“Big Three” Vichyssoise

Summer is a strange time for soup. Yes, the need for a vegetal base in most means the potentials for flavors are as wide ranging as your harvest (or, let’s be honest, your farmers’ market or produce section), but there’s that whole hot food in hot weather issue that sometimes turns us off. I know that I, at my most overheated, want only cold salads, grilled meat, and an adult beverage.

Fortunately for us, and for this project, there are some soups designed to combat the heat problem, in that they are traditionally served cold. It’s a strange sensation if you’ve never tried one – the first time I had a cold soup, I found myself blowing on the spoon a few times before tasting, because even though I knew it wasn’t a hot liquid, my body was so programmed to treat it as such that I couldn’t overcome the instinct.

It’s possible that the best known, or perhaps most popular, cold soup is gazpacho, but since we just talked about tomatoes, and since the tomatoes I’ve seen at the market in the last few weeks haven’t quite been at their peak, I’m waiting till September, our hottest month in Southern California and therefore the best time to have this cold, raw, bright blend waiting for me in the fridge. Instead, I’m taking us in an unlikely and humble direction: let’s talk leeks and potatoes. It’s a little strange that these two wintry vegetables are the star players in one of the best known cold soups, but maybe it’s a subtle nod to wish fulfillment: if you find you want things to be cooler, then you are lusting after a season half a year away. Vichyssoise, this chilled reminder of cooler times, is the creation of chef Louis Diat. While working at The Ritz in New York in the early 1900s, Diat made a soup that reminded him of a simple bowl his mother used to put together when he was a child in France, but decided to serve it cold with a sprinkling of chives on top. The resulting concoction can be served chunky or pureed, hot or chilled, but as Diat popularized, ice cold and velvet smooth is the most common.

Most recipes are very simple. So simple, in fact, that cooks tend to add and tweak and substitute to make the finished product… what? More interesting? More original? More publishable, I suspect, without leaving the same old classic, unadorned team assembled. Butter. Potatoes. Leeks. Broth or water. Cream. Chives. Sometimes onion bolsters the leeks, various combinations of seasoning are added, and one intriguing option I saw used buttermilk at the end for tang. Differentiations lie in the quantities of the two star players – is it leek-led, or potato heavy? – the amount of broth and of cream, and the thickness of the finished product. To make mine, I turned to the internet and found, among a wealth of potentials, three that looked straightforward, fairly traditional, and from recognizable names. Then I realized all three authors’ names started with B, and I was stuck – the wordsmith in me loves the “rule of three,” and when your sources are Brown, Bittman, and Bourdain, how can you alter course?

There are a few differences in quantities and in seasoning options between these “big three,” but the basics are there. Alton Brown suggests Yukon gold potatoes, which I was pleased to see, since so many other recipes don’t specify. The biggest difference, interestingly, was in cooking time and dairy additions. Bourdain and Bittman sweat their leeks for only a few minutes; Alton (I just can’t call him “Brown”) goes for almost a full half hour. I erred on his side, since really, it’s a lot of leeks, and there are so few ingredients that we need to develop flavor somewhere.

I debated for a few minutes deglazing the limp, pale pile of cooked leeks with a few glugs of vodka to play with the potato idea, but ultimately decided against it, and wound up with a pot of sippable silk that needed only the traditional sprinkling of chives to make it interesting (well, N. thought it also needed a few additional grinds of pepper, but that’s him).

Two possibilities if you wanted to fancy this up. As we ate, unsurprisingly, we noted how this soup is on some level just really, really loose mashed potatoes spiked with onion flavor. To that end, we thought about the possibilities of baked potato toppings: imagine a bowl of creamed potato velvet topped not only with chives, but crumbles of crisp bacon, shreds of sharp cheddar, maybe even a dollop of sour cream. This would add some textual interest as well as other flavors, since I’ll admit a small bowlful of this is all you need – more than that and it runs the risk of monotony.

