TRUFFLED AVOCADO TOAST

One of my New Year’s resolutions, like I imagine most of my readers, was to lose weight — a resolution I believe I’ve made every year since 6th grade.  And I’ve been trying hard to keep that resolution–at least it feels like I’ve been trying hard.  I finally gave in and joined Weight Watchers for the hundredth time, except this time I promised myself that I’d try to stick to the program and not skip meetings.  It’s slow going, but at least it’s going.  If you’ve ever seen a WW ad featuring one of their success stories, you’ll notice a disclaimer at the bottom that says “results not typical.”  Well, say hello to “typical.”  My goal this year is to be “not typical.”

There are tons of WW “ambassadors” on Instagram, and they all joyously eat the rainbow, delight in ethereal baked goods made from egg whites and protein powder, and regard fat-free cheese, yogurt, and cool whip as a sort of holy trinity.  Everything they eat (and I do mean EVERYTHING) is Instagram-worthy, or at least Instagrammed.  But as I’ve learned over the years, this kind of eating tends to favor quantity over quality, is not sustainable in the real world, and is not for me.  I’ve tried a few of the products — the plasticene Velveeta slices (only 1 point!), the snack bars that taste like they’re coated in candle drippings (only 2 points!), the fat-free plain yogurt with fruit (pucker up!), and the1-point tortilla wraps that are gummy from cellulose fiber (OK, I kinda like these) — and have decided to focus instead on making healthier choices, eating smaller portions, and tracking (the bedrock of the WW plan).  And just to be clear, I will never ever accept Fat Free Cool Whip as “frosting” — that is just sadness.

So I expect that I’ll be posting some healthier recipes that fit in with what I’m trying to accomplish.  If appropriate, I’ll add the WW smart points value.  ‘Nuff said.

Avocado toast seems to be a particular favorite among not just WW devotees, but the world in general, although it seems that it is quickly being replaced by sweet potato toast (I know, not really a “toast” thing, and I can think of other ways to ruin my toaster besides running slices of sweet potato through it 4 or 5 times in a row).  Long before avocado toast starting trending, however, my parents used to make it, mashing it on toast and declaring it was “just like buttah.”

l had a small piece of a precious black winter truffle left in my fridge.  Jeanne, my “truffle pusher,” taught me that to enjoy truffles, they need a base of fat and salt.  But copious amounts of fat is kind of a no-no at the moment — and then I thought of the avocado, which is “just like buttah.”  And it worked — avocado toast with thin truffle shavings and a touch of flaky sea salt — that was one special breakfast!  Winter truffle season is over, but I may revisit this when summer truffles are available.  And for those of you without access to fresh truffles, I have confirmed that a teeny tiny drizzle of truffle oil is pretty delicious on avocado toast, as I suspect truffle salt would be as well (oh, the grueling research I conduct).  No recipe, just photos.  🙂

(6 WW smart points — 1/4 avocado (3 sp), 1 slice toasted sourdough or artisan bread (3 sp))

GREEK SALAD

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I found this Brownie Girl Scout Beanie at an estate sale.  I was a Brownie, and my daughter was a Brownie, and we both just could not get excited about being Brownies.  Maybe it was the hat, described as “a  six section beanie with loop at top.”  The Girl Scouts website states that it is made of “rayon/wool felt,” immediately followed by the statement that it is made of “100% polyester felt.”  So confusing, but really, it doesn’t matter — it could be made of cashmere and it would still look goofy.  The little dancing figure on it always looked vaguely satanic to me:

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Current beanies have blue figures, which look less sinister:

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My kids attended a middle school that was housed in a Greek Orthodox Church.  One day when I was picking up my son, a Brownie scout walked by.  My son pointed to her and said, “Look, she has a baklava on her head!”  He had recently been to a bar mitzvah, and meant to say she had a yarmulke on her head, but given that we were in front of the Greek church, confusing a Greek pastry with a Jewish skullcap was understandable and smirk-worthy.

