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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Salad Niçoise(ish)

Recently, a friend was over helping me work through some of the clutter that has accumulated around the house. When lunchtime rolled around, I made us a what I call Salad Niçoise(ish): a bed of lettuce with pickled green beans, hard boiled eggs, home canned Oregon albacore tuna, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and some leftover breakfast potatoes with a simple lemony garlic dressing. She marveled that I was able to throw it together in just a couple minutes and noted how difficult it was for her to plan and put together healthy meals.

I understand that. I'm lousy at meal planning myself and I'm too busy, or too tired to cook from scratch everyday. So, I don't. Instead of plans, I go with what we have on hand and what's in season. Instead of cooking from meals scratch, I rely on leftovers and pantry items, plus a few simple fresh items, for the majority of my family's meals. What I don't rely on is recipes and opinions from various authorities about "classic" this and "authentic" that. Oh, I pay attention to methods and combinations that work, but I also know what my family likes and don't get too caught up in doing things the way some guy across an ocean or continent believes they must be done. What does he know about my four-year-old's love of mayonnaise with everything or my seven-year-old's hatred of potatoes?

Also, a while back, I finally admitted to myself that it was okay for us to eat a collection of the same things over and over again. When I was single, that's how I cooked for myself--a had a dozen or so favorite meals that I made regularly and when I had time, I experimented with new dishes, and eventually some of those joined the ranks of regulars. When my husband and I married, though, for some reason I convinced myself that we must have more variety. 'Cuz that's what married people do, right? I would pour over cookbooks, magazines, and blogs looking for new recipes, come up with elaborate meal plans, shop at three or four different markets, spend an hour or two putting dinner together, and leave piles of dishes for my poor husband afterward. (Wasn't that fun, honey?)

All that became virtually impossible once we had two young children, who preferred familiar foods and left me with little time to find new recipes, make plans, or shop. Man, I hate shopping with my kids.

So I came up with a different way of getting food for my family and of getting it on the table. Instead of weekly shopping trips and elaborate meals, I bought in bulk once a month and cooked in big batches. Buying in bulk saves me time shopping, cooking big batches saves me time in the kitchen. So, when I make sugar snap peas for dinner, I make extra for throwing into salads or for the kids to snack the next day.

While we enjoy variety and once a week or so, I prepare something new or that I haven't made in a while, for the most part I stick to favorites that use what we already have or, when I'm in the mood, come up with twists on the same ol' same old. Salads and soups are terrific for both these approaches. You can make what you usually make, but tossing in leftovers or substituting pickled green beans for olives can work, too. And you might find a new favorite.

That's how my Salad Niçoise(ish) came to be. I wanted one, bad. I knew the rules for making the classic version, but I didn't have green beans handy, I had leftover steamed sugar snap peas...and potato salad. In they went. The next time I wanted the salad, I didn't have leftover peas, but my daughter had just opened a can of garbanzo beans. In they went. Then, when making lunch for my friend, who loves pickled green beans, it occurred me that they would be terrific on the salad and a good briney substitute for olives. And so it goes. Sometimes I used canned salmon instead of tuna. We're grilling halibut tonight and tomorrow, I'll probably toss leftovers from that into my salad. The key is being open to the possibilities are right there, in the house, rather than wedding oneself to a list of ingredients in someone else's recipe. Preparing extras of basics like breakfast potatoes and hard boiled eggs makes it possible to throw together a quick meal later. Now that I don't have bread or pasta to fall back on, I make a big batch of breakfast potatoes (diced red potatoes, onions, thyme, salt, and pepper fried in tallow or ghee) a couple times a week, for breakfast, naturally, but also for tossing into salad. I also make a batch of potato salad once a week, which can also go into salad or just with a bowl of sauerkraut for a quick snack.

Personally, I prefer a lemony dressing with this salad. It offers a bright, yet not at all harsh tang, especially when combined with plenty of good quality olive oil. If you have lemons, and feel like squeezing one, go for it. But consider keeping a bottle of organic lemon juice in the fridge for those days when you don't happen to have a lemon. Lemon juice is handy stuff.

So, I'm giving you a "recipe" for Salad Niçoise(ish), but as you can see, it's more a series of suggestions than a list of ingredients and specific method. What you should get from looking at the suggested ingredients is that you want a fishy protein, some raw or steamed seasonal vegetables, something pickled to lend a bright note, and some potatoes to ground it all. In Oregon, August is the perfect time of year to enjoy this salad, while the Albacore tuna comes to us fresh from the coast and the tomatoes, green beans, and cucs come fresh from our gardens and the fields of local farms. Having it at the spur of the moment is going to take some time, but if you think ahead just a bit, cooking up extra beans, potatoes, eggs, and fish beforehand, the rest falls into place in minutes.

Salad Nicoise(ish) for Two

juice from one lemon, or about 2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
a teaspoon or so of anchovy paste if you have it
small clove of garlic, finely minced (a Microplane is perfect for this)
finely chopped fresh herbs if you have them...basil, parsley, thyme
salt, pepper

salad greens
some legumes (leftover steamed green beans, snap peas, cooked fava beans, lentils...)
some plainly cooked or canned fish...tuna, salmon, halibut
a hard boiled egg or two, sliced into quarters
something pickled...green beans, olives, artichokes, mushrooms, onions
cooked potatoes...leftover breakfast potatoes, boiled potatoes, potato salad
sweet onions, thinly sliced
fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini...sliced or chop however you prefer

Combine the dressing ingredients in a small jar (half-pint canning jars work well), screw on a lid and shake vigorously to emulsify. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Compose your salad as you like, drizzle with dressing, and enjoy.