The other option plays into my bibliophilic considerations above. Small bowls are one thing, but what if you wanted to serve this as, say, an hors d’oeuvre option at a summer soiree? Imagine a cold, very lightly spiked soup in tall shot glasses, served on a shallow, ice-packed tray. You would need only to add a half cup or so of vodka to the concoction, before the long simmer if you want to eliminate the bulk of the alcohol, after if you want this to be a boozy option.

Like many thick soups, vichyssoise is even better on day two than day one, and conveniently, it takes no additional preparation since you don’t even have to reheat it. That said, the onion flavor from the leeks gets progressively stronger as the soup sits, so by day four it is pretty allium-heavy. Also convenient, though this is traditionally a cold soup, it is also delicious served warm, so if you can’t handle the cognitive dissonance, or your last weeks of August are looking chilly, this remains a viable option.

 

“Big Three” Vichyssoise
Serves 4-6 as a main course; 8-10 as an appetizer
About 60 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound leeks, white and pale green portions only, split vertically, cleaned, and sliced thinly into half-moons
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon gold (3-4 small), diced
1 quart low sodium chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
½ – 1 cup heavy cream
additional salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced chives

 

  • Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat, then add the leeks and the ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low or medium low and allow the leeks to sweat, not brown, until very soft; about 20 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes, the broth or water, the bay leaf, and the nutmeg, cover, and bring to a boil over medium or medium-high heat. Once boil is attained, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potato cubes are soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are tender but not quite disintegrating, turn off the heat and VERY CAREFULLY puree either with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. If you are using a regular blender, blitz only small batches at a time and cover the top of the blender with a kitchen towel as well as the lid – pureeing hot liquid can cause spurts and small “explosions.” Get the mixture very, very smooth.
  • If you are feeling fussy (I was), pour the pureed liquid through a sieve or colander back into the cooking pot and return the heat to low. Add the heavy cream (start with ½ cup – we found we didn’t want more than that) and heat through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to your liking. Sometimes cold food needs more seasoning than hot food, so you can be a little aggressive, especially with the salt. Potatoes can take it.
  • Transfer the smooth soup to a mixing or serving bowl and serve immediately, if you want it hot, or chill until quite cold: at least 2 hours.
  • Just before serving, sprinkle with chives.

Save

Panzanella Toasts

The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.

So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).

There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?

The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.

One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.

Panzanella Toasts
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

 

  • Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
  • About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
  • To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
  • As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
  • To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon

A few weeks ago I attended a retirement luncheon for a now-former colleague (there are a lot of now-formers here lately, aren’t there?) at the home of one of her friends (and one of her now-former colleagues!). Our hostess made, among other perfect, not-too-heavy dishes for quite a warm day, a cold side of salmon so buttery and moist and perfectly cooked that a day or two later I had to email her to find out how she had done it.

Imagine my delight when, rather than a quick overview or an inexact “oh I just…” response, she sent me a page long, detailed explanation of both how she’d prepared the massive six pound piece of fish for that day, but how she does so when she’s only making a portion or two. Every step was well explained and justified, and she also told me where she gets her fish (a bit pricey for me at the moment, but maybe someday).

Because salmon is delicious cold, and because the actual cooking phase for this dish only takes about half an hour including the time spent preheating the oven, it’s a perfect dish for summer, when you don’t want to be cooking anyway (well, unless you’re me), and you can take care of the house-heating portion in the morning and stow the flaky, fatty main course in the fridge for the rest of the day.

My hostess explained that she disguised a few cracks that formed during cooking with cucumber “scales,” and this struck me for two reasons: one, wouldn’t it be gorgeous to plate more of the filet with vegetable scales of different colors – green from cucumbers, florescent pink and white from radishes, maybe even yellow from baby golden beets – and serve a fish still enrobed in imitation of its original form? (Answer: yes, and a Google image search puts my meager shingling skills to shame.) Second, the idea of vegetables atop the fish made it seem only a step or two away from a salad. To complement the “scales” and disguise any possibility of dryness caused by potential overcooking, could you add a brisk, herby lemon vinaigrette right at the last minute, drizzling over fish and vegetables alike, and thus layer on one more fatty component to ensure moistness?

