Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Couscous Salad with Spinach, Feta, Cherry Tomatoes and Herbs

Sometimes I'm all over the perfect dish for the season, anticipating things a few weeks out. These past few weeks I've been chafing at the bit with a lovely concord grape recipe, calling a circuit of grocery stores every few days to ask Are they in yet? How about tomorrow? Maybe Monday? I'm surprised the produce departments keep answering the phone. But other times, well -- not so much. And so, as the cold and windy rains roll into Portland, I present to you the perfect picnic dish. On the bright side, it'll still be good for Autumnal potlucks.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for the combination of spinach and feta. But instead of a warm and uber-cheesy casserole, this is a light, herb-studded couscous salad (even healthier if you, like me, go with whole wheat couscous), with bright and juicy cherry tomatoes offsetting the small amount of briny feta. The spinach is just slightly wilted enough to be manageable and allow you to stuff copious amounts of it into the finished salad (using the residual heat of the couscous along with the old Mediterranean trick of rubbing it with salt), but it's still bright green and fresh-tasting. Thanks to a sweep at the farmer's market I used a combination of fresh basil, dill, parsley and mint, but it would be good with a few handfuls of whatever fresh herbs you have.

And speaking of things you think of just in the nick of time, here's an article about matzo ball soup, in honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins tomorrow night. Perhaps getting a bit more on top of things will be one of my resolutions.

Couscous Salad with Spinach, Feta, Cherry Tomatoes and Herbs

makes a sizable picnic or potluck contribution, or serves ~6 as a light main dish

2 1/2  cups water or broth
2 cups whole wheat couscous
~1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 bunch spinach, washed and chopped fairly small
3 scallions, thinly-sliced
1 large handful fresh dill, chopped
1 large handful fresh parsley, chopped
1 large handful fresh mint, chopped
1 small handful fresh mint, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
scant 1/4 cup crumbled feta
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes (I'm currently obsessed with sungolds), halved, or quartered if they're large
salt and pepper

Heat the water or broth (salt it if you're using water) to a boil in a pot. Add the couscous and a dollop of olive oil. Stir and bring it back to a boil, then turn off the flame and let sit, covered, for five minutes.

While the couscous is sitting, place the spinach in a large bowl. Sprinkle it with a bit of salt, then scrunch it in your hands to distribute the salt and cause the spinach to wilt slightly. Top with the scallions.

When the couscous is done, fluff it with a fork, and tip it on top of the spinach and the scallions, letting the heat of the couscous soften the greens. Let sit a few minutes while you chop the remaining fresh herbs.

After the couscous has sat for a few minutes, add the remaining herbs along with the remaining olive oil and the lemon juice. Toss, mixing the ingredients well (which will also cool off the couscous a bit). Add the feta, cherry tomatoes and a few grinds of pepper, and toss gently to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings and olive oil/lemon juice balance as needed. Serve warm or cold.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Apple and Honey Desserts

Twice this last week, after not seeing them in god-knows-how-many years, I happened upon katydids. Twice! One was slowly, methodically, walking across the window screen outside my office (or, as it's also known, the kitchen). The other was, inexplicably, clinging to the ceiling outside the bathroom.

I know these bugs are fairly common, but I seem to have gone years without encountering one. I spent a few silent minutes transfixed by each discovery, staring at their weirdly leaf-like bodies, and the multi-jointed antennae that tap-tap-tap out a path like a blind man's cane. It all reminded me of how many hours I spent as a kid just wandering in my suburban backyard, making my own small fun and seemingly epic discoveries.

Next week brings the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year. Like any milestone (or katydid discovery), it makes you think about where you are in life, and how things used to be so many years ago. If you tend towards the melancholic, it can be kind of a downer. But it's also a wonderful opportunity to think of the sweetness of it all.

In Jewish tradition, this sweetness is commonly celebrated with apples and honey. And so, on this occasion of a new year, I bring out a collection of elegant versions of this combination. You can find all of the recipes at NPR's Kitchen Window

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Kale, Peach, Corn and Feta Salad

My friend Emily often talks about being willing to "re-meet" someone -- to set aside earlier impressions you've formed (rightly or wrongly), and give people another chance to show you who they can be. It's a lovely concept. All too often we are boxed in by previous assumptions or rumors, which can keep us from getting to know some truly extraordinary people. Or, in this case, salads. 

In general, I don't think of myself as a terribly fussy eater. I mean, sure, I want my food to be good, and made of actual food and all that. But my prohibitions are fairly minimal: I hate hate hate bananas. I'm not too keen on cooked bell peppers, after their over-use in the college food service vegetarian menu. And I don't like to mix my sweet and my savory.

Or, rather, I thought I didn't. As it turns out, sweet and savory can combine into some truly great dishes. I'm not talking about raisin-studded green salads, or industrial catering wild-rice-with-dried-cranberry pilafs (which might have been how I came up with this aversion in the first place). I'm talking about a salad of drippy-sweet peaches, oh-so-green kale, sunny fresh corn and creamy feta.

