Tuesday, October 5, 2010

MENU FOR A QUIET CALIFORNIA MONDAY

The lovely produce we’d found at Ferry Plaza in SF, including this mix of greens and edible flowers, had all sorts of menu ideas bouncing around in my head. I spent Monday morning catching up on the internet and googling a few end-of-summer recipe ideas I hoped to make during the week.

In the afternoon we ventured into nearby downtown Placerville. Located halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe in old Gold Rush territory, Placerville is doing its best to lure tourists with an interesting California mix of trendy and old-timey. Next to a general store filled with all sorts of useful items I wouldn't look for anywhere but on the internet these days were consignment shops, art galleries, restaurants, and a couple of places that really appealed to me. Dedrick’s Cheese is a small shop with a wide selection of cheeses, four of which were available for tasting that day. It also offers some fabulous breads and sweets. I easily succumbed to purchasing three cheeses and a loaf of sourdough, which would be perfect for the bruschetta I had in mind for our evening meal.
Next door is Zia's Gelato, offering a rotating array of intriguing gelato and sorbetto flavors, many of which showcase the local fruits they’re made with, including mango chili, concord grape, vanilla lavender, and honeydew melon. In a trend I would find throughout my visit to the area, again complimentary tastings were offered. After extensive sampling and much deliberation, I settled on a scoop of strawberry lemonade and another of chocolate mint. 
The chocolate mint was something that took me back to childhood. This wasn’t green-colored mint ice cream with chocolate chips. This was pure mint-infused chocolate through and through. When I was a wee thing, we used to get chocolate mint ice cream from a place on the Ag(riculture) campus at the University of Nebraska, and I’ve never been able to find a “real” chocolate mint frozen treat since. What’s better than a bowl of frozen deliciousness that satisfies not only the sweet tooth but also a long-missed food memory! We relished our treats in the “hidden” courtyard behind the two shops, a quiet little spot the afternoon we stopped, but one that packs in the crowds on the evenings they offer music. Zia’s also offers wine, beer, coffees, and small plates, so you could settle right in there for a few hours to enjoy music with all your favorite indulgences.

After checking out several more shops along the strip, including a gallery that also offered wine tastings (we focused on jewelry instead), we headed back to my aunt's and I got to work on dinner – a simple spread, although a fair amount of chopping was involved.

MY CHICKEN SALAD
OK, I cribbed this recipe from the caterer I worked for at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park back in my college days, but my family has come to know it as my own. After my father’s bypass surgery, he said this was the dish that finally perked his appetite back up after the dreadful hospital food he’d endured. I included a recipe for it in the recipe calendar I put together as a family Christmas gift several years ago, and as it turns out, my Aunt Marilyn had finally gotten around to making it recently and pronounced it a hit.

I’m not a fan of mayonnaise-based chicken salad, but the vinaigrette in this one lightens it and lets the flavors of the ingredients come through. It’s endlessly adaptable (always a plus in my book) and refreshing in any season. So here’s one of my quasi-recipes.
Cooked chicken, cubed or shredded. Use what you have on hand and fits your preferences. We happened to have leftover breasts and thighs from the previous night’s grill-out. Want to use some boneless, skinless pieces from your freezer? Cook them in your preferred fashion, and they’ll work fine. Have some chunks or shreds off the carcass of a whole chicken you’ve prepared? They’ll work too.
Olives. I usually use green ones stuffed with pimento, but any kind you like or have on hand will add a little piquancy. If I have large olives, I tend to cut them in half or slice them for more color. Don’t like olives? Leave them out.
Grapes. Your choice, red or green. I usually cut them in half. If you’re not using seedless grapes, do your guests a favor and remove the seeds.
Almonds, or nuts of your choice. A tip: Toasting the nuts brings out their flavor and helps them retain their crunch, especially if you have leftovers. If dressing the salad ahead, add nuts at the end.
Veggies. To round out this salad, add what you like, what’s in season, and what adds color or crunch. For our meal, I used something new to me - lemon cucumbers I'd found at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, along with tomatoes from the market and my aunt's garden. She reminded me that I’d mentioned celery in that recipe calendar version. A great addition, especially in winter, but not to worry if you don’t have any on hand. I usually include onions too - red, yellow, white, green - whatever.
Greens. I usually serve this over greens – and I especially wanted to this time, since I had that great mix with edible flowers from Ferry Plaza. But if it fits your purposes to slap some between slices of bread, stuff it inside a pita, or make a wrap out of it, go for it! This recipe works great for a picnic, or for a brown bag lunch you will actually look forward to eating.
Vinaigrette. If using a bottled vinaigrette or Italian dressing suits your purposes and schedule best, don’t NOT make this salad just because you don’t want to tackle a homemade dressing. However, this is a pretty simple version to throw together – and if you have leftover dressing, you can keep it refrigerated and use on whatever your next salad(s) may be. Here's the recipe I jotted down from one of my mom's cookbooks long ago and now make without it, depending on what I have on hand (my notes in parens).

