crab towers with gazpacho and avocado salsas

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I once made twenty of these in one night. I also made twenty tiny caramelized onion gruyere tarts, six baguettes, three types of sorbet, and smoked popcorn with bacon. (Not totally true: The baguettes and sorbet were made in advance, just served that night. Thank god.) My friend made Thai chicken slaw, twenty tiny shepherd’s pies, braised venison over mashed potatoes, and chocolate pudding cake. Each dish had its own wine paired with it. It was an epic party. (And the next day was an epic hangover.)

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It was, as you can probably imagine, a lot of work. Building twenty tiny stacks of three different mixtures actually went pretty fast; no, the truly tedious part is creating teeny tiny squares of vegetables. But making your food into confetti is so pretty, sometimes it’s worth it.

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And it isn’t all about looks. It’s about combining my favorite foods into one elegant salad – avocadoes and crab and gazpacho, neatly layered and colorful. And if you aren’t making twenty of them, as well as twenty each of several other small dishes, the mincing isn’t too bad.  You might not have an epic party in that case, but you’ll still have a dish worthy of one.

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Crab Towers with Avocado and Gazpacho Salsas (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Restaurant Favorites at Home)

Even when I’m making these for just a few people at home, I use Dixie cups with the bottoms cut off for the molds. You can make the gazpacho salsa a day in advance.

Makes 8

Gazpacho salsa:
1 cup grape tomatoes, minced
½ yellow pepper, minced
1 Persian or ½ regular cucumber, minced
1 small shallot, minced
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch black pepper
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil

Crab salad:
1 pound crabmeat, shredded
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Avocado salsa:
2 large avocados, peeled, pitted, minced
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, shallot, salt, pepper, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. In a separate medium bowl, combine the crab, vinegar, and mayonnaise. In a small bowl, combine the avocado, salt, and lemon juice, mashing very lightly so the mixture holds together.

2. Divide the avocado mixture between eight 2-inch molds. Divide the crab salad between the molds on top of the avocados, pressing lightly again. Top with the gazpacho salsa. Serve immediately.

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bacon ranch salad with salmon

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We had this salad the first time with just greens, salmon, avocado, cucumber, and ranch, and I loved it. But I asked Dave, ‘you know what would make this salad even better?’ ‘Bacon’, he said.

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Yup. Bacon is a classic in salads, with ranch dressing, with avocados, with tomatoes – with just about every ingredient in this salad. I was so eager to try this salad again, this time with that one extra ingredient, that I decided to make it for lunch on a Sunday afternoon, right before I had to leave for a trip for work.

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After packing and practicing my presentation for the conference, I had some regrets about planning a real meal before I needed to leave. It was absolutely worth it though. The salad was just as good with the bacon as I was hoping, by which I mean it was even better than the original – not an easy feat.

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Bacon Ranch Salad with Pan-Seared Salmon (inspired by Handle the Heat via The Barbee Housewife)

Serves 4

Okay, so the salad in the pictures doesn’t have bacon; it’s the original version. I was lucky to make a decent meal before heading out of town, much less take pictures of it!

Dressing:
⅔ cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon mustard
¼ cup chives, minced

2 romaine hearts, cored and diced
2-4 slices thick-cut bacon, cooked and chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1-2 avocados, diced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 (5-ounce) fillets salmon, seasoned

1. For the dressing: Mix everything.

2. Heat a not-nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, spreading it evenly with a spatula, then the salmon, skin-side down. Cook, without moving, for 4 minutes. Flip the fillets and continue to cook for 3 more minutes. Transfer the salmon to a clean plate and let rest for 1 minute.

3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix the romaine, bacon, tomatoes, cucumber, avocados, and dressing. Top with the salmon and serve immediately.

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brussels sprouts and kale salad with pecorino and almonds

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I never would have served my dad kale six months ago. For his whole life, he’s been a classic meat and potatoes guy, heavy on the meat. He’d put vegetables on his plate every night, and he’d always eat them – all two forkfuls that he’d served himself.

