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? 🙂


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!



Citrus & Fennel Salad with Olives

It isn’t surprising that I would find another way to highlight a food that is among the “seven species of Israel,” after the lessons I learned earlier this week in an online celebration of Tu Bishvat. The history and symbolism of Jewish food fascinates me, and it’s something that isn’t prevalent across all cultures. Though I’m not Jewish, my husband is, and I’m pleased that we each appreciate traditions from the other side. In our home, we observe Passover and Rosh Hashanah, Easter and Christmas. I’ve attended temple with him, and he’s been to church with me. Over the past year, we’ve joked many times about having been “to church” online more regularly than ever before in person. It’s my not-so-secret hope that houses of worship will continue what they’ve started with online availability, even after the COVID fog lifts and the doors re-open. There’s huge potential for new outreach by these virtual means.

Until that time, I’m taking the lessons however they come, and the online “new year of the trees” celebration, honoring the many blessings of trees and nature, paid particular homage to wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives and dates—the aforementioned “seven species.” So I’m going with it.

Citrus fruit is very common in northern African cuisine, and it pairs really well with the savory flavors in this recipe.

Several years ago, I picked up this cookbook on a bargain table at TJ Maxx, one of my favorite places to find interesting culinary treasures and gadgets. I have been enthralled with the beautiful images of foods authentic to Morocco, and I’ve noticed many crossover ingredients to the foods of Jewish culture—it makes sense, geographically. Today’s recipe comes from page 16 of that book: a grapefruit and fennel salad, described by the author as a “lovely hot weather salad,” though I’m finding it a bright and refreshing addition to the table right here in the middle of winter. I’ve modified a few things from that recipe, as I always do. I believe this is how we discover new favorites.

The salad brings plenty of color to the table, and I can taste the sunshine in the beautiful winter citrus! I’ve used ruby red grapefruit, which leans sweeter than pink or white, in combination with navel and blood oranges for additional sweetness and color variety, plus licorice-y fennel slices and castelvetrano olives. If your supermarket has a bulk olive bar, this olive variety is easy to spot because it is bright green like Kermit the Frog. The flavor is buttery and creamy, almost akin to artichoke heart, and I love the slightly briny contrast it provides against the juicy citrus and crunchy fennel.



Ingredients

1 ruby red grapefruit*

1 navel orange

1 blood orange

Kosher salt

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 bulb fresh fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced

2 or 3 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced

1 tsp. cumin, caraway or fennel seed

Small handful of castelvetrano olives,* pitted (see notes)


*Notes

Ruby red grapefruit is not as tart as pink or white grapefruit. If you cannot eat grapefruit, try using an extra orange plus a Meyer lemon in its place. You would still have a variety of citrus flavors and colors.

The castelvetrano olives really do stand out, colorwise, on the olive bar. If your market does not offer these, you may also look for the variety in jars. Substitute Kalamata olives from Greece as a good alternative. I would not recommend regular pimiento-stuffed olives or canned “ripe” olives for this recipe. Purchase pitted olives if you can, or carefully cut them in half to remove the pit before adding them to the salad.

Instructions

  1. To prepare the grapefruit, cut it in half crosswise, as you would enjoy it for breakfast. Next, use the tip of a sharp paring knife to cut the segments from the membranes. Do this for each half, then spoon them out into a bowl. Squeeze remaining grapefruit juice over a strainer into a bowl and reserve for another use.
  2. To prepare the oranges, cut off the tops and bottoms so the fruit is stable on a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut from top to bottom, removing the peel and bitter outer pith from the fruit. Cut the oranges in half, top to bottom, then lay them flat side-down on the cutting board. Slice the oranges into half-rounds, about 1/2” thick. Some may split, and that’s OK. Add the pieces to the grapefruit bowl, and give it a pinch or two of kosher salt.
  3. In a small, dry skillet, toast the cumin (or caraway or fennel) seed over medium heat, swirling the pan continuously. After about one minute, the seeds to be toasty and aromatic. Remove from heat and allow them to cool.
  4. Scatter the sliced fennel and olives into the citrus bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss gently to coat. Transfer to a serving bowl.
  5. Sprinkle the scallion slices over the salad, then sprinkle with the toasted seeds and serve immediately.
If you want to go crazy and add pomegranate arils, too…well, maybe that wouldn’t be so crazy. 🙂
Keep those recipes evolving, dear friends!

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Cobb with Artichoke-Crab Cake

A good many years ago, a work colleague from my radio days shared with me about his unusual mental habit of assigning colors to the months of the year—not surprisingly, several of the months were given colors that matched a holiday within the month, such as green for March (St. Patrick’s Day). My buddy gave July deep red, for its blazing summer heat. Orange was obviously the color of October, reflecting Halloween pumpkins and fall foliage. But January? You guessed it. Gray.

He’s right about that. The whole month of January looks and feels gray and lifeless, with the Christmas decorations down, no leaves on the trees, no flowers to enjoy. Gray is bland and boring, the color of a steak cooked in the microwave.

As many millions of other Americans, I let go an enormous exhale this week as our battered country took its first steps forward toward what we hope is a new chapter of compassion, cooperation and unity. The installment of a new president has me feeling hopeful for the first time in years, as if gigantic gray clouds have parted to allow sunshine and color back into our lives. I’m not naïve about politics, and I have seen enough in my years to know that smooth-sailing government is a goal rather than a given, but attitudes and intentions must be positive for progress to happen, and we are overdue. I’m ecstatic and proud about the historic swearing-in of our nation’s first-ever woman vice president (I’ll be raising a toast to her in a day or two here), optimistic about making up lost ground in our relationship with the rest of the world (and the planet), and relieved at the promise of giving science a louder voice than ego in our battle against this wretched virus.

