Tag Archives: Salad

Vietnamese-style noodle salad

A couple months ago, when I came home from the doctor with a pamphlet on FODMAPs and a brain full of questions, one of my first (slightly panicked) messages was to my friend Ida. Not only had she gone through the same process a couple years earlier, but she’s one of the most wildly creative cooks I know. So I invited her to dinner and picked the heck out of her brain.

Of all the tips and resources Ida shared–and there were a lot–one thing stuck with me. Choose one meal, she said, that fits your dietary requirements, that you love, and that you can make with your eyes closed. That’s your go-to meal. When you feel like there’s nothing you can eat, make that. For her, during the strictest elimination phase, that meal was fajitas. For me, it’s Vietnamese-style noodle bowls.

This isn’t really a recipe–it’s a method. I start by soaking some dried rice vermicelli in near-boiling water for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I make a punchy dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and some sort of chile. Then I root through the fridge for cooked protein, raw vegetables, and fresh herbs, and cut everything up into strips or morsels. Finally, I drain and rinse the noodles and combine everything in a big bowl. (I’ve written out a more detailed description of my method and proportions below the post.)

This is the perfect thrown-together summer food. It’s light and crisp, savory and refreshing. The dressing, fresh herbs, and scallions make it intensely flavorful and exciting. It comes together in 20 minutes or less, without turning on the stove (except maybe to boil some water, and I’ve got an electric kettle for that). It fills me up without leaving a brick in my belly. It accepts whatever mishmash of veggies and meat I have in the fridge. And it’s easily tailored to even a fairly strict diet. I’ve been eating this at least twice a week for months now, making it differently every time.

vermicelli bowl 1

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Pantry tuna and bean salad

This recipe is brought to you by cabin fever. For the past few weeks, I’ve been without a car during the workday, and my beloved bicycle has developed persistent brake problems. That leaves me relying on (slow, infrequent) public transit to get around, which turns grocery shopping from a quick errand into a multi-hour production. True to form, I’ve reacted by holing up hermit-style instead, working long hours and making a lot of pantry meals.

This tasty little salad is one I keep coming back to. It’s based on a mix of fresh and shelf-stable ingredients I always have around: olive oil, canned tuna, canned beans, a lemon or some vinegar, an onion or a couple scallions, dried herbs, dijon mustard, and capers. You soak the alliums in seasoned lemon juice, whisk in the oil to make a dressing, and then toss in the tuna, beans, and capers. The combination of flaky fish, firm beans and spiky, pungent dressing is so much tastier than something this easy and quick has any right to be. And it’s pretty darn cheap, too.

I make this slightly differently every time, based on what’s around and what needs using. I like chickpeas, but Sam prefers white beans, so we usually have both on hand–the salad is great with either. We try to keep fresh lemons in the fridge, but I’ve also used white wine vinegar and even tarragon vinegar to great effect. The recipe below is just a template; I can imagine so many ways to vary this and fancy it up. Use shallot or chives instead of onion or scallions. Add finely diced celery or chard stems for crunch. Use oil-packed tuna and include its oil in the dressing. Use a fancier vinegar, like champagne or white balsamic. Use fresh herbs instead of dried, adding them in at the end to keep their flavor perky.

The only real requirement here is refrigerating the salad for a little while before serving it, so the flavors can meld and the beans and tuna can soak up the salty-sour-oniony dressing. Just an hour in the fridge makes a huge difference; a few hours is ideal; overnight is fine. As far as serving, you could plop the salad on top of greens or pile it inside lettuce leaves. You could eat it open-faced on toast or a bagel, or make a sandwich with it. Honestly, I usually just grab a fork and eat straight from the bowl.

tuna bean salad

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Chopped salad with preserved lemon vinaigrette

I’m not really much of a restaurant foodie. I have no particular interest in finding the hottest or most out-of-the-way restaurant in a city, or in reviewing every aspect of a restaurant experience. I try not to spend a lot of time singing the praises of this or that high-priced restaurant dish. With one exception: the chopped salad at Chaya Brasserie in San Francisco.