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He made a sudden switch last fall in an attempt to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure. (It worked, by the way.)  However, he didn’t just start eating more vegetables and less meat. He didn’t become a pescatarian, or even a vegetarian. No, he went all the way from meat and potatoes to vegan – vegan with no fat, not even from avocados.

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He’s loosened up the rules quite a bit since then, although I get the idea that rice and beans still play a big role in his diet. So when my parents visited, I took a chance and served my new favorite salad, almost a slaw of thinly sliced Brussels sprouts and Tuscan kale. It’s bright from lemon juice, but the pecorino provides a bit of richness. I love the crunch of the almonds. It’s a strange world, although not a bad one, where I am comfortable feeding my dad kale but not the Italian sausage dish that was the main course of this meal.

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Brussels Sprouts Kale Salad with Pecorino (adapted from Bon Appétit via epicurious)

6 to 8 servings

Slicing the Brussels Sprouts isn’t as tedious as it sounds; it’ll probably take you ten minutes. However, the slicing blade on a food processor should do the trick too.

1 teaspoon plus ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
½ cup slivered almonds, coarsely chopped
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 small shallot, minced
1 small garlic clove, finely grated
¼ teaspoon kosher salt plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
16 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved and sliced thin
2 bunches Tuscan kale (about 8 ounces total), center stem discarded, leaves thinly sliced
1 cup (2 ounces) finely grated Pecorino

1. In a small skillet over medium heat, heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil. Add the almonds and toast, stirring constantly, until browned and fragrant, 2-4 minutes. Transfer the almonds to a plate; set aside.

2. In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, mustard, shallots, garlic, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the remaining olive oil.

3. Combine the Brussels sprouts, kale, dressing, almonds, and pecorino. Serve immediately or cover and chill for up to 8 hours.

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korean pork medallions with asian slaw

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Can you believe we actually ate this in the middle of December? What were we thinking?! We could have been eating roast beef! mashed potatoes! macaroni and cheese! ‘Tis the season (well, ’twas the season) for rich and delicious food!

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This vegetably starchless meal is clearly made for January. It’s actually exactly what I’m craving. Even though I don’t think I’m eating significantly more healthfully lately than I normally do, I’m more bored with healthy foods right now. Maybe it’s an instinctual reaction to winter, although considering that it was almost 70 degrees here last weekend, probably not.

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This meal, although pretty healthy, is also sweet and salty and meaty and therefore comforting. It definitely doesn’t make you feel like you’re choking down health food to make up for December’s transgressions. Sure, there’s a salad involved, but it’s topped with deeply browned meat. It really is a great meal any time of year.

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Spicy Korean Pork Medallions with Asian Slaw (hardly adapted from Fine Cooking)

Serves 4 to 6

1 large or 2 small pork tenderloins (about 1¼ pounds)
⅓ cup soy sauce
¼ cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sriracha
1 pound napa cabbage, thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
2 medium carrots, grated (about 1 cup)
4 scallions (both white and green parts), trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
kosher salt

1. Trim the pork of any silverskin and excess fat, and cut on the diagonal into ½-inch-thick medallions.

2. In a small measuring cup, whisk together the soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of the rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar, the garlic, ginger, ½ tablespoon of the sesame oil, and 2 teaspoons of the chile sauce. Toss ½ cup of this mixture with the pork medallions in a large bowl; reserve the remaining mixture to use as a sauce. Let the pork sit at room temperature for 25 minutes or refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

3. Meanwhile, in another large bowl, toss the cabbage and the carrot with half of the scallions, 1 teaspoon salt, and the remaining 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, ½ tablespoon sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon chile sauce. Let sit for 15 minutes, toss again, and transfer to a large serving platter.

4. Heat 1 tablespoon of the canola oil in a 12-inch, heavy-based skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering hot. Remove the pork from the marinade, shaking off the excess, and transfer the pork to a clean plate. Discard the marinade. Add half of the pork medallions to the skillet, spacing them evenly. Cook them without touching until well browned, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until the pork is just cooked through (slice into a piece to check), about 2 more minutes. Set the pork on top of the slaw. Pour out the oil and wipe the pan with paper towels (if the drippings on the bottom of the pan look like they may burn, wash the pan). Return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon canola oil, and cook the remaining medallions in the same manner. Top the slaw with the remaining pork, and pour the reserved soy-ginger sauce over the medallions. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the remaining scallions.

