Grilled Corn and Radish Herb Salad

2016 Food Blog May-0711When Corin Tucker, one of the vocalists of the musical group Sleater Kinney, released her first solo album after the band’s separation in 2006, she described in song how losing the band in some respects meant losing her vision of music and composition as well – she “stood frozen for so long,” and the silence felt like 1,000 years. To me, the song resonates with all kinds of creativity blocks. Every once in a while, when I think about writing here, I feel frozen – not just cold feet, but cold hands and stiff fingers and icicles in my brain – a sensation of writer’s block that extends to my enthusiasm for cooking itself. Broken off from my usual schedule, and with all but one stack of final papers graded and recorded and filed* in hopes students will return in the fall to pick up their work, you would think I would be panting for the kitchen and the refreshing feeling of absolutely zero comma splices or missing thesis statements to worry about.

2016 Food Blog May-06782016 Food Blog May-0679Instead I feel immobilized by a combination of exhaustion, puritan work ethic, and plain old laziness: if I’m not doing schoolwork, I should feel guilty, but I’m too tired to grade anything else. The kitchen, then, becomes a strange zone of misdirected productivity, and the couch and TV are just so friendly…

2016 Food Blog May-06892016 Food Blog May-0696But I should enjoy the sliver of summer I’m allotted (I’m teaching a session of summer school this year), so if I have to force myself, the gateway drug is corn on the cob. Corn speaks summer in ways few other vegetables do. Tomatoes, of course, but they typically show up a little later in the season, at least the massive spurting heirlooms I’m most interested in. Zucchini is a late summer crop – an overload that reminds you the last few weeks are approaching. Corn is sweet and juicy and plays so well with others. Raw, it has a kind of grassy starchiness, and of course the classic boiled or steamed cob works so well with butter and plenty of salt. For the past few years, though, my favorite way to eat corn is from the grill. Rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted all huskless, it blisters and crusts, and the sweetness we’ve bred into those kernels deepens into a toasty richness that reminds me vaguely of popcorn.

2016 Food Blog May-07012016 Food Blog May-0702For this dish, I was after a kind of warm salad, and thought the cold, peppery bite of radishes would work amazingly well with corn, especially doused with assertive lime vinaigrette. Both Food and Wine and Martha Stewart make a jalapeno dressing for this combination. I didn’t want spicy, but I did want to amp flavor, which I did with a bumper crop of added herbs: parsley, dill, chives, even some basil, to play with the flavors of the vegetables and contribute a different kind of sharpness to the dressing. For color and for fun, I added a handful of cherry tomatoes. You could also toss in some baby arugula or chunks of avocado.

2016 Food Blog May-0704We ate this with fish tacos, but it would be equally good with grilled meat of any variety, really, as well as a nice, lighter side salad option at a picnic or barbecue. A crisp white wine, especially with a touch of effervescence, would pair well.

Bring on the summer, then. I’m ready to thaw.

2016 Food Blog May-0721* well, in a carefully shoved stack on the back corner of my desk

2016 Food Blog May-0720

Grilled Corn and Radish Herb Salad
Serves 4-6
4 ears corn on the cob
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper, to taste
juice of 1-2 limes
1-2 teaspoons honey
½ cup mixed chopped soft-stemmed herbs, such as parsley, dill, basil, chives, or cilantro
6-8 large red radishes, tops and tails removed, thinly sliced
4 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
(1-2 ounces baby arugula, optional)
(1 avocado, cut in cubes, optional)

 

  • 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, as this will make for easier kernel removal. Rub the ears with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place on the preheated grill and cook 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 the corn aside until it is cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the lime juice with the honey and the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add in the mixed chopped herbs and whisk well to incorporate.
  • When the corn has cooled enough that it won’t toast your fingers, 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. Some will be individual and some will come off in big chunks; that’s okay. The variety is nice.
  • Add the corn, the sliced radishes, and the halved cherry tomatoes to the bowl with the dressing and herbs, and toss well to combine and distribute. The herbs will sometimes clump together; be sure to mix well so they – and the dressing – coat the other vegetables evenly. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if desired.
  • If you are using arugula and/or avocado, add these as well and toss gently to avoid breaking up these delicate ingredients too much.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature with a grilled main.

