If Yan Could Cook. . .

Archive for the ‘Salad’ Category

Shepherd’s Moussaka, Apple-Pear Salad with Candied Walnuts

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Talking to a friend who lives in another country, I confessed that I had somewhere between six and nine people coming to dinner the next day, and no idea what to make. He said, “Why not make comfort food?”

My own comfort foods are the last remnants of a culture from which I am a generation and a world removed: a particular brand of ramen noodles, seafood rice porridge, jasmine-scented rice, chrysanthemum tea. But that’s not what he meant, he meant the potatoes-and-gravy-1950s-America ideal that I’m not sure ever existed. Our only evidence seems to be the menus at Denny’s and IHOP, where the ideal has been blown up to gargantuan, sopping proportions.

Photos by Laura D’Alessandro.

I couldn’t decide between shepherd’s pie and moussaka, so I combined my favourite parts of both. Three carrots, a small yellow onion, three gloves of garlic, all finely chopped, got cooked with an unholy mound of ground beef, mixed medium and lean. Near the end of cooking, I added plenty of 35% cooking cream and frozen corn (for a moussaka-like creaminess, rather than gravy). This mixture forms the first layer. I used one casserole dish and one 10″ rectangular cake pan.

For the second layer, I sliced a large eggplant and two medium zucchinis lengthwise. The eggplant slices were heavily salted on both sides, drawing out the bitter juices, and then thoroughly washed. These were tossed in oil and then fried in the wok, though I fantasied about grilling them; there is simply nothing better than lightly fire-charred eggplant and zucchini. I laid them across in a single layer over the beef mixture.

The top layer was mashed potatoes. Because I used the wrong kind of potatoes (I had been warned about this, but never encountered it – use white, not yellow flesh) I had to douse the chopped, boiled potatoes in cream and butter and salt and stock to get a reasonable texture. I still thought it was noticeably gluey and glutenous – it reminded me of my parents’ ruddy obsession with mashed taro root – but my guests claimed they didn’t care, and I have to believe them since they went back for seconds. The whole thing was topped with chives fresh from Phil and Laura’s plant and popped in the oven on broil for ten minutes.

The accompanying salad used my leftover apple-wasabi vinaigrette, romaine and iceberg lettuce, sliced granny smith apple, sliced Bartlett pear, and spicy candied walnuts. I toasted the walnuts, spread in a single layer on a pan lined with parchment paper, for fifteen minutes at 350 degrees F, when they just barely started to show a colour change. In a small pot, I melted one part brown sugar to two parts white sugar and about a tablespoon of water into a dark caramel, adding cinnamon and cayenne pepper at the end. The toasted nuts were tossed with the mixture, and then left to cool and harden on the same piece of parchment (removed from the hot pan).

The chive plant was left in my custody. I want to return it as soon as possible; I am, after all, the girl who killed two cactuses, one of them in such a gruesome fashion that I’m still ashamed of it. It involved an elevator, a vacuum cleaner, and a hand like a pincushion.


Written by skimfu

September 17, 2008 at 10:22 pm

Posted in Beef, Salad

Apple-Wasabi Salad with Shaved Ham

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Many eons ago, when I had a job that required creativity, my coworker Nick conceptualized this flavour combination. I don’t know his last name or where he works now, but he burns on as one of the happiest people I have ever known. He once sent his girlfriend a salad with a large heart made out of cherry tomatoes.

I don’t remember specifically what went in his version, but I remember watching him pour apple juice into the food processor and asking what he was making.

“Apple-Wasabi vinaigrette.”



My reaction, I think, was pretty natural: ewww. After arguing for a while we ended up with a salad with crispy leeks and a rose of shaved ham on top. For whatever reason, he cajoled me into being the first one to taste it. I went in head-first, with a rich forkful of ham.

He watched me chewing thoughtfully. “This…is…awesome,” I said, slowly.

He pulled out a leaf with his hand, popped it in his mouth, and strutted away, shouting, “I’m a genius!” and startling the pastry chef.

Tonight I made it again, for memory’s sake. For the vinaigrette, I used apple juice, wasabi paste, sugar, and red wine vinegar (tiny splashes of each), adding plenty of oil slowly into the blender. In the salad: romaine and iceberg lettuce, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, and slices of granny smith apple. And, of course, shaved ham. Amazing!

Fair warning: this salad is filling, deceptively heavy. I can see the wheels in your head turning: what, fruit and lettuce? Trust me. Do not underestimate the capacity for nuts, seeds, deli meat, and oil-based dressings to make you want to pass out with sweet, fatty goodness.

The photo – she’ll be comin’.

Written by skimfu

September 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Pork, Salad

Dill & Yogurt Potato Salad

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The boy sitting next to me at the bus stop today had the kind of lanky frame and ambiguous face that could have been fifteen or thirty. Yet he had the sincere, oblivious beauty of a child: not the genetic luck and coif that aids our grown-up hunt for a mate, but just plain newness. The world had yet to rub off his shiny finish. We smiled at each other and said some things, and I thought, “You must be very young.” His bus arrived first and he saluted me through the window, earnest as a boy scout.

Children are like potato salad: at once too intense and too wholesome. This is why they pair so well with hot dogs. They need to be mellowed out by cynicism and flavourless pleasure.