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grilled potato salad with watercress

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Dave’s birthday, 2 weeks after Christmas, is at a sort of inconvenient time of year. My dad’s is January 2nd, and even that is better – in my family, the holidays are just one day longer than they are for everyone else. But a week later, you’ve had all the cookies and wine and cheese (or whatever your splurges happen to be) you want, but you haven’t had more than a few days to detox from the decadence. And yet, it’s time for banana cream pie.

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I got Dave a cute little cast iron saucepan for the grill, so I had to plan a meal that would allow him to use it. He also got a new grill for Christmas, so I specifically planned a meal that would use both of our grills – barbecue pork ribs, grilled potato salad, grilled broccoli. And then the weather sucked, although we pushed through and grilled the ribs and potatoes still, but I roasted the broccoli.

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It wasn’t the most indulgent meal ever, but extra vegetables are always welcome this time of year, so I chose the potato salad that actually looked like a salad. It’s not a traditional potato salad coated in mayonnaise, but I didn’t feel like we lost out for the healthier option. This was crisp and fresh, healthy enough for January, but still with satisfying browned potatoes and creamy cheese. It was just light enough to justify a big piece of banana cream pie for dessert.

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Grilled Potato Salad with Watercress (from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I’ve reduced both the potatoes (because I was trying to be healthier) and the blue cheese (because it can be too intense) from the original recipe, but I’m sure the original amounts are great too.

¼ cup sherry wine vinegar
1 large shallot, chopped
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ cup olive oil, plus more for grilling potatoes
6 medium red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled (about 1½ pounds)
2 bunches watercress, stems trimmed
3 green onions, chopped
¼-½ cup crumbled blue cheese

1. Combine vinegar, shallot, and mustard in medium bowl. Gradually whisk in ½ cup oil. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Cook potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until almost tender, about 16 minutes. Drain; cool completely. Cut potatoes into ¼- to ½-inch-thick rounds. Brush or spray rounds on both sides with oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3. Prepare grill for medium-high heat. Grill potatoes until golden and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Dice the potatoes into ½-inch cubes.

4. In a large serving bowl, mix the watercress, scallions, and most of the vinaigrette. Add the potatoes and the remaining dressing, and gently mix to coat. Top with the blue cheese; serve immediately.

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kale salad with currants, pine nuts, and parmesan

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So, it turns out that I really like kale. It isn’t at all something I eat just because it’s dark green and probably really good for me. I like the flavor, earthy and vegetal together. I like the texture, how cooked kale is still chewy, unlike spinach which almost immediately turns to mush, and how raw kale doesn’t get soggy. And I like the convenience – it stays fresh for a while in the fridge and you can make salads with it days ahead of time, and they get better instead of worse.

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I made this for a pizza party I hosted. The party started right after work, plus I had to deal with the pizza dough, so making salad right beforehand wasn’t an option. I took a risk and served kale; I wasn’t sure how it would go over, but I assumed there were enough friendly flavors in this salad to please most palates.

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The salad might not have been as popular as the Nutella banana pizza or mascarpone-stuffed strawberries, but people seemed to like it.  There were leftovers, but that was okay, because even several days after I’d made the salad, it was still crisp and delicious. Plus it meant more kale for me – and I really like kale.

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Kale Salad with Pine Nuts, Currants, and Parmesan (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons dried currants
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 bunches Tuscan (lacinato) kale (about 1 pound), center ribs and stems removed, leaves thinly sliced crosswise
2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted
Parmesan cheese shavings

1. Place the vinegar and currants in a small pot; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then remove from the heat. Let soak 15-30 minutes, while you prepare the other ingredients; drain, reserving vinegar.

