Smoky Jalapeño Baked Beans

One of the down sides to being a creative home cook is, well, the pressure to be creative all the time. It’s a self-imposed expectation, I know. But more than a few times in the recent couple of months, I’ve hit a brick wall on getting new ideas on the table. We have eaten well, but I have mostly pulled out familiar, favorite recipes because we’ve had too much going on. And a good many of our meals have been takeout, which is far more exception than rule at our house. This is not easy for me.

Last month, I had an epiphany—OK, it was more a reluctant acceptance of something my husband has been trying to tell me, and I finally gave in—and what a relief: I don’t have to make a rock star meal every night, and I don’t have to make everything from scratch. Sometimes it’s OK to take it easy. And that’s what I did with this baked bean recipe, which is begging to be part of someone’s July 4th table.


Sure, it’s special, with the salty bacon, slices of fiery jalapeno and a shot of charred oak barrel-rested whiskey, but here’s a secret I’m eager to share— I cheated! I dressed up a can of store-bought baked beans. And they were awesome.

Whew. It feels good to let that go, and I’m not going to pretend that I discovered the can of beans in the back of the cabinet and just whipped up a fun spin on them. Nope, I had every intention of taking a shortcut when I made my grocery list, and let me tell ya, it was just as much fun jazzing up a pre-made can of baked beans as it would have been if I’d made them from scratch. I chose the most basic variety of beans I could find, without too much embellishment. They only had a touch of brown sugar, and this made it easy to spin the beans in the savory direction my palate was craving.

Elevating a store-bought product can be just as rewarding as making a dish from scratch!

Dressing up the store-bought beans was easy, and they got a big flavor boost from two very thick slices of savory bacon, cooked up to just-shy-of-crispy with half of a sweet onion (I reserved the other half for the top). I didn’t want the beans to dry out in the oven, so I enhanced the sauce with a few tablespoons of ketchup, a splash of vinegar, some smoked paprika and a few shakes of cumin. Then, just for fun, I stirred in a shot of whiskey, the same one I used in the Kickass Whiskey-Braised Collards that we enjoyed a few months ago.


After dumping the beans into the same skillet, I stirred in the smoky sauce and topped the baked beans with the remaining onion slivers and jalapeno slices and slid it into the oven. Baking the smoky beans in the same skillet meant that I also saved time and energy on cleanup, which was a welcome relief. And, there’s just something cool about taking the skillet right to the table.


This dinner was easy all around, as we served the smoky jalapeno baked beans with an All-American favorite—grilled, all-beef hot dogs with (gasp!) store-bought buns. Don’t worry, there is no danger of me permanently trading in my “do-it-yourself” personality in the kitchen, but occasionally, I could get used to this.


By the way, are you already doing this with your hot dogs? It only takes a few seconds, and you end up with so many crispy crevices to support your favorite toppings. 🙂


Smoky Jalapeño Baked Beans

  • Servings: 6 to 8
  • Difficulty: easy
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This recipe builds on the flavors of store-bought canned baked beans (or pork and beans). For best flavor results, purchase a simple flavor, such as Bush’s “original” baked beans with bacon and brown sugar, or Bush’s vegetarian baked beans. You can kick up this recipe in multiple ways—for big, bold flavor, keep some of the jalapeno seeds and use the whiskey. For milder flavor, substitute green bell pepper and skip the whiskey.

Ingredients

  • 2 slices thick smoked bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces (omit for a vegetarian version)
  • 1 medium sweet or yellow onion, half chopped, and half slivered into crescents
  • 1 medium fresh jalapeno, half diced, and half sliced into thin rings
  • 3 Tbsp. tomato ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. smoked sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 oz. smoky whiskey (optional, but heck yeah!)
  • 28 oz. can Bush’s “original” or “vegetarian” baked beans, or equivalent substitute
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with rack in center position.
  2. Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium flame. Add bacon and onion, and season it a bit with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, to soften onions and render some of the fat off the bacon. If a great deal of fat results, drain off as much as you wish.
  3. Combine the ketchup, vinegar, paprika and cumin in a small bowl. Stir in the whiskey (if using) and set the mixture aside.
  4. When bacon is slightly crisp, add the canned beans to the skillet, including all the sauce. Stir in the diced jalapenos and the sauce mixture. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Top the baked beans with the remaining onion slivers and slices of jalapeno. Twist some freshly ground black pepper all over the top. Bake for 40 minutes, until sauce is bubbly all around.



