Orzo Cucumber Salad

Let’s talk about a basic salad. One that has the very basic formula of vegetable+grain+lemon juice+olive oil+cheese. Are you with me? I worry that you may be bored with something so simple, something I’m confident you have figured out on your own.

Yet I feel the urge to plug for the very basic salad recipe. There’s something so refreshing about the ability to bring together a satisfying and healthy dish that goes only a few steps beyond bagged salad greens and bottled dressing, something I used to use to fill in the blanks of meals and snacks here and there. I much prefer something like this, don’t you?

Take note: this is another recipe with less than 10 ingredients!

Orzo Cucumber Salad
Version inspired by Real Simple Magazine

3-4 ounces cucumber, chopped
~2 ounces another vegetable, like green pepper, chopped
2 ounces Feta/approx. 1/2 Cup, crumbled
3 small scallions, thinly sliced
1.5 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1.5 Tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper

Consider that there are unlimited options for variation here. This other recipe I was considering used sun-dried tomato and red onion. Shallots would work. And if you are fresh out of fresh lemons, champagne or white wine vinegar make sense.

If you're wondering what I am doing with the rest of that sizable green pepper, it is going into this weekend's Super Bowl chili.

If you’re wondering what I am doing with the rest of that sizable green pepper, it is going into this weekend’s Super Bowl chili.

Cook the orzo according to the package directions. Drain; run under cold water to cool and shake well to remove excess water.

Prepare vegetables:
Aside: as you know, I made a resolution to take prompter action on my task list. One such task was to have the kitchen knives professional sharpened, something we never had done. We have a honing device, like this:
which you’re supposed to use often, and an old electric sharpener kinda like this that never provided satisfactory results. In my singular experience, it is surprisingly easy to find a traveling knife sharpener who picks up the phone, makes an appointment to come to your house at your convenience, and then accepts payment on a per knife basis. Easy peasy.

I have noticed a huge improvement in some cases. For some reason, scallions had been giving me trouble with the duller chef’s knife, and is where I felt a serious difference and ease in making thin slices.

In a medium bowl, toss the orzo with the cucumber, Feta, scallions, green pepper, lemon juice, oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper.

Mmm feta. Can't I just eat this?

Mmm feta and lemon juice. Can’t I just eat this?

Enjoy cold or at room temperature.

Just the right spice, just the right heat: Chai Rum Hot Toddy

Hey mid-Atlantic and Northeast friends! It’s pretty cold isn’t it? Dang.

I’m not usually one to let weather affect me, or my plans. Of course this isn’t necessarily a good thing; there have been times I have been in slightly dangerous situations, and times when I have been quite physically uncomfortable. But a little rain? I’m still going to trek through Manhattan to try some diner I heard of, or walk the streets of Nashville in December with no umbrella. Snow is making it challenging to drive? I will walk to Trader Joe’s for groceries. I will say that I’m not nearly as hard-core as my dad, who went skiing the other day in -10 degrees Fahrenheit BEFORE windchill.

Along with variations on food, I can be tempted by an interesting cocktail when I dine out. Recently, at a fairly upscale restaurant (Red Rooster Harlem) I paid $15 for a variation on a hot toddy that I actually could barely palate. It had some kind of spice that made me cough, along with all three of my dinner companions (of course I made them try it). Based on my experience, I can’t really recommend this place in general, but the only perspective I have is from arriving promptly when the restaurant opened for dinner without a reservation on a Saturday night.

Guess what? I have all the ingredients to make my own variation on warm winter cocktail at home.

I incorporated not one but TWO homemade holiday gifts I had received: a spiced rum, and a chai tea concentrate. I realize that this means you’d have hard time replicating it, but I will include a suggestion that uses your own ingredients as a shortcut.

Chai Rum Toddy
Name and ratios suggested by Imbibe
To make 2:
16 ounces of water, boiled in a tea kettle
2 bags of black tea, or English Breakfast
3 ounces of spiced rum, whatever brand you prefer, divided
2 heaping teaspoons of chai tea concentrate, divided

Pour hot water into a vessel to steep the 2 tea bags for 4 minutes.
Pour tea into two serving glasses.

We have a ton of different types of drinking glasses, but darn, we don't have an authentic glass mug for hot toddies!

We have a ton of different types of drinking glasses, but darn, we don’t have an authentic glass mug for hot toddies!

If you're feeling fancy, add some kind of garnish (cinnamon stick, piece of orange or lemon rind, star anise pod). It will make a better picture :)

If you’re feeling fancy, add some kind of garnish (cinnamon stick, piece of orange or lemon rind, star anise pod). It will make a better picture 🙂

Measure about 1.5 ounces of rum and pour into each glass. Add a spoonful of chai tea concentrate and stir until combined. Drink immediately and feel warm and fuzzy.

