Pandemic Potato Salad

This is a recipe born out of need and change and a series of odd connections. I bought a bag of red potatoes intending to make a gratin, but a sudden upswing in temperature made the idea of roasted anything feel oppressive. Meanwhile, my beautiful heads of romaine lettuce in my garden started to bolt, and my parsley was already flowering. I thought of salad, of course, and then of potato salad, and then of likely ways I could combine them. A potato salad with green beans and parmesan I had in Eugene crept back into my mind, and parmesan reminded me of pesto. Pesto is such a convenient way of using excess greens, even when they are getting bitter, so I wondered if lettuce pesto would be tasty. The garlic and parmesan of pesto along with the lettuce reminded me of Caesar salad, and suddenly I was adding anchovies and mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs for good measure, and this franken-potato-salad was born.*

This is not one of those “not your average gloopy potato salad” iterations. I must admit, as an ardent mayonnaise lover, I resent those complaints about gloopiness. This one is gloopy. It is unapologetically gloopy. It is a potato salad for mayonnaise aficionados. But I have an important secret when it comes to those “gloopy” mayonnaise based summer salads, whether their bases are potato or pasta: you have to add the dressing while the starch base is still warm. If the potato chunks or noodles are cold, the dressing just weakly sits beneath and around them. If it’s stirred in while they are warm – or even hot – the dressing soaks in. The texture is better, the flavor is better, and you can get the hot part of the process out of the way hours before you intend to serve anything. At least 2 hours in the fridge after everything is combined ensures nicely melded flavors – the anchovy mellows, the garlic relaxes, the lettuce emerges not as a strong presence but as a juicy green background taste we found quite pleasant.

Because I’m me, I couldn’t quite leave well enough alone: since the lettuce and anchovy and parmesan allude to Caesar salad, and since lately we’ve been all about crunch and texture, I wanted to give a nod to the crouton component. A shower of panko crumbs well toasted in olive oil right over the top added crunch, though if you wanted to be a little less excessive, you could probably used well-toasted almonds instead. I’d suggest a rough chop for rubbly texture.

* As I wrote this, I was weirdly reminded of my most recent and ongoing scholarly project, which suffers from organizational stress. A few weeks ago a fellow academic tweeted “How has anybody ever structured a piece of writing? It’s an impossible con, all the things to be said must be said at exactly the same time or none of them will make sense” (Jones). I felt that as I tried to explain the intersecting idea strands for this salad: in my brain, the connections happened nearly instantaneously. Here, which do you mention first? The potato salad with parmesan that reminded me of pesto? The lettuce that evoked Caesar? Words prohibit the all-at-once-ness that feels so natural when we think…

Pandemic Potato Salad
Serves 6-8 as a side, not that you’re having anyone over right now…
2 ½-3 hours, including chilling time
6-8 ounces green beans or haricot verts
10-12 medium red potatoes
4-6 cloves garlic
5-9 anchovy filets (wide range, but adjust according to how much you love anchovies)
zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 head romaine lettuce, core removed, leaves roughly torn
1 cup packed parsley leaves and stems
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped almonds

 

  • Blanch the green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water. This will take 2-3 minutes for large size beans, or about 90 seconds for skinny little haricot verts. Remove from the pot and douse in cold water to stop them from cooking further. Reserve the salted cooking water. Quarter the potatoes (or if they are gigantic, cut down into large bite-sized pieces) and place them in the same pot. Fill the pot with more water if needed to cover the potatoes, then bring back to a boil over high heat. Turn down to medium and simmer until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork. Drain and set aside while you make the dressing.
  • If you need to grate the cheese, load the belly of your food processor with small chunks of parmesan, then run on high speed until the cheese is adequately broken down. Empty the processor, measure out the required cup of cheese, and set aside to add later.
  • Process the garlic cloves, anchovy filets, and lemon zest and juice together first into a clumpy paste. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the processor, then add about half of the torn lettuce leaves and the parsley and pulse a few times to break them down. When there is enough room in the processor, add the remaining lettuce and parsley and process on high until the mixture is finely chopped.
  • Scrape down the sides of the processor again and add the mayonnaise and reserved parmesan cheese. Process on high speed until well combined. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper as needed. It’s important to wait until now to add the salt, since the anchovy, mayonnaise, and cheese are all salty already.
  • Add the still-warm potatoes and the drained green beans to a large bowl. Stir in about ¾ of the dressing until the vegetables are evenly coated. Gently fold in the chopped hard-boiled eggs. Add more dressing, if needed.
  • At first this will probably taste too salty. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to mellow and combine. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
  • This is ready to serve as is. But if you like a little excess (or if crunch is important to you), heat the optional 2 TB olive oil in a small skillet, then stir in either ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped raw almonds and toast until deeply golden. Sprinkle over the top of the potato salad just before serving.