My Favorite Vinaigrette Potato Salad

Is there a more ubiquitous summer side than potato salad? But just because it’s always there hardly means it’s the best thing on the table. One of my most cringe-worthy food memories of childhood was played out on repeat at summer gatherings with family, friends and neighbors, and seeing what happened to the potato salad—which, many times, was little more than sticky, cooked potatoes with some hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise. I know you’ve seen this, too, when it gets a little bit warm and separates into a greasy, gloppy mess with that thin filmy crust on the surface. Is it any wonder everyone passes over it in favor of potato chips? Nothing ruins a picnic faster than bland potato salad, slick with broken mayonnaise. Bleh.

It’s a shame to not give the versatile potato a greater chance to shine! If you are bored with potato salad or stuck in a rut with a recipe that gets left behind on the picnic table, maybe you just need a different approach—one that doesn’t depend on a heavy, mayonnaise-y coating to give it flavor because, honestly, mayo doesn’t have much flavor to begin with. Here’s something a little different and for me, it’s a winner every time.


This potato salad does not disappoint, and it could never be accused of being bland because it is doubly dressed—first, with a tangy, heart-healthy vinaigrette that soaks flavor all the way through the potatoes, and then with the slightest amount of mayonnaise-based dressing for a creamy, picnic-ready finish that isn’t greasy and doesn’t clump or break.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that potatoes are one of my very favorite foods, and I have shared a few fun twists on potato salad here on Comfort du Jour, but of all the versions I like to make, this one is my favorite (especially in summer), and for a few fun reasons.

Any kind of potato works

You can use starchy russets, baby reds or Yukon golds (my favorite, and my choice for this post). Peel the skins or keep ‘em—your call. The only thing to consider with the waxy style of potatoes is that they will absorb slightly less of the dressing, so you would want to proceed in stages to be sure it’s to your liking. But flavor-wise? Whatever you like is going to work.

This salad is adaptable

My main goal for any kind of salad is variety of texture, and you can adjust this one many ways by changing up the mix-ins. My go-to combination of mix-ins usually includes hard-boiled eggs, chopped pickles, crunchy bits of celery or radish (or both), fresh onions and any kind of fresh herbs. But that leaves it open for interpretation—I could swap out the chopped pickles for chopped olives and skip the onions but add some minced bell pepper. Dill has a completely different flavor than basil or parsley, so that’s another layer of options you can customize to your liking. As long as your ingredients are not overly wet (like tomatoes), the options are nearly endless.


It is not drenched in mayonnaise

We go through a lot of mayo at our house (mostly for my husband’s beloved tuna sandwiches), but it is not my favorite ingredient for dressing potato or pasta salads. Mayonnaise, which is essentially an emulsion of egg yolks and oil, is just plain heavy. And if you add mayo to cooked potatoes, you might notice that it takes a lot of it to keep them coated so the potatoes don’t seem dry, especially if your potatoes lean more starchy than waxy. Too much mayo is never appealing and it definitely is not healthful. Almost all its calories are from fat, and though recent reports have debunked the idea that warm mayonnaise is solely responsible for post-picnic foodborne illnesses (the culprit is usually the meat or fish that is dressed in the mayo), there’s no disputing that it looks completely unappetizing.

It’s actually delicious!

Unlike the typical mayonnaise-only potato salads, this one is mostly flavored with a tasty vinaigrette-style dressing that you can customize to your own palate. You can use a fancy French vinaigrette, a balsamic vinaigrette, a zesty, Italian-style vinaigrette or even a store-bought vinaigrette. There are only two types that I would not recommend, and for different reasons. An entirely fat-free vinaigrette is not ideal, because the extreme water content will turn your cooked potatoes soggy. The dressing should have some amount of oil in it, and you can choose one with heart-healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. I also would not recommend a sweet, fruit-flavored vinaigrette, such as raspberry. It would be tough to choose mix-ins that would work with those flavors. It’s best to stick with a savory one.