Suggested variation:
16 ounces of water, boiled in a tea kettle
2 bags of chai tea
3 ounces of spiced rum
, divided
2 heaping teaspoons of honey, divided
A splash of milk or cream, to taste

Bundle up out there!

Having a (meat)ball

I keep having to remind myself to actively rotate through my pantry Asian ingredients. Sometimes I’m tempted to launch some kind of elaborate system for tracking how often I use certain items. Something that goes beyond the blue tape on the utensils and more closely resembles those charts in gas station bathrooms, where workers record the date and time it was last cleaned. I do think that keeping a rough inventory of pantry items is useful for reducing waste (and critical in professional kitchens), but perhaps this idea is a bit extreme for my two-person household. Either way, last week I decided it was time to use Asian ingredients again. I had set aside a recent Cooking Light magazine recipe that utilized a lot of what I had on hand. It also happened to be a meat dish, which I hadn’t cooked lately.

Japanese Meatballs or “Tsukune”
From Cooking Light

2 teaspoons sesame oil
3 ounces sliced shiitake mushroom caps
1 Tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
, divided
1 Tablespoons minced garlic, divided
1.5 Tablespoons dry sherry
1.5 teaspoons red miso
1 pound ground chicken or turkey*
(or pork, probably)
1/3 Cup panko
1.5 teaspoons cornstarch
scant 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
, to taste
scant 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1-2 green onions
, thinly sliced
1 medium egg white**

3 Tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
3 Tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
1 Tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1 Tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons fresh ginger
, peeled and grated
1 chile, such as serrano, thinly sliced
Other ingredients:
Cooking spray
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

**1 large egg white was called for in the original recipe, which called for 50% more meat. I only purchased 1 pound, so I scaled everything back, but I didn’t use less than the 1 egg white. The meatballs were a little wetter and harder to keep together as a result, so I would suggest using less than 1 full egg white for 1 pound meat.

For the meatballs, first prepare to sauté the vegetables by prepping the first four ingredients.
Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once heated, add oil and swirl to coat.
Add mushrooms, 1.5 teaspoons minced ginger, and 1.5 teaspoons garlic; cook 2 minutes. Add sherry and cook until liquid evaporates and mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool while you chop and measure the remaining meatball ingredients. In a mini food processor, place mushroom mixture along with the red miso. Pulse until very finely chopped, scraping down as needed.
Combine mushroom mixture, remaining 1.5 teaspoons minced ginger, remaining 1.5 teaspoons garlic, meat, and remaining meatball ingredients (through egg white) in a bowl. Shape mixture into 1 inch meatballs–approximately 24. At this point, if your meatballs are staying together well, you could skewer them onto 6 inch bamboo skewers so that they could be grilled on the stick. I did not do any threading (nor did other reviewers) and I don’t think it’s necessary.
Chill for 30 minutes.

To prepare sauce, add mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar to a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until slightly thickened (this took at least 5 minutes for me).
Remove from heat. After sauce has cooled slightly, stir in juice, 2 teaspoons grated ginger, and chile. Split the sauce into two bowls, saving anywhere from 2-4 Tablespoons to serve with the finished meatballs.

This chile pepper from my garden might have had a real kick when it was fresh, but after drying out for so long it mellowed out too much! Definitely use a pepper with some heat; it's a crucial part of rounding out the dish.

This chile pepper from my garden might have had a kick with fresh, but after drying out for so long it mellowed out too much! Definitely use a pepper with some heat; it’s a crucial part of rounding out the dish.

Heat a grill pan or a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Coat pan with cooking spray or oil of choice. Place half the meatballs in the pan, as will fit, and cook until brown on all sides and 165 degrees F at the center, which should take about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and brush over with some of the sauce. Repeat with remaining meatballs.
Serve sprinkle with sesame seeds and reserved 2 sauce on the side–the sauce really makes the dish. In fact, I don’t think it would hurt to double or 1.5x the sauce portion of the recipe.

*While delicious, when using turkey in these meatballs instead of chicken I found the turkey flavor to be more pronounced that I would have liked. For my husband and me, turkey brings to mind flavors of Thanksgiving, such as sage and thyme, even when those ingredients aren’t present! Sage and thyme certainly don’t mesh with the other ingredients in this recipe. Use ground chicken instead if you can.

I continue to make the effort to thumb through recipes from my cookbook collection. This time I sought out Alice Waters’ suggestions for preparing bok choy, which I thought would be an excellent Asian side. I had purchased her newest book in conjunction with a talk she gave at my college’s club. I hadn’t heard her speak at length before, and it was clear that she has unshakeable vision and hope for the future of our food and eating. She is particularly driven, and amazingly optimistic, about things we can do to improve school meals.

