Enter The Octagon. Salad, that is.

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This is going to be a little frustrating for those of you who need precise measurements or who aren’t comfortable grilling a steak. I’m just warning you up front, so you won’t be disappointed and won’t waste your time. That said, if you are agreeable to a bit of improv, you’ll be rewarded with a tasty, carnivore-pleasing meal. It’s called the Octagon Salad, not in homage to the ridiculous 1980 film starring the ridiculous Chuck Norris, but because it has eight elements, to wit:

    INGREDIENTS
    Mixed Greens
    Grilled Steak, cut in strips [Chicken or Pork may be substituted if desired]
    Corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
    Tomatoes (cherry or grape; chopped sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted)
    Marinated Bell Peppers (1 jar usually does it for me)
    Cashews (preferably roasted and salted)
    Tortilla Strips*
    Cilantro-Pepita Caesar Dressing
    Finishing salt

The beauty part of this salad is that, apart from the steak and the tortilla strips, it can all be assembled from pre-packaged ingredients; cherry or grape tomatoes work particularly well in that regard (you can slice them in half if you feel the need). It’s also a terrific way to use up leftover grilled meats, should you have some. While I’ve tried making this with store-bought rotisserie chicken, the texture just doesn’t work, so I advise against it. I haven’t yet tried it with grilled sausage, but I’m sceptical as to whether it would work… maybe an herbed chicken sausage could be acceptable. Or maybe not. [If you find one that fits, please let me know!]

As for the cilantro-pepita dressing, if you happen to live in California (as I do), it’s a pretty good bet that one of your local supermercados carries the El Torito brand, which is right tasty, if somewhat expensive. If you are feeling more adventurous, or are just plain thriftier, copycat recipes for a DIY version can be found here and here.

The steak, corn, tomatoes, and marinated bell peppers can be combined with the dressing ahead of time, and if you have more than one evening’s worth of those ingredients, they may be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Don’t add the cashews or the tortilla strips until the very end, or they’ll lose their crunch (part of this salad’s attraction is its variety of textures). It is best served al fresco with a white wine (Sancerre, Albariño, and Moschofilero all work well) or a rosé (even sparkling!), but if you are watching calories, some lemon and cucumber spa water is an excellent substitute.

Be sure to sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse finishing salt over each individual plate immediately before serving. This is a place where a little Pink Himalayan salt or black “lava” salt (which is just salt mixed with charcoal, incidentally) can add some visual interest. I have a bunch of different salts from all over the world for just this purpose. Trust me, your guests will feel special when you tell them that you had your grey sea salt shipped in from the Guerande Salt Ponds on the Breton coast. Or they may just consider you a dimwitted gasbag easily fished in by the latest culinary fad. But either way, it will be entertaining for them, and that’s the point.

And yes, I realize that the finishing salt brings the ingredient total up to nine. But who would want to eat a nonagon salad?

*The way to get the tortilla strips done as in the photo is to purchase a package of taco-sized corn or flour tortillas (spinach- or tomato-enhanced tortillas add an extra colourful dimension), cut them into quarters, stack the quarter-rounds and slice off 1/4″ (6mm) strips. Heat up about 1/2″ (13mm) of canola or other high-smoke-point oil in a frying pan, and dump in the strips, stirring until browned. Remove strips from frying pan with slotted spatula and cool on paper towels. If you have extra, pop them in a Ziploc bag and save for later; they should be fine for at least a week, but they never seem to last that long.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetarian (but not Vegan) Avgolemono

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Yakko digs Greek soup.

Yakko digs Greek soup.

One of the very first Greek dishes I can remember tasting (long before I ever visited Greece) was a deli-style version of this soup. This version recreates it fairly well (except for the chicken pieces), presuming my taste memory is accurate. The big plus here is that it can be made in a little more than half an hour, and requires practically no prep.

Avgolemono is the Greek compound word for “egg” and “lemon,” and doesn’t necessarily refer to the soup (an egg-lemon sauce that shares the name is used widely with pork, chicken, and grape leaf dishes). That said, avgolemono is often called the “national soup of Greece,” even though research seems to indicate that it likely originated in Portugal or Spain, quite probably among the Sephardic Jewish popuation. [It’s probable that they were also responsible for the original Tarta de Santiago, whose picture adorns the top of this blog.]

A couple of notes. I happen to like the version thickened with potato starch in the winter, when I’m serving it hot. In the summer, I tend to serve it chilled, and without the extra thickener. No need to be too fussy about any of the amounts here; the recipe is easily halved, and you can use less or more orzo or lemon depending on your taste. I recently added the lemon zest and white pepper to the mix, and I find they both give the soup a subtle boost. The beauty part about the orzo (as opposed to rice, which is used in some recipes) is not only that it’s a great way to use up excess cooked pasta if you have it, but since dry orzo only takes 7-9 minutes to rehydrate, you don’t have to cook it separately. If you have leftover cooked rice, you can easily substitute it for the orzo. [Dry rice will take 40 minutes or so to reconstitute.]

Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen named Orrington Farms’ Chicken Flavored Vegan Broth Base & Seasoning as the best commercial starter for vegetable broth, and the latter published a recipe for making your own base. The downside of most store-bought vegetable stocks is that they’re sodium bombs, and many of them just don’t taste very good. The lemon in this recipe does a decent job of masking their weaknesses, but the better a veggie broth you use for a starter, the better the finished product will turn out.

Former White House Communications Director and current ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos makes a similar, if slightly more complicated, version if you want to watch an ordinary home cook in action.

Ingredients

8 cups / 1.8 litres vegetable stock
4 cups / 800g cooked orzo (or 2 cups / 400g dry)
6 eggs, whisked
2/3 cup / 160ml lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. / 12g potato starch (optional)
2 sprigs of fresh dill, chopped (optional)
white pepper to taste (optional)

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Preparation

1. Heat vegetable stock and chopped dill (if you’re using it) in large pot or Dutch oven, to just below boiling. Add dried or cooked orzo when stock is warmed. DO NOT allow this to come to a boil, or it will curdle when you add the egg and lemon mixture, below.

2. While stock is heating, whisk eggs and lemon juice in a separate bowl.

3. Temper egg-lemon mixture by drizzling in 2 cups / 500ml warm stock while whisking continuously. Transfer tempered egg-lemon mixture back to soup pot.

4. if thickening with potato starch, place 1 tbsp. / 12 g in the bowl in which you tempered the eggs. Gradually whisk in a ladle of liquid from soup pot until you have a slurry free of lumps. Transfer slurry to soup pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep orzo from sticking to the pot. Soup will thicken noticeably, enough to coat spoon.

5. Zest lemon over soup pot just before serving, and stir to incorporate. Whisk in white pepper to taste (if desired), and ladle soup into mugs or small bowls, making sure to get plenty of orzo. Garnish with dill if desired.