I decided to find out. Following my foolhardy practice of testing out new recipe ideas on guests, I determined to showcase M.’s fish – with a few of my adjustments – for some friends joining us for a weekend dinner.

If you like salmon at all, you have to try this one. The pan, lined with aluminum foil for ease of fish manipulation and clean-up, preheats with the oven. Wine, garlic, lemon slices, thyme, and a few cubes of butter make the fragrant bath this cooks in, and though they lend subtle flavors, the star remains the salmon. The high heat of the oven does the job quickly, but the liquid bath means the method of cooking here is somewhere between steaming and poaching, which keeps the flesh of the fish tender and – not to overuse that word my former college roommate castigated as “too descriptive” – moist throughout. Slapping the fish straight onto the hot pan before adding the liquid and aromatics means the skin sticks to the hot surface, and when you remove the fish later you can peel the flabby skin right off along with its foil lining with little trouble.

What you are left with under all that, once it has cooled and you’ve meticulously shingled on some bright, thin vegetable slices (or not – up to you!) and then drizzled the whole thing with a bright, herby lemon vinaigrette, is a filet that is just cooked through, so the fish doesn’t so much flake as it does sigh into tender, buttery layers. Cold, you can taste the richness of the fish but the whole thing still feels light, and if you’ve been wise enough to plan out the rest of your dinner with make-ahead options, you only have to leave your guests for five minutes while you sweep into the kitchen and emerge with a gleaming, laden platter they will exclaim over (and, if you’re anything like me, immediately try to recreate!)

And if all that’s not enough for you, should there be any leftovers, stacked onto some soft, fresh slices of French bread that you’ve liberally spread with mayonnaise, or salted butter, or some whipped cream cheese, they produce a perfect lunch the next day that gives you enough strength to face the sink full of dishes that is the worthwhile consequence of every dinner party.

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon
Serves 4-6
Prep and cooking time: about 30 minutes before, then another 15 after chilling, to decorate
Chilling time: 2-6 hours
For the salmon:
1½ pound filet of salmon, skin on
1 cup dry white wine
6 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
For the “scales” and vinaigrette:
About ½ a cucumber, skin on, cut into very thin slices
2-3 radishes, cut into very thin slices
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced dill
1 tablespoon minced parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
additional dill, to serve (optional)
lemon wedges, to serve (optional)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 425F with a foil-lined cookie sheet inside. As soon as you turn on the oven, take the salmon and wine out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit for more even cooking.
  • When the oven is preheated, remove the pan and carefully place the fish skin-side down on the hot foil. Pour the wine over the fish, then scatter the garlic, lemon slices, thyme sprigs, and butter on and around the fish. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto the fish, then carefully slide the whole pan back into the oven.
  • Cook in the 425F oven for 12 minutes, or until the fish reaches and internal temperature of 120-125F. It will be pale pink with some white splotches, and look slightly fatty on top. Remove the whole pan carefully from the oven and set on a wire cooling rack. Immediately, using a large spoon, baste the salmon with the cooking liquid, then let the whole thing sit for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, baste again, then drain off the liquid. Lay a cooling rack top-side-down over the top of the salmon, then, holding both cooling rack and cookie sheet, carefully flip the whole cookie sheet over (it’s a good idea to do this over the sink). The salmon will now be top-side-down on the cooling rack. Remove the cookie sheet and peel back the foil a little at a time – the salmon skin should stick to the foil and come off cleanly (mine stuck in one place and necessitated a little cajoling).
  • When the skin and foil are removed, place your serving platter serving side down over the top of the salmon (so the bottom of the salmon is on the part of the plate that will be facing up). Carefully, holding both serving vessel and cooling rack, invert so the salmon and the serving plate are now right-side up. Remove cooling rack.
  • Cover the platter, salmon and all, with aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold.
  • 30-45 minutes before you intend to serve, remove the salmon from the refrigerator. We want it cold, but not chilly. While you wait for it to climb a few degrees in temperature, prep the cucumber and radish slices and make the vinaigrette: in a small measuring cup, combine the lemon zest, minced chives, dill, and parsley. Squeeze in the 2 tablespoons lemon juice, then whisk in the ¼ cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside until needed.
  • To decorate, shingle the sliced cucumbers and radishes over some or all of the fish in a pattern you like – you can see what I did above, and the internet has, as always, many gorgeous alternatives. If you wish, arrange some bushy dill sprigs in the corner of your platter and pile some lemon slices on them for diners to choose at their whim.
  • Just before serving, drizzle the fish and its vegetable “scales” with the lemon vinaigrette, using a whisk or a fork, if needed, to distribute the herbs evenly (they may come out in little clumps). Serve with a large fork or a wooden spatula.

