May 29, 2012

Salad Days

Dear reader, it's been a while, I know.  

You see there were big projects due (business proposals for school! student elections to run in! peer educator positions to apply for!), and then finals to take and the semester to finish promptly followed by a few days where I just sat my butt down on the couch and watched TV for hours.  I really needed to relax and recharge.  Then it was family time with my brother and sister road tripping up here from San Diego and playing tourist with me for a week in the city. In the meantime I also sent out some resumes, applied to a few jobs, interviewed for one job and TOTALLY NAILED IT.  Yup, this girl now has a job.  A job at a pretty fantastic restaurant in the neighborhood (hello, walking to work) that I'm really stoked on.

May was busy, busy indeed.

And I don't imagine this summer is going to be lazy, either.  Luckily, summertime is salad time and salads like this one will probably make frequent appearances in our fridge.  It's great because all the elements can be assembled ahead of time and then just tossed into a bowl when hunger strikes.  I'll be working 3 nights a week and D will most likely be putting in long hours at the lab, so dinners with a minimal fuss-factor are ideal.

My mom's been making a version of sesame peanut noodles from Martha Stewart for years now - which I love - but the added cabbage slaw and poached chicken in this version make it feel more like a meal.  I love the crunch from the lime-y cabbage and radish slaw (no really, go wild with the lime juice) against the creamy noodles and the super succulent poached chicken helps stretch the dish a bit further.  It packs well for lunches, can feed several people if you're bringing it to a potluck and makes a great make ahead meal to be kept in the fridge for a few days.  Topped with squeeze of extra lime and Sriracha, I'd say you've got a winner on your hands.

Peanut Noodle Salad with Chicken and Cabbage Slaw
Adapted from Serious Eats

I tinkered with this one to really maximize some flavors and tailor the serving sizes a bit.  I used whole wheat spaghetti simply because I didn't feel like making a special trip for soba noodles, but by all means, if you've got, use it.  I also added some aromatics to the poaching liquid for the chicken to infuse a bit of flavor there.  Otherwise, get that cabbage slaw dressed with plenty of lime and salt and pepper and you'll be on your way to greatness.  If you're vegetarian, or vegan or just feel like going meatless, I think this dish would still be wonderful without the chicken.

4 servings

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 large cloves garlic, divided
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, divided in 2
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon (or more to taste) Sriracha
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 pound Savoy cabbage, shredded
3/4 cup radishes, thinly sliced
3/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 pound whole wheat spaghetti (or soba noodles)
3 large scallions, julienned

Thinly slice a 1-inch segment of the ginger and 1 large clove of garlic into a saucepan of well salted water.  Bring to boil. Add the chicken breasts to the pot, bring to a simmer, and cook for 6 minutes. Cover, turn off the heat, and allow to slowly poach until the chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes more. Remove chicken, allow to cool, and thinly slice or shred into pieces.

In the meantime, grate the remaining ginger piece and clove of garlic over a microplane.  Combine with the peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, chile sauce and half the sesame oil in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Add a 1/4 cup water to achieve a looser texture for coating noodles.  If more is needed add 1 tablespoon at a time.  The final sauce should coat the back of a spoon, but not be thick and sticky.

In a large bowl, toss together the cabbage, radishes, most of the cilantro, the olive oil, lime juice and the remaining sesame oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook the noodles in abundant water until just al dente, then drain and rinse to remove excess starch. Dress with the peanut sauce.  Top the noodles with the cabbage salad, the remaining cilantro, the scallions, and the sliced chicken. Serve with more lime wedges if desired.

May 9, 2012

Tart and Sweet

There was no way that these lime bars weren't going to be perfection.  A graham cracker crust studded with bright green pistachios and lime zest?  A simple custard-like filling made with just sweetened condensed milk, lime juice and 2 egg yolks?  I mean have you ever just dipped a spoon into a can of sweetened condensed milk?  It's so dreamy.  These bars are so dreamy.

I have this vision that these would make a nice dainty dessert to serve after a weekend brunch or a leisurely afternoon tea.  Instead of  baking in a 8-inch square pan, use an 8-inch spring form.  Press the crust just onto the bottom and bake as instructed.  Once the crust has cooled, smear a thin layer of raspberry jam (the kind with seeds!) over the whole thing and then carefully top with the custard.  Bake again until set.  Cut into slivers and admire the pretty colorful layers.

