asparagus and arugula salad with cannellini beans and balsamic vinegar

The combination of my upcoming beach trip and Tuesdays With Dorie has prompted a series of main dish salads for dinner. I’m surprising myself by how much I’m enjoying it. I was especially surprised by this salad, which I expected to be edible but not special. I’m so glad I chose the recipe even though I wasn’t excited about it, because it was so good that now I’m waiting for an opportunity to make it again.

The salad is composed of two rather distinct parts. The base is a bed of arugula, dressed with a very simple balsamic vinaigrette. This is topped with a mixture of red onions that have been browned, asparagus that is sautéed just until tender, and cannellini beans, all of which is dressed with the same vinaigrette. It’s an unusual but delicious combination.

I did drastically reduce the arugula. The recipe calls for 14 ounces (although I’m unsure if this is before or after it’s stemmed), but even one whole 5-ounce bag of pre-washed arugula seemed like a lot. Five ounces ended up being the perfect amount. That’s the only change I made, and I even used a cheapo balsamic vinegar, with no noticeable adverse affects on the salad.

Last time I made salad, I flaked out on the meal-planning and made bread to go with it, even though croutons are a primary feature of Caesar salads. This time, I didn’t serve anything else with the salad and realized half-way through eating it that there was no carbs involved anywhere. Next time I swear I’ll get it right.

Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Cannellini Beans and Balsamic Vinegar (from Cooks Illustrated May 2003)

Serves 4 to 6 as a first course or 2 to 3 as a main dish

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ medium red onion, sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 1 cup)
1 pound asparagus, trimmed of tough ends and cut on diagonal into 1-inch pieces)
Table salt and ground black pepper
1 can (15 ounces) cannellini beans, rinsed and drained (about 1½ cups)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus 2 teaspoons
14 ounces arugula (1 large bunch), washed, dried, and stemmed (about 6 cups lightly packed)

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until beginning to smoke; stir in onion and cook until beginning to brown, about 1 minute. Add asparagus, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper; cook until asparagus is browned and tender-crisp, about 4 minutes, stirring once every minute. Off heat, stir in beans; transfer to large plate and cool 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, whisk remaining 3 tablespoons oil, vinegar, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in medium bowl until combined. In large bowl, toss arugula with 2 tablespoons dressing and divide among salad plates. Toss asparagus mixture with remaining dressing, place a portion over arugula, and serve.

caesar salad

I almost never make salads. Not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t like them as a side dish. To me, salad doesn’t coordinate well with other dinner items. I do like when it’s served before a meal, or as a meal.

I went the route of serving Caesar salad as a meal the day that I made the peanut butter torte. I figured that if I was going to eat peanut butter and cream cheese and oreos and chocolate and whipped cream for dessert, something was going to have to give.

In one of Alton Brown’s first Good Eats episodes (um, before the show was very good), he discussed the original Caesar salad recipe, which was built tableside at a restaurant by chef Cesar Cardini. The recipe starts with a thin coating of oil on the lettuce, then salt, pepper, more oil, lemon juice, and a coddled egg. I’m not all about this method. I like to at least attempt to emulsify my salad dressing ingredients, and I also think that putting oil directly on the leaves keeps the other ingredients from flavoring the lettuce. Instead, I whisked the dressing ingredients thoroughly, then dressed the leaves with the mixture.

The only ingredient in this recipe that struck me as unusual was the coddled egg. Coddled eggs are cooked in boiling water for about one minute, so, yeah, they’re still mostly raw. I didn’t tell Dave about the raw-ish egg in the salad, and I tried not to think about it myself. I’m not worried about salmonella, I’m just grossed out by eating raw egg white. But I really don’t think the salad would have been as good without it. The egg gives the dressing not only smoothness and body, but a pleasant rich, but not overwhelmingly eggy, flavor.

Alton’s croutons are really exceptional. I had my doubts that grinding the garlic into the oil and then straining the oil to toast the bread in would add enough garlic flavor, but they were extremely garlicky and delicious.