The vinaigrette is added to the cooked potatoes while they are hot—immediately from the pot after draining is best—and it only takes a few minutes for it to be absorbed. After the potatoes cool, you simply add your favorite mix-ins and a very small amount of mayonnaise, blended with equal amount of sour cream (or Greek yogurt) and a touch of Dijon mustard for extra flavor. I like to add celery seed as well, but this is optional.


Our little secret…

Here’s one more nugget about this potato salad, and it is good news for anyone who can’t have (or doesn’t want) mayonnaise. This salad technically does not need mayo at all! The vinaigrette soaks so much flavor into the hot potatoes that you could skip the mayonnaise altogether and send it straight to the fridge for serving, just as it is—almost like a German potato salad, but chilled and delicious for summer!


My Favorite Vinaigrette Potato Salad

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: average
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What I love about this potato salad is that it is double-dressed. First, it’s flavored with vinaigrette, from the inside-out, while the potatoes are still steaming hot. The vinaigrette absorbs into the chunks for great flavor in every forkful. Then, when it’s cool, add your favorite salad mix-ins (aim for variety of textures) and a creamy dressing that has very little mayonnaise for such a large batch of salad. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup prepared vinaigrette dressing (see below for my favorite blend)
  • 1 1/2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes, cleaned and cut-up (peeled or skin-on)
  • 1/2 cup each finely chopped onions and celery
  • 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp. sour cream or plain Greek yogurt (reduced-fat versions are fine)
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seed
  • favorite mix-ins (I like hard-boiled eggs, chopped pickles or capers, radish slices, minced fresh herbs; avoid high-moisture ingredients such as fresh cucumbers)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Prep and simmer potatoes until they can easily be pierced with a knife tip, about 25 minutes.
  2. Add finely chopped onions and celery to a bowl large enough to mix the potato salad. When potatoes are tender, drain them and immediately add them to the bowl. Fold with a spatula to distribute the onions and celery throughout. Season with a couple pinches of salt.
  3. Pour the vinaigrette over the hot potatoes. Gently fold with a spatula to mix the vinaigrette evenly with the potatoes. It will take a few minutes for the vinaigrette to be absorbed. Allow them to cool at room temperature. If you wish, you can refrigerate the potatoes before adding the creamy dressing.
  4. In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, Dijon, celery seed, salt and pepper. Add your favorite salad mix-ins to the vinaigrette-drenched potatoes. Pour dressing over the bowl contents and fold gently to combine and coat the potatoes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Refrigerate the potato salad until completely cold. Serve alongside your favorite summer cookout fare.

Any savory vinaigrette dressing is suitable for this potato salad, but I do not recommend using an “oil-free” version. The excess moisture may make the potatoes too mushy. Here’s my easy, go-to vinaigrette dressing recipe, but between you and me, at least half the time I make this salad, I use Good Seasons Italian. 🙂

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • A few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (or another heart-healthy oil, such as avocado)

Directions

  1. Combine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon, seasoning, sugar, salt and pepper in a small bowl or glass measuring cup.
  2. Gradually drizzle olive oil into the mixture while whisking vigorously. The Dijon mustard will help emulsify the mixture.


Creamy, Crunchy Dijon Cole Slaw

My intention for this post and recipe was to introduce you to my new food processor; I’m excited about my choice of machines and still learning how to use some of the features that are new to me. But I’ll save that for another day, because what this post is really about is a new trick I’ve learned in the kitchen—one that has very little to do with my food processor and everything to do with trying something new with an old tried-and-true: cole slaw.

There are so many ways one can make cole slaw, and it’s usually the dressing that makes each version special, whether it’s sweet and creamy like a KFC-style slaw or refined and elegant with a lime and poppy seed vinaigrette. I shared those when Comfort du Jour was brand new, and they are delicious, just like the tangy apple cole slaw from last summer.

