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Entries in cooking (8)


Tortilla Chopped Salad

Back in the day, when I worked as a line cook at Spago in Hollywood, there was one item I disliked making more than any other: Chino Farms Chopped Salad. I disliked it for a couple of reasons: 1) it was incredibly prep-intensive to chop and blanch the seemingly endless number of ingredients; 2) it wasn't actually on the menu, but we had to have the prep for it on hand in case the few regulars who knew to ask for it showed up, which they only did when I had let that prep slip; 3) I hated the way it looked; and 4) I had, um, never tried it.

Tortilla Chopped Salad © 2009 Cameron Blazer
One day, a few months before the end of my tenure at the restaurant (I was on the crew that served the very last chopped salad and the last pizza from that famous brick oven in April of 2001), for some reason I've now forgotten, I broke down and tried THE SALAD, the Chino Farms Chopped Salad. And, oh. Oh, it was good. Ugly, but so good. It' not, itself, an original idea, but it is a salad whose spectacular execution spawned countless imitators. I'd say it's the perfect arrangement of identically-sized vegetable tidbits. Or maybe it's the mustardy, sherry vinegar dressing...all I'm going to say about that is WALNUT OIL.* Or the farm-fresh vegetables for which it is named. Whatever. YUM.

At any rate, I no longer turn my nose up at a good chopped salad, but I've looked for ways to recreate the magic of the Spago specialty with stuff I have lying around and without pesky blanching and concasee-ing. This version features a similar contrast of crunchy-to-squishy but with far less effort and with a somewhat lighter profile. I belong to a community supported agriculture co-op so most of my produce is local and seasonal, though I do cave and buy avocados from time to time, in spite of the fact that I'm pretty sure there's never been a natural born avocado fruit within a 100-mile radius of here. Almost every ingredient is interchangeable for other stuff you might have on hand--if you have a zucchini but no cucumber, by all means, use that. If you have left-over shrimp, chop those up instead of pork or chicken. If you have pumpkin seeds lying around, use them content in the knowledge that I am now, offically, jealous of you.

Tortilla Chopped Salad

1 cucumber, diced
1 tsp salt (really!)
1 tomato, diced
1/2 can black beans, well-drained
1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1 cup cooked chicken/beef/pork, diced (optional)
1 tsp cumin
2 c mixed greens, washed and well-dried
yellow corn tortilla chips, crumbled
1/4 c slivered almonds
salt and pepper to taste
2 T olive oil
juice of 1 lime
1 oz goat cheese, crumbled
1 avocado, diced

  1. In the bowl you plan to serve the salad in, combine the cucumbers, 1 tsp of salt, and 1/2 of the lime juice. Let sit for as long as possible, but at least 5 minutes.
  2. Add the tomato, black beans, corn, cooked pork, and cumin. Toss to coat.
  3. Add the salad greens, and toss to distribute all the ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste
  4. Drizzle the olive oil and the remaining lime juice over the greens, add the almonds and crumbled tortilla chips and toss again.
  5. Top with the goat cheese and avocado, and serve.

If you like a creamier dressing, you can add the avocado and goat cheese earlier, and they will coat the leaves a bit--I just prefer more intact bits. For the record, I decided to make this tortilla salad before realizing I did not have any tortilla chips, but I did have some stale taco shells which I popped into the oven at 350° while I was putting the rest of the salad together--they crisped up perfectly and held up well to the dressing.

*Yes, I have the recipe we used, but I'm pretty sure it appears roughly accurately in any number of Wolfgang's books, so I'm not about to reproduce it here and put myself in front of that juggernaut. The recipe for the Chino Farms Chopped Salad is reproduced here; I'm not saying the vinaigrette recipe is wrong, just not what I was taught. One more time, with feeling: WALNUT OIL. That is all.


Stupidly Easy Soup

Cream of Cauliflower Soup © 2009 Cameron Blazer
The weather has been weird here for the last week. May in South Carolina is usually reliably hot. But we've had days of blustery rain and cold nights. As if I needed an excuse to indulge in my favorite food group: soup.

Oh how I do love soup! Chunky chowders, cold gazpachos, creamy bisques--they're like the little black dress of foodstuffs--a little accessorizing and you have a whole meal.

My CSA has a bumper crop of cauliflower right now, and though it's apparently a spring crop, cauliflower just feels warm and autumnal to me, so it fit this weird fall-like weather perfectly. If you think you don't like cauliflower, I hope you'll give it another look--I don't know anyone who has given roasted cauliflower or cauliflower soup a fair chance who has not been completely won over by its charms.

Now, I must confess I am having to reconstruct this recipe in an odd way--this cauliflower soup began its life as cauliflower puree that accompanied our roast chicken last week. We had tons left over (the kiddo was not fooled that these were not mashed potatoes), so after a particularly bone-chilling May day, I turned those leftovers into a smooth, creamy soup that far exceeded its humble beginnings. Still, I am pretty sure I've got the proportions right--it's pretty much all cauliflower all the time. Some soup theorists may scoff, as my version includes no onion, carrots, or celery. Well, I vote for practice over theory every day--you can surely add those, but I just love the unadulterated nutty flavor of the cauliflower.

Creamy Cauliflower Soup (serves 4)

1 medium head (or 1 lb frozen) cauliflower, cut into 1-inch pieces

4 T butter (live a little!)

1/4 c cream or half-and-half (live a little more!)