Spicy Carrot and Radish Herb Salad

Food blog June 2015-1064It’s dangerously easy to throw some greens into a bowl and crunch through them, but I think this is the kind of preparation that makes people think about salads as boring to make and to eat. With summer in gear and a series of weddings and reunions to attend within the next month or two, I find myself brainstorming salads creative and intriguing enough to hold my interest, so I can more easily convince myself to make choices that keep me responsible healthy fitting into my summer wardrobe. The easiest way of making a salad more exciting, it seems to me (besides just loading it up with cheese and some crisped pork product), is to take ingredients not usually used in a salad and jamming them in there anyway, lettuce be damned. For me, this generally takes the form of whatever dish I’ve been craving, transformed into something you can add an acidic vinaigrette and maybe a few crumbles of cheese to, toasting up a hunk of bread, and calling it dinner.

Food blog June 2015-1028This particular salad has two geneses. Lately I’ve been craving banh mi, with all its freshness and brightness, but I haven’t wanted to go through the whole production of making all the ingredients myself (which I’d insist upon, because I’m such a responsible foodie stubborn). Rather, I convinced myself, I wanted a salad inspired by a banh mi sandwich. What this meant was a collection of fresh and pickled vegetables, with some brightness from soft green herbs and some heat from jalapeño slices. I dithered over the pickled part, reluctant to devote multiple days to preparing for a simple salad, until I remembered a grain salad my friend S. exalted about a few years ago featuring lightly pickled carrot slices, along with some jalapeño and mint. Wheels turned.

Food blog June 2015-1033What we have here, then, is a salad that announces its summery freshness through bright, grassy herbs and crunchy cucumber, but still clings to the mild crispness of spring with ribbons of carrots and impossibly thin discs of radish. I find herb salads can get almost medicinal on the tongue, so a handful or two of baby greens tempers the sharpness of the herbs and the pucker of the vegetables after a 2 hour lemon juice bath, and brings this closer to what we usually think of as a salad. You could use any combination of greenery, but lately I’ve been obsessing over the “power to the greens” package from Trader Joe’s – baby chard, kale, and spinach, all tender enough that no stem removal is necessary. Add jalapeños, which I’ve put through the pickling process but you can certainly leave fresh, and you have a salad that pairs happily with almost anything.

Food blog June 2015-1048Serving suggestions: I can see this making a perfect base for grilled steak or salmon, with or without the addition of some tangy crumbles of goat cheese. I risked all to have it as a side for last week’s crab and shrimp balls, and though there’s a certain digestive peril to the fried + spicy pairing, hey, that’s what alka-seltzer is for. You could even force this back to its banh mi inspiration roots and stuff it inside a baguette or maybe a pita, with or without a protein accompaniment. In all cases, I’d recommend something sparkling to drink alongside – maybe a crisp prosecco or a hefeweizen with a thick wedge of citrus, or, if you prefer to go alcohol-free, a frosted glass of ginger beer with lime, for an intriguing contrasting spice.

Food blog June 2015-1062

Spicy Carrot and Radish Herb Salad
Serves 2-3 as a side salad
1 cup carrot ribbons (from 3-4 small carrots)
1 cup thinly sliced radish discs (from 5-6 radishes)
8-10 thin slices of jalapeño cut on the bias
3-6 tablespoons lemon juice (see options below)
2-4 tablespoons olive oil (see options below)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon capers
⅓ – ½ cup thin slices of seedless cucumber, cut on the bias
¼ cup cilantro leaves plucked from their stems
¼ cup mint leaves, torn if large, plucked from their stems
¼ cup parsley leaves plucked from their stems
2 tablespoons tender, pale green celery leaves, plucked from their stems, optional
1 cup mixed baby greens

 

  • Prepare carrots, radishes, and jalapeño. To make the carrot ribbons, peel carrots, then continue shaving off long pieces with your peeler from one side only. When the carrot gets concave and it’s difficult to make complete ribbons, flip it over and begin the shaving process again. Slice the radishes and jalapeños as thinly as you can or, if you are fancy, use a mandolin slicer (watch your fingers!).
  • For a quite spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots, radishes, and jalapeños, toss gently to distribute, and allow them to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften, pickle slightly, and the vegetables and dressing will take on the spice of the jalapeños.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, add the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens to the bowl and toss lightly to combine. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • For a moderately spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots, radishes, and jalapeños and allow them to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften, pickle slightly, and the vegetables and dressing will take on the spice of the jalapeños.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, lift the lightly pickled carrots, radishes, and jalapeños out of the bowl and set them aside for a moment on a paper towel. Discard the remaining liquid in the bowl and wipe clean.
  • In the clean bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the vegetables back in, then gently toss with the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • For a mildly spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoon of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots and radishes and toss gently to distribute. In another, smaller bowl, combine the jalapeño slices with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and a bit of salt and pepper. Allow all vegetables to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften and pickle slightly, but the spice will not infiltrate the carrots and radishes as in the above preparations.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, add the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens to the bowl with the carrots and radishes and toss lightly to combine. Drain the lightly pickled jalapeños from their lemon juice bath and add them to the salad as well, tossing gently again to combine. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • Serve immediately – salad left in its dressing wilts quickly and loses its crisp appeal.

