Friday, July 27, 2012

Grilled Cheese with Pesto, Spinach and Avocado

I love sandwiches of all types, and they seem especially suited to summer for some reason.  Maybe because they're easy and don't require long hours in a hot kitchen.  I particularly like unusual sandwiches like this adult version of the classic grilled cheese that has pesto, mozarella, goat cheese, spinach and avocado.  The combination of creamy avocado and melty cheese with the savory pesto and crisp toasted bread is really excellent.  Even the lemon juice used to keep the avocado from browning adds to the overall flavor.

Sandwiches are also a great excuse to eat potato chips, which some of you know I am addicted to.  I have to have a discussion with myself every time I go near a bag of kettle chips to prevent myself from eating the entire thing.  I told that to The Lawyer last night (when we had these sandwiches with chips) and his reply was "you have a lot of discussions with yourself, don't you?"  I'm not sure what that meant, but it's true so I really couldn't take offense.  The advantage of having a discussion with yourself is that you always make sense and you always come to agreement in the end.

Anyway, this sandwich is really simple to make and can be either grilled like a conventional grilled cheese, or toasted up in a panini press. You can use any type of bread that's your favorite, but I've found a multigrain bread works well.  Depending on how ambitious you are, you can make pesto from scratch (especially if you have basil in your garden) or just buy a container at the store.   Serve the sandwiches with some fresh corn or tomatoes or cucumbers from the farmers market and you have a great summer meal.  Notice I didn't say potato chips.  It was a conscious effort.

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pesto, Spinach and Avocado
Serves 4

8 slices of bread (white or whole grain)
1 container refrigerated pesto (or homemade)
8 thin slices mozzarella
4 handfuls baby spinach
1 avocado
Juice of half a lemon
3 oz log goat cheese, crumbled
Olive oil

Cut the avocado in half and remove the pit. With a small knife score each avocado half lengthwise into slices and use a large spoon to scoop around the skin to remove all the slices at once. Place in a small bowl and carefully toss with the lemon juice to prevent browning.

Thinly spread pesto on each piece of bread (go easy, pesto has a strong flavor). On half the bread slices, layer one piece of mozzarella, several avocado slices, a little crumbled goat cheese, spinach, and a second slice of mozzarella. Top with a second slice of bread and press together gently.

Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add one sandwich (or two if your pan is big enough) and fry until golden brown, then flip and cook until the second side is brown. You may want to cover the pan briefly while the sandwich is cooking to ensure all the cheese melts and the sandwich is hot throughout. Alternately, heat a Panini press and grill until the sandwich has nice grill marks and is nicely browned.

Serve immediately.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Farm Stand Salad

I've read quite a bit recently about the importance of "rebalancing your plate" to eat primarily plants and grains.  Animal proteins are supposed to play a lesser role.  That doesn't mean we all have to become vegetarians and eat tofu, but health advocates often suggest eating meatless one day per week as part of a healthy lifestyle.  If not totally meatless, it's a good idea to cut down on the amount of meat in a meal.  Summer is a perfect time to adjust your diet a little with the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that are available.  This salad is an example of a healthy summer meal with plenty of market-fresh veggies and a sprinkling of bacon.  If you're feeling particularly inspired you could leave the bacon out completely but it does add a nice counterpoint to the tangy goat cheese dressing and we all know how well bacon goes with fresh lettuce and juicy tomatoes.  Other major flavor components of the salad include fresh sweet corn, toasted walnuts, red onion, and fresh basil.  The overall flavor profile is very bright, bold and satisfying.

Growing up in the midwest I never really realized that midwesterners are the fortunate few who can eat sweet corn picked fresh that morning and sold at a roadside stand.  At the start of the corn season the ears have tiny, tender kernels that are bursting with sugar.  At that point you can literally cut the kernels off the cob and put them in a fabulous black bean and corn salad without cooking them at all. Of course, if you do cook them, it's only for a minute or two to heat them up enough to cover them with butter and salt until they drip all over your plate (and chin) as you gobble the entire cob, rows upon rows of sweet buttery salty heaven.  Once picked, the sugars in corn quickly turn to starch so corn that's been transported never has that heavenly taste.  And later in the season the corn tends to have starchier, tougher kernels as well.  But oh, those first fleeting days of corn season!  If you've never had that type of fresh corn all I can tell you is that it's a revelation.   A local farmer told me it has something to do with the rich soils and temperature/rain balance in the midwest.  Whatever, all I know is that sweet corn ranks right up there in my food memories with the tomatoes of my youth.  At the beginning of the harvest you can very easily make a meal of corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers and be extremely happy.  Plate rebalanced!

Even if you don't have access to that ephemeral corn, it's still worth it to buy fresh corn at your local market when it's available.  My tip of the day is how to cut corn off the cob without it ending up all over your kitchen.  Put a large bowl on the counter and place a smaller bowl (with a flat bottom) upside down inside it.  Balance the corn cob on top of the small bowl and when you cut down, the kernels fall neatly into the large bowl instead of all over your counter top.