Because I’m a flake, and I forgot while planning this meal that one of the key parts of Caesar salad is the croutons, I made Deb’s pizza bianca to go with the salad. I used my pizza dough recipe instead of the one she gives (although they’re very similar) and followed the directions in the recipe for forming the dough. (Keep in mind that Deb rolled her dough out much thinner.) Also, because Peter Reinhart’s constant reminders that a slow rise is better for artisan breads has stuck with me, I made the dough the day before (with less yeast) and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight. The next day I took it out and let it come to room temperature, then shaped it and put it back in the fridge until I wanted to bake it. It was very good. The only thing I’ll change next time is to use less olive oil on the top, because “Oh my god, there’s a fire in the oven!” aren’t words Dave likes to hear from me when I’m cooking.

Hail Caesar Salad (from Alton Brown’s Good Eats)

Bridget note: I made a few changes to the recipe. I dried the bread as slices instead of cut up into bite-size pieces, because they were easier to cut once they were dried. I didn’t use kosher salt. I found 2 cups of water to be far too little to be able to cover the eggs. I probably used a bit more Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese.

1 loaf day old Italian bread
3 garlic cloves, mashed
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon plus 1 pinch kosher salt
2 eggs
2 heads romaine lettuce, inner leaves only
7 grinds black pepper
1 lemon, juiced
6 drops Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut ½ to ¾-inch croutons from the loaf of bread and place on a baking sheet and put into the oven until dry but not browned.

Use a mortar and pestle to mash the garlic with 4 tablespoons of oil and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Strain the oil into a skillet over medium heat. Add the dried croutons and fry, tossing constantly until all of the oil is absorbed and the croutons turn gold. Set aside.

Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the eggs and cook for 1 minute. Chill in ice water to halt cooking. Set aside.

In a very large bowl, tear lettuce and toss with 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with the remaining kosher salt and the black pepper. Add the remaining olive oil. Toss well. Add the lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. Break in the eggs. Toss until a creamy dressing forms. Toss in Parmesan cheese and serve with croutons.

creamy buttermilk coleslaw

It seems that creamy coleslaw has fallen out of favor. I think that if you only like vinegar-based coleslaw, then you’re eating the wrong creamy coleslaws. I didn’t like it before this recipe either. It was always too sweet or too watery or too heavy or too mushy. This recipe is none of that.

One key technique in this recipe is salting the cabbage and letting it set for an hour or so before mixing it with the dressing ingredients. The salt sucks water out of the cabbage so there’s less water to leach into the dressing. The cabbage has to be rinsed after being salted, which seems counterintuitive, but it’s easy to dry off the moisture outside of the cabbage shreds – there’s still less water in the cabbage, which is what will keep you from making a watery slaw.

Large shreds of cabbage keep this looking and feeling like a salad while eliminating any worries of mushiness. For those who think that creamy coleslaws tend to be too heavy, look at the ingredient list below – two thirds of the dressing base is low-fat buttermilk, with just a bit of mayonnaise and sour cream added for body and complexity of flavor.

I never liked creamy coleslaw growing up, and I still don’t usually like it at restaurants. But this recipe, with its creamy but not rich dressing, slight sweetness from the carrots and just half teaspoon of sugar, slight bite from the shallot, and overall balance of flavors is worth trying.

Especially if it’s an opportunity to use a fancy schmany monkey vegetable peeler. How cute is this guy? A friend got it for me, because, one could say, I have a bit of a thing for monkeys. (Or at least one.) And even better – it’s sharp. I love it.

Creamy Buttermilk Coleslaw (from Cooks Illustrated July 2002)

Serves 4

CI note: If you are planning to serve the coleslaw immediately, rinse the salted cabbage in a large bowl of ice water, drain it in a colander, pick out any ice cubes, then pat the cabbage dry before dressing.

Bridget note: The recipe says to salt the cabbage for 1-4 hours, but I’ve had better results when I err on the long side of that range.

1 pound cabbage (about ½ medium head), red or green, shredded fine (6 cups)
table salt
1 medium carrot, shredded on box grater
½ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 small shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
½ teaspoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Toss shredded cabbage and 1 teaspoon salt in colander or large mesh strainer set over medium bowl. Let stand until cabbage wilts, at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours. Rinse cabbage under cold running water. Press, but do not squeeze, to drain; pat dry with paper towels. Place wilted cabbage and carrot in large bowl.

2. Stir buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, shallot, parsley, vinegar, sugar, mustard, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper together in small bowl. Pour dressing over cabbage and toss to combine; refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes. (Coleslaw can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)