Monday, July 25, 2011

Too hot to cook; therefore Pasta Salad

With the majority of the U.S. suffering under a severe heat wave, it is just too hot to cook. But, we still have to eat and we crave something light and refreshing.

Enter pasta salads. Pasta salads are notorious for being the flavorless, wilted dishes at picnics and potlucks.  Its reputation has not been helped by the scads of boxed mixes on the grocery shelves (please don't buy those!!) or by those who like to stir in mayonnaise-based dressings (does anyone really love macaroni salad? Anyone? Anyone?) Some like the convenience of a bottled salad dressing in a pasta salad. But don't fall into that temptation. A homemade dressing is easy to make and will really shine here. A pasta salad done right is easy, nutritious and best of all won't heat up the kitchen.

This is one of my favorites, which is a very basic recipe. You can play with it, adding different meats and vegetables according to your whim. Really like grape tomatoes? Add another handful. Or substitute sun-dried tomatoes for fresh.  Love broccoli? Blanch some and toss it in. How about olives or roasted red peppers? Delish! Or add little mozzerella balls or crumbled feta into the salad. If you like, you can leave out the meat and serve the salad as a side with grilled meat.

If you make it the night before or early in the morning, not only will the flavors improve, but you will have a cool kitchen and a perfect summer dinner.

Serve with a rustic loaf of bread and iced tea.

Stay cool, hydrated, sunscreened and safe, my friends!

Basic Pasta Salad
makes about 4-5 meal-sized servings

1/3 cup first cold pressed olive oil
3 tablespoons good quality red wine vinegar - I like the Alessi* brand, which I buy at Whole Foods
1 teaspoon salt
3 drops hot pepper sauce
1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 pound uncooked pasta (I love farfalle)
1/2 pound deli roast beef, thinly sliced (as for sandwiches) and cut into bite-sized strips
1 cup chopped celery
8 oz grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1 cucumber, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons basil leaves, chopped

Combine all dressing ingredients in a jar with tight-fitting lid and shake. Set aside.

Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente and drain. Mix in some of the dressing, pour into a large bowl  and let pasta cool, stirring occasionally.

When pasta has cooled, combine with remaining ingredients. Pour dressing overall and toss.

Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to blend flavors.

*not a paid advertisement--I just really prefer this brand for both red and white wine vinegars

Friday, July 15, 2011

Holy Cats! It's Greek Salad!

Hans Silvester, "Chat in Grece"
Like most Moms, I frequent a lot of waiting rooms. There's the dentist and the doctor and the orthodontist and myriad other places where I simply have to sit and wait.

On a recent stint in a waiting room, I didn't have anything to read, so picked up a coffee table book there. It is a beautiful book of photographs by Hans Silvester, called Cats in the Sun. He spent years in Greece photographing the cats who live there. The cats, he explains, do not belong to anyone in particular and they do not live inside the homes. But, they are well fed and well cared for by the residents. The photographs are breathtaking: classic white stuccoed buildings against a deep blue sea, simple little tavernas and cafes overflowing with potted flowers and dappled sunlight, and the characteristic narrow flagstone paths, streets and patios. All of Greece becomes a stunning backdrop for exploring these kitties' lives through photographs.

This book lowers my blood pressure every time!

While I have not yet been to Greece, I do love Greek food. During the summer months, I make Greek salads, which, I understand, are ubiquitous on many cafe menus there. The following is one of my favorites because it serves as a whole meal. Because Handsome Dan thinks all meals should include meat,  I grill chicken breasts to slice over the top. If you have time to marinate the chicken in the lemon vinaigrette, make extra and let set overnight. If you don't have time, don't worry--it is delicious without marinating. Shrimp also would be delicious in this salad.

Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken
serves 4

Lemon Vinaigrette
(double recipe if you want to use some for marinade)
1/4 cup first cold pressed olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

Salad Ingredients
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 head Romaine lettuce, chopped or torn into bite-size pieces
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 tomato, chopped
3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion (after slicing, place onion in a strainer and rinse under cold water--this takes out the sharpness)
20 Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced in half
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
lemon zest, fresh oregano, lemon slices for garnish, if desired

Put all dressing ingredients into a small jar, tighten the lid and shake until mixed. Set aside.

Place each chicken breast between two pieces of plastic and pound slightly so that the chicken is of even thickness. There is no need to pound them to smitherines for this recipe. If marinating, place the pounded chicken breasts into a gallon baggie and pour half the dressing/marinade over. Seal the bag and squish the contents so that all the chicken is covered with the marinade. Place in fridge and turn every now and then. Can be marinated for one hour or even overnight.

Brush grill with oil and heat to medium-high (Often, I use my indoor grill pan; it works great for just a few pieces of chicken).  If you haven't marinated the chicken, brush each piece with a little olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. If you have marinated, remove chicken pieces and drain well. Discard marinade. When grill is very hot, place chicken pieces on the diagonal. Let sizzle for a minute then turn pieces so they are on the other diagonal and let grill for 4-5 minutes. Flip chicken pieces and grill another 4-5 minutes. Remove from grill and let rest.

To make the salad, place lettuce, cucumber, tomato, onion and olives in a large bowl. Toss with a bit of the dressing and place portions on individual plates. Slice each chicken breast on the diagonal and scoop onto each salad. Sprinkle with feta cheese. Garnish with a sprinkle of lemon zest and fresh oregano, as well as lemon slices if desired. Serve, passing the remainder of the dressing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dog Days --Sangria Days

Whew! It is the dog days of summer! I love summer, but the heat during these days in July and August can be down right oppressive.

While many believe the expression, "dog days of summer," comes from the lethargy dogs exhibit on the hottest days, the expression really is quite ancient. The Romans named these days the dog days because of the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation, Canis Major, or large dog (one of Orion's hunting dogs). Can you see him here?

From Wikipedia
Yeahhhhh, well.... No? I couldn't either. Okay, so here it is all sketched out for us at night:

From Wikipedia
Weeeeell, okay, I guess I kind of see it.

Personally, when I look at this constellation, I see a pitcher of Sangria. Sangria is the perfect drink for the dog days of summer. It is cool, refreshing and a bit lighter in alcohol than other drinks. So, let's give the poor dog a break. Canis Major, go lie under a porch somewhere. I'm renaming this constellation, Sangria Major.

from Wikipedia

Do you see it? Are you thirsty, now?

Bring on the dog days--er, sangria days.

This recipe is my favorite and makes loads of smooth Sangria--not too tangy, not too sweet. You can halve the ingredients for a smaller get together. Or better yet, make up a full batch, without the club soda, ice and sliced fruit, and keep it in your fridge. Pour a glass or two, add some club soda, fruit and ice and enjoy.

Makes 3+ gallons

2 gallons inexpensive red Zinfandel (2 boxes + 1.5 liter bottle)
1 cup brandy (no substitution)
1/2 cup Cointreau (no substitution)
2 quarts good quality, not-from-concentrate, orange juice
2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup superfine sugar (I start with 3/4 cup and add extra if needed)
12-16 ice cubes
2 quarts chilled club soda
3 oranges, thinly sliced
3 lemons, thinly sliced

Thoroughly chill all ingredients. Pour the wine, brandy and Cointreau into a large punch bowl, pitcher or beverage dispenser. (I bought this one at Target.) Stir orange and lemon juice with the sugar until sugar has dissolved. Then add to bowl and stir to blend. Add ice cubes and soda and garnish with fruit slices.

Recipe from House and Garden Drink Guide, 1973, with my added notes. (and, no, I was not old enough to drink Sangria in 1973, thank you very much)