It was hot today and I am suffering from a massive caffeine-withdrawal headache, so I just ate cold potato salad for lunch, balancing it on my stomach in a cushy chair in the living room. I boiled the potatoes right when I woke up, drained them, rinsed them in cold water, and then stuck them in the fridge to forget for a few hours. They say if you cut your potatoes before boiling, you’ll end up with a mushy salad that comes apart. I’ve found, though, that as long as you stop the cooking at the right time, your potatoes should hold their own and be soft all the way through.

Plain yogurt, finely chopped green onions and celery, iceberg lettuce, lemon juice, a spot or two of dijon, salt, pepper, and sprinkling of sugar, all mixed together in a bowl. It’s more than the actual temperature that makes it seem cold. Something about iceberg and celery and raw onion, their bursty sharpness. The yogurt also does a good job of making it creamy without the weight of mayo. Sprinkle with dill (I have a bulb of fennel in my fridge still awaiting judgment) just before serving.

I don’t know how photogenic this very blob-shaped dish will turn out to be.

Written by skimfu

August 16, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Salad, Vegetarian

Cooking for One, Baja Fish Tacos, Salmon Salad

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Today I went shopping at a food superstore – the kind that sells vegetables, barbeques, hard drives, and underwear side by side, that you can get lost in for hours. The man in front of me in line was buying six bottles of Sprite, two pineapples, and nothing else. I imagine his fridge contains nothing but a 4L bottle of vodka.

On the walk home I saw a squirrel eating a Mars bar, which was such an odd spectacle that I just stopped and watched. He didn’t seem to mind. Most of the wrapper and about a third of the bar was clutched in his small paws (claws? hands?) as he nibbled away at the edges. Are you built for eating something like that, dear squirrel? Can your system handle it? Is no ingredient a more potent poison than it is for us (delighting, as we do, in slow poisons)?

Recently I moved into an apartment with a kitchen at least a few blocks up on my road to the Dream Kitchen. There is a gas stove, a fridge that beams like a beauty pageant winner, and most importantly, space. All of the goodies and gadgets I have acquired over the years can all come out at once.

Cooking for myself in this place, though, has a curious sense of defeat to it. I used to live in a one-room studio. Now I have a dining room that seats eight. Last night, I made myself a fantastic steak dinner, with zucchini and eggplant and steak fried in butter. After I ate (sitting alone in the kitchen) I deglazed the pan and added some onions and garlic to make gravy for another day. I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the gravy (shepherd’s pie? straight up mashed potatoes? another steak?) and this little voice in my head said, “What’s the point? It’s just you. Go get some McDonalds.”

The forty minutes I spent in the grocery store were the highlight of my day. Playing a game of combinations in my head (I could puree all the leftover bruschetta ingredients but leave the tomatoes coarse, then toss it with some hot linguine and sausages! Let’s buy linguine and sausages!). The cooking is fun, sure, but then I reach the point of plating and I just slop the food onto the plate. It is just me – and a book, or my laptop and some shitty TV show.

A couple months ago I made Baja Fish Tacos for a small group of friends. They have these everywhere in California (at least in the Bay Area), as a staple fast food. The version I came up with was cubes of beer-battered cod in soft tortillas, with small chunks of cucumber and shredded lettuce, and a yogurt sauce (cilantro, lemon juice, jalapeño peppers, garlic, spices) served with two fruit salads. Conventionally there would be fruit salsa, but I am personally opposed to the concept. My friend Laura D’Alessandro took the pictures.

At my housewarming dinner I served salmon salad to seven. It was sort of haphazardly conceptualized, but it came out…well…spectacular. Sadly, no one had a camera. Each plate had a salad of mesclun greens, cold potatoes (boiled and just slightly crisped on the stovetop), raspberries, corn, and blanched asparagus, dressed in homemade maple vinaigrette. The salmon was baked under a layer of ginger, served on crustinis (three slices of baguette, each toasted with melted gouda on top). The ginger was removed and replaced with a heaping spoonful of bruschetta – minced olives, garlic, red onion, basil, and jalapeño, mixed with small-diced tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.

It was the stuff of dream weddings, and overpriced restaurants by the sea.

Why cook like this? For pleasure, certainly, but there is a comparable level of pleasure in eating Cheetos and ripe cherries, things you can buy and then pop in your mouth. One cooks like this to be loved. Eating your beautiful meal alone is like being a demented, jilted bride, wearing your wedding dress every day for years, wandering your one-bedroom apartment, thinking he’ll come back.

Written by skimfu

August 10, 2008 at 9:24 am

Posted in Fish, Salad, Vegetarian

Cajun Chicken & Greek Salad

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Cajun Chicken Greek Salad

A buy-stuff-at-the-grocery-store-and-put-it-together-on-one-plate kind of recipe.

cherry tomatoes
red onion
dried oregano
olive oil
olives, red/green peppers (if desired)
cajun spice mix
chicken breasts

Chop cucumbers into chunks, cut the red onion into fine squares (and peppers, if using peppers). Toss with cherry tomatoes and olive oil. Generously crumble feta over top, followed by oregano (and olives).

Cover both sides of chicken in cajun spice. Pan fry chicken in minimal oil on both sides, blackening the spices and cooking through. Serve together – we had it with corn on the cob.

Written by skimfu

October 12, 2007 at 11:47 am

Posted in Chicken, Salad