the bottle in the spice section of most grocery markets. Celery seed would be a good substitute here, or if seeds cause you trouble, you could easily skip them altogether, but you still want to begin the recipe on the stove.
Extra virgin olive oils provide the most health benefits, but some of them have a very “green” or pungent flavor. For this recipe, use the most neutral-flavored olive oil you can find, such as arbequina. Specialty oil and vinegar shops offer free tastings to help you find your favorites.
Grate the onion into a bowl, keeping the juice. Combine sugar, lime juice, vinegar, mustard powder, salt and pepper in a glass measuring cup.
Place a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat and add the poppy seeds. Swirl the pan constantly and toast the seeds for 2 to 3 minutes, until lightly fragrant. All at once, add the onion (with juice) and the lime juice mixture and stir until sugar is dissolved and mixture begins to simmer at the edges of the pan. Remove from heat and transfer to the small bowl of a food processor. Turn on processor and slowly stream canola oil into the mixture, then repeat with olive oil.
When mixture is fully emulsified, pour about 1/3 cup of it over cabbage mixture. Toss to coat, add more dressing if desired, and refrigerate slaw until ready to serve. Save leftover dressing for use on other salads–perhaps a spinach salad with fresh strawberries.
In case you haven’t tried them (or maybe even heard of them), hearts of palm are exactly as the name implies—the inner core of a palm plant. For whatever reason, you don’t often see them on restaurant menus, unless you’re in a swanky place with chandeliers and linen napkins and one of those servers who is compulsively whisking the crumbs off your table. I first learned of them during my tenure as a part-time catering kitchen helper, and though I didn’t mind hearts of palm, I have largely ignored them.
There’s nothing terribly exciting about hearts of palm on their own—they’re neither strong in flavor nor impressive to look at. They’re just slender, creamy white-colored stalks which you might occasionally find playing a background role in a salad. But ever since I spotted a faux crab cake recipe on Pinterest, where hearts of palm stood in for crab, I’ve had it in my mind to give them a starring role in a vegan version of ceviche, and you know what? It works!
Ceviche is traditionally a tropical appetizer type of dish, centered on raw fish cured with citrus juices, and it is usually flavored up with some combination of onions, hot peppers, cilantro and avocado. But this is a Kentucky Derby party, so we are putting a classy twist on those ingredients, serving it up salad style, and swapping out the tropical notes for fresh spring flavors—cucumber and mint. Along the way, I’ll show you some of the easy tricks I learned from my catering mentors for making a dish prettier—which, obviously, also makes it tastier. Enjoy!
1/2 large pink or ruby red grapefruit, cut into sections, reserve juice Juice of 1 fresh lime, divided 1 tsp. Dijon mustard 1 tsp. sugar* (see catering tips) 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil (mild flavor) 2 Persian cucumbers, peeled* and cut lengthwise, then sliced into half moons 1 can (14 oz.) hearts of palm, chilled in fridge 2 Tbsp. finely chopped red onion 1/2 small, firm avocado Mixed baby greens or leaf lettuce Chopped parsley and mint leaves for garnish
Section your grapefruit by cutting in half crosswise, then running a knife first around the outside edge of one half, then up close to each side of the section membranes. Spoon out the sections into a medium bowl and strain the remaining grapefruit peel over a measuring cup to save all the juice. Wrap the remaining grapefruit half and save it for another use.
Juice 1/2 of the lime, and add about 1 Tbsp. of the reserved grapefruit juice. Whisk in Dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Add olive oil in a stream, whisking constantly, until dressing is thick and emulsified. If your olive oil is very robust, substitute something neutral—avocado or canola oil would be good.
Cut the avocado in half, carefully split the halves apart and use a paring knife to cut a crosshatch design into the flesh, then spoon around the edges to release the avocado pieces into the bowl with the grapefruit pieces. Immediately squeeze the remaining half of lime over the avocado to prevent browning. Squeeze any remaining lime juice into the dressing.
Drain hearts of palm. Blot dry on paper towels, cut lengthwise into quarters, then slice into 1/2” pieces and empty into a medium bowl with red onions, grapefruit sections, cucumbers and avocado pieces.
Pour dressing over hearts of palm mixture and gently fold with a rubber spatula to coat the salad with the dressing. Don’t stir the mixture, lest you reduce the avocado and hearts of palm to a mushy mess. Refrigerate up to an hour before serving a generous spoonful of “ceviche” atop a mound of mixed greens, and garnish with the chopped parsley and mint. If you happen to have some of my grandmother’s beautiful Depression glass fruit bowls, use those!
If you’re making the cucumber or mint simple syrups for the Kentucky Derby Sips recipes, substitute a couple teaspoons of that for the sugar here. When you repeat a flavor across different elements of your meal, it’s called “echoing,” and it helps tie things together in your senses. You don’t want to go overboard, of course, or everything will taste the same. But here, it will be cool and refreshing, a contrast to the rich hot browns, and in harmony with your Sparkly Britches or Kentucky Love Child (you can’t imagine how goofy it feels to write that sentence).
This weird looking little thing is one of my favorite tools for creating a prettier presentation. You should get one of these.
A garnish zester can be used in a couple of ways—a quick scrape of a lemon with the five tiny holes produces tiny shreds of zest, and in this recipe, I’ve used the channel blade to strip away part (but not all) of the cucumber peel. It’s also fine to peel the whole thing, but I think this elevates the look of the pieces. In hindsight, I could have also prepped some of the grapefruit zest for the top of the salad. Next time!
The bed of baby greens is edible of course (everything you put on a plate should be, including flowers), but it also serves two other purposes—visually, it’s prettier than the salad in a bowl by itself, and the lettuce also allows excess dressing to run underneath, which keeps your salad from getting mushy.
If you’re serving a salad for a crowd (Have hope—one day we will meet again this way!), consider a platter rather than a bowl. Line it with greens, as suggested for single serving on this recipe, and spoon the mixture over the leaves. It’s an easy way to really show off the pretty dish you’ve made and gives the impression of a larger dish. (Don’t forget to use a clean damp towel to tidy up the platter!)