I cannot shut up about this salad. I’ve been to Chaya for a few business lunches, and I order it every time. At a restaurant renowned for its exquisite sushi and pitch-perfect entrees, it’s the salad that gets me. It’s basically a Niçoise salad on steroids, with chicken and smoked salmon and olives and green beans and eggs and cheese and bell peppers and nuts and croutons and probably other stuff too, all diced into perfect miniature cubes and dressed with a gauzy lemon vinaigrette. It’s hefty and satisfying, yet light enough that I don’t have to roll down the sidewalk afterward. The mingling of textures–creamy and crunchy and fluffy and prickly–is exactly what a salad should be. It’s beautifully composed and perfectly seasoned. I dream about this salad.

But I can’t afford to eat it all the time. So I have to do the next best thing: try to make it myself. My version of this salad is rougher and less manicured than the Chaya version, like a younger cousin without quite so much jewelry. But you know what? It’s still just as delicious.

For my chopped salad, I blanch a handful of haricots verts and hard-boil a couple of eggs, chop up a pepper and flake some lox with a fork. Then it all gets piled on greens, maybe with a few herbs mixed in, and some olives and goat cheese to bump up the salty-rich factor. Then I make a quick dressing with some of my beloved preserved lemons, and mush everything all together with my fork. It’s a real riot on the plate, nubbly and colorful and full of powerful flavors. Even my boyfriend agrees that it’s one of the best salads he’s ever had.

This salad is easily a meal in itself. It’ll fill you up without knocking you out. Add a glass of wine, and maybe a nibble of something sweet, and I seriously cannot think of a better self-pampering lunch.

chaya-esque chopped salad

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Parsley and cucumber salad

One of the most memorable classes I took in college was with Professor B. He was one of the old guard, and beloved at our school: a white-bearded, broad-shouldered fellow, deep-voiced and slyly charismatic. He took great delight in winding his students up over thorny issues and then letting them go. It was a rambling and highly opinionated circus of a class, and at the end of the semester we decided to celebrate by taking Professor B out to dinner as a group. The twenty or so of us packed into a local restaurant and crowded the table with wine and beer and sake (and food, of course). It didn’t take long for the conversation to loosen.

Professor B shared a lot of wisdom and opinions with us that night, about geography and traffic patterns and the state of public education. But the thing that stuck with me most was his advice about dinner on a date. “This is very important. If you’re going to eat garlic on a date, make sure you’re both eating it,” he exhorted us. “But if you can’t get your date to eat garlic, all you have to do is eat parsley. Just eat some parsley. It cancels it out.”

I haven’t been able to eat parsley since without thinking of Professor B. I have no idea if it’s actually the remedy he claimed it was–I haven’t done a controlled experiment, shall we say. But the idea of parsley as a romance-enabler stuck with me. Every time I nibble a parsley spring from a garnish on a restaurant plate, I imagine I’m doing my date a favor. And when I found myself with most of a bunch left after cooking mussels, I decided to try a full-on Valentine’s Day parsley blast, and turn it into a salad.

I would never have guessed that parsley leaves make great salad greens, but they really do. They’re fluffy and flavorful, but without the bitterness that most lettuces and greens have. And unlike delicate and fancy salad greens, parsley doesn’t wilt when dressed; the leaves keep their shape for a long time, even overnight, with no detectable difference in texture. I shaved the parsley leaves off the stems, added some seeded and drained cucumber, and drizzled the whole thing with lemon vinaigrette, for a salad that was bright, crunchy, and feather-light. I could easily imagine this as a palate-cleanser (and garlic-cleanser) alongside any number of rich and romantic main courses.

Forget chocolate. Thanks to Professor B, this is my ultimate Valentine’s Day food.

parsley cucumber salad

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Mizuna and mushroom salad with poached egg

You guys. How has no one ever told me to put a poached egg on a salad before? I feel cheated.

To be fair, I should have figured this one out long ago. I put runny eggs on just about everything else in my life, so why not a salad? Particularly this salad, which combines tangy greens, pan-fried oyster mushrooms, and a warm rice vinegar dressing. Add the golden richness of the egg yolk, and suddenly something alchemical happens: the whole thing becomes crunchy, chewy, sweet, tangy, gooey, rich, wolf-it-down-and-mop-the-plate delicious. This is the kind of salad that impresses people. It makes an entrance. I love it so.