Inspired by the Brownie beanie and Greek middle school memories, I made a Greek salad.  I believe purists would argue that a real Greek salad does not have lettuce, but I am neither Greek nor a purist, and I kinda like it with lettuce.  Some people like to add anchovies, but as I’ve mentioned before, we think they look like eyebrows and don’t add them to anything.  But really, it’s all about the dressing.  I’ve included photos for two different ways to prepare it, as a tossed salad and as a composed salad.  As with any vegetable salad, you can adjust the ingredients and amounts to suit your tastes.

GREEK SALAD
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Recipe type: Salad
Author:
Ingredients
  • For dressing:
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 medium clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • For salad:
  • 1 large head romaine lettuce, chopped
  • 12 grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced into ¼" thick slices
  • 1 small red or green bell pepper (optional), sliced into ¼" rings
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 12 Kalamata olives, pitted
  • 12 pepperoncini
  • Optional salad ingredients -- sliced celery, capers, sliced radishes
  • 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Instructions
  1. Place all dressing ingredients in a jar, and shake vigorously to combine. Place in refrigerator for at least 1 hour before using.
  2. Place all salad ingredients except feta cheese in a large bowl and toss to combine. (Note: All salad ingredient measurements are approximate -- vary amounts as desired.) Pour dressing in desired amount over salad and toss to combine. Sprinkle with feta cheese and serve. (This salad is especially nice served on chilled plates.)

 

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It’s all about the dressing

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Just lettuce eat our Greek salad

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Prepare it as a composed salad, but only if you like the sound of oohs and ahs

BAKED CARDOONS WITH BREADCRUMBS AND PARMESAN

We’ve been enjoying glorious spring weather here in Houston.  Cultivated bluebonnets are appearing in neighboring yards:

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Frilly azaleas are in full bloom (on the heels of the redbuds, lorapetalum, and Japanese magnolias).  It’s almost as if the city were spray painted with big splotches of pink, purple, and white:

Those are what I call azaleas!

These huge azaleas tend to be found on older homes.  Landscapers today tend to favor Encore azaleas, which grow in tidier formations not much more than about 16 inches tall, and promise to bloom year round.  (The “bloom year round” thing, unfortunately, is kind of a joke.  They manage to choke out a few blossoms in the warmer weather, but they are decidedly not spectacular.)

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  Encore azaleas

I came across a tree that was filled with birds that I didn’t instantly recognize.  There must have been 30 of them, flitting about, eating the berries on the tree.  I sat and watched them for a while, completely mesmerized.  I later learned that they were Cedar Waxwings.

 

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Cedar Waxwings

The farmers market was packed this weekend, with people coming from all over to enjoy the great weather.  I came home with some beautiful produce, including tender broccoli side shoots (we love these):

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Green onions in bud (I think these look like baby leeks, but am always told they are green onions):

And never-cease-to-delight-me candy-striped Chioggia beets:

IMG_2495 Don’t be fooled by their plain exterior

The beauty within

Most of the produce came from Atkinson Farms, one of my favorite vendors.  As I completed my purchase and started to walk away, I noticed something on a back table, a sort of Land of Misfit Vegetables.  Beep, beep, beep — I backed up to get a better look.  Wait.  Was that . . . .   Could it be . . . ?  Cardoons?

Mr. Atkinson confirmed that they were, in fact, cardoons.  Up until then, I had only read about cardoons, and at this point, my nose was probably twitching with excitement.  I asked him what do you do with them, and he answered with the same answer I get whenever I ask him about any vegetable he sells — “eat them.”  I told him I figured that out, and he kind of smiled and very patiently explained to me how to prepare them.  Turns out, they are a bit of work, which is why, he said, people don’t like to buy them.  Silly people.  He handed me a bunch, told me they were on him, and to let him know what I thought of them.  Oh, Joy is my new middle name!

Cardoons, like artichokes, are thistle-like members of the sunflower family.   Mr. Atkinson was right, they are a bit of work.  You first have to strip the leaves, which are bitter, and trim the outside layer, which is stringy.  I’m not sure how to describe the inside of the stalk — it looks like a series of tubes.  As the stalks mature, they become hollow and more stringy.