Bok Choy Sautéed with Ginger and Garlic
From The Art of Simple Food II by Alice Waters

1 bunch of bok choy or 2-3 bunches of baby bok choy
2 teaspoons olive, coconut or other vegetable oil
4 garlic gloves, smashed
2 1-inch slices of ginger, peeled and smashed
Salt to taste
A splash of fish sauce

Remove blemished leaves from bok choy plants. Slice a small amount off the base and half, quarter, or leave whole, depending on the size. Soak in a bowl of water to loosen grit, rinse, and drain.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil, then garlic and ginger. Cook until the garlic starts to darken in color and then add bok choy. Cook for several minutes, stirring and tossing, until it reaches your preferred level of tenderness.
Season with a splash of fish sauce and a smidge of salt.


New Ideas

Many people may be ramping up their cooking as part of the new year, whether the reason is to be healthier, to reign in food spending, or, like me, to enjoy new cookbooks that were acquired as part of the holiday season.

Matt’s cousin, an impressive cook and founder of Cooking with Kyler, along with his wife, gifted us with the Ottelenghi: The Cookbook. I had been meaning for a long time to borrow the much-talked-about Jerusalem cookbook from my library, so this was a nice treat to experience Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s style of cooking.

It seems to me that many of these restaurant-chef authored books incorporate more of those hard-to-find or very recipe-specific ingredients, a lot of homemade components, and frequent scratch-based instructions in their recipes (i.e. home pickling, stocks, and doughs). I have yet to fully commit myself to such an approach. I don’t strive for perfect authenticity. Especially when becoming introduced to a new cookbook, I gravitate toward the recipes that require minimal advance preparation.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi start the book by listing some of their favorite ingredients, many of which I’m on board with but some that I won’t rush to acquire (rose water) or to which am not ready to commit (sumac). I love their #8 item, pomegranate. The first recipe I prepared from the book was a fennel salad with beautiful pomegranate seeds and lemon dressing (I left out the sumac that was listed) as part of a New Year’s Eve meal for two. I had a fennel bulb left over, so that drove my decision to make the below recipe.
Fennel, Cherry Tomato, and Crumble Gratin
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook
Scaled down to about 2 servings from the original 6-8

Crumble ingredients:
Makes about 10 ounces

150 grams (a little over 1.5 Cups) all-purpose flour
50 grams/1/4 Cup “superfine” sugar (I used regular sugar and whizzed it in the food processor)
100 grams/6.5 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

If starting from a stick of butter, I recommend cutting it into the small cubes and then returning those cubes to the refrigerator or freezer to ensure they are very cold when added to your mixer or food processor.

Put the flour, sugar, and butter in a bowl to mix with your hands, or in an electric stand mixer, or, like me, in a food processor to work into uniform read crumb consistency. Transfer to a container. You’ll use about 2/3 of it if making a smaller portion of the vegetables like below. The rest can be kept in the freezer for a later date.
9 ounce fennel bulb
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 tsp thyme leaves
, plus a few whole sprigs
1 clove garlic
, crushed
1 tsp course salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/3 Cup milk or cream
(I used 2%)
2/3 recipe of Crumble from above
a little over 1 ounce/33 grams Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Approximately 1/2 Cup/150 grams (but this is really to taste) cherry tomatoes, preferably on the vine
a sprinkling of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Trim along the top and the base of the fennel stalks. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise, and slice each half into pieces about 2/3 inch thick.
Add to a large bowl with olive oil, thyme leaves, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss.
Pour into an ovenproof dish and pour milk/cream over the mixture. Mix the Crumble and the Parmesan and sprinkle on top. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for about 45 minutes.

I forgot to add the milk until partway through the cooking time. Fortunately, it turned out OK!

I forgot to add the milk until partway through the cooking time. Fortunately, it turned out OK!

Remove the dish from the oven and remove the aluminum. Add the tomatoes on top, and scatter some thyme springs on top of that.
How about an extra sprinkling of cheese for good measure?

How about an extra sprinkling of cheese for good measure?

Here’s another reason this recipe caught my attention, and how I was resourceful–these off-season tomatoes actually came from my garden. I think they were one of the the last batches picked from my plants back in November, and they didn’t look especially appealing to eat raw so I roasted them. Then I froze them because I wasn’t feeling the urge to eat them at the time. Since this recipe called for roasting as well, I was happy to use them.

Return the dish to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes, approximately. You want to be able to poke through the fennel easily and ideally achieve a golden color. Allow the dish to rest out of the oven for a few minutes before sprinkling with parsley.

I was able to pull a few last acceptable-looking leaves from this plant before I laid it to rest for good.

I was able to pull the last acceptable-looking leaves from this plant before I laid it to rest for good.