Banh mi salad (no recipe)

I don’t have a recipe for you today, but I do have a suggestion that, like my almost-too-late discovery of the aperol spritz in Venice, has probably already occurred to you. But just in case. It turns out that banh mi, that beloved Vietnamese sandwich that, along with pho, is probably the nation’s most well-known dish in the United States, translates amazingly well into a salad. You chop or stack all the ingredients from the sandwich – well seasoned and seared tofu, or pork, or chicken, fresh cucumbers, wafer-thin jalapeno slices, assorted vegetable pickles, soapy-fresh cilantro sprigs – atop crisp, juicy romaine or crunchy shredded cabbage (or a combination of both). You toss it gently with a dressing made from mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice or rice vinegar. Finally, since banh means “bread” in Vietnamese, so it couldn’t be banh- anything without a bread component, you fry the torn innards of a baguette in a generous quantity of oil, sprinkle them with a little salt, and pile them to precarious heights on top.

And if you already have some of these items lying around – like, say, you had banh mi sandwiches a few day before – it comes together in the time it takes you to fry the croutons.

Boom. Lunch is served.

Crouton Cook-off

The problem with spending your whole Sunday thinking it’s Saturday is that you arrive to Monday morning out of breath and without a post to share! Good thing it’s still summer for this absent-minded professor.

This week, instead of a complicated recipe, I thought I’d do a little experiment. Since I can’t make bread pudding all the time (fitting into my summer wardrobe is nice), and I refuse to toss the crusts from my weekly sourdough loaves* but I do still need room in the freezer for other things, I’ve been playing a lot with seasonings and cooking methods for croutons. My favorite way to flavor them, besides good old salt and pepper is, curiously enough, a healthy shake of poultry seasoning. The mix of herbs adds depth, and it’s nice to use that little canister more often than just on Thanksgiving Day. To lighten them up, lemon zest is also a frequent addition.

As for cooking method, I vacillate between baking the seasoned cubes and frying them in a skillet. Since in between salads I forget which I prefer, I decided to conduct a cook-off experiment, seasoning the whole batch exactly the same and then baking half the cubes and pan-frying the other half.

Ultimately, although the oven version came out a fraction crunchier, we determined the main difference between cooking method lies not in end result, but in investment of effort. The oven batch had merely to be tossed onto a cookie sheet and stowed in a preheated oven for about 20 minutes. The stovetop version had to be stirred frequently for about the same amount of time; leaving it unsupervised resulted in quickly burned bread. So we wind up with a win some, lose some set of options. On one hand, preheating and baking probably heats up your house more, but produces a slightly crisper end result with less effort from you. The stovetop method probably doesn’t warm up the room as much, and it doesn’t require as long to preheat, but if you aren’t willing to babysit the croutons, there’s less margin of error for achieving an even crunch without burning any edges. So… for perfect crisp croutons and very little effort on your part, bake your seasoned bread cubes. If it’s summer and you don’t have or want to use air conditioning, bake them in the morning, cool completely, and store in something airtight until the rest of the salad is made.

* If you still have more crusts than you know what to do with, I recently learned stale bread can be composted; see here for a short how-to.

Crouton Cook-off
Enough for 3-4 salads
zest of 2 small or 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
generous ¼ cup olive oil
2 cups bread, torn or cut in cubes of your desired size
  • If you are baking your croutons, first preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Whisk all ingredients except bread together in a large bowl.
  • Add bread cubes and toss well for even coating.
  • To bake, spread seasoned cubes on a cookie sheet and stow in the oven for 15-25 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your end product. 15 minutes preserves some give in the middle; 20-25 minutes results in fully crunchy cubes.
  • If you are pan-frying rather than baking, heat a skillet over medium heat and add the seasoned cubes. Cook 15-20 minutes, stirring and flipping frequently for even browning.
  • For both cooking methods, set croutons aside to cool before serving. They will crisp just slightly more as they cool down, but not significantly.

