Imposter salad

I’ve been struggling hard with imposter syndrome lately – to quiet the voices in my head that scream what what I write and cook isn’t good enough, isn’t traditional enough, isn’t mine enough to justify publishing it here. If I’m honest, that’s why I don’t update very frequently, and why this very post has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost a week, waiting for edits.

Maybe that’s why I like this salad so much. It’s a bit of an imposter too. Like salad niçoise, this one has its fair share of summer’s bounty – ripe tomatoes, high-season green beans, olives and eggs. But unlike its restrained French cousin, this version swaps chicken for tuna and grills the vegetables into something loud, brash and infinitely more satisfying.

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Boiled red potatoes become crispy grilled steak fries with shatteringly crisp edges and charred notes of smoke and caramel. The tomatoes are grilled with red wine vinegar until they slump into jammy pillows whose juicy insides could serve as a salad dressing on their own. The green beans are cooked in a perforated pouch until they’re crisp-tender and smoke-kissed. The chicken is cooked until it is just barely charred. With briny Kalamata olives, a few boiled eggs, and some tweaks to the dressing, you’ve got a summer salad that truly feels like a meal.

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The best part? You never heat up your kitchen, and since everything goes on the grill the only things to wash are your cutting board and dressing bowl.

So yes, I guess this salad is perhaps aspiring to the name niçoise, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious or worthwhile.

Maybe I can take that as a lesson.

Imposter Salad Niçoise
Dressing adapted from Food Network Kitchen
Serves 4

For the salad
4 medium red potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch wedges
1/2 lb green beans, ends and strings removed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
1 t red wine vinegar
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 small head romaine lettuce, cut into 1 inch strips

For the dressing
1/2 shallot, minced
1/4 c red wine vinegar
2 T grainy brown or spicy brown mustard
1 T thyme leaves, minced
salt and pepper
1/3 c extra-virgin olive oil, or to taste (I like my vinaigrettes VERY vinegar-y, so if you don’t, just add more oil. The original recipe recommends 3/4 c)

Dump a generous amount of charcoal into your grill (my pile went up almost to the top grate) and get that lit so it’s ready by the time you need it. Alternatively, preheat your gas grill on whatever setting you normally use to grill chicken.

Start the salad prep by making a little aluminum foil boat large enough to hold the tomatoes. Toss in the tomatoes, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a bit of oil, and roll everything around to coat. Set aside.

Put the green beans on a sheet of heavy-duty foil, and toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Fold the foil into a pouch around the beans and poke both sides full of holes with either a fork or a paring knife. Set that aside too.

Toss the potato wedges with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and salt the chicken.

Once your grill is ready, spread the coals into a relatively even layer across the entire bottom surface of your grill. Put your two pouches of veggies off to the side, your chicken in the middle and your potatoes in a single layer around the remaining edge. You should find the hot and cooler spots quickly, so keep the potatoes moving so they don’t burn (a little burning is ok. Charcoal is not). The potatoes may not all finish cooking at once, so keep a bowl handy to pull off the ones that are nicely browned and give slightly when squeezed with tongs. Try not to eat all of these. It will be very tempting.

Shake and flip the bean pouch occasionally and make sure you stir the tomatoes every so often. Let them cook until the beans are crisp-tender and the tomatoes are just starting to burst and slump – with where they were on my grill with my charcoal on this particular day, that took about 15-20 minutes, but you should keep an eye on yours and check on them occasionally.

The chicken should be cooked through after 6-8 minutes on each side. You’re looking for an internal temperature of about 160 °F. It should gain the additional five degrees in carryover heat during the rest.

Bring everything inside and tent the chicken with foil and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before cutting it.

While the chicken is resting, whisk together the shallot, red wine vinegar, mustard, thyme and salt and pepper. Then, slowly whisk in the oil – you’re looking to form an emulsion, and dumping all the oil in at once will make that much harder. Also, tip: move your whisk back and forth in a straight line, rather than in circular motions. This creates more shear forces under the surface and means your emulsion will form more quickly and hold longer.

Slice the chicken however seems best to you and arrange everything on a platter. Drizzle with the dressing and serve either warm or at room temperature.

 

 

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Dashing madly

In some ways, I’m a terrible college student. I’ve never been to a frat party. I didn’t sneak into bars underage and make out with cute boys I’d never see again. I never kept Ramen in my dorm and I didn’t order pizza until my junior year.

The pizza thing isn’t out of snobbishness – like everyone, I’ve got a soft spot for mass-produced dough, perfectly crunchy pepperoni, and those magical little puddles of grease I can never quite manage at home. It’s the Hamburger Dilemma. A solid inch of hand-ground angus topped with aged bleu cheese, arugula and red onion might be the be-all-end-all of burgers – but say what you want, I’m always going to have a soft spot for McDonald’s double cheeseburger (only like twice a year, though. They stay with you).

But for me, there’s a sense of deep satisfaction in watching the simple chemistry that can completely transform a handful of raw ingredients. That process is something I’m loathe to give up, even on nights when I’ve got a million things on my plate and dinner becomes little more than bites snatched in the space between tasks.

So tonight, when I was prepping crêpe batter and cremé pâtisserie and pie dough for tomorrow night’s party in between doing my homework and studying for Monday’s biochemistry exam and trying to find the section of the case problem that laid out the elements of an entrapment defense, I can’t say making dinner was exactly a priority.

I just slammed potatoes and tomatoes and some softened goat cheese on frozen puff pastry, showered it in Herbes de Provence and tossed it in the oven while I worked on other things, but taking the time to cook for myself allowed me to carve out time to do something I enjoy. It’s a way of respecting myself enough to do something that makes me feel special and cared for.

And hey, puff pastry tarts are basically pizza, right?

Busy Night Tarts

These tarts are what Alton Brown would call “refrigerator velcro” – just throw on whatever have that you think would be good together. Ricotta, onion, and summer squash with thyme or rosemary would be lovely, especially drizzled with garlic oil. As would sauteed mushrooms with garlic and roasted chicken dotted with bleu cheese. Or maybe charred corn kernels, green onions, and grape tomatoes smothered in sharp cheddar. Get creative! The only limit here is your imagination.

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
2 or 3 oz goat cheese, room temperature
heavy pinch garlic powder
A handful of small waxy potatoes, boiled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 roma tomato, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water
heavy pinch dried Herbes de Provence, or other herb blend
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

On a well-floured board, lightly roll the puff pastry into a 11 or 12 inch square. Cut one inch strips from all sides, doing the two vertical sides first and then the two horizontal sides. Set the strips aside.

Place the square of pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and spread it with the softened goat cheese, leaving a 1 inch border on all sides. Sprinkle the cheese with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Place the slices of potato across the cheese in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Add the tomato, again, in a single layer, then sprinkle the whole thing with the Herbes de Provence

Dip a pastry brush in the egg mixture and brush the two vertical sides of the exposed dough. Place two of the strips of dough you cut earlier over the egg mixture. Repeat the same process with the horizontal sides. The strips should overlap on the corners. Basically you’re making the first layer of one of those popsicle-stick houses, using dough as the sticks and the egg mixture as the glue. Paint the tops of the dough with the egg mixture so it’ll come out of the oven nice and brown.

Pop it in the oven and bake until the pastry is puffed and the top is golden, 20-30 minutes.