Next, the prepared cardoons need to be simmered in salted water for about 30 minutes until they’re tender.  Then they’re ready to be used in any number of ways — sliced and added to pasta, breaded and fried, gratineed, etc.

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I topped my cardoons with a mixture of 1/2 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, then dotted it with about a tablespoon of butter and baked at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the topping was browned.

IMG_2574Looking at cardoons, you might expect them to taste like celery.  You would be wrong, and really, why would you want to go to all that trouble for something that tastes like celery, when you could just eat celery?  You may have heard that they taste like artichokes.  More accurately, they taste EXACTLY like artichoke hearts.  And for that, the hassle is worth it.

BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLES

You were going to do it, weren’t you?  You were going to let me be the only blogger that didn’t post a recipe for pickled something or other.  Nice.  Just for that, no twine around the jar for you.  And no stripey straws either.

Living in Houston, the only thing I’m growing this time of year is dried herbs.  So unlike those of you who have so many cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes overflowing from your garden that you don’t know what to do with them, I have to buy mine.  And when I see fat little Kirby cucumbers at the farmers market, I am compelled to pickle.  Did you know (or care) that “Kirby cucumber” is a generic term used to describe small (6-7 inches) cucumbers?  Once upon a time, however, there was such a thing as actual Kirby cucumbers, which were varieties developed by Norval E. Kirby in the 1920s.   Kirby cucumbers are unwaxed to prevent interference with pickling.  They tend to be crisper and have fewer seeds than other cucumbers, which also makes them good for pickling.

This recipe for Bread and Butter Pickles was passed on to me by my Dad, who said it came from the New York Times a few decades ago.  It’s easy to make, and the pickles are especially good on sandwiches.

BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLES
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Recipe type: Vegetable, Vegetarian
Author:
Ingredients
  • 6 medium Kirby cucumbers, sliced ¼" thick
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seed
  • ¼ teaspoon celery seed
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
Instructions
  1. Place cucumbers and onion in a large bowl and toss with salt. Add enough water to cover, and soak for 30 minutes. Drain, but do not rinse. Pack cucumbers and onions into a quart jar.
  2. Place sugar, vinegar, 3 tablespoons water, mustard seed, celery seed, and turmeric in a small saucepan over high heat, and heat until boiling. Carefully pour over cucumbers. Set jar aside to cool, then refrigerate.

IMG_5172Toss the cucumbers and onion with Kosher salt 

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Cover with water and let soak for a bit

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 Stuff them in a quart jar

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Pickles!

ARUGULA AND FRESH CHICKPEA SALAD

Recently I ran across fresh chickpeas at Central Market and the farmers market.  If you’ve never had them before, I encourage you to give them a try.

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Each cute little pod holds one or two chickpeas.

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Don’t let those fuzzy little pods fool you, though — these things are a pain in the neck to shell, although they’re worth the effort.  The pods don’t pop open very easily, and they’re surprisingly tough.  I suggest starting with a small quantity, perhaps 1/3 pound, which should yield enough for this salad (plus, they tend to be kinda pricey).

Chickpeas, also known as garbanzos in Spain and Latin American countries, are a member of the pea family.  I was disappointed to learn that they are not called chickpeas because they look like fat little chicks.  I can’t be the only one that thought this, can I?  I mean, it’s not that big a stretch, is it?

 

In fact, the name chickpea comes from the French chiche, which comes from the Latin cicer arietinum, meaning “small ram,” which, according to one source reflects “the unique shape of this legume that somewhat resembles a ram’s head.”  If you say so.  Oh well, yet another step closer to being Cliff Clavin.

I tried roasting fresh chickpeas a few years ago when they first started appearing in stores, based on raves in the blogosphere.  I didn’t think the final product was significantly better than if I had used canned chickpeas, and it was definitely not worth the extra time involved, in my opinion.  But blanching them until they are tender is a different story.  The chickpeas turn a bright green, and they taste very much like fava beans with a firmer texture.  Plus, they’re so chirpin’ cute.