Fines Herbes Dressing 
1/2 t. dry mustard (or use a dollop of whatever dijon-esque mustard you have on hand - it will help emulsify the dressing)

1 t. paprika (adds color; don't worry if you don't have any; smoked paprika adds more flavor)

1-2 cloves garlic, split (I smash them and leave them semi-intact, without the peel, the easier to fish them out without someone ending up with a huge hunk of garlic in their salad. The garlic is there mainly to infuse the dressing.)

2 c. salad oil : 1/2 c. tarragon vinegar : 1/4 c. dry red wine (That's what the original recipe calls for, if you want to make 3 cups of dressing. These days I usually use olive oil rather than "salad oil." In place of tarragon vinegar, I often use red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, or champagne vinegar. Good thing I reread this recipe, because I'd forgotten about the addition of wine - red, or white, or vermouth will work, or you can leave it out altogether. Vary the ratio of oil to vinegar/wine according to your taste.)

1/2 t. dried basil and 1/2 c. fresh parsley (So says the original recipe. Depending on the time of year and what I have available, I vary the herbage all over the map. In winter I use dried herbs. This time I was lucky to have fresh basil, rosemary, and thyme from my aunt's garden, so that's what I went with.)
Place ingredients in a jar or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid and shake until combined.


TOMATOES A LA PROVENCALE
Like the fines herbes dressing recipe, this is one that harkens back to the days when I handwrote on index cards and placed them in my recipe box. You can find many variations on this classic - and I have certainly tried my hand at a few myself, using various herbs, and sometimes adding cheese or nuts. But I've decided my favorite is to keep it simple, sticking to what for me are the quintessential flavors of this dish - thyme, garlic, and fresh tomatoes. Somehow I hadn't made this dish all summer, but now I had really great ingredients to work with, including heirloom tomatoes from Ferry Plaza and fresh thyme from the garden, and I figured this would go over well as a hot side for the cold chicken salad main.
4 ripe tomatoes
1/3 fresh bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. finely chopped green onions
3 T. fresh parsley
1/8 t. dried thyme (or closer to 1 t. fresh thyme)
3 T. olive oil
salt & pepper
butter (optional)

