Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Winter Salads

carrots are a winter staple in my refrigerator
During the summer, my refrigerator is crammed full of fixings for green salads: various lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, celery, scallions, avocado. In the winter, though, my taste for leafy salads seems to abate; instead, I want something not quite so crisp, so I usually makea type of winter salad: coleslaw, green pea salad, or shredded carrot salad. The latter is probably my favorite because it goes well with so many dishes, and it also keeps well for several days.

Start by grating 3 or 4 peeled carrots, using the largest holes on a grater. (I have used a food processor for this, but I don't like the results.) Then grate a small chunk of onion and add to the carrots. Add 2 TBSP mayonnaise, juice of half a lemon, and salt and pepper to taste. Add more onion if too bland. Then throw in some raisins (I prefer yellow). If you have either canned mandarin oranges or crushed pineapple, drain that well and add a few tablespoons of the fruit. Toss and let sit for a few hours before serving.

This is the traditional carrot salad that I grew up with. Recently, I have tried various Thai salads, which include peanuts and usually sesame oil. For some reason, they just don't grab me the way the old standby does.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Although I certainly ate spinach when I was young, I don't recall either liking or disliking it. Now I love it. Whether that's due to changing taste buds, different cooking methods, or different types of spinach I'm not sure, but this leafy green is now a staple in my house. I know that leafy kale is all the rage right now, but I prefer the taste of spinach. (It also contains more iron, calcium, and potassium than kale, but that's not why I like it.)

I eat baby spinach raw in salads. It pairs well with strawberries, orange segments, and other juicy fruits. I usually dress the salad with a light oil and vinegar mixture and sprinkle on something crunchy, such as chopped nuts or toasted sunflower seeds.

Cooked spinach is one of my favorite dishes. For this, I use fresh stem spinach. I make it one of two ways. The simplest is to wash the leaves, tear off any heavy stems, and then steam the leaves for just 3 or 4 minutes. This maintains the bright green color and keeps a bit of the texture. The other way I cook it is by braising: heat a few teaspoons of olive oil, add chopped garlic, and throw in spinach leaves that have been washed but not drained. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring once. This dish is darker than the steamed, with a much stronger flavor. Both dishes benefit from quick cooking.

Spinach pairs well with creamy bland foods, such as creamed chicken or beef stroganoff. I usually cook up a large batch and first serve it as a side dish. Then I use the leftovers in various ways. I put a few spoonsful atop baked potatoes and top that with cottage cheese; I put it under poached eggs; I add a layer of chopped spinach to lasagna; I spread it on pizza; I press it into a cheese-mushroom-tomato panini.

Spinach is available year round and is a wonderful source of nutrients. However, its best virtue I think is its versatility, mild taste, and color. Overcook it at your peril, but cook it briefly and you will be rewarded.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beef Stew

beef and lots of veggies
I admit that I'm partial to one-dish meals, or at least to meals that have all the important food groups in them. Although I may add a salad and some good bread, I don't need to, and that makes me feel as if I'm getting away with something.

This year, the family that farms across the street from me gave me a selection of meats as a holiday gift. They raised the animals themselves. I decided to start with the stew beef because I knew exactly what to do with it, and I had all the ingredients. My stew is heavy on vegetables and long on cooking, but it's incredibly tasty and the meat is tender. Also, it's not really heavy and doesn't sit in your stomach like a lump.

This stew uses the following ingredients:

1 lb. stew meat, cut into relatively small chunks, say 1" cubes
1 cup beef broth
1/2 cup red wine
2 bay leaves
1 large onion
2 large potatoes
2-3 carrots
1 parsnip
1 package frozen mixed vegetables
dash Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper

I start by searing the meat quickly in a large frying pan. I sear it in batches so it does not steam, and I don't sear it on all sides; just enough to create a caramel glaze in the pan. Then I throw the pieces into a large deep covered sauce pan and deglaze the fry pan with the broth. I add the broth, wine, and bay leave to the meat and simmer at very low heat for about an hour and a half. The surface of the liquid should barely bubble.

Now cut up the onions, potatoes, carrots, and parsnip. (I cut them relatively small so I don't have to use a knife when I eat.) Throw those in the pan and add a bit of water, about 1/2 c. to a cup. Simmer slowly for about an hour. Then add the frozen vegetables and cook about 20 minutes longer. After the frozen vegetables finish cooking, add salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce to taste. Like most stews, this improves after sitting overnight.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Beautiful Broccoli

Broccoli is one of those foods that can really dress up a plate. When steamed, it retains its bright green color and attractive shape. Plain steamed broccoli is a wonderful dish in itself, served plain or with cheese sauce or with oil and garlic or Parmesan and lemon juice.

Broccoli is also one of those foods beloved by nutritionists. It is loaded with all sorts of good stuff and is reputed to improve health. Although I try to eat a healthy diet, my main interest in broccoli is its taste and versatility.

Panera Bread's best-selling soup, I've read, is its broccoli cheese soup, which is certainly tasty. The online recipe world has scores of recipes that swear they have found the magic formula, but I'm not convinced. Still, I make a broccoli cheddar soup quickly, and it's a great dish to enjoy in cold weather.

Usually I steam, stir fry or roast broccoli when I'm cooking just for myself. This also maintains its nutrients and appearance. Occasionally, however, I will make a broccoli casserole, especially if I'm feeding several other people. This recipe is far tastier than you would imagine from reading the ingredients. It sounds a bit ho-hum, but the combination of textures and tastes is practically addicting (you can use cauliflower instead):
  • 2 heads broccoli
  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • 2 c. milk
  • salt and pepper
  • 8 oz. herb stuffing (I use Pepperidge Farm)
  • 1 c. water
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
Steam the broccoli lightly and place in a large, shallow, oiled casserole dish. Make a cream sauce by melting the 3 TBSP butter, adding the flour, and whisking in the milk. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Then pour over the broccoli. Finally, combine the stuffing, water, and melted butter. Toss lightly and spoon over the top of the casserole. Press down gently. Then bake at 350 for 30 minutes.