Looking for a Quick Lunch?

Green Salad with Chicken plus Fresh Fruit and Herb Dressing

Think you can’t cook?  This recipe’s great flavor comes not from fancy cooking skills but simply from good ingredients.  Stellar ingredients make a cook’s life easy!  So be sure to read the Buying Notes for each ingredient to help you get the best.

Making the Strawberry Apricot Dressing

The combination of apricots and basil is as lovely to look at as it is to eat.

Step 1  Make the Dressing

If you can dump things into a blender and push a button, you can make this dressing:

  • 3/4 cup fresh apricot-strawberry puree (from about 3 apricots and 6-8 small strawberries)
  • 2 Tbsp. walnut oil (or high quality olive oil)
  • 1 Tbsp. brown rice vinegar (if you don’t have some, it’s worth stocking)
  • Double handful of fresh basil leaves (see picture)
  • Single handful of fresh parsley (see picture)
  • Just a small spoonful of fresh tarragon leaves (they are a lot stronger than basil and parsley)
  • Sea salt (start with 1/4 tsp.)
  • Freshly ground pepper (start with 1/8 tsp.)
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar

Directions Combine everything in the cup of an

A double handful of basil

immersion blender (or food processor or blender) and process for just 20-30 seconds to combine.  Now comes the most critical step:  TASTE.  For ANY recipe, there is a 90% chance that the flavors need to be adjusted to suit your taste buds.  So pour the dressing into a small bowl, dip a piece of lettuce into it and taste.  Stir in more salt and pepper first, then more chopped basil, parsley or vinegar to find a taste that is good to you.  Always go slowly and taste after each addition.

Serve dressing at room temperature.  To my taste buds, fruits taste better when they aren’t chilled.

Buying Notes Flavor-less fruit = flavor-less dressing.  For fruit that taste like fruit not

A single handful of parsley

cardboard, head straight to the source:  the grower, usually an organic one.  Next, taste before buying very much.  If the grower doesn’t offer samples, buy just one piece and taste.  Once home, let stone fruits like apricots and peaches ripen.  Doing so in paper bags is often recommended.  Let the fruit get pretty soft, since that point, just before it goes overboard, yields flavor most reminiscent of heaven.  Keep a close eye on the fruit (especially if it’s hidden in paper bags!) and keep tasting each day, watching for optimal flavor.

Variations Could be equally good with whatever fruit is in season: sweet cherries and apricots, peaches and raspberries, or pears and raspberries.

A Double Handful of Basil

A small spoonful of tarragon leaves

Step 2   Make the Green Salad

  • 4-6 cups very fresh lettuce, washed and torn (or cut with a serrated knife if you’re in a hurry)
  • 1-2 med. carrots, grated finely

Directions Nothing too complicated about this step, although it does help to wash the lettuce in a good salad spinner, so you end up with crispy, not soggy lettuce.  Another trick:  Wash the lettuce the night before.  Place in salad storer, cover with a clean, folded tea towel, then seal and refrigerate until the next day.  The tea towel extracts excess water, leaving the lettuce crispy and light.

For the carrots, grate using the fine hole on your box grater for something different.

Buying Notes A salad is only as good as its greens.  They need to taste fairly good on their own, so the dressing is just enhancing flavor, not making up for an absence thereof.   Good lettuce is where local farmer’s markets shine, since lettuce is a crop that really tastes best when fresh picked–so good you barely even need dressing, if you can believe it.

In mid-summer, finding good lettuce can be tricky, since it’s is a cool weather crop.  I always taste a bit before investing in a bag to make sure it’s not bitter.  Also look for farmers who have taken steps to work around the heat issue, like Oxford Gardens at the Boulder Farmers’ Market, where owner Peter Volz sells a heat-tolerant variety that is quite good.  Abbondanza, also at the Boulder Market, seems to have perfected a technique for hot-weather lettuce growing as I’ve gotten great lettuce there even in July and August.

Step 3  Add Chicken to the Salad

  • 1-2 cups chicken, shredded or cut into small pieces

Buying Notes Again, this is another simple step with finding good chicken being the only tricky part , since not all store chickens are not created equally.  Again, it is usually local and/or organic birds that have more flavor.  This salad is a great way to use of leftover bits and pieces.  If you don’t have any however, then try canned chicken for a highly convenient option.  Before you blanch at the thought of canned bird, read the next blog entry on two, surprisingly taste brands I’ve recently discovered.

Want to learn more about the little tricks and tips that make everyday good meal making natural, stress-free and even a little creative?  Join Mary Collette in one of her Whole Kitchen Way to Wholesome Meal Making classes.


Using Fresh Herbs at 11,000 Feet

. . .  and the “Good to Better Cooking Continuum”

You’d think cooking might fall off the priority scale in a bare bones hut, at 11,400 feet above sea level, in the middle of winter.  Actually, cooking, meals  and food conversation were a good 50 percent of the fun on a recent altitude adventure.  In fact, it was a deep discussion about the proper use of fresh cilantro that prompted this blog.

Heading Into the Barnard Hut

A friend and I start our Altitude Adventure

First, however, some background.  A friend and I accepted a challenge to ski seven miles with some outdoor pros to a backwoods hut in the mountains above Aspen, Colorado.  While it was a cakewalk for them, my friend and I view the trip one of the crowning physical achievements of our entire lives.  Things might have been easier, of course, if we hadn’t hauled in two pounds of hashed brown potatoes, one pound of cheese, 18 eggs and the fixings for a dried apple crisp.

