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.

Unbeatable Beets

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Best. Beets. Ever. Sans the hard-cooked eggs, which Tanis said were optional.

Best. Beets. Ever. Sans the hard-cooked eggs, which Tanis said were optional.

“As Bokonon [actually the late author Kurt Vonnegut] says: ‘Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.'” And I’m sure, were Bokonon here, he’d be happy to include “peculiar dining suggestions.” A couple of weeks ago, my pal Dan Fredman sent me an email about a wine dinner happening at Lucques in Beverly Hills, celebrating both the loose confederation of wine producers known as In Pursuit of Balance and the release of chef David Tanis‘ latest cookbook, One Good Dish. It was on a Thursday night, which interfered with The Bride’s workout schedule, and it was to start at 7 PM, which is always a challenge in Los Angeles traffic. I knew of Tanis tangentially, but I was not deeply acquainted with his history, so my natural tendency was to give it a miss. But Bokonon spoke to me, as he often has before, so I made the reservation, albeit with some reservations. But not many: dinner at Lucques has always been delightful, and at the worst, I’d have a chance to hang with Dan, which is always edifying. Also, as part of the deal, I’d get a copy of the cookbook, which kinda made the whole thing a bit of a no-brainer.

When we arrived, Dan greeted us and bade us to sit at his table, where Tanis himself was ensconced, along with a couple of other of our acquaintances whose conviviality is highly evident. The author was, by design, supposed to circulate. In practice, though, he hung out mostly at our table, often serving the dishes that he himself created.

He cooks, he scores. He even serves.

He cooks, he scores. He even serves.

The entire menu was — and this is a technical term — really tasty. All of it came from One Good Dish, with page numbers thoughtfully included. No doubt I could wax poetic about the crostini, or the espresso-hazelnut bark, and perhaps I will after I have made them. But this time, I’m going to lavish my praise upon the beets.

A perfect meal.

A perfect meal.

I’ve never been a big fan of beets. I’ve tried roasting them, cooking them in soup, glazing them, whatever. It’s not like I haven’t tried to like them, but I never had a beet-eating experience that made me want more. Until April 3, 2014, when The Bride, with whom I have been paired for more than three decades now, heard these words pass my lips for the first time ever: “May I have some more of the beets, please?”

Tanis’ Red Beet Salad, at its heart, is grated raw beets served in a fancy vinaigrette. And the Bugatti Veyron, at its heart, is a motorcar. The ingredients aren’t hard to locate or particularly sophisticated, but it’s absolutely worth using the very best available to you, especially super-fresh beets, and really good Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. I used some red wine vinegar that I had picked up at Turley Wine Cellars, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Oliana.

A minor digression: The difference between $15 olive oil and $3 olive oil is often hugely significant. I highly recommend splurging whatever your budget can afford on a great bottle of olive oil for finishing soups and salads, serving on bread, etc. Oliana in West Hollywood and Beyond the Olive in Pasadena and Stonehouse California Olive Oil in the San Francisco Ferry Building all have tasting rooms, where you can select from a variety of olive oils with a wide spectrum of characteristics. Most major cities in America have some gourmet store that offers a similar experience. Do give it a go; if you haven’t done it before, you will be shocked — pleasantly, but shocked nonetheless — at just how different olive oils can be.

All you need to make this excellent salad.

All you need to make this excellent salad.

Basically, you need to peel and grate the beets (I used both red and golden beets for my version), being very careful not to give yourself a case of what I like to call “box grater rash.” Alternatively, you can julienne the beets with a sharp knife. You might be well advised not to be wearing your bestest white shirt while doing this. Fresh beets are juicy, n’est–ce pas?

A bunch of beets.

A bunch of beets.

After the beets have been cut or grated, season them with a little salt and pepper and set them aside while you prepare the dressing. [I put them in the refrigerator to give them a slight chill-down.]

Great grated beets!

Great grated beets!

From the shallot to the cornichons on the ingredients list, everything is diced and/or measured and/or whatever as appropriate and gets mixed in a bowl. [Please consider buying the book; while this recipe isn’t complicated, it will do your karma good to support writers and chefs such as Tanis. And it’s a really terrific book.] The finished dressing will look something like the picture below, except that I took the shot before adding the parsley. Idiot me. So imagine some chopped flat-leaf parsley. Pour the dressing over the salad, mix, and let it marinate for at least 10 minutes. [Again, I put it in the fridge for this step.]

Yummy dressing for yummy salad.

Yummy dressing for yummy salad.

Serve, eat, and eat some more.

