Arugula Lentil Salad

I’m still in rapture over this salad I made last weekend. It was one of those salads that simply happen out of nowhere — nay, out of sheer luck. I was in the mood for greens so I bought a bag of arugula and got some Roma tomatoes just for the heck of it. When I got home I remembered the package of cooked lentils in the fridge so that went in the mix.  Then I saw the leftover white corn that I steamed a few days earlier. “Oh I’ll slice them up and toss them in too,” I thought. Then I saw one last lemon and figured it would make a nice dressing. I squeezed some lemon juice and whisked it with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Whisk whisk whisk and voila! One of my favorite salad dressings (recipe to come below) for this impromptu salad. I tossed everything together in a big bowl and wondered if it would turn out okay.

I could not believe how good it was. It was just what the doctor ordered. Something fresh, something spicy (arugula is so very peppery), something light. The lentils and chopped bacon add that protein factor so it feels more like a meal than a side dish.

I don’t make a big deal out of the salads I whip up, usually because they’re just greens dressed with a light vinaigrette. This time, I’m putting it in the books. Please try this recipe. I think you’ll like it.

Arugula Lentil Salad

One big handful of arugula
1 tomato
1/4 cup of cooked lentils
1 corn on the cob (white or yellow)
Chopped bacon or salami
Grated Parmesan cheese

Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Whisk lemon juice and olive oil in equal parts until it thickens. Add S&P to taste. Only use about 3 to 5 tablespoons of the dressing, depending on how heavily dressed you like your salad. Reserve the rest for later.

Run a knife down the corn cob to get the kernels. Add this to the arugula, chopped tomato, lentils, grated parm, and chopped bacon or salami. Toss with a big spoon until the salad is fully dressed. Enjoy!

Sizzling bacon

Use What You Have: Spaghetti with kale

A great ingredient-user-upper is pasta. Just because you don’t have a sauce doesn’t mean you can’t make fantastic pasta. In this case I used cheese, olive oil, and a bit of pasta water to bind it all together.

What I had:
Spaghetti, kale, bacon, white cheddar, olive oil, butter, garlic, pepper.

What I bought:

It’s vastly satisfying to use everything to the last drop, the last crumb, the last slice. Nothing goes to waste. And if you haven’t noticed already, groceries are expensive. You could easily drop fifty bucks on a single grocery outing for quality ingredients like organic produce…meat…spices…parm reggiano. But it’s all about value. What you buy can go a long way. In this economy (and my budget), every cent counts. So here we go. Spaghetti with kale!

Assemble your mise.

A note about mise en place:
In French, it means to put everything in place. This is another good practice to follow. Setting up all your ingredients before you begin cooking will make everything so much easier, I promise you that. If you don’t set things up beforehand, there’s a greater chance for mess-ups. Things will burn. Water will boil over. Anxiety will mount. All because you’re in a mad dash to grab things in the process of cooking, so you spend less time paying attention to the food at hand.

Drop pasta in boiling salted water. Meanwhile, saute the bacon in olive oil until crisp. Add chopped garlic and pepper and a little bit of salt. Be careful not to burn the garlic — it cooks very quickly in hot oil. Add your chopped kale and fry for about two minutes or until it becomes tender.

Add the cooked pasta to the greens and toss around. At this point add about a tablespoon of butter. Then add small amounts of the pasta water — the starch from the water will thicken the pasta. At the very end, add the grated cheese. Toss quickly and serve right away. Bon appetit!

Use What You Have: Cauliflower gratin

Dreamy. That is the word to describe what I have just made. Utterly dreamy.

Gratin is commonly made with potatoes but I was inspired to use cauliflower, per Ina Garten’s recipe here. It just so happens this dish is a good example of a new topic I’d like to explore in my blog. It’s what I’ll call the “use what you have” series.

Sometimes, successful cooking moments happen by chance. The star align, and you suddenly have all the right ingredients to make the perfect dish. I keep a fairly minimal refrigerator yet I am amazed by the sort of dishes I’m able to conjure out of what seems to be well, nothing. That is one of the finest experiences in cooking — making something out of what is seemingly not very much (wow…that’s deep huh?).

Some of the best dishes I’ve made are from leftover ingredients. All you need is a little imagination but even more so…you gotta ditch that lazy attitude. Cooking is 50 percent skill/experience — the other half is pure motivation and a desire to eat well.

So back to the cauliflower gratin. In this case, I had leftover béchamel sauce that I used for a lasagna, which by the way, I devoured in two days. I also had a quarter of an onion, a stack of crisp bacon, and a nice, mild white cheddar. To summarize:

What I had:
Béchamel, butter, white cheddar, onion, cooked bacon, pepper, salt.

What I bought:
One head of cauliflower

Now of course, this doesn’t mean you also have the ingredients I happened to have, but it is to demonstrate how you could easily whip something up. Ina Garten’s recipe is linked above. Here is my modified version:

Béchamel sauce
1 pat of butter, melted
Onion, chopped
Grated white cheddar (or your favorite white cheese)
Bacon, chopped

Chop the cauliflower in small pieces and blanch in boiling hot, slightly salted water. Cook until it first becomes tender; do not overcook. Drain and set aside. Pour melted butter on a baking dish. Add the cauliflower on top. Spread béchamel on top. Sprinkle bacon on top. Add grated cheese over it all. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, OR until a nice brown crust forms on top.