BBQ Tofu Salad

I’m back! At least for the moment…

At the end of the semester, I got stuck. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I fell into familiarity. There are some foods we love, and we make over and over again, but they just don’t feel “blog-worthy.” One of the challenges of this format is the urge for new, insightful, creative, beautiful dishes (that are also, somehow, affordable, easy, and don’t take very long to prepare), and while I’m usually up for that, a little cruise through the standards can be comforting. (Interestingly, it’s also probably more environmentally friendly: the book I’m currently teaching in my composition courses – Edward Humes’ Garbology – includes findings from a study that people tend to create less food waste when they eat the same thing over and over. Less adventurous, perhaps, but more sustainable – since we know we like it, we don’t throw away the unexpected results or less-than-beloved leftovers.)

But we recently did our almost-annual road trip up to Oregon and back, and if there’s one thing I typically gain from vacation with friends and family, it’s ideas. Enter S. She’s a frequent contributor to this site, both in terms of feedback and inspiration. Living in Los Angeles has increased our meat consumption considerably, and being back in Eugene and staying with S. (who is vegetarian and whose current job requires her to think and live sustainably) reminded us sharply of meat’s high carbon footprint and resource use. It also reminded me how much fun it is to work one’s way around that protein-center on the plate and develop other flavors.

Perhaps my favorite thing S. made us while we were in Eugene was a salad. That doesn’t sound exciting, but for the five of you still reading, hang with me. Years ago, S. worked at California Pizza Kitchen, and fell, as many have, for their BBQ Chicken Salad. Of course she developed a vegetarian version and made other tweaks of her own to the original, and I found the bright, sharp, fresh and spicy bowl she put in front of us so craveable it was the first thing I wanted to recreate when we got home.

Like S., my version uses thick slabs of tofu drenched in BBQ sauce – either make your own or find a bottled version you like that isn’t too sweet – and then grilled. Toss together everything you like in a Mexican or Southwestern direction that belongs in salad with mixed greens – here we’re pulling together black beans, tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, and the non-negotiable coup de grace of fried tortilla strips on top. The original salad from CPK uses chunks of jicama and adds basil along with the cilantro; you could certainly do that as well.

As for dressing, S. used a tasty ranch, and added chunks of Monterey jack cheese to the salad. I went in a different direction, whipping up a blue cheese drizzle with equal parts buttermilk, mayonnaise, and blue cheese crumbles. We decided upon reflection we liked S.’s dressing choice slightly better, and in future incarnations of this dish we’ll swap out for that, and maybe some crumbles of queso fresco instead of the rich funk of the blue cheese or the neutral creaminess of the jack.

As you can see, this salad looks really nice in a composed presentation, either positioning all of the non-greens in sections around a center like spokes on a wheel as I did, or Cobb salad style, arranged in rows next to each other atop the lettuce mix. At the last minute, add on the dressing, another drizzle or two of BBQ sauce if you want, and the tortillas in a crispy stack. But if you aren’t feeling fussy, tossing everything together to serve will be easier and just as delicious.

Note: I tend to find in salad recipes that nearly everything is negotiable and, at best, quantities are approximations. That is, some people like more tomato than others, and some want to amp up the cheese. Some might not want as much dressing, and some think a whole can of black beans sounds excessive. To that end, I have provided you with quantities, but you should feel free to adjust as desired. Want more corn? Great. Use three ears. Want less green onion? Okay, do that. Want to backwards engineer the whole thing and replace the tofu with chicken? That would be tasty as well. The point is, it’s an outrageously delicious entrée salad that, minus frying the tortilla strips, requires nothing from your stove or oven, and would pair just as well with a margarita or a cold beer as it does with a frosted glass of lemonade. Certainly, my dog-friend here would have happily gulped it down even without an accompanying beverage.