Either way, in slivers or squares these zippy lime bars are the bee's knees.  The cat's pajamas.  They're like the love child of lemon bars and key lime pie, with a little pistachio thrown into the mix.  It might be the sugar talking here, but limes just may be my new favorite citrus.

Lime Squares with Pistachios and Graham
Adapted from Martha Stewart

There was some emphasis in the original recipe to use unsalted butter and raw unsalted pistachios so that the bars don't come out too salty. But I'm here to say that I only had salted butter and salted pistachios in their shell, and everything came out a-okay. Not salty at all. Just maybe avoid the shelled pistachio nutmeats that are salted. And though it should go without saying, none of that bottled lime juice either (yick!), you only have to squeeze about 4 limes here.

16 squares

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup shelled pistachios
4 ounces graham crackers
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated lime zest

2 large egg yolks
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup fresh lime juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an entire 8x8 baking dish with foil. Spray with non-stick spray.

In a food processor, finely grind pistachios with graham crackers, sugar, and zest. Blend in butter. Press mixture into bottom and 1 inch up sides of prepared pan. Bake until lightly browned, 8 to 12 minutes. Cool crust, 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk. Add lime juice; whisk until smooth. Pour filling into cooled crust; carefully spread to edges. Bake until set, about 15 minutes. Cool in pan on rack; then chill at least 1 hour before serving. Using the foil overhang, lift out of pan, and transfer to a cutting board. With a serrated knife, cut into 16 squares, wiping knife between each cut.

May 4, 2012

The Prickly Bits

Have you had cactus paddles - aka nopales - before?  They have a mild flavor not unlike green beans and kind of squeak between your teeth when you bite into them too.  Nopales are a bit notorious for having some of that slime factor the way okra does, but there are ways to get around that.  Namely, grilling.  I couldn't tell you why or how (the high heat might have something to do with it), but I can highly recommend you try them.  Other excellent ways to avoid the slime factor include staying away from canned or bottled versions of this vegetable, it's best fresh.

I've been seeing a lot more of these nopales pop up in the mexican produce market I frequent, so I assume spring must be their peak season.  The paddles are roughly the size of a large hand and usually still have their nasty spines intact.  You can also find them prepped and chopped in bags too, but those ones are hard to grill (obviously).  A simple swipe of a paring knife down the face and along the edges is all it takes to clean them up, and if you're careful, you'll only get poked maybe once or twice.  No big deal.

Now back to the grilling.  It's what brings this salad together.  The whole dish is kind of like a lighter version of mexican grilled corn, without the mayonnaise and the corn getting stuck in between your teeth. The nopales and corn get tossed with a zippy lime, cumin and olive oil dressing and then it's topped with chopped cilantro and mild queso fresco.  A little sliced avocado for good measure and you're good to go.

We enjoyed this as a salad, but you could absolutely go the taco route too if you're looking for more of a meal.  Either use this as the filling on its own and top with a good smoky-spicy hot sauce, or add in some cubed sautéed sweet potatoes and black beans.

As for me this weekend?  I'll just have to find room for more of this salad in between all the chips and salsa and grapefruit margaritas.  Oh yes, it's Cinco de Mayo!

Grilled Nopales and Corn Salad
Adapted from TheKitchn

If it's still a bit early for corn on the cob where you are, you can use frozen corn kernels and cook them in a hot skillet with a bit of olive oil to get a bit of that char going on. As for the nopales, I suppose you could use a stovetop grill pan but it's much more magical when cooked on an actual grill.  A little chile powder sprinkled over the top would be excellent as well.

4 servings

8 nopales, or cactus paddles
2 ears of sweet white corn
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
1 lime for juicing
a pinch of ground cumin
a handful of cilantro, chopped
1 avocado
1/2 cup queso fresco

Clean and prepare the nopales. Cut each paddle into 1/3-inch strips, cutting to almost, but stoping just short (about 1-inch) of the stem end. It should resemble a fan or a hand. Brush both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Shuck corn and brush with olive oil.
Grill the nopales and corn until soft and slightly charred. The nopales should take about 5 minutes on each side; similar for the corn. Let cool, then cut nopales into 1-inch slices and cut corn kernels off the cob.

In a large bowl, combine nopales, corn, lime juice, cumin, cilantro, and a light drizzle of olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, garnish with sliced avocado and queso fresco.