The idea for this salad came from salade lyonnaise, the righteous French assemblage of frisee lettuce, bacon, and egg. I learned about this recently, and it stuck in my mind. The original salad involves a couple elements I’m not crazy about: bacon, obviously, and though I like frisee’s wacky texture, I don’t usually enjoy how bitter it is. So I made a couple of swaps–mizuna and basil for frisee, and oyster mushrooms, crisped in a pan, for bacon. It worked like a charm.

Mizuna is one of those greens that I’d heard about, but never actually sought out. Then, at the farmer’s market on a warm September Sunday, I saw a basket of lanky bunches and decided to pounce. It’s a Japanese green, supposedly related to mustard greens, but much more delicate and less aggressive. The flavor is a bit like arugula, but not quite so peppery. What really drew me to it, though, was the texture: crisp and feathery, with juicy bits of stem here and there. The greens wilted obligingly under the warm dressing, and tickled up here and there through the richness of the egg yolk. I’m sure you could make this salad with other greens, but the mizuna really worked gorgeously. I highly recommend it.

Oh, and take it from me: you’ll want to have some bread around to mop up the leftover dressing once the greens are gone. The combination of vinegar, shallot, and egg yolk–sharp, sweet, and fatty–is really plate-licking good.

mizuna mushroom salad

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Food of the gods

I’m a sucker for a good theme party. Fortunately, my friends throw good theme parties.

Like, for example, a Greek gods party. With togas and garlands and grapes and more grapes. It was glorious. We all lounged around in the silliest, cleverest costumes we could think of, and drank wine and grilled meat and then changed into swimsuits and played tag in the pool. We were also encouraged to bring thematically-appropriate food. Which I did. And, apparently, went a little retro to boot.

I’d been seeing recipes around for green goddess dip, and this seemed like the perfect party to test it out at. Green goddess dip is in fact an adaptation of green goddess dressing, which was invented in the kitchens of a fancy hotel in the 1920’s (in San Francisco, I believe!). It’s got a slight head-scratcher of an ingredients list: mayonnaise, sour cream, tarragon, chives, chervil or parsley, lemon juice, and anchovy. The combination of aggressive herbal brightness and luxe creaminess must have been a stunner back in the bootleggers’ days, but I wanted to find a way to lighten it some. The solution? Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, and a big ripe avocado in place of the mayonnaise. Not only did the avocado make the dip insanely buttery and thick, but it also turned it science-fiction green. A green green goddess dip, indeed.

I didn’t have high hopes for this one; it was mostly for the ha-ha of the name and the theme of the party. But man, was this a huge hit. The combination was unusual and immensely satisfying: the cool milky smoothness of the yogurt and avocado against the pale oniony chives, light licorice tarragon, leafy parsley, and just the faintest whisper of salt from the anchovies. We started out with carrot sticks, then migrated to tortilla chips, and by the end of the party I was swabbing out the dregs from the bowl with my finger. I have no regrets.

green goddess dip

Since this was a party of the gods, I also wanted to try my hand at the food of the gods: ambrosia. There is such a thing as ambrosia salad, a throwback to the days when processed foods were new and exciting. It’s like a fruit salad with the sugar and chemicals turned up to 11: canned pineapple, canned mandarin orange, mini marshmallows, flaked coconut, maraschino cherries, premade whipped topping or sour cream or both. I’ve had ambrosia salad. It’s…not my thing. But I knew there was a hint of something amazing underneath all of that. And August, with its absolute abundance of stone fruit, is just the right time for a creamy fruit salad. Which is really what ambrosia salad is.

I suppose I shouldn’t really call this ambrosia salad, since it has none of the requisite ingredients. What it does have are fresh peaches, plums, and cherries, tossed in a dressing of thickened coconut milk, lime, mint, and vanilla. Toss it in the fridge for a couple hours–it gets better the longer it sits–and serve it chilled from a big bowl. The juices from the fruit mingle with the rich coconut-sweet glaze, making it nearly impossible to stop eating chunks of fruit straight from the bowl with your fingers. (At least, if you’re me.) Ambrosia salad, it’s not; but ambrosia, it just might be.

stone fruit ambrosia

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Chard avocado salad and pickled chard stems

I’ve always thought of chard as a winter food, but that’s not strictly true. Even now, in the sticky heat of July, chard is everywhere at the farmer’s market, all vibrantly colored and adorably bunched. So I decided to play around with chard as a summer vegetable, and stumbled on a couple surprisingly grill-friendly side dishes. With Fourth of July coming around the bend, these would definitely be welcome at any barbecue.