This time, I’ve changed the dressing again (and I think you’ll love its delicate Dijon flavor), but I’ve also dabbled in a new technique that I read about from one of my newest kitchen idols, J. Kenji López-Alt. I love the way this guy approaches food, always with a “what if” attitude, and after his exhaustive experiments in what he calls “The Food Lab,” Kenji is great about sharing his culinary discoveries with home cooks like you and me. You will find a ton of his recipes on the Serious Eats website, but also on his own YouTube channel, which a basically a rabbit hole of exciting kitchen experiments.

His method for making cole slaw produces a perfectly textured salad that is soft, yet pleasantly crunchy. It has all the right flavor but doesn’t get soggy in the bowl. That has always been the bummer, hasn’t it—to load up your plate with all your summer favorites, only to have everything turn milky and soggy because the cole slaw dressing runs everywhere? Well, friends, Kenji has fixed that! And this game changer is so darn simple. Rather than just adding dressing to freshly shredded cabbage and carrots, there’s an intermediate step of extracting most of the moisture from the vegetables first. Under Kenji’s guidance, I tossed the cabbage and carrots with a very generous scoop each of kosher salt and cane sugar, then rinsed it under cold water (which seemed counterproductive with the intention of removing excess water, but stay with me), and then I dried it before proceeding with the dressing. The results were outstanding, and the fine strands of cabbage held exactly enough dressing for flavor, but not so much to drown it.

The extraction of extra moisture results in a cole slaw that feels almost like sauerkraut, with a squeezed-dry texture, but with all the familiar crunch and flavor you expect.

The dressing is a departure from other cole slaw recipes I’ve made, as it has only a slight hint of sugar (a lovely balance to the apple cider vinegar in the recipe). Dijon mustard lends a little sass to the creamy mayo, and I mixed in a dash of celery seed along with drained, finely shredded sweet onion and about two dozen twists of freshly cracked black pepper. Here’s how it goes, beginning with about 8 cups of shredded cabbage and carrots in a very large bowl:


At the point that I noticed all that liquid resting in the bowl after the salt-and-sugar bath, it occurred to me that Kenji’s technique for cole slaw is basically the same one I use for making homemade giardiniera, and the outcome is similar, too—crunchy and firm, despite being soaked in a pickling liquid.

My inspiration for both the technique and dressing on this cole slaw comes directly from Kenji, and if you want to get geeked about the science behind it (as I already have), you may do so by linking to this article:

How To Make the Best Creamy Coleslaw | The Food Lab

Otherwise, just get straight to making it. 🙂


Creamy, Crunchy Dijon Cole Slaw

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: average
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If you’ve never had cole slaw that didn’t water down your entire plate, then this recipe is for you! The intermediate step of “purging” the moisture from the shredded cabbage is changing the game on this favorite summer salad.

Ingredients

  • 8 cups total, shredded green and red cabbage (fresh is best)
  • 3 average sized carrots, peeled and shredded
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt (for purging)
  • 1/3 cup cane sugar (for purging)

Ingredients

  • scant 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. prepared Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. cane sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seed
  • 1 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 medium yellow or sweet onion, finely shredded and drained


To make this cole slaw, you will need a large colander for draining the cabbage, and a salad spinner or clean, unscented towels for eliminating the excess moisture.

Directions

  1. Combine the shredded cabbage and carrots in a large bowl, with extra room for tossing. Pour the kosher salt and cane sugar all over the shreds and toss with salad forks or your clean hands to distribute throughout the cabbage mixture. Allow it to rest at least 5 minutes, or up to 15 minutes. The salt-sugar blend will coax the excess moisture from the cabbage.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a colander placed in the sink. You should notice a significant volume of liquid in the bottom of the bowl. Rinse the mixture really well under cold, running water. Toss it thoroughly as you rinse, and continue for about two minutes to get all the excess salt removed. Taste a piece or two. If they are too salty, rinse another couple of minutes.
  3. To dry the cabbage, use a salad spinner (in batches) or line a baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towels. Place the cabbage on the towels, cover with another towel (or more layers of paper towels) and press heartily to soak up the moisture. I used kitchen towels and gently rolled up the cabbage to squeeze out the excess water. Transfer the cabbage to a large bowl for dressing.
  4. Combine the dressing ingredients, stirring in the drained, shredded onion after mixing. Pour over the cabbage blend and toss to coat.


