Saturday, May 30, 2015

Green Bean Salad with Mustard Seeds and Tarragon

Spring is a tough time for us farmers market fanatics, when the crown jewels of summer (peaches, cherries, watermelon, corn) are popping up all over supermarkets but the local farm fare remains lovable yet limited. Don’t get me wrong, I jump for joy every time I see a fresh bundle of asparagus, bin of snap peas, sheaf of radishes, or swirl of fiddlehead ferns, but when I get home and lay out all my crunchy vegetables on the counter, my mind goes recipe-blank! I end up eating the peas and radishes raw, like crudités, and they never even make it into dinner. While usually a stickler for hot supper meals, the balmy, humid weather has me uncharacteristically craving cold evening fare. But will a cold salad fill me up for dinner? Ruminating this thought over my not quiet chewing, I couldn’t think of a solid recipe candidate. And now, half of my potential meal is gone.
But alas, the problem is solved with this Green Bean Salad with Mustard Seeds and Tarragon recipe! (I should’ve known that Ottolenghi, master of le vegetable, would have the answer.) After picking up a bunch of fresh tarragon from the greenmarket last week (I was seduced by its intoxicating, anisey fragrance, more on this later), I realized I had absolutely no idea how to cook with the common French herb.  Heading straight to “T” for tarragon in my cookbook recipe indexes, I came across this vibrant, robust salad in Plenty, and what else did I see on the ingredient list? Snap peas and string beans, with the potential to add any or all of my crunchy spring crudité friends. Sold.
What’s so great about this salad is that seasonally, it works right now. Start with your base of winter leafy greens (I know in your mind that season has passed, but they are still abundant at the market, and need your love now more than ever!) such as kale, arugula, spinach, or chard. Next, commit to the crunch: the recipe calls for peas, snap peas, and string beans, but any desired spring munching vegetable will work here.  Finally, err on the side of abundance with the herbs. They are prolific at the market, and a bundle of anything fresh literally defines spring. Tarragon is the first choice here as its mollified licorice scent harmonizes with the earthy greens and sweet peas—a complexity of flavor subtleties that’s as varied as the shades of green in the salad—but lovage, chives, savory, chervil, basil, or mint can substitute.  With its spice-shrouded dressing and lemony zest, the salad is complete here: seemingly so simple, but riddled with flavor intricacies underneath.  But by all means, you don’t have to stop just yet. Those tiny field strawberries, bursting with sugary sweetness, at the market right now? Throw in a bunch to offset the hot red chile. To ensure the green salad filled me up for dinner, I added garbanzo beans and feta cheese; when I made it again the next night, in went diced sweet potatoes and chicken breast.
Just like the vegetables, the dressing of this salad is versatile. Although the tiny whole spice seeds add lovely texture to the dish, no worries if you don’t have them: use ground coriander and mustard seed instead, or, a heap of Dijon mustard, which contributes a nice vinegary punch. If using mustard spice, you may want to add a tablespoon of white wine vinegar and the juice of the lemon as well as the zest to satisfy that acidic tang you expect from a vinaigrette.
As for the tarragon, I can’t wait to keep cooking with this regal herb.  In France, it’s known as the “King of herbs”, and now I get why. The pungent perennial adds flavor to a multitude of dishes, pairing seamlessly with chicken, hollandaise, pestos, aiolis, potatoes, and eggs. Even if you’re not a licorice lover, I urge you to try it—or least take a whiff next time you come across it. The licorice flavor is totally tempered, and the sweet scent is absolutely divine.

Green Bean Salad with Mustard Seeds and Tarragon (derived from Plenty)
Serves 4

1 ¼ cups green beans, trimmed
2 ¼ cups snow peas, trimmed
1 ¾ cups green peas (fresh or frozen)
¼ cup thinly sliced radishes
2 tsp coriander seeds, roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle (or ground coriander)
1 tsp mustard seeds (or ground mustard/ 2 tsp Dijon mustard)
3 tablespoons olive oil (1 is plenty)
1 tsp nigella seeds (optional, I used sumac instead)
1 mild fresh red chile, seeded and finely diced 
½ small red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar (optional)
2 Tbsp chopped tarragon
Coarse sea salt
1 cup baby chard or other winter green leaves
Optional add-ons: garbanzo beans, feta cheese, diced sweet potato, diced chicken 