I saw this recipe about a month ago on one of my favorite blogs, and pulled it out a few night's ago when I needed a dish to bring with me as I went to watch the local chimney swift migration with a few friends (What? Isn't that what you do on a summer evening?). I figured that even if I didn't like the combination, our potluck picnic would take care of any leftovers. But oh man did I love this. This salad was the perfect bit of Oregon bounty to accompany the natural beauty. The peaches are sweet and juicy, as is the corn (in a different way), but the deeply vegetal kale and briny feta tie it all together. And also, well, it's just so pretty (using the purple-veined Red Russian kale doesn't hurt in that department). This salad is not the sweet-versus-savory fight I always fear -- it's the very best of summer, from the trees and from the fields, coming together in beautiful harmony. I can't wait to find out what's going to surprise me next.

Kale, Peach, Corn and Feta Salad

from Last Night's Dinner, as inspired by a salad at Diner
serves ~6 (great accompanying a light pasta dish, as we enjoyed it, or just a crusty loaf of bread)

1/4 cup olive oil
juice of 1 lime
2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
dollop honey
salt and pepper
1/2 small red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 bunch kale (I like Red Russian), washed and torn into small pieces
1/2 bunch cilantro, washed and coarsely chopped
2 ears of corn, cut off the cob
3 peaches, cut into slim wedges
1/4 cup feta (preferably a moist, mild feta, like French or Israeli), crumbled

In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, sherry vinegar, honey, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the onion, and let sit for a few minutes to mellow. Add the kale and cilantro, and mix well to coat with the dressing (I like to sandwich two aluminum bowls together, and shake shake shake until it's coated). Let the mixture sit for an hour for the kale to absorb the dressing and soften. Then scatter the corn, peaches and feta over the top and devour.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sweet Corn and Blackberry Popsicles

People often look back on the food of their youth with nostalgia, wondering why things just never taste as sweet in adulthood. While I have my fair share of misty culinary memories (many of them involving pressing cinnamon candies into sugar cookie dough to yield vampiric-eyed barn animals), I must say that many things taste better these days. Like corn.

When I was growing up, corn was prepared one way: boiled. For a long, long time. After this prolonged bath it was wrinkled, starchy, and didn't taste like much of anything (beyond the generous amount of butter and salt it was topped with, so naturally I still loved it). It wasn't until years later that I realized how good fresh corn could be. Or maybe corn just got better? I hear they've made some progress with the whole keeping-sugars-from-converting-to-starch-within-seconds thing. Regardless: fresh corn, when cooked lightly (or not at all), is a thing of beauty. It's sunny, light, and fresh-smelling, and nearly pops in your mouth with milky sweetness.

These days I can't get enough of fresh corn. I've baked it up into tomato pies, and shaved it into a raw salad with arugula, radishes, feta and mint (which I sadly forgot to photograph before inhaling). Both were lovely. But these popsicles might be my favorite. They were born somewhat by accident: I needed a cup of half-and-half for a recipe, and the quart was on sale for the same price as a half-pint, which meant that my thrifty self couldn't not buy it. The sweet corn at the farmer's market was calling out, and the blackberries in front of our house had turned dark and sweet. And thus, creamy sweet corn and blackberry popsicles. And I daresay they're perfect.

The corn, barely cooked and infused into half-and-half, is total summer sunshine. Its sugars, which are normally just a background note, come straight to the forefront, yielding a corny-sweet riff on a standard summer confection. The melty popsicles are thick and smooth, the blended milky corn lending a richness that you usually get from an eggy custard. And to keep the buttery sweetness of the corn from becoming overwhelming, it's studded with a tart mash of barely-sweetened blackberries. While many people will be firing up the barbecue to enjoy their corn this Labor Day, I lobby for the popsicle instead.

Sweet Corn and Blackberry Popsicles

yields ~ 4-5 standard (3 ounce) popsicles

2 ears sweet corn
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/3 cup sugar, plus additional for the blackberries
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
heaping 1/2 cup blackberries

Cut the kernals off of the cob, and place in a saucepan. Hack the cobs up in a few pieces, and add them as well, along with the half-and-half, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer for a minute or so, until the corn softens and turns a darker yellow. Turn off the heat, add the vanilla, and let the mixture steep for an hour, transferring to the refrigerator as it cools (you want to wait a minimum of an hour to let the mixture infuse, but you can shelve it in the fridge for longer if needed).

While the corn mixture is steeping and cooling, rinse the blackberries and mash them with a fork or potato masher. Sweeten to taste with a spoonful or two of sugar -- the corn mixture will be sweet as well, so you want the blackberries to be a bit tart for contrast.

After the corn mixture has steeped, fish out the cobs and discard. Puree the remaining mixture in a blender, then strain through a fine sieve (you may have to clear the strainer a few times to get rid of the corn solids). Place the corn mixture in a container with a spout, and pour an inch of it in the bottom of your popsicle molds. Top with a spoonful of the sweetened blackberry puree, then repeat the process until the molds are filled (leaving enough headspace for them to expand). If you have the kind of molds with stick handles attached, simply freeze until solid. Otherwise let freeze half an hour, insert popsicle sticks into the semi-frozen mixture, and freeze completely.