Have a safe Memorial Day weekend! And if you’re wondering what happened to my tie-dyed towels, never fear:



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



Fourth of July Baked Beans

The Fourth of July conjures very specific childhood memories for me, and baked beans has a major role in that nostalgia. Every year, members of my family on my maternal grandfather’s side gathered at the home of my great grandmother for a reunion-of-sorts picnic and, especially, for fireworks. Grandma Stoney, whose nickname was derived from her married last name, Stonehouse, lived across the street from the community baseball field, and we were lucky to have a front row seat for the excitement of what seemed to me at the time to be an enormous fireworks display. The tiny burg where Grandma Stoney lived put on quite a shindig for Independence Day, including a parade, complete with a marching band and people throwing candy to the kids from firetrucks. Back at Grandma’s house, we amused ourselves by playing croquet in the front yard and taking turns cranking the handle on an old timey ice cream maker. No doubt, my great grandmother felt great joy having everyone there.

What I remember most, besides playing with distant cousins I rarely saw, was the food. Inside the house, every available horizontal surface—and I mean tables, countertops, the stove, card tables and anything else that could be rigged up to hold dishes—was covered with potluck offerings, as everyone in attendance always brought a dish or two to share. It was unbelievable. For me, the best of all was the dining room table, which was always covered from corner to corner with every variety of baked beans you could imagine. Some of the dishes were very saucy, some looked as though they had been dumped directly from a can of Van Camp’s, and others were baked with that delightfully sticky sweet sauce pooled in the corners of the pan. And there were always several dishes of beans topped with slices of bacon. Oh man, how I loved that table!

Bacon is still one of my very favorite ingredients for baked beans, and I’ve paired it here with a favorite flavor of my Upstate New York home—maple. That combination of smoky-salty-sweet cannot be beat, and for me, it’s as much a part of Fourth of July celebration as parades and fireworks.

I don’t need fireworks on the Fourth of July. All I really want is these maple bacon baked beans! YUM.

This time, I made my baked beans from scratch, having soaked the beans overnight and then cooking them until tender before adding the flavorful sauce. But you could absolutely take a time-saving shortcut and use cans of beans. Just be sure you drain and rinse them thoroughly before you begin.


Ingredients

1 lb. dried beans, soaked and prepared for cooking* (see notes)

1 heaping cup thick-cut bacon, cut into cubes

1 sweet onion, sliced or chopped

Sauce:

6 oz. can no-salt tomato paste

1/2 cup real maple syrup

1/4 cup maple-infused balsamic vinegar*

About 20 grinds fresh black pepper

1/2 tsp. chipotle powder (optional)

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder

3/4 cup cold water (added after flavor adjustment)


*Notes

My recipe was made with dried cranberry beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, then drained twice and cooked low and slow until tender. If you prefer, or if you are pressed for time, feel free to use 3 standard cans of cooked beans. Drain the beans and rinse under cold running water, to remove all the “goo” from the cans. Great Northern, navy or white kidney beans (cannellini) would be great.

The maple-infused balsamic is a specialty ingredient, purchased at one of the stores that sells flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. I love this product because it enhances the maple flavor without making it more sweet. If you do not find this maple balsamic, substitute an equal amount of regular dark balsamic vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.


Instructions

  1. Cook beans as directed or rinse canned beans.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add bacon cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon cubes are just crisp. Transfer cubes to a paper towel-lined plate and drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
  3. In the same skillet, saute the chopped onion in the bacon fat until onions are tender and slightly golden.
  4. In a large bowl or measuring glass, combine sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste, then add water.
  5. Layer the cooked beans, bacon and onions in a glass 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Pour the sauce into the beans and give the baking dish a few gentle shakes to distribute the sauce throughout. The beans should be swimming in sauce, as much of it will absorb into the beans during baking.
  6. Bake at 350° F for about an hour, until sauce is reduced to a perfectly rich and sticky mess.
Happy Fourth of July!


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!