Save

Arugula Herb Soup

You know I don’t usually do this – usually I report on something delicious, sharing the recipe so you can make it too – but I owe you a soup for May, and there’s absolutely zero chance of a recipe next week, since the moving truck comes on Friday(!!!!), so here we go (and besides, the photos came out so nicely). This one was… weird. It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t remotely our favorite. If you’re into an herby, grassy taste, you should go for it.

The base here is a soup recipe from Ottolenghi that blends spinach, parsley, cilantro, and mint with a base of onions and garlic and broth. I added arugula to mine as well as some mustard seeds, and ended up with a murky green concoction that, I have to admit, was reminiscent of high quality lawn clippings. N. called it “pesto soup,” and despite the absence of basil, I tended to agree – thickened up a bit and tossed with pasta, it would have been delightful.

Ever the glutton, I decided what this soup needed to add interest and richness was a poached egg, that darling of chefs everywhere (seriously, I think adding an egg is the culinary equivalent of “put a bird on it.”), and I was right. Broken into the soup, the yolk cut through some of the earthiness of the greens that got even better with the addition of a crunchy slice of garlic rubbed toast. So, in other words, the soup was improved by adding other things to the soup.

Perhaps it was the heavy dose of arugula, which contributed a peppery earthiness the soup didn’t need. Perhaps it was just upped quantities of the greens – I do have a tendency to go heavy on the flavoring agents and light on the liquid. Perhaps it was just a soup the likes of which we’ve never had before.

I’ll be spending next weekend arranging my new kitchen, so I’ll see you when I can. Be well!

Arugula Herb Soup with Poached Eggs
Adapted from Ottolenghi’s column in The Guardian
Serves 4-6 as a starter
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 yellow or white onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup chopped parsley, leaves and stems, + ⅛ cup for garnish
½ cup chopped cilantro, leaves and stems, + ¼ cup for garnish
¼ cup chopped mint leaves
1 cup each baby spinach and baby arugula leaves, or 2 cups baby spinach (Ottolenghi gives his quantities in grams, and I admit I should have weighed mine, but the food scale is packed, so I estimated)
3 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste
5 ounces greek yogurt
1-2 ounces sour cream
squeeze of lemon juice to taste, if desired
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Eggs – 1 per diner
Garlic toast, if desired, to accompany
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium low heat and sweat the onions and garlic until softened and translucent: 5-10 minutes. Stir in the turmeric, nutmeg, and mustard seeds, then raise the heat to medium and sauté 1-2 minutes. The mustard seeds may start to pop.
  • Add the parsley, cilantro, mint, spinach, arugula, if using, and vegetable stock. Stir together and bring to a simmer; cook for 10 minutes.
  • While the soup is simmering, poach the eggs: heat a pot of water to a bare simmer, then add about a tablespoon of vinegar. Stir the water ferociously just before adding eggs, creating a vortex. The spinning water and the vinegar will help the whites cling around the yolks when you break in the eggs. Break eggs directly into the water one at a time, or, if you’re nervous about that, break eggs into small bowls or ramekins, then tip one at a time into the water. Keep just below a simmer for 3-4 minutes, gently coaxing the eggs away from one another and from sticking to the bottom of the pot after 1-2 minutes. After 3-4 minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove each egg from the pot, and set them aside to rest in a bowl of warm water until you are ready to serve.
  • After the soup has simmered 10 minutes, season with salt and pepper to taste, then remove from heat and use a handheld or regular blender to blend until velvety smooth.
  • Return the soup to the heat and bring to just below a simmer. Whisk together the yogurt and sour cream in a small bowl, then add a ladle or two of hot soup to the dairy mixture and whisk in. Repeat 2-3 times – you are carefully raising the temperature of the dairy so when it is added to the soup it won’t curdle and split. Pour the diluted soup and yogurt mixture carefully into the rest of the soup and whisk through.
  • Stir in the remaining ⅛ cup parsley and ¼ cup cilantro, and crumble in the feta, reserving a small pile to garnish. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  • Ladle some soup into a bowl, sprinkle on the reserved feta, and top with one poached egg per diner. Drizzle over the remaining olive oil and serve with garlic toast.