First, a salad. I stole this idea from my friend Isabel, who uses mashed avocado and lemon juice as a dressing for thinly sliced kale. I’m not a huge fan of raw kale, but wondered whether something similar might work with chard instead. The answer is a resounding yes: the buttery avocado smooths the bitterness of the raw greens, mellowing them into something soft and juicy and oddly addictive. Add a few flecks of sweet shallot and a little spicy raw garlic, and you’ve got a killer salad. It’s like a fresher, lighter version of the braised collard greens that so often sit alongside good Southern barbecue. In fact, Sam and I agreed that this would be fantastic as a side to a hunk of grilled meat.

This is a little more involved than your average salad, because it involves massaging the greens. I’d never done this before, and I’ll grant you, it feels a little odd: you coat the chopped greens with a glug of oil, and then knead them aggressively with your hands until they start to break down and soften. It really is like massaging, in a way–imagine you’re giving someone a deep-tissue shoulder rub, but that someone happens to be a bowl of greens. After a few minutes of kneading, the greens turn slippery and soft, and lose a lot of their initial bitterness. They start to taste like salad greens, juicy and dark and just a touch bitter. It seems like a fussy step, but it really does make the difference between inedible health-food salad and creamy, delicious summer-in-a-bowl salad.

Oh, and if you don’t want to use chard, kale would of course work here–as would collard greens, for that matter.

chard avocado salad

Once the salad was consumed, I had a handful of bright red stems left over. I’m a sucker for using the whole chard, and I’ve been craving pickles something fierce. So the stems got thinly sliced into matchsticks, then tossed with a bunch of similarly-cut scallions. I decided to flavor this batch of pickles with garlic, thyme, tarragon, and bay, so those went into the bottom of a jar. Then I packed the jar with stems and scallions, poured over a simple brine, and popped on a lid. In a couple of hours, I had some seriously addictive fridge pickles.

These are a little unusual-tasting, but they’re terrific. The chard stems are fibrous and crisp, like celery, with a faint beetlike sweetness that plays perfectly with the puckery brine. The scallions lose their harshness but keep their quiet oniony essence. The herbs are subtle but pervasive, so that every bite is infused with woodsy flavor. I could easily imagine these scattered over a hot dog or sausage, or even as an accompaniment to a big greasy cheeseburger.

The one slight bummer is that the pickles don’t stay pretty for long; over the course of a few days, the chard slowly gives up most of its color to the brine. For red chard, that means you’ll end up with pale pink pickles in a red brine. They’ll still taste great, though.

pickled chard stems and scallions

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Avocado crab salad

When it comes to flavor combinations, food people love to talk about “matches made in heaven.” There must be thousands of them–pairs of foods that, when combined, produce something mysteriously greater than the sum of their parts. Some pairs are well-known, shouted from rooftops, loudly and eloquently beloved. Peanut butter and banana! Strawberry and rhubarb! Mushrooms and sage! Pumpkin and cinnamon! Chocolate and chili! Chocolate and hazelnut! Chocolate and coffee!

Then there are the pairs that we sort of forget about, until they saunter up side-by-side and slap us on the chin. Like crab and avocado.

Every time I eat avocado and crab together, I’m freshly amazed at how well they get along. Something about the creamy, fruity richness of the avocado makes it an ideal pair for sweet stringy crab. Not long ago, I had a salad at a business lunch that reminded me, again, of how great they are together. Like most of my crab-and-avocado encounters, it kept the two separate: a pile of crabmeat, a fan of avocado slices, lettuce, and vinaigrette. No more than that. I ate, and my eyes rolled back in my head a little, and I made up my mind not to let the combination slip my mind again.

From there, I started thinking about a different kind of crab salad, the picnic and barbecue kind, bound together with mayonnaise and flecked with tiny vegetable bits. What if I replaced the mayonnaise with avocado? Would that even work?