 

 

With or Without You

The organizer of the group I went to Senior Prom with booked us seats at Splashes, a restaurant in a Laguna Beach hotel. When we arrived, all dressed up and feeling ever so fancy, four of our party of six were surprised and distressed to discover that a restaurant called Splashes primarily served seafood.  I was delighted.  Lobster ravioli?  Yes, please!

While the majority of our party waited for their chicken and steak dishes to be prepared, my date received the first course he’d ordered: a caprese salad with balsamic dressing.  It arrived – beautifully arranged slices of bright tomato, quivering mozzarella, crisp basil leaves – and he squinted at it with confusion.  “This is not a salad,” he said.  “There’s no lettuce!”  He ate it – we all did – and thought it was good, but maintained his stance.  To be a salad, a collection of ingredients must include lettuce.  No room for experimentation there.

We were in high school, and it was only the very beginning of the new millennium.  What did we know about creative vegetable assemblages like caprese or tabbouleh or panzanella?  We were babies.  But I will say: though I recognize these popular, now fairly well known varieties of salad as such, in this project Bittman has taught me so much about what a salad can be and how widely the boundaries of its definition can be stretched.  Not a single entry, in fact, on the Salads portion of the project list, includes lettuce.  How pedestrian – how expected – that would be.

“76. Grate apples (red are nice; leave skin on), radish and celery.  Roast pistachios and chop.  Dress all with olive oil, shallots, grainy mustard, red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar.”

This sounded like an interesting and delicious combination, but like the tomatillo and jicama combination a few weeks ago, it didn’t sound like something you could dig into a big bowl of.  I decided, therefore, to make it more like a condiment, which gave me an excellent excuse to roast a chicken.  Imagine: a steaming, crisp skinned chicken thigh topped with cool, crisp shreds of apple and peppery radish.  Like the lobster ravioli of yore, yes please!

Here’s what I used:

1 large apple (I had a honeycrisp – one of my favorite kinds)

2 stalks celery

4 small radishes

½ cup pistachios, roasted and chopped

Dressing:

2 TB olive oil

1 TB red wine vinegar

1-2 tsp sugar (depends on your taste, the sweetness of your apple, and the sharpness of your radishes)

½ TB whole grain mustard

I eliminated the shallots because, despite their lauded mildness, neither N. nor I find the flavor of raw onions particularly appealing.

During the last twenty minutes or so of the chicken’s stay in the oven, I clattered the pistachios into a small cake pan and put them on the bottom rack so they could toast.  They needed about ten minutes at 350F, and emerged browned and nutty smelling (isn’t that a silly way of describing the aroma of a nut?  Of course it was nutty smelling!  What else could it be?).  I set them aside so they could cool before being chopped and deposited into the salad mixture.

While things were roasting and toasting, I grated up the stars of the salad.  The apple became little ribbons, the radishes paper-thin shreds, and the celery turned into a pile of almost-mush.  But I decided that was okay – celery is such an assertive texture that less of its fibrous aggressiveness would actually be a benefit.

Were I making this again, at this point I would deposit the grated vegetation into a sieve for a few minutes to let the juice drip away, giving the dressing a better opportunity to cling and permeate.  My decision to plop everything right into the serving bowl resulted in slight soupiness – the apple and celery in particular gave off copious amounts of juice.

At this point, you should also chop and add your pistachios to the salad.  After all, you paid money for them and babysat them carefully to prevent burning them in the oven.  But I didn’t.  I forgot about them completely as I whisked up the dressing, tossed it with the salad, then stowed the serving dish on the table so I could have room on my kitchen counter to carve the chicken.

Piled atop carefully carved and portioned pieces of chicken, the little condiment salad warmed and released a delicious sweet-tart aroma that completely belied the bland appearance of our plates.  Though up close you could see flecks of red and green and pink in the salad from the skins of the various ingredients, from any distance it looked like pale meat with pale apple shreds on top, next to a pale pile of barley, which I’d cooked pilaf style as a starchy accompaniment.