Top Five Food Preservation Books

Anyone's who's been in my home knows I'm a a bit of a bibliomane...an entire wall in our living/dining room is devoted to books (and just as many are shelved in the basement). Cookbooks and books about preserving abound, and especially this time of year, you can hardly find a flat surface that doesn't have a recently perused preserving book on it. Here are the ones you're most likely to find lying around right now:

Well Preserved by Eugenia Bone was my favorite find from last year. Many of her Italian-influenced, mostly savory preserves found a place in my pantry, including Marinated Artichokes, Roasted Red Bell Peppers, Tuna in Olive Oil (my first pressure canning project), and Smoked Chicken Breast. Bone has a no-nonsense, anyone-can-do-this and it's-gonna-be-great attitude and her book has delicious recipes for using every preserve. Be sure to visit her blog.

Fancy Pantry by Helen Witty covers an amazing variety of preserves. Her head notes are mouth-watering and completely draw me in every time. Some of her methods--like no-added-pectin preserves, are traditional, yet within the realm of USDA safe canning guidelines. I especially like that many recipes call for the by-products of other recipes. For example, Sweet Pickled Bing Cherries yields vinegar from which you can make Cherry Vinegar, while the seeds and pulp leftover from making Raspberry Jelly get a second life infusing a lightly fermented European-Style Raspberry Syrup. The book is out of print, but used copies are usually available at Amazon.

For Southern style canning, I like Putting Up, by Stephen Downdy. Sunchoke Relish (just add to cooked potatoes for amazing potato salad), Corn Liquor BBQ Sauce, and Peach Chutney are good examples of what you'll find in there.

If you are at all interested in lactofermentation, check out Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation. He'll teach you to make mead, kraut, miso, cheese, beer, sourdough...if it's made with the encouragement of microscopic life, Sandorkraut has got it covered. He encourages a no-fear sensibility that is refreshing against the "follow USDA food preservation guidelines or die" attitude found in many conventional canning books.

Lastly, my favorite all-around preserving books, especially for beginners, is Preserving the Harvest by Carol Costenbader. Clear instructions on all preserving methods, charts for things like how long to steam or blanch vegetables before freezing, tips galore--kinda like having an experienced food preservationist at your side, reminding you to do things like get all your gear washed and ready to go the night before heading out to pick berries or buy a couple bushels of tomatoes, so you can get right to it while your produce is still at its peak.

What are your favorites?

Returning to Life, Returning to the Kitchen

Early this year, long-standing, relatively dormant health issues resurfaced with a vengeance and by spring, I found myself overwhelmed with fatigue, chronic pain, and a "brain fog" that would not lift. I took a break from teaching so that I could get a handle on what was going on and after a few months of doctor visits, a new diagnosis (Hashimoto's thyroiditis), diet and lifestyle changes, my health is improving. My energy and focus are returning, the aches and pains are diminishing. I continue to be amazed at the turnaround and how just a few relatively small changes have put me on the path back to wellness.

Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mounts an attack against the thyroid gland. (To learn more about Hashimoto's and the latest thinking on managing this common yet under-diagnosed disease, read the Healthy Skeptic's series on the thyroid.) Following a protocol developed by Dr. Datis Kharrazian under the care of a local naturopath who has studied with him, about six weeks ago, I quit consuming gluten and virtually all grains because of the strong connection between gluten intolerance and Hashimoto's and the impact that high-carbohydrate foods have on blood sugar and thyroid function. I've increased my consumption of fermented vegetables and broths, both of which have remarkable healing properties, while I've reduced my sugar intake overall and use minimal amounts of honey as my primary sweetener instead. To an extent, my classes will begin to reflect these changes. I will no longer be teaching my Baking Basics class and my canning classes will include honey-sweetened preserves as well as those made with cane sugar.

(In addition to the dietary changes I've made, I supplement with vitamin D, cod liver oil, and an omega-3 fatty acid complex daily, all of which help support and balance the immune system. I swim laps three mornings a week, see an acupuncturist once a week, and began a meditation practice, following the method developed by Eknath Easwaran for transforming the thought process through meditation on the words of great prophets and philosophers from around the world. Stress was having a tremendous impact on my health and my nascent meditation practice has already made a big difference in how I think and feel about life's up and downs. The acupuncture is doing wonders for the exceedingly stubborn plantar fasciitis that has been with me for six years.)

For some time, I've been learning about gluten- and grain-free cooking from friends who preceded me in these dietary changes (knowing in the back of my mind that someday, I too might be making the same changes). Many of you have asked about gluten-free cooking and baking classes and while most of my current offerings are already gluten-free by nature, in the future I will offer classes specifically for those making the transition to gluten- and grain-free eating. While I miss some of the foods I used to enjoy, I am excited about getting back into my kitchen and exploring new culinary possibilities and I look forward to sharing that excitement with those who also find themselves making dietary changes for themselves and their families.