A note about béchamel:
Béchamel is a white sauce thickened with a roux. Recipes vary but in general, you cook a roux (2 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons flour) until it browns slightly. Once this happens, slowly pour 2 cups hot milk in increments as you whisk away. Within seconds you have a beautiful, smooth sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. A dash of ground nutmeg is optional.

Comfort food could very well be anything that is browned and crisp on the outside, soft and mellow in the inside. MMmmM! This will make the perfect side dish to your steak, or with your breakfast eggs, or simply eaten STRAIGHT UP, as I did. I hope you enjoy it. Stay tuned for my next post on using what you have.

An Evening of Chicken Thighs

Tonight has been an evening of chicken and might I say, it was wonderful.

Earlier today, I bought a six-pound package of chicken thighs at Vons for 97 cents per pound. That is a freaking deal, folks. Still, when I got to the market, I didn’t expect to have to buy over five pounds of it to get the deal. Such is usually the case. I decided it will have to be an investment. As I lugged back this enormous package of chicken, I decided to cook two things with it: A simple perfect-for-a-rainy-day chicken soup and another dish that I don’t have a name for, except that it’s cooked in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.

But first…I had to confront the chicken.

This was not the first time I’ve cringed while preparing raw chicken. As I peeled open the plastic cover, I had to take a deep breath and gather some courage. Some of you may already know about my deep aversion to birds. Handling their flesh kinda gets me going. I’m not going to lie, I let out a little scream a few times as I washed the thighs and trimmed away the fat. The worst part was trying to slice off a grisly piece of skin that had little prickles from what I’m guessing were traces of its feathers. FEATHERS! UGH!

Anyhow, I got through the ordeal okay. So. Half of the thighs went into a ziplock baggie and right into the freezer, while the other half got dried and ready for the pot and pan.

The first dish I made is something I learned from my dad. It may not sound very appetizing, it being simmered in a can of condensed soup, but it really is very delicious. Here’s the recipe:

Chicken cooked in Cream of Mushroom

3-5 chicken thighs, breasts or drumsticks
One can of Cream of Mushroom soup
2 carrots
1 onion
4 stalks of celery
Olive oil
Chopped garlic
Black pepper
White wine (optional)

Sear the thighs skin-side-down (or skinless, if you prefer) on hot olive oil on both sides. Once browned, remove from pan. Drain off any excess fat. Add chopped vegetables in hot grease and saute until they become soft. If you have any white wine, de-glaze the brown bits with it. Add pepper and garlic.

Pour the canned soup into the vegetables. The salt from the soup will release water from the vegetables. Add a little bit of water if you want the sauce to be thinner.

Add the chicken pieces back into the vegetables and sauce, and simmer until done — about 20 minutes.

That was the chicken dish but what I truly yearned for was chicken soup.

A recent visit to Whole Foods introduced me to their chicken rice soup, which, might I add, was one of the best chicken soups I have eaten in a long while. It was so simple and fresh, with pieces of yellow squash and peas and other wonderful things. I like soups like that — the easy, straightforward kind. This recipe mimics it.

Here’s what I did. I previously thought you’d have to boil a whole chicken to get the right result but tonight’s outcome proves otherwise. I just boiled three skinless thighs in water for about two hours or so. Add salt and pepper corns (or just pepper), one clove of smashed garlic, two stalks of celery and a sprig of parsley. I also added a slice of ginger for extra zing. Taste the broth after a couple hours and season to taste. Later, add chopped carrots, celery, onion, peas, squash, or any of your favorite vegetables. Cook longer. Once it’s cooled a bit, I like to put it in the fridge and skim the fat the next day. Remove the chicken and cut into pieces as big or small as you like. Add back to the soup.

So, it isn’t exactly the prettiest dish to be found, but soups aren’t supposed to be pretty right? At least not the ones I like: hearty and rustic!

Bok Choy Kimchi

Kimchee, the perennial dish of Korea, is not difficult to make. This recipe is evidence that anybody — even I — could make kimchee. Bok choy kimchee in particular is a very simple affair.

4-5 bunches of baby bok choy
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons red chili powder (give or take a few)
1 teaspoon sesame seed oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground sesame seeds (a.k.a sesame salt)
1 chopped scallion

That’s it! These are the only ingredients you’ll need. Truly.

First, wash your bok choy thoroughly. I like to give it a rinse three to four times.

Separate each leaf from the bottom stalk part. As you peel away the leaves, you will reach the heart of the bok choy, which looks like the baby of the baby bok choy — this is my favorite part of bok choy. I try not to peel beyond this part because the heart is oh-so-tasty and tender. “Love me tender, love me sweet!”

Shake out as much water as you can from the pile of washed choy. With each layer of bok choy, sprinkle a thin smattering of kosher salt, or any salt that is not iodized. I used sea salt from Costco.

Cover and let the salt lightly pickle the bok choy for a few hours. This batch pickled for about eight hours. You know it’s ready when the greens have wilted and shrunken in size. When it’s ready, squeeze out all the water from the bok choy. The salt will extract some of the bok choy’s juices.

Once squeezed, add your spices and sesame seed oil. Add your chopped scallions, which I actually forgot to do — haha oops! Using your hands, toss the whole thing together. And voila. Bok choy kimchee. Over time it will ferment and become sour like a proper pickled dish should. The best stage, in my opinion, is during the first two days when the choy is still crisp and sweet.