BBQ Tofu Salad

Historical connections to CPK, though I’ve only had S.’s version of their original

Serves 4-6

2 ears corn on the cob

1 TB olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

16 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry

1 cup BBQ sauce of your choice (not too sweet)

6-8 cups mixed greens (I like a combination of romaine, red cabbage, and a kale slaw mix from Trader Joe’s I’m currently obsessed with)

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, dark green parts only

¼-½ cup cilantro and/or basil leaves, roughly chopped

1 can (14-15 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 avocados, pitted and cubed (I like this method of pitting from the kitchn)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup cheese chunks or crumbles: either blue cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco

2-3 corn tortillas cut into thin strips

vegetable oil to fry

additional salt to season tortilla strips

~ 1 cup (or desired amount) blue cheese or ranch dressing

Additional BBQ sauce, if desired

Optional: lime wedges to serve

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem for easier kernel removal later. Rub the ears with the 1 TB olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Place on the preheated grill and cook over direct heat for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char. Set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
  • Slice the tofu block into 4 slabs and dredge each in BBQ sauce. Reduce the grill heat to medium and grill over direct heat for about 4 minutes per side, until nicely marked. Set aside with corn to cool while you make the rest of the salad.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the mixed greens, green onions, and cilantro and/or basil. Arrange or toss the black beans, avocado chunks, tomatoes, and cheese chunks or crumbles as desired on or in the greens mix.
  • When the corn and tofu are cool enough to handle, cut the tofu slabs into chunks of your desired size. For the corn, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Add both tofu and corn to the salad.
  • For the tortilla strips, heat about ¼ inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat until the edge of one of your strips sizzles when dipped in. Add the sliced tortillas a handful at a time, spreading them out in the skillet so they don’t overlap too much. Fry about a minute on each side, or until they are light brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat as needed.
  • To finish the salad, add the dressing over the top in a rough circle. If desired, drizzle 1-2 TB more of the BBQ sauce right over the dressing for a nice contrast of red on white. Collect the fried tortilla strips in two hands and arrange them loosely over the center of the salad like straws. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on if desired.

Winter salad with roasted cranberry vinaigrette

I know it may seem a little odd to post a recipe for salad on Christmas Day. This is, after all, for those who celebrate Christmas, traditionally a day of heavy, indulgent food. It is about mashed potatoes, and standing rib roast, or lamb, or turkey, or well-glazed spiral ham, and pie. It is, as a dear old family friend of ours once declared (though he was talking about Thanksgiving), “not about lettuce!” I would offer in response that, honestly, neither is this salad. It is about the tartness of fruit, the jeweled colors, the crunch of nuts, the funk of the cheese. And sure, it is backed up by crisp cabbage and neutral greens, but really, it’s about a mix of brightness to break up whatever richness the rest of your table is heaving under, topped off by a puckering dressing of pan-roasted cranberries bobbing in balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice, if you prefer) and sweetened just enough with honey or maple syrup.

The dressing here is based on a recipe from PCC Markets. The spiced walnuts are lightly adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe – I’m not including it as part of my recipe since hers is so clear, but I will say that I used mustard powder and garam masala instead of her cumin and coriander, as I thought they would blend better with the rest of my salad ingredients.

Of course you can add or subtract anything you please here. Roasted root vegetables would add heartiness, arugula or radicchio would add peppery bitterness to the greens; pecans or hazelnuts could replace the walnuts as the spiced nut component. Dried cranberries or golden raisins could bolster and sweeten the cranberries from the dressing. If you aren’t a fan of blue cheese, a crumbled chevre would be a nice replacement.

Whatever beautiful additions or changes you make, be sure to toss it with the dressing at the very last minute – or serve the salad undressed and the vinaigrette in a small dish on the side – as the balsamic instantly sullies the brightness of the apples and radishes. And do serve the dressing with a spoon, so the burst cranberries can be fished out and liberally distributed. And whatever you’re eating this season, I hope it is delicious, and just what you wanted, and that it brings you joy. Merry Christmas.

Winter Salad with Roasted Cranberry Vinaigrette
Serves 6-8 as a side salad
20-30 minutes
For roasted cranberry vinaigrette:
½ cup fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (plus more to taste, if needed)
1 tablespoon water
¼ cup balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
For salad:
5 cups mixed greens, such as spinach, romaine, or butter lettuce
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
5-6 radishes, topped and tailed, thinly sliced into discs
14 ounce can drained mandarin orange segments (or fresh segments from 3-4 mandarin oranges)
½ cup crumbed gorgonzola or other blue cheese
½ cup spiced walnuts (see above for a link to Martha Stewart’s recipe)
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 green apple, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
1 avocado, halved, pitted, and cut into cubes

 