Save

Grape and Cherry (Tomato) Avocado Toast

food-blog-january-2017-0152This one is a restaurant recreation from a spot we like in Culver City. These guys appreciate the lux/simplicity combo that is avocado toast; in fact, they are also the inspiration for my last foray into this ever-so-trendy meal base.

food-blog-january-2017-0136Cherry tomatoes and grapes seemed like a strange combination, and I was dubious about how well grapes would play with avocado, but it all works. The tomatoes are bright and acidic, and the grapes are tart enough that, with a squeeze of lemon and flake or two of salt on top, they toe the savory/sweet line successfully.

food-blog-january-2017-0157

I hope all is well in your world.

 

Grape and Cherry (Tomato) Avocado Toast
Serves 2 as an appetizer; 1 as a light lunch
About 15 minutes
4 thin slices sourdough or French bread (you can remove the crusts if you want more uniform toasts)
Olive oil spray, or 1-2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, divided
1 ripe avocado
1 tablespoon lemon juice, divided
freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 cherry tomatoes, halved (I like a mix of colors)
12 red grapes, halved
1 teaspoon fresh dill sprigs
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
  • Preheat your broiler to high and prep the bread by spraying or brushing it with the olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle ¼ – ½ teaspoon coarse salt evenly over both sides of all four slices (that is, ¼ – ½ teaspoon for all four, not ¼ – ½ teaspoon per slice). Set the slices on a broiler tray or a wire oven rack set over a cookie sheet and broil on high, flipping each slice over once, until nicely browned and quite crisp on both sides. Don’t step away or try to prep other ingredients while you broil; the bread can burn very quickly. Once you have crisp, golden toast, set it aside to cool slightly.
  • In a small bowl, smash up the avocado with 1-2 teaspoons of the lemon juice. Add black pepper to taste, and slightly underseason with salt (we’ll be adding more to finish). You can go with a perfectly smooth mixture if you want, but I like to leave a few small chunks of avocado for extra texture.
  • Smear ¼ of the avocado mixture in an even layer onto each piece of toast. Then cut each slice on the diagonal and arrange it on a plate or serving platter. Arrange the halved grapes and tomatoes on each piece – aim for even distribution. Scatter the chives and dill sprigs over the top, then squeeze on the remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice and a very light sprinkle of coarse sea salt. That way we get a crunch and salty kick with each piece.
  • Serve immediately – underneath the weight of the avocado, the toast will soften very quickly.