1. Fill a medium saucepan with cold water and bring to the boil. Blanch the green beans for 4 minutes, then immediately lift them out of the pan and into iced water to refresh. Drain and dry.
2. Bring a fresh pan of water to the boil and blanch the snow peas for 1 minute only. Refresh, drain and dry. Use the same boiling water to blanch the peas for 20 seconds. Refresh, drain and dry. Combine the beans, snow peas, and peas in a large mixing bowl. Add radishes.
3. Put the coriander seeds, mustard seeds and oil in a small saucepan and heat up*. When the seeds begin to pop, pour the contents of the pan over the beans and peas. Toss together. In a small bowl, combine nigella seeds/sumac, red onion, chile, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vinegar. Add dressing to large bowl, along with tarragon. Mix well and season with salt to taste.

4. Just before serving, gently fold the chard leaves in with the beans and peas, and spoon the salad onto plates or into bowls.

*If using ground spices and/or Dijon mustard, mix directly into dressing ingredients.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Aztec Salad

A few week ago, I threw open my storage closet—with the frenzied excitement of a child going to Disney World—in hot pursuit of one specific item located in the very back of the top shelf.  It had been sitting there for one year, almost to the exact date, and would soon meet an unapologetic fate of many a weekend spent blanketing the earth: grass stains, damp dew, and one too many rose spills than I care to admit. Have you guessed? My animation isn't exact discrete. It's picnic season!
We're in the heart of spring, and the city is blossoming and alive with blushing flowers, trees, and so, so many people. I feel like the picnic is almost a respite from the crowds: we all laze in our own privatized space—emphatically partitioned by the four corners of our respective blankets—to enjoy the boundless fresh air, fair-weather temperatures, and long days spring so generously offers. A departure from our everyday bustling schedules, these idle, lounging hours feel so luxurious; made only more so in the presence of good company, and of course, good food.  I can't help you with the former (well, I am generally free most weekends) but I sure can with the latter. I present to you Aztec Salad, the perfect picnic prandial. 
When I think picnic, my mind goes straight to potluck. I’ve definitely had some misses (cue the 4th of July sangria which leaked from its cooler, leaving me drenched in sticky wine with only a bowl of boozy fruit and rinds to boot.) Not this time, though: our mesoamerican salad is terrific in transit. Not only can you serve cold or at room temp, but its vegan nature makes the salad virtual un-spoilable, so it can sit out, even on a hot day, for hours.

But most of all, its tasty and easy, simple as that.  I have such fond memories of eating this salad (my mom's recipe) at picnics and barbeques growing up, awed by the sophisticated flavors and vibrant colors of the dish, and how surprised I was when I finally learned how effortless it is to make.  Guided by a southwestern ethos, freshness, flavor, and spice are guaranteed: black beans, corn, peppers, and tomatoes compose the bulk of the salad, plenty piquant from the addition of jalapeno, coriander, cumin, and cayenne pepper. The ingredients bask in a tangy, acidic dressing of freshly squeezed limes and two types of vinegar; finished off with herby vim and vigor due to a hearty helping of chopped cilantro.

Another great thing about this salad? All that acidity from the lime and vinegars lends almost a pickling quality to the dish—if you keep it for a few days—which preserves it really well. I often make a large batch to eat for lunch for the week, and the fresh ingredients are totally intact by the time Friday rolls around.

Aztec Salad (from my mama)
Serves 4-6 sides

For the salad:
15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
15 oz can corn, drained
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 large green pepper, diced
1 large red or yellow pepper, diced
1 jalapeno, seeds removed, diced
½ cup chopped red onion
¾ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ cup chopped or shredded carrot (optional)

¼ cup green olives (optional)

For the dressing:
2 Tbsp seasoned rice vinegar
Tbsp  apple cider vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
pinch of cayenne
½-1 tsp salt

juice of one lime

Mix the salad ingredients together in a large bowl. Set aside. In a small bowl, combine all dressing ingredients. Pour over large bowl and mix thoroughly.