Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tender Baby Greens Salad {with a little robust punch)

Inspiration can come with a wallop or a gentle nudge... even in cooking. It can be something as simple as a taste that lingers on in your mind; an image that grabs your attention and won't let go; or words that stay with you long after the conversation they rode in on. It's a little seed that nestles in and begins to take root until you yank it free or nurture its growth. And often it's the simplest of ideas that fuel inspiration and result in equally simple rewards. Rewards that get you from the what-should-we-have-for-dinner moments to food-on-the-plate moments with ease.

This time the little nudge was pickled red onions!

I had a variation of this salad while out to lunch with a friend and I couldn't get those sweet-tart onions off my mind. They just added such a great punch of flavor... perfectly paired with meaty kalamatas and slow-roasted tomatoes.

While I initially served this salad as part of a birthday lunch, with little rounds of fresh mozzarella, I substituted hard-boiled egg for the cheese this time out. (And... I properly drained the onions... not doing so will sorely compromise your dressed greens!) The egg is a great little partner to all the zing going on with the pickled onion and olives. And it breaks down beautifully to mingle with the salad dressing in a creamy, wonderful way.

And, of course, there are those stovetop croutons... little knobs of crusty, crunchy seasoned bread that add great texture to this deconstructed salad.

Only the greens get dressed here... a honey-citrus balsamic vinaigrette. Everything else gets nestled alongside for you to bring in in bits and bobs of flavor as you see fit.

The greatest thing about this salad... as most... is it can grow to be whatever you like. Add some cooked salmon or roasted chicken. Layer in some beans (like cannellini, garbanzo or kidney beans). Or platter it with a host of additional fixings for a buffet-like service... pepperoncini, marinated artichoke hearts, salami, cornichons, baby corn... the ideas are endless. Just a little inspiration and you're off on a whole new plan.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cauliflower Caviar

Okay... so this little topping is not really caviar...

Perhaps I should have called this Cauliflower Cheese... or Cheese Au Revoir, as may be more apropos.

Goodbyes are difficult... even with cheese.

Venturing on a dairy-free journey when you'd be happy living life as a Potato-Cheese-Bread girl is no easy undertaking. The challenge has become finding ways to mimic what cheese brings to the dance. A cheesy pasta is not easy without cheese. A tomato-y pasta tastes a bit bland without that pop of parmesan. And a creamy pasta base is a bit more challenging without dairy.

So, enter cauliflower. Oh... and a tofu-based cream cheese-like spread that perfectly melds into a basic tomato sauce to create that creamy consistency and... well.. mimic cheese.

When roasted, cauliflower blooms into this amazing, nutty, golden-tinged magnificence, needing nothing more than a gentle drizzle of olive oil and a good little sprinkle of salt and pepper to get it there. It's so good it's easy to snack it to a finish, straight out of the oven, right off the baking sheet.

Knowing that cauliflower will readily welcome more robust seasoning, I figured it would be the perfect little sprinkle to a plating of pasta. With a healthy pop of paprika, garlic and cayenne pepper, this cauliflower produces a great little punch of flavor that stands in beautifully for the absence of parmesan... or any other sharp, cheesy sprinkle you might think you'd miss. The trick is getting the seasoning just sharp enough to take it past the line that would make it a great side dish plating, but not so far that it doesn't play well with this mild pasta.

This pasta is really all about the cauliflower caviar that tops it. The bed of pasta is a creamy, mild, perfect little stick-to-your-bones plating that shines with the added topping of spicy, roasted cauliflower. Together they dance beautifully in step like a well-choreographed waltz... dipping and bending in flavor... mild to spicy... spicy to mild. Alone they might each be more like wall flowers... the pasta a bit too shy... the cauliflower a bit too out there... each, perhaps, relegated to the fringe of the dance floor. Yet, together they sway nicely... making for a happy hello.

And... for added crunch... you can top it all off with a little sprinkle that I discovered worked quite well ... as it was what I was snacking on while making this meal...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Beets & Baby Greens... for Valentine's

Sweet crimson-colored beets, tender baby greens tossed with a hint of cilantro, slices of creamy avocado, supremes of juicy blood orange, slivers of crunchy radish, and a chop of candied walnuts, all dressed with a citrus champagne vinaigrette... beautiful ingredients that work well together for a bright, colorful, sweet-tart, fresh salad. But... truth be told, it was the opportunity to carve those little beets, shaped whimsically as quintessential chocolate kisses, that drove its making.

I'm a detail girl and, sometimes, it's simply the details that win me over. While I'd love to take credit for thinking up those little carved morsels, they were actually inspired by a texted image I received of a dinner that was had at Maverick in San Francisco, several weeks ago, miles from me... and my kitchen. That particular plating took a more minimalistic approach with cylindric-like towers of turnip and a restrained dusting of grated cheese. It was also served with a sweet little bowl of beet soup... a bowl whose stark white porcelain stood in perfect contrast to the rich rose hue of the soup and whose shape just subtly mimicked that of a heart; a lovely, understated presentation. I will take credit for the little message... written on a bit of parchment (those little beets just begged for that).

Oh... those darling beets! They really are the perfect little orb for carving, with your imagination being your only limitation.

While I'm not a real fan of buying into expressions of love fueled by national marketing campaigns, this simple salad offers such a lovely whimsical nod to February's ode to love that it won me over. Sweet details...