Things are looking up, and I’ve needed something to be excited about after so much gloom.

And so, here begins a fun and color-filled parade of recipes to brighten up your plate. Nutritionists will tell you about the benefits of “eating the rainbow,” for all its varying vitamins, antioxidants and whatnot, and it’s undeniable that bright colors in general make people feel happier. I’m determined to bring that color!

Color my world! 🙂

To kick things off, I’m chasing away the gray with a mostly classic Cobb salad, authentic in the sense that it has all the key Cobb ingredients—avocado, bacon, hard-boiled egg, bleu cheese and tomatoes. In step with my recent celebration of seafood, I’ve swapped out the usual chicken breast in favor of a homemade artichoke-crab cake. I love the flavor of artichokes, with their slight lemony tang, and the pairing with crab has been a favorite for years. To pull the flavors together, I’ve punched up the vinaigrette with fresh lemon juice and a few shakes of lemon-pepper seasoning.

The end result is fresh, bright and cheerful. The flavors all work great together, and the colors are breathing some much-needed sunshine into gray and gloomy January. Enjoy!


Serves: 2 dinner salads with extra crab cakes for another meal
Leftover idea: crab cakes benedict, with poached egg and english muffin, topped with sauce of your choice


Crab Cakes

1 1/2 cups lump crab meat, drained and picked over for shell pieces

1/2 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained well and chopped fine

4 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1 large egg

2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/4 cup cracker or panko crumbs (I used seasoned crackers)

1/4 tsp. lemon pepper seasoning (or more if using bland crackers)

Small handful fresh parsley

Lemon wedges for serving

Mix it up!

  1. Combine all ingredients except crab and mix with a fork until mixture is completely blended.
  2. Add crab meat and fold gently about 6 times, just enough to fully incorporate the mixture.
  3. Cover mixture and chill about 2 hours.
  4. Shape crab mixture into 6 equal-sized cakes*, then cover and chill again 2 hours until ready to cook.
  5. Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake crab cakes about 25 minutes, until set but not dry.

*I misjudged my portions and ended up with a smaller seventh crab cake. Better than trying to re-shape them!


Citrus vinaigrette

2 Tbsp. Trader Joe’s orange muscat champagne vinegar* (or substitute any light or citrus-y vinegar + a pinch of sugar)

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

3 or 4 shakes lemon pepper seasoning (I used McCormick, which already contains salt)

1 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil + 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

  1. Whisk together vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and lemon pepper seasoning in a small bowl or measuring glass.
  2. Slowly drizzle canola oil into the mixture, whisking constantly to create an emulsion. Repeat with the olive oil. Cover and allow mixture to rest to “wake up” the seasonings. I typically make my dressings several hours or even days ahead, then bring to room temperature for serving.

Cobb salad

1 full romaine heart, washed, dried and chopped

1/2 cup finely shredded red cabbage (for color :))

1 small shallot, chopped (or substitute red onion)

8 baby tomatoes, halved

1/2 medium avocado, cubed

1/4 cup bleu cheese crumbles

3 slices uncured, smoked bacon, chopped and cooked crisp

1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and chopped



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If you’re a fan of the crab-artichoke combination, check out my easy recipe for Creamy Crab and Artichoke Dip!


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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Souvlaki Pork Chops with Grilled Zucchini Salad

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?

Does this look healthy and delicious, or what?

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!


Ingredients

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


Instructions

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!

  1. Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
  6. 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.
  7. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
Grill, I’m gonna miss you…

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Elote Macaroni Salad

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!


Ingredients

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


Dressing Ingredients

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


*Notes

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.


Instructions

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Cut kernels from corn and prep all other vegetables while pasta is cooking.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. To serve, top salad with chopped grilled scallions, parmesan or finely crumbled feta, avocado, jalapeno slices and cilantro.
Mexican street corn meets macaroni salad, and it rocks!

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Fresh Broccoli-Apple Salad

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.


Ingredients

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.

This dressing works for all kinds of summer salads!

Dressing Ingredients

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


Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Scatter crispy bacon (if using) over salad just before serving.
The crispy bacon adds a nice touch of salty and smoky on this hearty summer side.

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Chicken Caesar Salad (on the grill)

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.

Our sweet little patio is our safe haven right now.

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!

Recipe serves 2.

Ingredients

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (preferably free range)

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

Juice of half a lemon

1 tsp. prepared Dijon mustard

1 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning*

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

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

*Notes

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!

Instructions

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.

I always rinse with cold running water, and I “fluff” the leaves to let the water work all the way through.

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.

Homemade Caesar dressing is the absolute bomb.
But this is my simple “cheat” to add pizzazz to a store-bought dressing.

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.

Enjoy!

A good drizzle of our “spiked” Caesar dressing, and freshly grated parm. Dinner is served!

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Healthy Wheat Berry Salad

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.

Clockwise, from top right: hard red winter wheat, spelt, rye and farro.

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.

Kamut is a longer grain because it has not been hybridized for quicker harvest.

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!

How can something so good be so simple?

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.

Ingredients

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)

Dressing

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

*Notes

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!

There’s no substitute for a good quality, REAL extra virgin olive oil.

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.

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