I like to break the large chunks up just a little but not completely so everyone can see they came fresh off a cob when you serve your salad.

Cold crisp salads are perfect for hot summer days like we're all experiencing this year, don't you think?  Serve your salad with a fresh crusty baguette from your favorite bakery and have a (balanced) feast! 

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Farm Stand Salad
Serves 4

4 pieces of cooked and crumbled bacon
2 ears fresh corn, husked
2 ripe tomatoes
¼ red onion, thin sliced
1 bag baby salad greens or 2 small heads of baby lettuces, rinsed, dried and cored
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup soft cheese, such as feta or goat’s cheese, crumbled
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt

Bring a large pan of water to a boil. Drop the corn in, cover, and cook for approximately 5 minutes. Remove from the water and let cool, then cut the kernels off the cob and set aside. Core the tomatoes and thin slice. Depending on the size of the tomatoes you may wish to cut the slices in half.

In a small bowl combine the oil, vinegar and lemon juice with a whisk. Add the crumbled cheese and whisk. Add the basil, salt and pepper and whisk briskly until creamy and well blended.

Combine the lettuce, onion and tomatoes in a large bowl. Pour half the dressing over the salad and toss. Divide among 4 plates and top with corn, bacon, and walnuts. Drizzle with remaining dressing and serve.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Tomatoes are an obsession for many people, and we're heading right into tomato season.  I plan to feature a few favorite tomato recipes in the coming weeks (including the best salsa ever) so I thought I'd get a little head start now.  Print this recipe and pull it out the first time you see local tomatoes at the market.

The more I thought about this post, the more I realized that I have a lot to say about tomatoes.  The Lawyer and I had a community garden plot for years where we grew almost 30 different varieties of tomatoes, mostly heirloom varieties.  We read tomato catalogs.  We attended tomato tastings at a local hobby farm.  We deliberately grew every color of tomato available to see how they tasted.  So, you can see why I consider myself somewhat of a tomato expert.  Here are a few of the things I learned along the way.

1.  Heirloom tomatoes taste best.  They look funny, they're fussy to grow, and they don't transport well so you'll only find them at local farmers markets.  But the taste is far superior to the nice round, red tomatoes that were engineered to look good and transport over distances.  Be aware that not all tomatoes at a farmers market are heirlooms.  Heirlooms are almost always labeled as such and have funny names like Green Zebra and Mortgage Lifter. If in doubt, ask.  They're probably going to be more expensive than non-heirloom varieties because they're not nearly as prolific (one heirloom vine may produce 5-6 tomatoes compared to 20-30 on a normal tomato plant) but they're SO worth it.

2.  The darker the heirloom tomato, the better the taste.  Green, orange, pink, yellow and striped tomatoes look cool but they don't have much taste.  Deep red and black tomatoes taste best.  (Black tomatoes aren't really black but they're darker than red tomatoes - see below).

3.  Heirloom tomatoes need to be eaten as soon as they're ripe because they can over-ripen quickly.  By the way, did you know that you should never refrigerate a tomato?  It ruins the taste and texture.  That goes for any tomatoes, not just heirlooms.

4.  The reason why a lot of recipes specify Roma tomatoes is beause they have less water/seeds and more meat than regular tomatoes so they aren't as watery in a sauce or salsa.  But they don't have the best flavor for eating raw.

So what are the very best tomato varieties in terms of taste?  In my humble opinion, three stand out.  Two black tomato varieties - Purple Cherokee and Black Russian - are excellent.  I think the picture above was a Black Russian I found last year at the farmers market.  But the holy grail for many tomato fanatics (including me) is Brandywine -  a very large, deep red, lumpy variety that's quite difficult to grow and just about the least prolific variety that exists.  I've always had fond memories of fresh tomatoes that a neighbor used to bring over when I was a kid.  The taste seemed so spectacular in my memory compared to anything I've had since then, that I wondered if I was remembering it wrong.  Then we grew Brandywine and with the first bite I knew it was the exact same taste as in my childhood.  I guess that food memories can lie dormant for a long time and then be recalled with clarity, much like aromas or music, when you encounter them again. 


If you're at a farmers market and happen to see any of these three varieties, buy them immediately and go straight home and eat them.  These are not the type of tomatoes you make into salsa or spaghetti sauce, these are premium eating tomatoes.  Or put them on a sandwich.  How's that for a segue?

Tomato olive melts are a lot like tuna melts but with olive spread instead of tuna.  This is one of my oldest recipes (I have no idea where I found it) and it was originally called "Crostini" and positioned as an appetizer.  The crunchy toasted bread contrasts with the rich olive spread, oozy cheese, and fresh tomatoes to make a classic combination.  We liked them so much that we decided they could be a light meal - just add a green salad on the side.  Or add an egg on the top and they would make a fabulous breakfast.  If you wanted to serve them as an appetizer just use smaller bread or cut them in half.  Any way you serve them, they're absolutely delicious and simple enough that each element really stands out, which is why they need the best tomatoes you can find. 