So after shelling my pound of fresh chick peas for what seemed like a very long time, I blanched them and used them in this pleasing salad.  The combination of arugula, pea shoots, chickpeas, and parmesan is just different enough to be interesting.  I used a slightly sweet vinaigrette, but I think it would also be nice with a creamy herbed dressing or even ranch dressing.  All amounts given are approximate.

ARUGULA AND FRESH CHICKPEA SALAD
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Recipe type: Salad, Vegetarian
Author:
Ingredients
  • For the salad:
  • 6-8 cups baby arugula
  • ⅓ pound fresh chickpeas
  • 1 cup fresh pea shoots
  • 1 ounce Parmesan cheese
  • For the dressing:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil, and add chickpeas. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes, until tender. Drain and rinse with cool water to stop cooking. When cool enough to handle, shell chickpeas.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare vinaigrette by whisking together oil, vinegars, and honey in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Place arugula, pea shoots, and chickpeas in a large salad bowl. Just before serving, drizzle with vinaigrette, reserving any extra for another use. Using a vegetable peeler, shave long strips of Parmesan cheese on top of salad, and serve.

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Blanched fresh chickpeas

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Waiting to get dressed

POMODORO BASILICO SALAD

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I found this 1940s produce crate label for Dominator Tomatoes, used by the T.O. Tomasello Company of Watsonville, California, on ebay.  It features a U.S. fighter plane.  I got it along with several other labels featuring airplanes, thinking it would be cute to frame them for my then-young son’s airplane-themed room.

I never did get around to framing those labels.  Never finished collecting all of the state quarters with him either, but somehow we’ve managed to carry on.

This time of year, tomatoes do indeed dominate.  The tomato season in Houston is short, and the tomatoes are not pretty, but they taste great.  These heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market a few weeks ago were wonderful with sliced red onions and kirby cucumbers, drizzled with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.

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Although the Houston tomato season is pretty much over, we’re enjoying vine-ripened tomatoes from other parts of the U.S.  My research indicates that Florida is the largest producer of fresh market tomatoes, whereas California produces almost all of the tomatoes processed in the U.S.  The USDA says that we eat between 22-24 pounds of tomatoes per person annually, with more than half of those tomatoes used in ketchup and tomato sauce.  And according to one survey, 93% of U.S. gardening households grow tomatoes.

The scientific name for tomatoes is lycopersicum (technically, either lycopersicon lycopersicum or solanum lycopersicum, depending on who you think is correct — oh, the controversies that arise in the plant-naming world!), which means “wolf peach,” and has its origins in German werewolf myths.  According to legend, the nightshade plant (tomatoes are in the nightshade family) was used in potions by witches and sorcerers to change themselves into werewolves.  When the similar, but larger tomato arrived in Europe, it was called “wolf peach.”

Tomatoes are believed to have originated in the Andes.  The word tomato comes from the Aztec “xitomate,” which means “plump thing with a navel.”  So the next time your loved one refers to you as a hot tomato, don’t be so flattered.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.  For culinary purposes, which, let’s face it, are far more important than botanical purposes, a tomato is considered a vegetable.  As I told my son, when he was studying for his theology final and trying to explain the difference between knowledge and wisdom:

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; 

Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad
Well, they may not be great in fruit salad, but tomatoes — especially ripe summer tomatoes — are wonderful in vegetable salads.  Inspired by the Dominator tomato crate label, this recipe for Pomodoro Basilico Salad makes great use of the season’s fresh tomatoes, and really allows the tomato to be the star of this salad.  For the very best results, use a good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

POMODORO BASILICO SALAD
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Recipe type: Salad, Vegetable, Vegetarian
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
  • 12 calamata olives, sliced
  • 6 large basil leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons
  • ½ of a small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Instructions
  1. Place tomatoes, olives, basil, and onion in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together oil and vinegars, and pour over tomato mixture. Stir gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

 

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You say to-may-to, I say delicious

CAESAR SALAD

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I found a pair of these glass amaryllis ornaments at an estate sale.  Not sure about hanging them on a tree–they’re nearly a foot tall — but I liked all the sparkly detail, and thought I could find some other way to display them — maybe standing up in a pot with some dried moss.