The short answer is, yes. Absolutely. A perfectly ripe avocado, mashed ferociously with a whisk, makes a fine mayonnaise substitute, and infuses every bite of the crab salad with buttery flavor. I tossed in the chopped-up leftover vegetables from my gazpacho experiment, and spiked the whole thing with plenty of hot sauce. (Next time, I think I’ll use a green pepper rather than red, for more of a bitter bite against the rich avocado and sweet crab.) The salad tasted like a crabby guacamole, and cried out to be piled onto tortilla chips. I can only imagine how terrific this would be at a backyard barbecue in the summertime, with plenty of cold drinks and good friends close at hand.

avocado crab salad

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Kimchi soba salad

When I’m in the mood for a lazy lunch, I make a soba salad. I’m a big fan of soba noodles themselves–all dark and slippery-soft and nutty–and they’re especially nice with a lightweight soy dressing and some scallion and sesame. Problem is, soba salads need either precision or pizzazz to be really special. I tend to just wing it, and so my salads come out…plain. Slightly soggy. Generic. I like them, but they don’t quite rock my world. So I haven’t shared any of my attempts here.

Until now. Because kimchi.

I don’t remember where I got the idea to add kimchi to a soba salad. Maybe it was because I had some leftovers kicking around after making kimchi fried rice. Maybe it was because so many soba salad recipes call for cabbage of some sort, and I hate hacking up a whole head to use only a handful. Maybe it was just a screaming urge to do something a little different. Whatever it was, it worked like gangbusters. Turns out that soba noodles, with their gutsy buckwheatiness, are a perfect foil for spicy, crunchy, oh-so-slightly fizzy kimchi.

Now, fair warning: I used a lot of kimchi in this salad. It ended up being almost half kimchi and half noodles. I had absolutely no problem with this, but if you’re not as crazy for kimchi as I am, you could easily back down the amount by half. I also tried mixing some of the leftover kimchi brine into the dressing, but the extra liquid made the salad soggy, so I’m going to say that’s unnecessary. Depending on your spice tolerance and the heat level of your kimchi, you could certainly boost the red-chili factor with a glob of Sriracha in the dressing–I can neither confirm nor deny that I did this.

The beauty of a soba salad like this is that it’s equally delicious at room temperature the day it’s made, and cold from the fridge the next day. My boyfriend–a software engineer who gets fed for free at work–was so smitten with this salad that he requested I leave him the leftovers. He told me later that they made a great midnight snack. That’s about the highest praise I can think of.

kimchi soba salad

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Sweet potato and black bean salad

It seems so strange to be talking about anything other than the hurricane right now. Especially when all I can think to start this post with is a gentle complaint about the weather here–namely, that it can’t make up its mind. Somehow it feels insulting, even malicious, that summer is still flirting with us here in Northern California. Granted, she seems to be losing interest, with shorter bursts of sunshine and clouds that linger longer and drop more water. But there is still an unsettled quality to the weather–not nearly as unsettled as on the other side of the country, certainly, but just enough to make me uneasy.

I’m not writing this to try and chase away the sunshine. I’ll happily take it, as long as it lasts. But as someone trying her feeble best to cook seasonally, it’s a surprising challenge to have such ping-ponging weather. I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to feed myself lately. It’s too cool for a green salad, but too warm for a big pot of stew. I’ve been craving mulled cider for weeks, but it seems plain silly to be sipping a wintry drink when the mercury is inching back towards 80 degrees. The creative challenge–one I haven’t quite been up to lately–is finding a way to straddle the divide between summer and fall.

This salad was one of my attempts. I made it for a black-and-orange potluck last weekend, where it was a respectable guest but by no means the star. I guess that’s the curse of potato salads: to be solid and dependable, a cheerful second fiddle to the sexier, meatier main courses. This particular salad made a pretty strong case for itself, though. I roasted chunks of sweet potato–skin on, for texture and ease–with olive oil and a sprinkle of smoked paprika. Then I made a tangy-spicy slip of a dressing, with lime and mustard as the standout players, and mixed in a can of black beans and a big handful of chopped parsley. The resulting combination was nice, if a little subdued: sugary sweet potato, smoky spice, guttural black beans, the faintest whisper of dressing, grassy flecks sprinkled here-and-there. It seemed very appropriate for the odd not-quite-season we’re in.

Of course, as soon as I hit “publish” on this post, the sky will cloud over and we’ll be doused. Then it’ll be on to soup and stew and rib-sticking casseroles. Honestly, when compared to what’s been going on three time zones away, I’m grateful for all the coy stages of weather we’ve had. Here’s hoping life gets back to normal soon, for all of us.

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