As mentioned, however, cooking was a big part of the trip, which is how we came to be discussing the proper use of fresh cilantro when the world outside was frozen solid.  One of the dinner chefs was planning to make Thai Coconut Soup.  To conserve space, he had mixed the fresh chopped cilantro with the peppers and onions, meaning the cilantro would have to be sautéed with the peppers and onions.  Would this be a bad thing for his soup, he wondered?

The Standard Answer:  How to Use Fresh Herbs

Fresh CilantroThe standard answer is that fresh herbs should be cut as close to serving time as possible and added at the end of the cooking time, to prevent their flavor from cooking out (The Professional Chef, 7th ed., p. 183.)  So technically, my hut companion did a “bad thing” for his soup by mushing the fresh cilantro with the vegetables that had to be sauteed.

Although this answer was “right,” I’m not sure it was helpful.  Assessing things as simply good or bad only seems to contribute to the cooking fear the paralyzes a lot of everyday cooks.  “Am I doing this exactly right?” is a question that plagues us amidst on overload of cooking info in magazines, on TV and all over the Internet.

An Alternative View

Here’s an alternative view:  Maybe cooking was never meant to be an exact science, subject to one-dimensional assessment on a good/bad scale.  Instead, cooking is first and foremost an avenue for making food edible and then, pleasurable.  The object is to simply do the best job possible, with the food gifted us, to make meals that nourish and nurture.

Taking this perspective eliminates the pressure to achieve absolute “rightness” in the kitchen, replacing it with a no-pressure opportunity to just make things better, as we have the time and wherewithal.  Hence the “Good to Better Cooking Continuum,”  where the inquiry is longer judging good vs. bad, but exploring what might make a good thing better.

Thai Coconut Soup at 11,440 Feet

Everyone in the hut is pretty satisfied with the Thai Coconut Soup, even if the cilantro was cooked, not fresh. (Ben the Soup Chef is first on the left; I'm third from the right.)

In this view, cooking becomes something like a treasure hunt.  All along our journey we find nuggets of information to make our meals ever more enjoyable.  Step-by-small-step, we utilize these finds and keep nudging our “good” baseline a little to the right, towards “better.”

The Thai Coconut Soup was a perfect example.  It was magnificent!  Could it have been better if the cilantro had been freshly chopped and sprinkled on at the end?  Sure.  But that’s just a trick for making it magnificent-plus on the next go round.

Tomorrow’s post:  A Thai Coconut Soup recipe,  plus, in the vein of offering tasty tidbits for your treasure hunt, be sure to check out VegetableAMonth.com:  all sorts of tools, information and inspiration you need to make your eating life better—especially when it comes to vegetables.

Getting Adventurous Using Herbs and Spices—Part 2

Ready to start using herbs and spices more adventurously, or just at all? The first post in this series talked about how this isn’t hard or difficult. Mostly, it just takes a little courage and gumption. Start by finding a spark of herb and spice inspiration. Once you’ve settled on a couple herbs or spices, find a recipe or two and you’re off and running. The second post shared Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure. Now, here are:

Seven More Rules of the Road for a Successful Spice Adventure

1. Maximize Flavor Over time (i.e., six months to a year), herbs and spices lose their vim and vigor. So if you’ve been wanting to try a curry dish, don’t use the powder bought last year in a fit of inspiration. Find a recipe first, then go buy a fresh batch of flavorful, fresh curry powder. That way you get a taste that’s the truest and best.

2. Buy Wise Buy herbs and spices from the bulk bins at a health foods store with a good turnover. Not only are they cheaper ounce per ounce, you can buy just what you need. To begin with, buy a very small amount, enough for a few recipes. Once you’ve made friends with an herb or spice, buy larger amounts, but not more than about a quarter cup at a time, so you won’t be tempted to use them past their prime.

3. Smell Before You Buy Most herbs and spices have a comforting and inviting smell. However, if you find a smell repulsive, maybe that particular flavoring is not for you. For sanitation purposes, sniff from a safe distance or, better yet, sprinkle a little in your hand and get a good whiff.

4. Don’t Give Up Too Soon If it’s not love at first sight when you try an herb or spice, be open and give it at least another couple tries. Likely as not, your taste buds are simply surprised, especially since the typical western diet is so sadly limited and bland. Be considerate and give the buds a little time to adjust. Try the herb or spice with different foods and over several weeks. With so much potential pleasure at stake, that much effort is definitely warranted.

5. Get Fresh Don’t forget about trying fresh herbs and spices. In my opinion, fresh are better and brighter tasting, and add a real special-ness to a dish. I’ve found this to be especially true for garlic, ginger, tarragon, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, and rosemary.

6. The Exchange Rate With fresh herbs so widely available in grocery stores, many recipes now call for them to begin with. If a dried version is called for, simply substitute one tablespoon fresh for each teaspoon of dried. Generally speaking the reverse is not true. If a recipe calls for a fresh herb, using dried will likely result in a less than satisfying dish.

Coach on Call: My coach on call service is perfect for times when you’re in a bind abut substituting herbs and spices or just have other questions about using them.

7. Do Wait Until the Last Minute–Sometimes  Remember the earlier rule about letting herbs and spices cook a bit? It doesn’t apply to some of the more delicate fresh herbs like basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint. They should only be added during the last minute of two of the cooking time.

Tomorrow:  Using Herbs and Spices–Continue the Adventure

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