2 oz goat cheese

3 c water (more or less--let your texture preference be your guide)

salt and pepper

optional: truffle salt / bacon and basil / olive oil / oven-dried tomatoes / creme fraiche

  1. Bring a pot of well-salted water to boil. Add cauliflower and cook until just tender (the cauliflower should turn translucent all the way through--if it's still bright white, let it cook a bit longer).
  2. Drain the cauliflower, reserving 2 cups of the cooking water.
  3. Puree the cauliflower (using a stick blender or in batches in a stand blender), cream, and goat cheese with enough cooking water to result in a completely smooth puree.
  4. Return the puree to the pot over medium heat. Thin, as necessary, with the reserved cooking water.

See? Stupidly easy!

The first night I made this, I served it with a sprinkle of truffle salt*--the earthy richness of the truffles ratcheted up the cozy factor on this soup to the perfect level. When we ate the soup tonight, the dreary sky had lifted and the temperatures were creeping back toward normal, so the combination of bacon and basil enriched and brightened it perfectly.

*Ok, I know. At about $20 for a teeny-tiny jar of salt, truffle salt is just about too cute by half. But I've had the same jar for over a year, and it's more than 3/4 full. So, I certainly wouldn't buy it just for this soup, but I wasn't sorry I had it lying around, either. If you have truffle oil lying around, you could use that, too, but I have rarely tasted a truffle oil that didn't taste like transmission fluid, so I don't buy the stuff any more. Whatever works, eh?


On top of Spaghetti

On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese...
First things first: Before I can discuss the easiest, tastiest meatballs I have ever made; before I can crow about virtuously saving three pints of cherry tomatoes from near-certain ruin; before I can boast about the perfect sauce-to-pasta ratio; I must speak now of the pasta itself. Benedetto Cavalieri--in Italian, I think this means "take all your money and leave you still smiling." Because, well, this pasta is not cheap. It's tough to find here in SC since Whole Foods stopped selling it, but I have been known to pay $8 for a package. Wait, wait, wait! Before you harrumph off, let's be clear: this is very dense pasta, the package is larger than the typical 1 lb box, and I have been able to feed 8 people comfortably from single package. So, $1 per person isn't that bad when you think about it. This pasta is made from durum semolina and is very slowly dried. It takes much longer than typical pasta to cook; although quick cooking is one of the undeniable upsides of pasta, the long cooking time of this pasta allows lots of starch to seep into the pasta water; that in turn makes for some super-excellent thickening power.

Benedetto Cavalieri Spaghettoni
I have been hording a package of Benedetto Spaghettoni for months now, and last night I decided to break it out to beat back the Monday doldrums. So totally worth it.

Now, back to the meatballs. So simple it's not even a recipe--just mix 1 lb of ground sirloin (or chuck or half-pork-half-beef or turkey thigh) with 1 egg, salt, pepper, grated parmagiano, thyme (I used dried--go for fresh if you've got it), and a handful of panko breadcrumbs. And then the secret ingredient. 1/2 of a medium shallot, grated over a fine rasp-style grater. When you do the shallot this way, it sort of turns into shallot jam, and the flavor gets mixed up all throughout the meatball, and, well, it's heaven. I made 1.5 inch-ish meatballs, which gave me about 15, but I ate one as a tester, so, well, SO. I browned these in olive oil a heavy dutch oven over medium heat. I drained most of the fat but left the good brown bits in the bottom and then poured in the tomato sauce I had made the day before and brought that back to a simmer.

Oh, I didn't tell you about that tomato sauce yet, did I? Well. A thing of beauty. I don't buy them very often, but somehow there are always tiny grape or cherry tomatoes in my house. Both my mom and my mother in law give them to me because the kiddo loves tomatoes. And I love them, too. But for all of their supposed ease of use, honestly, I am often oppressed by these tiny tomatoes. Good God, woman, why? Well, I know you can just toss them in a salad--yes, I got that memo. But, well, I am scarred by a story told to me by a cousin, oh, 25 or more years ago; it involves biting into a whole cherry tomato and being greeted by something other than tomato inside. So, yes, I feel compelled to cut up every single one of those little suckers. And if I'm gonna cut up teeny tomatoes, I may as well start peeling grapes. So, yeah, I am often looking at little clamshell pints of these things thinking, oh a tomato would be tasty now, but it will be ten minutes before I can cut up enough to feed a small wood sprite. It's a slippery slope from there to boxed mac and cheese. But. BUT! This pasta sauce! It may solve my tiny tomato dilemma forever! So simple: heat olive oil in a heavy dutch oven over medium heat; add whole tomatoes and one shallot, chopped; add 1 t salt; cook, stirring occasionally until all the tomatoes have burst open; run through a food mill to weed out the skins; return to pot and add 1/4 c or so red wine and a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce; add salt, pepper, and sugar (if needed) to taste. THAT IS IT.

So, to put it all together, cook the pasta,* adding some of the starchy water to the sauce before draining; toss the pasta in with the sauce (if you use a whole package of the B-C pasta, you will have a fair amount of pasta left over, just toss it with olive oil and save it for tomorrow, preferably with a 1/4 c or so of the pasta water for mixing in with whatever you make next), and cook for a few minutes; serve with plenty of black pepper and shaved parmagiano reggiano.**

*Obviously, you don't have to use my decadent pasta to have this turn out well. I do recommend, though, the fattest spaghetti noodle you can find. A good, hearty meatball needs a good, hearty pasta to stand up to it!

**Mr. Batali (deference, please, people!) often says that parmagiano is the "indisputed king of cheeses." Well, probably, but I usually prefer pecorino romano in dishes that call for parmagiano. Well, I tried it my way, and then I tried it with King Formaggio, and, well, the parmagiano is just better here. It stays drier and doesn't melt as easily, and its grainy texture is a good foil to the tender meatballs. Point, Mr. Batali.

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