As usual, I forgot to add the parsley until after the photos.

As usual, I forgot to add the parsley until after the photos.

Now I want to eat these tomatoes! The sugar and butter in the Crumble make the dish fairly indulgent. I will have to see what the rest of that Crumble can do for other roasted vegetables, perhaps ones I don’t especially like.
Here’s to trying even more new things in the new year!

Cop Out

I had a mini epiphany the other night, over a copper pan.
I was about to execute a simple chicken piccata recipe in the short period of time I had before leaving for choir rehearsal. It called for one of those shiny stainless steel pans that conduct heat very well (read: All-Clad, or in my case, Costco All-Clad knockoff), because you sear the meat and then boil liquid to make a sauce scraping up the brown bits. But the four chicken cutlets I had weren’t going to really fit in any of the sizes of Kirkland sauté pans. I had two choices: cook them in two batches in the proper style pan, or cook them in a large nonstick pan that wouldn’t brown the meat nicely. Actually, I had another choice. That beautiful, shiny, glamorous, high-quality copper pan, which we received as a wedding gift more than three years ago and have never used, is the perfect size for browning four chicken cutlets in a pan. So I did it.

I have complaints about certain other people, who refuse to make a decision or take action on a matter and resist discussion because they say they are behind on so many other important responsibilities that need addressing first. Yet I witness them succumb to so many other distractions. Then days, weeks, months go by. I can’t help but wonder how hard it would be to devote 30 minutes to the subject in question?

But I was acting like one of those people. I thought to myself, once I have a weekend night set aside for cooking a fancy glorious feast, perhaps involving lobster and scallops and truffle oil, then I will ceremoniously take the copper pan from its throne, and actually cook with it.

Right then and there, I decided that I want to change my outlook in the new year. I want to tackle my “tasks” and projects head-on. If I call these “goals,” what is a goal without a timeline? If it was for paid work, I would have a deadline, or at least try to set one for myself. At home, there are a handful of piles scattered about, having to do with projects that aren’t even necessarily that important, in the grand scheme of things, but they have been hanging over my head for a while; I’m talking well before the holiday season (so feel free to call me out when I use that excuse in public). At some point, I need to set aside 30 minutes for the project, or ditch it all together (ideally the materials can be donated rather than trashed).

There is the tray full of 200+ chopsticks I rescued from disposal and imagined that they would be perfect for something crafty. There is the manilla envelope messily stuffed with wedding cards we received, again, three years ago, which I hoped to re-read, sort through to preserve perhaps some of the most precious, and recycle the rest. There’s the junk mail I collected last May and June so that I could submit the information to DMAchoice.org and reduce the quantity we receive. And there is the small stack of books for recreational reading that I have barely dented. I can do better at managing these personal things. I could also change my approach to things like the copper pot, which I was “saving for a special occasion,” and remember that life is short–you never know exactly how short it is.

The year started out well. Matt and I were hanging out with some friends on New Year’s Day when the topic come up of our wine collection. Matt observed that there must be several wines we’ve had on hand for quite some time, including a 1995 Red Bordeaux blend, and we’re not sure when they are supposed to be consumed. So I decided to pull that wine out, to move it to the top of our queue of wines to drink. Then, I Googled the wine for its recommended drinking dates/years, and found it should be consumed through 2013. Only 1 day late! We opened it then and there and enjoyed it with friends over a game of cards.

Oh, and here’s the chicken picatta recipe, in case you’re interested. It’s one of those simple and delicious recipes that can usually be made with what you have on hand.

Chicken Piccata
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine, which published it as a Turkey Piccata recipe

4 thin chicken breast halves (about 1 pound), either purchased as cutlets or from splitting whole breasts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon olive oil
, divided
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 Cup shallots, chopped
1 Tablespoon garlic, sliced
3/4 Cup dry white wine
1/2 Cup unsalted chicken stock
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 Tablespoons capers
, drained
2 Tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, for garnish

Sprinkle cutlets with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons oil and turn to coat pan.
Add 4 cutlets, brown and cook 2 minutes on each side or until done (instant read thermometer reads 165 degrees F). Remove cutlets from pan; keep warm.

Add 1 Tablespoon butter to pan to melt. Sauté shallots and garlic in pan for 1 minute. Increase heat, add wine, bring to a boil, and cook 2 minutes, scraping pan to loosen browned bits.

Use a whisk to thoroughly combine chicken stock and flour. Add stock mixture to pan, and return to a boil. Cook 5 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Remove from heat; stir in remaining 1 Tablespoon butter, juice, and capers. Pour over cutlets. Garnish with parsley.


This is post-washing and returning to display. I think it still looks great, don't you?

Here’s the pan after it has been used and washed. I think it still looks great, don’t you?