The second-best part about this salad is that it still tastes terrific the day after.

Mmmmm. Still good the next day.

Mmmmm. Still good the next day.

The recipe claims to serve four to six people, but don’t be surprised if your guests (or yourself!) are keen on seconds.

Thai One On, or Larb is Just a Four-Letter Word

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A somewhat inauthentic take on a great Thai salad

A somewhat inauthentic take on a great Thai salad

As truth would have it, despite its being on pretty much every Thai restaurant menu in North America, the salad known as larb actually originated in Laos, though versions can be found throughout Thailand, particularly in the northern part of the country, as well as in Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province (where there is a significant Lao community). The recipes from which I concocted my version come from highly authentic sources, Bon Appetit magazine and Giada De Laurentiis. Fortunately, I’ve had it a about a gazillion restaurants, so I knew the flavour profile. Also, being in the greater Los Angeles area, I had access to ingredients that may be more difficult to obtain in Dubuque, Des Moines, or Denton.

Rather than the traditional ground beef or chicken, I opted for lamb both because I wanted a break from beef and chicken, and also because the market was having a ground lamb sale. [Incidentally, fish and duck are popular protein options for larb as well, so feel free to try your hand with whatever’s at hand. I may yet take a whack at escargot larb if I ever get the wind up.]

Prep consists of a bunch of chopping, followed by a little sizzle in the pan, followed by dumping said protein on either the trad lettuce (or radicchio or endive) leaf, or piling it on some mixed greens, as I did earlier this evening. It’s a mere 30 minutes from concept to plate, making it a perfect alternative to a rabbit food salad with a burger patty sitting forlornly alongside, and simple to prepare after a long day’s work, presuming you have all the ingredients to hand. For those who don’t have immediate access to fresh whole lemongrass (or who don’t want to work at cutting it into bits so small they don’t appear as wood chips in the salad), many supers in the US (including Kroger and its subsidiaries) carry lemongrass paste in the produce section. It’s a bit pricey, but one tube will take you a long way.

Ground lamb and spices being browned

Ground lamb and spices being browned

Larb with Ground Lamb
INGREDIENTS
Dressing
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce

Lamb (or other protein)
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb (chicken, turkey, beef, or pork may be substituted)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons thinly sliced lemongrass
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped (you can find these at Asian, Middle Eastern, and some Indian markets)
2-3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 small red Thai chile (such as prik kee noo), thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Greens
1 head iceberg lettuce, or 16 oz. mesclun mix (4 oz. per serving)
1 small bunch cilantro (optional)

PREPARATION
Dressing
Stir all ingredients in a small bowl to blend; set aside.

Lamb (or other protein)
Combine ingredients 2-8 in a food processor, or just chop on cutting board. Season ground meat with salt and place it in a large heavy nonstick skillet over medium–high heat. Add spice mixture and sauté, breaking up meat into small pieces with the back of a spoon, until it begins to turn golden brown and is cooked through, about 6 minutes.
Place mesclun (or a couple of iceberg lettuce leaves) on each plate. Top leaves with meat mixture, dividing evenly. Garnish with cilantro (if desired) and spoon reserved dressing over.

Super fast, super easy, super tasty summer salad

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Tomato Watermelon Basil Salad

Tomato Watermelon Basil Salad

It’s hot. It’s muggy. It’s summer. Who wants to stand over the stove for an hour or two to make a nice risotto? Not me, that’s for doggone sure. Instead, here’s a no-bake, so-simple-a-kid-could-assemble-it dish magnificently suited for a summer weeknight. I first tasted a version of this at Church & State bistro in downtown Los Angeles, and I was hooked.

TOMATO WATERMELON BASIL SALAD
INGREDIENTS
3 pounds or so seedless watermelon, diced
1 package cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced (12 oz. or more)
4-5 sprigs of basil leaves, chopped or chiffonaded
3-4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (or other wine/champagne vinegar) to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste

Slice and dice half a seedless watermelon (or an entire “personal size” watermelon, should you have one), chop up a fistful of fresh basil, take a 12 oz. container (or about 1.5 – 2 cups) of cherry or grape tomatoes and slice them in half, add about 3 – 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and 1 -2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss together in a bowl, allow the dish to chill for half an hour (or not), and have at it. Sprinkle just a tiny bit of kosher salt on each portion before serving.

For an interesting variation on this recipe, substitute chopped mint for basil.

As you can see from the photo, this salad pairs nicely with Pine Ridge’s Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend, as well as Ironstone Vineyards’ Obsession Symphony.