One last thought about olive spread.  The original recipe called it "olivada".  I've also seen it labeled "bruschetta", "olive pate", and "tapenade".  Basically it's finely chopped kalamata olives with olive oil and a little vinegar.  You can also find green olive or even artichoke varieties.  They're in jars in the olive section of your store.

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Tomato Olive Melts
Makes 16 pieces

16 slices ½” thick Italian bread
¼ cup olive oil
1/3 black olive tapenade (paste)
½ lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 16 ¼” thick slices
½ lb. fresh tomatoes, cut into 16 ¼” slices
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400d. Brush one side of the bread slices with some of the olive oil and arrange on a baking sheet oiled side up. Bake until lightly browned and crusty, about 4 minutes.

Spread the olive tapenade on each toast, cover each with a slice of mozzarella and top with a slice of tomato. Brush the tomatoes with the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until the cheese is melted, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve at once.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Grilled Chicken, Mushroom and Bok Choy Kebabs

This is a great summer recipe for a grilled meal that's healthy and very satisfying.  If you're not familiar with bok choy (also known as Chinese cabbage), it's a crunchy vegetable with a white stalk and leafy green tops and it's a good source of vitamin A.  The taste reminds me of a cross between celery and cabbage.  It's available in a full-sized mature version and also as baby bok choy.  I prefer baby bok choy because it can be cooked whole or in halves and looks more interesting than the full-sized variety.  (Plus I think baby vegetables are cute.)  Watch for baby bok choy at your local grocer or farmers market.  If you can't find it, full-sized boy choy can be substituted - just chop it into manageable pieces and then blanch and skewer as per the recipe.

In this particular recipe, the crunchy and slightly bitter bok choy contrasts beautifully with meaty cremini mushrooms and chicken thighs that have been marinated in a very flavorful Asian sauce.  The marinade is absolutely fabulous but be sure to use low sodium soy sauce if you're trying to watch your salt intake.  (Hot tip of the day - Trader Joe's soy sauce actually has less sodium the the low-sodium versions I've found in other stores.)

We've all seen pictures of really pretty kebabs that alternate ingredients on the same skewer such as chicken, onion, peppers, etc.  The only problem is that the ingredients need different cooking times so you can end up with some either undercooked or overcooked.  If you put each type of ingredient on a different skewer you avoid the problem.  For example, in this recipe we put the bok choy, mushrooms, and chicken pieces each on their own skewers as you can see in the top photo.  The bok choy are cut in half and blanched, then the  leaves are folded back when skewered so they don't flop all over and burn on the grill.

both sides of the bok choy skewers

The marinade needs to be cooked and cooled plus the chicken needs to marinate for at least 3 hours, so plan to start this recipe in the morning or the night before you plan to grill.

The good news about kebabs is tht they don't take long to cook, which is really good if you live somewhere that's hot right now (approximateloy 100% of the country).  I've said before that The Lawyer likes to grill so much that he doesn't complain about temperatures (high or low) but even he has been checking the shade before grilling lately.  Yikes.  Time to buy investment property on The New Mediterranean (aka Lake Superior).

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Chicken, Mushroom and Bok Choy Kebabs
Serves 6

3 large garlic cloves
½ reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/3 cup dry sherry
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated peeled ginger
2 teaspoons toasted Asian sesame oil
1.5 lbs skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2” pieces
1 lb baby bok choy (5 to 6 heads)
½ lb. cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed flush with caps
½ cup vegetable oil
hot cooked white or brown rice

14 (12 inch) wooden skewers, soaked in water 30 minutes

Boil soy sauce, sherry and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until reduced to about 2/3 cup, 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, mince and mash garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt using the tines of a fork. When the sauce is reduced, stir in garlic paste, ginger and sesame oil, then cool to room temperature.

Pour half of marinade into a large sealable bag and chill the remainder for basting. Add chicken to bag and marinate, chilled, turning the bag occasionally, at least 3 hours.

Prepare grill for direct-heat cooking over medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, halve bok choy lengthwise and blanch in a large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 1 minute. Immediately transfer to an ice bath to stop cooking. Pat bok choy very dry, then, bending leaves, thread 3 or 4 halves (through the bulb and leaves) onto each of 3 or 4 skewers.

Toss mushrooms with vegetable oil. Thread mushrooms (through sides) and chicken onto separate skewers. Discard remaining marinade.

Grill the chicken approximately 3 minutes, basting occasionally, then flip and grill another 3 minutes. Meanwhile, grill the mushrooms approximately 2 minutes per side, basting on both sides. Grill the bok choy for about 90 seconds on the cut side only, just long enough to create grill marks.
Serve with hot cooked rice.