Cut tomatoes in half horizontally and gently press out pulp and seeds. (I find it handy to use a serrated grapefruit spoon to remove the pulp and seeds without overly squishing ripe tomatoes.)
Sprinkle de-seeded tomato halves with salt and pepper and invert on cake rack to drain (in sink or over paper towel). Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. (hmm, I usually stick with about 350; that probably evolved from baking them with another dish whose temp I was more worried about). Combine bread crumbs, garlic, green onions, parsley, thyme, olive oil and more salt and pepper to taste. Fill each tomato half with mixture. Place tomatoes in an oiled pan and dot with butter (these days, I usually skip the dot of butter, unless I end up with a mixture that is heavily weighted to dry-ish bread crumbs rather than fresh herbs). This time I tossed a few pine nuts on top.
The original recipe says, "place in upper third of oven and bake 10-15 minutes, or until bread crumbs are golden brown." I find it helps to keep an eye on them, especially if you have really fresh tomatoes. Less important than judging by how golden brown the bread crumbs are (the herby bread crumb filling will be tasty no matter what - especially if you've moistened it well with olive oil) is to make sure the tomatoes are cooked but don't lose all their firmness. Darn, here I was trying to share my tips from years of making this dish, but I fear I'm making it sound too complicated. Try them, you'll like them. If you like them well enough, you'll make them again and figure out what I'm talking about.

To round out our meal, I threw together some minced garlic, basil from the garden, and more fresh tomatoes (including the delectable innards I'd extracted from the tomatoes I'd stuffed) as a topping for slices of the sourdough I'd bought that afternoon.

Marilyn was so impressed, she thought we ought to eat in the dining room that evening. But really, all these dishes are easy to make and casual. A little attention to presentation never hurts, though. I made sure everyone had some of those edible flowers and greens on their plates before topping them with my chicken salad. And Marilyn set a lovely table.
It was a very satisfying end of summer meal, if I do say so myself. And one of the most satisfying things about it for me was having other people to cook for!
I'll be back with more cooking, tasting, and traveling tidbits from my California trip soon. And yes, wineries will be involved!

7 comments:

Making Space said...

That all looks so delicious!! Thanks for all these posts - so beautiful.

LaDivaCucina said...

Wow, Eggy, you posted so much there is so much to respond to!

I LOVE the flowers and the purple tipped greens! Beautiful and you did good photographing it! You can eat the flowers AND the leaves of the nasturtium flower.

I LOVE ICE CREAM and it is my downfall! I have an ice cream maker but what stops me from making it is the room the darn container takes up in the freezer. MUST experiment, I have lavender too.

That little courtyard looks DIVINE! How very civilized!

I hate mayonnaise chicken salad too. In fact, when I make cole slaw and potato salad I "cut" the mayo with Greek yogurt for tang and to get rid of the greasy heaviness. YOUR salad looks so darn good! (PS have you thought of making your own tarragon vinegar? Very easy)

Finally, those tomatoes are absolutely gorgeous! I want some of that Provencale NOW! (Why am I on your blog before dinner?!)

moi said...

I'll go ahead and hone in on one thing: mint and chocolate. YUM! One of the world's great flavor combos. I've made homemade chocolate/mint ice cream a couple times (thank the universe for the Cuisinart ice cream maker) and it's divine from scratch.

intuitive eggplant said...

MS, glad you're enjoying. Hope the Sweeties had an outstanding birthday!

Diva, you can bet we ate all parts of those flowers! And I love your idea of using Greek yogurt to cut mayo in potato salad. I'm not such a fan of cole slaw, but I'll have to try yours if I ever get to Miami :) Re: the tarragon vinegar, I've made chive vinegar before - yes, tres simple.

Moi, glad you're with me on the mint and chocolate combo. Homemade sounds most tempting. May need to put an ice cream maker on my xmas list . . .

WaterDog said...

Having had most of these dishes over the years of Eggies cooking, I can say that they are great in all varations. I hate cooked tomatoes, but I will eat the filling in these anytime. As Eggie says or did not say, cooking is not rocket science and you go with what you have on hand = Always good!!!

My Carolina Kitchen said...

Chicken salad and tomatoes provencale are two of my favorite dishes in the world. We have chicken salad for lunch many days and I vary between vinaigette based chicken salads and mayonnaise. I'll be sure to give yours a try.

Looking forward to the California wineries.
Sam

Chef Dennis said...

what an incredible time you must have had, and that gelato, I could eat my way through every flavor! Your chicken salad looks outrageously delicious, and those lovely tomatoes....yum, count me in for lunch anytime!