The flavor was more like the smell than the appearance.  It was sharp and bracing – just sweet enough, but assertively vinegary.  This worked very well with our chicken because the sweet-sour crunch cut through the fatty moistness of the meat.  Halfway through dinner I sprinkled mine with a palm-full of the forgotten pistachios, and I must admit I liked it better nut free.  N., not a pistachio fan, agreed.

 

Despite how good a sport he has been during the years (years!) I’ve been working to accomplish this project, N. doesn’t like all foods.  I recognize that there is a time for experimentation and excited guesswork, but there is also a time to exclude him from the proceedings.  This understanding led to my original decision to make only the items from Bittman’s list that seemed reasonable.  I haven’t set out to cook all 101 sides; there were a few that just didn’t fit our palates.  However, out of my curiosity and tastes, a few items remained on the list that are just not N.’s cup of tea.  The second salad I made this week was one such dish.

“79. Cook chopped pears in a covered saucepan with a tiny bit of water until soft. Puree, but not too fine. In your smallest pan, boil a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with a little brown sugar; lower heat and reduce by half. Spoon the pear sauce over endive leaves and finish with toasted sliced almonds and the balsamic reduction.”

To me, this sounded delightful.  To N., it sounded weird.  So on Thursday, when he had to go back to school for an evening engagement, it became my dinner.  It consisted of:

2 TB sliced almonds

2 ripe pears, peeled and chopped into small chunks

1 TB water

3 spears endive

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 TB brown sugar

I must admit: I cheated on the balsamic reduction.  The quantities I listed above are falsified.  But they are estimates you might use.  I happened to have a small container of already reduced, already sweetened balsamic vinegar in my refrigerator from a previous night, and this was the perfect excuse to use it up.  I just microwaved it for a few seconds and it loosened right up from a tar to a pourable, molasses-like syrup.

I toasted the almonds in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing them frequently.  You can’t take your eyes off of these slices for very long.  In the space of twenty seconds, they go from perfectly golden to burnt.  How do I know?  How do you think?

I set aside my overly tanned almonds and added the pear chunks and water to my pan.  Bittman didn’t specify whether the pears should be peeled or not, but pears already have that dubious, potentially grainy texture, and I decided the rough and sometimes gritty skin shouldn’t have a part in this salad.  As the pears – naked, cored, and chopped – simmered and softened, I considered the pureeing instruction and rejected it.  If indeed they were still supposed to be chunky, there were other methods than dirtying my food processor or immersion blender.  I had at them with the potato masher.  This broke them into a chunky puree – some texture remained but they were definitely on the road to sauce-hood.  I turned off the heat and set them aside to cool.

All that remained was to cut and arrange the endive and drape these various accoutrements across it.  I spooned, I drizzled, I scattered, and I served.

This was good, and a nice homage to fall, but it almost read like a dessert salad.  Endive has – to my palate at least – little to no discernible taste.  It is crisp and fun to eat because it has such a capable, interesting shape, but it crunches into water in your mouth and tastes like whatever you pair it with.  In this case, it tasted of earthy mild pears and glossy sweet balsamic reduction.  The crunch of the almonds and the crunch of the endive were pleasantly different: one dry, one juicy.  I ended up scooping dressing, pear puree, and almonds into each leaf and eating them out of hand rather than messing around with all that utensil business.  After all, I was seated at a table for one, and Ted Allen on the TV wasn’t going to judge me.  Besides, I was pairing this salad with shrimp (so delicious: toast mustard seeds and red pepper flakes, sear shrimp, deglaze with dry white wine, sprinkle with parsley, serve), and it’s so much easier to just pick them up by the tails.  No fuss.  Only a little mess.  Easily remedied.  Followed up, just to make it extra indulgent, with a little cup of coconut whipped cream, dried blueberries, and the rest of the toasted almonds.

N. wouldn’t have liked this dinner.  But that’s okay.  Our coupledom doesn’t require identical food preferences as I once thought it might, and I’m happy to take on all the shrimp and coconut in the world on his behalf, paired with pears and endive or not.  Call it a gift.  And in return, he lets me play with my food: not just eating with my fingers, but trusting me in my experimentation because I know what he likes.  That means when I present him with one of my Frankensteinian creations, he might raise his eyebrows, but he’s willing – and usually happy – to give it a try.  A salad doesn’t need lettuce.  What it needs, I think, are the flavors you like and the contrasting textures that make it an adventure to eat.