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I look forward to having amaryllis bulbs bloom in my house every winter.   I usually send one or two to my Dad for him to enjoy too, because he loves them and is the person who first taught me to appreciate their beauty.  Last year my Dad and I had something of a competition going with our bulbs.  He kept telling me how awesome his bulb was, and how many stalks and buds it was putting out.  I told him that my bulb had three stalks with buds, which is something of a rarity for us.  He didn’t believe me until I sent him pictures of the bulb in bloom.

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Three stalks with buds

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This bulb was quite a show-off

What is it about things in threes that’s so special?  According to Wikipedia, the “rule of three” is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of things is  “inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective” than other multiples of things.  Like “snap, crackle, and pop” or “Huey, Dewey, and Louie.”  The Latin phrase, omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) is a variation of the rule of three.  Although when it comes to kids, I’m pretty glad we stopped at two.

And so the saying goes that good things come in threes.  Perhaps that’s why good fairies and genies grant three wishes.  And everyone knows that the third time’s a charm. But there’s another saying that misfortunes never come singly.  So if good things come in threes, what multiple do bad things come in?  I believe the answer to that question is that bad things come in poopstorms.  And I think that this is because when something bad happens in our life, we tend to start looking for all the other bad things surrounding us, and start adding everyday annoyances–like the dishwasher broke, the dog has an ear infection–to the list of bad things.  When things are going well, those small matters don’t even register, and we’re more inclined to count our blessings.

Caesar salad is one of my family’s favorite salads.  It’s simple enough to make, but keeping with the theme of things in threes that inspired this post, there are three surefire ways to ruin it — a veritable trifecta of no-nos.

No-no number 1 is: lemon juice

I’m not sure what I’d ever use bottled lemon juice for, but I certainly wouldn’t use it in a fresh salad.  Buy a lemon!

No-no number 2 is: kraft

Any resemblance to parmigiano reggiano cheese is purely coincidental, and this product lacks all of the taste and texture of the real stuff.  I’m hardly the first person to describe this as sawdust.  Perhaps the sawdust-like quality of this product is related to the addition of cellulose powder “to prevent caking.”  Cellulose powder is, after all, a product obtained from wood pulp.  According to this article from Forbes, Kraft Parmesan Cheese is “far enough from the real thing that Kraft was legally forced to stop selling its cheese labeled Parmesan in Europe.”  So why would you want to put it in your salad?

No-no number 3 is: croutons

These are just salt cubes.  It’s so easy to make your own delicious croutons, and a great way to use leftover bread — just cube the bread (a baguette or loaf of sourdough bread works great), toss with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, spread out on a cookie sheet, season to taste (we like salt, pepper, and a few red pepper flakes, sometimes a little garlic powder), and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp:

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Our family’s version of Caesar Salad is adapted from Anthony’s Caesar Salad, a specialty at Anthony’s, a wonderful Vallone family restaurant that closed a decade ago. Our recipe doesn’t use anchovies, because we think they look like eyebrows, and the salad has enough salty flavors without them, and it also uses half of the unconscionable amount of olive oil.  It’s fresh and crisp and lemony, and great any time of the year.

CAESAR SALAD
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Recipe type: Salad
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1-1/2 heads romaine lettuce, cleaned, rinsed, and torn into pieces
  • 2 small garlic cloves
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • Juice of 1 small lemon
  • 2-1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ⅔ cup grated parmigiano reggiano or romano cheese
  • 1 cup seasoned croutons
  • Freshly ground black pepper
Instructions
  1. Dry romaine, and keep chilled in refrigerator until just before serving. Mash garlic with a little kosher salt until it forms a paste. Transfer garlic to a medium mixing bowl and whisk in mustard, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar until smooth. Slowly whisk in olive oil, until smooth. Stir in grated cheese.
  2. Just before serving, place lettuce in a large salad bowl. Pour dressing over, season to taste with black pepper, and toss to combine. Add croutons, toss again, and serve.

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 The dressing is ready to go

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 Hail Caesar!