Satisfying Salads

Lame as it may sound, Graeme and I both get a little bit over-excited about big, hearty salads–the kind that come in huge bowls and are a meal unto themselves. As the weather warms up, especially, big meal salads start showing up in our dinner plans more and more frequently, especially once we can make them using greens from our garden. I think my love of an enormous salad comes from my more general love of dishes that allow me to combine a million of my favourite ingredients on one plate; I go through over-the-top sandwich phases for the same reason. Also, a big salad begs for some kind of special bread-y accompaniment, which means that these sorts of dinners usually give me an excuse to either pick up something fancy at the neighbourhood bakery, or to experiment with some baking myself.

The other evening I decided to throw together one such giant salad, using lettuce, asparagus, avocado, goat cheese, grapes, shrimp and other bits that were hanging out in the vicinity of our fridge in a vaguely Asian-style gingery dressing. I whipped up some of these biscuits  to accompany the meal; they come together shockingly easily and have never failed me. It all tasted fresh and delicious. This was a really satisfying meal even after a long afternoon of slaving away in the garden, getting it all set up for the season. I share the recipe with you as an example of the kind of thing we often make at this time of year, but obviously it is barely a “recipe” and should not require one. For me, big salads are generally about combining lots of different textures and tastes to make each forkful an exciting prospect, and about including enough protein/fat so that they will be good and filling as main dishes. And I would love to hear from you, too, regarding the sorts of big meal salads you like to make; we are always on the lookout for ideas and for more creative possibilities!

Gingery Shrimp and Asparagus Salad
Serves 2.

Ingredients:
Dressing: [Note: this was too much dressing for 2 people.]
1/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce
1/8 cup rice vinegar
Juice of 1/2 a lime
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger

Salad:
Big bunch of mixed salad greens
50g nice crumbly goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 an avocado, chopped
1/4 of a red onion, chopped
1 tbsp butter
12 shrimp (we used frozen precooked, but this would be even nicer with some fresh shrimp)
8 or so asparagus stalks, chopped into 1″ or so pieces
A dozen or so green grapes halved
A handful of slivered almonds

Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk thoroughly. Season and adjust the dressing to your liking.

Divide the greens, avocado, onion and goat cheese between two large plates or bowls. Melt 1 tbsp butter on medium-high heat in a frying pan/skillet and when it’s nice and bubbly, throw in your asparagus. Saute for a couple of minutes, then throw in the slivered almonds, to toast them. After about 5 minutes total the asparagus should be getting tender and the almonds should smell amazing; now throw in the shrimp (which, if you have thawed them from frozen, you have patted as dry as possible), and the grapes, season the whole thing and saute for one more minute or two, just until the shrimp get nice and browned and crispy. Divide the asparagus/almond/shrimp/grape mixture evenly on the two plates, pour some of the dressing on each, and serve.

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On Meal Planning, Making Use of Neglected Cookbooks and Red Rice and Quinoa Salad

It is embarrassing that it took Graeme and I this long to do start doing something so sensible. Recently, due to Graeme being effectively useless at home due to his third month of night shifts, and my busy work schedule, we finally committed to meal planning. For real. With a whiteboard and everything. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Dinnertime used to consist of two tired folks looking at each other accusingly, each hoping that the other would volunteer to throw something together that would be more than just pasta with tomato sauce. (Although  let me be clear: I love pasta with tomato sauce.) The hungrier we got, the less likely we were to think of anything we could or would be willing to cook. Not a good scene. And so, we are now both nerdy devotees to the awesomeness of planning our dinners out for the week.

We love it for various reasons. The obvious one that most people cite is that actually knowing what we intend to cook makes for easier, and more affordable, grocery shopping. We waste less. We go out to eat when there is somewhere we actually want to go and eat–not just out of boredom. But there are other awesome side effects: it is genuinely a pleasure to sit together and chat about what we want to cook–usually we flip through cookbooks/magazines on a weekend morning and daydream what we’re in the mood for, which has become a really treasured part of the week. Taking that morning to think through our food plans also gives us space to stay creative and make sure our food is more balanced. For example, since we’ve actually been planning things out, we have been eating meat for dinner far less often (maybe twice a week?). Meat is an easy thing to fall back on when you’re hungry and drawing a blank (especially in winter, and boy did this year’s winter last forever!), but planning allows us to stick to our food ethics a little bit better. This is probably the first winter in a long time that I did not OD on meat. Taking that time to think also encourages us to try new recipes that we’ve had our eyes on, but would inevitably forget when at the supermarket or at dinnertime. We’re turning to cookbooks that had been collecting dust on our shelves, rediscovering them. So I feel like we’ve been cooking up lots of new recipes, and finding ourselves in far fewer cranky food ruts since we started doing this. I also find myself being far less lazy about weeknight cooking these days, as knowing exactly what the plan is makes the process seem less daunting when I’m tired after a long day. It’s awesome.

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One such cookbook that had previously been collecting dust, but which we have recently rediscovered, it the absolutely gorgeous Ottolenghi cookbook. I bought this book a couple of years ago, remembering that when we lived in England, we used to love the weekly recipes that Yotam Ottolenghi publishes in the Guardian. Through no fault of its own, though, the book has been sorely under-utilized in our household. Until recently, Graeme and I have turned to it mostly for the amazing baking recipes (the tea cakes in particular are beautiful and delicious!). But I am happy that I’ve branched out as all of the veggie-heavy, hearty, Mediterranean-inspired fare is right up my alley. I am pretty desperate to pick up his new cookbook, Plenty.

Below is our most recent Ottolenghi success–a delicious red rice and quinoa salad that was both nutritious and comforting given the continued winter-esque weather. The mix of textures, given the combination of quinoa, rice, pistachios, dried apricots, etc., is what really makes it special, and not just another “good for you” but dull main course salad. We ate it with a spinach salad on the side, and loved it as leftovers as well. I think it would make an especially awesome potluck dish.

Camargue Red Rice and Quinoa with Orange and Pistachios
Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Serves 4 [giants. We had tonnes!]

Ingredients
[Note: these are mostly done in weight. I was too lazy to weigh stuff, so I mostly winged it. It was still great.]
60g shelled pistachio nuts
200g quinoa
200g Camargue red rice [note: I just used the red rice I had, no idea what kind it was]
1 medium onion, sliced
150ml olive oil
grated zest and juice of one orange
2 tsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
100g dried apricots, roughly chopped
40g rocket [arugula in North American speak–I left this out as I was planning on serving a spinach salad on the side anyway]
salt and black pepper

Preheat the over to 170C [350F]. Spread the pistachios out on a baking tray and toast for 8 minutes, until lightly coloured. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly and then chop roughly. [I totally left these whole!] Set aside.

Fill 2 saucepans with salted water and bring to a boil. Simmer the quinoa in one for 12-14 minutes and the rice in the other for 20 minutes. Both should be tender but still have a bite. Drain in a sieve and spread out the 2 grains separately on flat trays to hasten the cooling down. [I totally cooked the rice and quinoa how I usually do, by putting in the right proportions of water so they absorb them all. And I didn’t bother cooling anything.]

While the grains are cooking, saute the white onion in 4 tbsp of olive oil for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Leave to cool completely. [Also did not cool these.]

In a large mixing bowl combine the rice, quinoa, cooked onion and the remaining oil. Add all the rest of the ingredients, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve at room temperature. [By the time this got to the table, it wasn’t hot anymore, but still fairly warm, and I thought it was great that way! There is an awesome mix of textures and colours in this dish that I found really satisfying.]