  • To make the dressing, heat the cranberries, the 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup, and the tablespoon of water in a skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl or stir occasionally until the cranberries pop, 5-6 minutes.
  • While the cranberries are cooking, whisk together the mustard, balsamic or lemon juice, and olive oil in a glass measuring cup or in the container you’ll be serving the dressing from. Plop in the cranberries and their collected liquid after they have all popped, whisk well, and season to taste with salt and pepper. If the dressing seems too tart you can add more honey or maple syrup, but remember it will taste diluted once it is distributed over the salad. Set aside to cool before serving.
  • While the dressing cools, assemble the salad: toss the greens and the cabbage in a large bowl. Add the radish, the mandarin segments, the cheese, the spiced walnuts, and the pomegranate seeds.
  • Just before serving, prep and add the apple and the avocado (you want to wait till the last minute for this so they don’t brown). Toss, if desired, or serve untossed so diners can see all of the bright components.
  • Add the dressing at the last minute, or serve alongside so diners can add their own dressing as they serve themselves.

Salad rules

As you can tell, I’ve been busy. My mom commented, on our weekly call Sunday morning, that she knew I’d been busy because one week I posted a recipe without photos, and the next week I added photos but no new recipe. Some of this is the time of the semester, some is what is happening in our country and world, and some is just that, even when I do have a free half hour or hour to devote to the kitchen, I don’t have a second (or third) to take and edit photos, or even to brainstorm a new dish that seems, as I like to put it, “blogworthy.” Combine that with the final dregs of summer weather Los Angeles is throwing at me, and I’m stuck on a loop of old, reliable meals, when all I really want to do, I realized yesterday at the point that our car thermometer read 92F in the Costco parking lot, is bake.

So this isn’t a recipe so much as a method. One of my go-tos for warm weather in the past few months has been a big chopped salad. It’s quick, it’s satisfying, it doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and it’s a great way to use up the last few whatevers you have knocking around in the fridge. Nothing fancy or difficult about it, and no set recipe – mine are always slightly different, but in making these semi-monthly since last spring, I’ve realized a few key components that result in a really good, satisfying salad, so that’s what I’m prepared to offer you today.

1.) you need a mixture of greens. Ours this weekend sported four kinds: romaine, arugula, spinach, and thinly shredded cabbage. That is perhaps a bit excessive, but the combination of lettuce varieties is really key, and the cabbage in particular is the extra I won’t go without. I like red cabbage best, but that’s more for the dramatic color than any significant flavor difference.

2.) fresh vegetables. Tomatoes and cucumbers are standards, but I love thinly sliced radishes in many things, and a big salad is no exception. Sugar snap or snow peas would be perfect too, and sometimes I like chives, or the greens of green onions, very thinly sliced. Canned vegetables like drained and rinsed artichoke hearts are also a good addition.

3.) blanched green beans. I know, another vegetable, but this is a separate requirement because it adds something different and, to me, utterly necessary. Just drop a handful in salted, boiling water for no more than 90 seconds, then rinsed or cooled in an ice bath until you are ready to add them to the salad. The combination of raw and cooked vegetables is a nice contrast.

4.) some kind of pickled vegetable. We’ve done fresh, we’ve done cooked; the briny pickle crunch keeps the salad exciting. I like a sprinkling of pickled onions, but if I have pickled carrots or radishes or green beans, that works too. Last night I had none of these, so I settled on thinly slicing a few cornichons, and though this wasn’t my favorite option, it did the job.

5.) sliced hard boiled egg. Enough said.

6.) meat and cheese, or, if you don’t do meat, some well seasoned tempeh crumbles would do nicely here. I like chiffonaded salami the best, but I’ve also been happy with strips of grilled chicken. I want the cheese to be cut in small cubes, and to be something medium-soft and creamy, like a gouda or fontina, to add a different texture.

7.) something crunchy that is not a vegetable. This ranges for us from toasted walnuts to croutons to well oiled and browned breadcrumbs, but the starch- or nut-based crunch, especially if the nuts or croutons are slightly warm, is so welcome.

8.) a tart but creamy dressing. My favorite is a squeeze of Dijon and honey – just a teaspoon or two – whisked up with some cider vinegar or lemon juice, and a few tablespoons of mayonnaise. Maybe some grinds of black pepper. Make the dressing just a hair more acidic than you think you’ll want, since look at all the components it will be flavoring! The tartness will be cut once it’s draped across cheese and greens and nuts and everything else.

There. Pile, stack, dress, toss, and you have the perfect salad. All you need now is a cold glass of rose, and the rest of the weekend back…

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