Save

Summer Vegetable Tzatziki

2016 Food Blog August-0683Sometimes the most difficult thing about these posts is deciding what to call them. Cucumber yogurt dip sounds good, but because there is the same amount of tomatoes here as there is cucumber, such a title feels like a lie of omission. “Cucumber tomato yogurt dip” starts to sound clunky, and it excises the radishes that provide such a good peppery crunch to the whole thing. And really, if your title includes everything in the finished product, it’s not a title at all – it’s an ingredient list. I tell my students that titles are hard. A title is the summary of all summaries. It should catch the audience’s interest and encompass the topic at hand and suggest the writer’s stance on it. But then, you don’t want to fall into the trap of emotive language: “Delicious Cucumber Yogurt Dip” makes up your mind for you before you have a chance to taste the thing yourself. And while that may be a fine thing for something like a food blog, in writing as a larger practice, it can be a problem. Your evidence should make the argument for you, not your manipulation of alluring language (can you tell the fall semester is imminent?!). Besides, that’s a pretty bold promise!

2016 Food Blog August--4But we’re moving away from the issue: a late summer dip flush with vegetables, crammed with texture, bound by the creamy thickness of good greek yogurt. As I continued to dither over titles, I remembered another suggestion I give my students: play with your audience’s existing knowledge. In my intro level composition class, I structure our readings around the theme of “the journey,” and once ended up with a student paper entitled “Don’t Stop Believing.” Genius. Well then. Crisp vegetables, cool yogurt, herbs, just enough salt to pull the flavors together; let’s go with tzatziki.*

2016 Food Blog August-0657This is not the most pinterest-worthy pretty dish, because once you enrobe vegetables in a coating of yogurt, the whole thing takes on a blurred creaminess that I was concerned to see reminded me of those yogurt-based fruit salads of my youth that someone always insisted on adding banana to. But be consoled! Though this is, I suppose, technically a fruit salad in that the starring ingredients are only masquerading as vegetables, it is savory and crisp and cleanly refreshing, and there are no mushy browning slices of banana hidden amidst the bright flavors you were expecting.

2016 Food Blog August-0664Of course this is perfect with chips of all kinds, and would probably make a nice accompaniment to falafel or skewered meat. But since I was roasting a chicken for dinner, I wanted to avoid heat sources of any kind earlier in the day, so I had mine on well salted pita chips and, in spite of earlier vacillation over titles, ended up with this simplest of solutions: just call it lunch.

2016 Food Blog August-0665Note: alas, for all its merits, this tzatziki does not keep well, nor is it a promising “make ahead” option. The tomatoes and cucumbers begin to give off juice almost immediately, and though the yogurt is quite thick, it does get watered down within the hour. It is best, then, for those moments when you need something fresh and bright and cool and easy, and you need it NOW-thank-you-very-much.

2016 Food Blog August--2-2* I considered raita as well, but while cucumbers and yogurt are pretty standard for a tzatziki, raitas can have all sorts of vegetables in them, are often a bit thinner, and sometimes carry a hit of spice so that even as you are cooling off, you are heating up again. Tzatziki, with its dominant ingredients and its chunky reputation, seemed to fit better here.

2016 Food Blog August-0683

Summer Vegetable Tzatziki
Serves 2-4
10-15 minutes, depending on your chopping speed
1 cup greek yogurt (don’t sub regular yogurt; you need the thick texture to stand up to the wetness of the vegetables)
1 cup chopped cucumber, seeded if you wish
1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
3 radishes, sliced, julienned, then cubed (directions below)
1 tablespoon your choice of finely chopped soft-stemmed herbs (I went with chives. Cilantro, parsley, basil, or dill are other possibilities)
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
⅛ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

 

  • This is laughably easy, guys. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine, then taste for seasonings and adjust accordingly. But I said I’d explain about the radishes, so here goes: remove the tops and tails, then cut into thin slices. Pile up a stack of the slices and cut straight down into skinny little matchsticks – this is a julienne cut. Then, if you want the pieces even smaller, cut up those matchsticks into tiny cubes. This ensures even distribution of radish pieces, and ensures you aren’t biting down onto a giant chunk, which is nice if your radishes are particularly peppery.
  • If desired, use a rubber spatula to pour and scrape the tzatziki into a pretty serving bowl, and serve with your choice of dippables.

Save