2. Whisk vinegar leftover from soaking the currants, the rice vinegar, honey, oil, and salt in large bowl. Add the kale, currants, and pine nuts; toss to coat. Let marinate 20 minutes at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate overnight. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle cheese shavings over salad and serve.

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antipasti salad

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It took me a few tries to get the office potluck right. In the meantime, I learned that goat cheese is a bad idea; the old cowboys think it sounds gross and won’t try it. Dips and spreads don’t work well because you have to dish both the spread and the item to be spread onto and guess at the ratio. Grabbable snacks are fine, but not necessary, because people aren’t hovering and grazing; they just fill a plate and find a seat at the crowded table in the conference room.

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Food in crockpots is always popular, but anything that requires a bowl is too much work for people; you need one hand for your plate and the other to scoop more food onto that plate, so a bowl overloads you. That still leaves a lot of good food though – meatballs, beans, pastas. I considered bringing macaroni and cheese in the crockpot, but after a look at the potluck’s sign-up sheet, decided that more carbs was probably unnecessary.

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So then I started thinking that something more on the healthier side would be nice. A green salad doesn’t work though; I’m okay with my foods touching, but not grape jelly-chile meatball sauce and lettuce. Instead, I combined all of my favorite antipasti ingredients into one bowl, mixed it up, and let it sit overnight. In that time, the brine from the olives, seasoning in the salami, and herbs in the artichoke marinade seeped into the chickpeas and milky mozzarella.

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I couldn’t stop eating it when I made it. At the potluck, it didn’t get overshadowed by tasty choices like chile relleno casserole, green chile corn pudding, and green chile stew (green chile is how we do potlucks in New Mexico).  I don’t know if the picky old cowboys tried it, but several other people gave me compliments. My favorite was the leftovers though – I didn’t have to share and there were no distractions from the salad itself.

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Antipasti Salad

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 (6.27 ounce) jars marinated quartered artichoke hearts, preferably grilled, drained but not rinsed
1 cup kalamata olives, halved
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed
4 ounces sliced salami or mini pepperoni
½ small red onion, sliced thin
2 ounces parmesan, diced small
¼ cup minced parsley
¼ cup pepperoncini, sliced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet; place the garlic on the baking sheet. Bake until the tomatoes are slightly shriveled and the garlic is soft, about 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large serving bowl, mix the tomatoes and all of the remaining ingredients. Squeeze the garlic into the mixture; stir. Marinate at least 1 hour or cover and refrigerate for up to three days. Serve at room temperature.

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salad with pancetta, peperoncini, and parmesan

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My favorite way to spend a Saturday night is cooking. It’s the only night of the week I feel like dinner can be a project; I’m busy being busy on weeknights, and I’m busy being lazy Friday and Sunday. So when I finally get the chance to cook a lot of food, I have a habit of cooking too much food.

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One strategy I use to eat as much as possible without stuffing myself silly is to eat in courses, with time between each to allow for some digestion. Another is to serve food that’s fairly light, so I don’t get filled up by just a few bites.

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This salad has become my go-to light salad course. It doesn’t hurt that it’s easy, plus the combination of ingredients is just perfect – briny peppers, salty meat, and parmesan to make it seem hearty and filling when it really isn’t. I’ve served it to pretty much everyone who’s come over for dinner in the last few months. I’ve also served at least four other courses each time, because there’s no better way for me to spend a Saturday night.

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Salad with Pancetta, Peperoncini, and Parmesan

Serves 4 to 6

Before adding garlic to dressings, I always toast it, with the peel on, in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until the peel is black where it hits the pan.  It tames the harsh bite of raw garlic.

Dressing:
2 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Salad:
2 romaine hearts, washed and chopped
8 peperocini, stems removed, chopped fine
6 ounces pancetta, cooked and crumbled
½ cup (1 ounce) shredded parmesan

1. For the dressing: Mix everything.

2. For the salad: Mix everything; toss with dressing.

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mediterranean chopped salad

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I made this salad for the first time the very day that I posted about how I hate making salads because it always takes so dang long. (And indeed, tonight I made a salad for dinner that included no less than 16 ingredients.) This salad, however, breaks the pattern.

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It helps that the chickpeas can be dumped out of a can. Sometimes I buy pre-crumbled feta, and that’s one less ingredient that needs chopped. While I don’t love seeding and chopping olives, my handy dandy cherry pitter (that has never been used on cherries) speeds up that process.

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There are still a good handful of ingredients that must be prepped, to be sure, but it is among the quicker dinner salad recipes I make. And it’s such a great combination; chickpeas, olives, feta, and cucumbers are a classic, to be sure, but for good reason. For as good as this tastes and as quick as is to make, it’s one of the best salad values for your time. And that makes it my new favorite.

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One year ago: Cook’s Illustrated’s Ultimate Banana Bread
Two years ago: Cheesecake (comparison of 3 recipes)
Three years ago: Risotto with Swiss Chard
Four years ago: Gazpacho

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Mediterranean Chopped Salad (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 4 as a main dish

I have never added the parsley; nothing against it, I just didn’t notice it in the ingredient list. Also, I like my salads on the vinegary side, so I usually cut the olive oil short.

1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into ½-inch dice (about 1¼ cups)
1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered (about 1½ cups)
Table salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
½ cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
½ small minced red onion (about ¼ cup)
½ cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 romaine heart, cut into ½ inch pieces (about 3 cups)
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
Ground black pepper

1. Combine cucumber, tomatoes, and 1 teaspoon salt in colander set over bowl and let stand 15 minutes.

2. Whisk oil, vinegar, and garlic together in large bowl. Add drained cucumber and tomatoes, chickpeas, olives, onion, and parsley; toss and let stand at room temperature to blend flavors, 5 minutes.

3. Add romaine and feta; toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

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pepper-crusted salmon with wasabi dipping sauce

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This is one of the best new meals I’ve made recently. The salmon was perfectly browned on top but still juicy in the middle. The Old Bay and lemon were interesting matches with the wasabi and ginger, but it definitely worked. The watercress and avocado salad I served the salmon with was the perfect bright balance to the umami-rich fish and soy sauce dip. The meal had a few of my favorite sushi components, with the fish, wasabi, and avocado, but it went a different direction with the salad and Old Bay.

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It was an unusually light weekend dinner for us. Usually those tend to include a lot more carbs and red meat. It isn’t rare that they also require a serious investment of time in the kitchen, and this recipe differs from that routine as well.

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In fact, there is absolutely no reason this wouldn’t fit right in with our weekday routine of healthy and quick meals. And that’s good news, because there are more weeknights than weekends, and that means more opportunities to make this dish.

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One year ago: Dulce de Leche Cupcakes
Two years ago: Beer-Marinated Flank Steak
Three years ago: Zucchini Bread
Four years ago: Chocolate Whopper Malted Drops

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Pepper-Crusted Salmon with Wasabi-Lemon Dipping Sauce (adapted from Steven Raichlen’s Planet Barbecue! via epicurious and from Cook’s Illustrated’s Glazed Salmon recipe)

Serves 4

I served this with Avocado and Watercress Salad (without the apple), and it was absolutely perfect.

For the sauce:
1 tablespoon wasabi powder
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
juice of 1 lemon
½ cup soy sauce
1 scallion, white and green parts, minced

For the salmon:
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon cornstarch
4 (8-ounce) salmon fillets
coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a small bowl, mix the wasabi powder and water until smooth. Set aside for 10 minutes to enhance the wasabi flavors, then add the remaining sauce ingredients.

2. In a small bowl, combine the Old Bay, salt, sugar, and cornstarch. Rub into the flesh (not the skin) of the salmon. Season with a generous layer of coarsely ground black pepper, pressing the pepper into the salmon.

3. Heat the oil in a nonstick 12-inch oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Transfer the salmon to the pan, flesh-side down. Cook without moving for 1 minute, then flip and cook for another minute. Transfer the skillet to the oven; cook 8-10 minutes, or until the thickest part of the salmon reaches an internal temperature of 125 degrees. Serve immediately.

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