Sun and Salad for Working Woes

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

   Salads are tricky things. In particular, I'm still working on mastering the art of the simple green salad, dressed lightly with the barest hint of vinegar and oil, freshly whisked to emulsification by my very own hands.

   One thing I do know, however, is the chicken salad. The recipe I'm sharing today is one that started as a seedling in my cooking consciousness late last summer when my boyfriend and I picked up a couple of chicken salad wraps to take to the beach. They were filled with fresh greens and a chicken salad that contained dried cranberries, of all things. It made sense as soon as I bit into the bright, sweet berries, hidden amongst the chicken chunks- after all, the chicken is a cousin of the turkey, and who doesn't love turkey and cranberry sauce! I forgot about the wraps for a time, until a conversation with my sister when she started talking about something she called a Waldorf Salad that she had been making recently. It was basically a chicken salad, with various things that she finds about her pantry tossed in, but always including dried cranberries. Salivary glands awoken, I hung up the phone, gathered ingredients, and set to work.

   When constructing recipes, I always try and include elements that I know will provide the best and most vital nutrients, and, perhaps more importantly, make sure each of them contributes an exciting flavor or texture. With that in mind, I included, of course, the dried cranberries and added walnuts, celery and onions. The onion family contains some of the most potent and efficient antioxidants as well as various substances that serve to detoxify the body. As for cranberries, well, I don't think anyone has escaped reading at least one article about the many vitamins and nutrients found in this little berry. On top of all of that, cranberries actually physically absorb the free radicals we encounter in our every day lives (those nasty little particles that charge about and damage our cells, either aging them or harming their DNA). The walnuts were for crunch and those delightfully creamy and essential fatty acids.

   Starting tomorrow I go on a service that cares for cardiac patients. They are some of the sickest patients in the hospital, suffering from problems with their hearts or the vasculature associated with the heart, acquired either at birth or sometime after. Most of them have recently undergone corrective or palliative surgeries and require very close care and monitoring to make sure everything is in the correct working order to maintain proper heart rhythm, blood pressure and a host of other things. The schedule is further intensified by being on overnight call every fourth day. Calls are thirty hour shifts that run the gamut from quiet to frightening ill patients that may code or spike a phantom fever at any moment in the night.

   This recipe is going to be one of my staples during such a busy and exhausting month. It is nutritious, crunchy, creamy, sweet with a little spicy kick from the onion. More than all of that, it reminds me of days at the beach with my boyfriend and of my sister, so creative and fun in the kitchen. I hope you enjoy it one of these warm, sunny days as well. I don't have a picture to put up of the salad, but I do have one that I hope makes you all feel as summery as it makes me. Plus, it has a pelican flying in the background- a bird that never fails to make my heart soar with the sense that anything is possible and everything is calm in the world.

Crazy for Cranberries Chicken Salad

2 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
coarse kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup onion, diced
1/3 - 1/2  cup dried cranberries (I lean toward 1/2 cup, it depends on how much you like them- aim to get 1 or 2 with each bite)
1/3 cup chopped walnuts 
1/2 cup mayonaise

To serve: 6 inch whole wheat wraps and romaine lettuce, or a fresh salad of mixed greens if you prefer

   Preheat the oven to 375. Place the chicken breasts in a baking pans, side by side, and sprinkle with about 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of pepper.  Bake until thoroughly cooked and the edges are slightly browned, about 45 minutes. Chill completely in the fridge. Once chilled, chop the chicken into cubes and place in a mixing bowl with the rest of the ingredients except the ones for serving. Mix thoroughly. Allow to chill about a 1/2 hour so the flavors can mingle.
   I like to serve this in whole wheat wraps with romaine lettuce, but my sister often just places a scoop atop a fresh salad of mixed greens. This will keep in the fridge for up to three days, tightly covered. It makes 3-4 wraps depending on the size of the chicken breasts. I suggest eating them on the beach, if one happens to be nearby.

In Pursuit of Fry

Friday, May 27, 2011

   I'll just come right out and say it: I'm afraid of fried food.

   I think perhaps it has something to do with my New England roots- there is undeniably a deep, dark place amongst my appetites that demands all things fried whether they be salty or sweet or both. Some of my earliest food memories are of going to Ronnie's Clams deep in the rolling hills of Springfield Massachusetts. Here, my brothers and sisters would foolishly order fried clams (how disgusting!) and I would get an order of onion rings all to myself. Early on in my life, during the picky years as I will call them, I liked the flavor of onions but not the texture or the idea of eating the onion itself. I would sit and contentedly separate the fried, onion flavored goodness from the vegetable itself which was left behind in a wet, salty heap as I enjoyed my crispy plunder.

   After moving away form New England when I was eight, we rarely ate out since our farm was located at least an hour from any decent restaurant. As we got older and it was easier to drive longer distances, restaurants made a more regular appearance, but as a kid the majority of the meals I ate were of my mother's making and she very, very rarely fried anything. In fact, the only time I ever remember her frying was when she would break out her old cast iron fry pan (it was so seasoned from use that the bottom of it was slick and shiny, completely stick proof!), pour about an inch of vegetable oil in, and fry rounds of her home made dough to golden perfection. After a lightening quick dusting of confectioner's sugar she would distribute the pillowy dessert, still hot, to our eagerly waiting hands where we savored each bite.

   Maybe that is the real reason I shy away from fried foods as an adult. They were such a rare and anticipated treat as a child I think the abundance of fried-ness in our American lives is kind of a shame. I advise holding out for the good stuff- true, freshly cut french fires, fried dough from the hands of someone who cares, a doughnut hot from the oil of a friend's kitchen- I can't stress the value or flavor of these things enough.

   In the days and weeks between indulging the New Englander hiding inside me, I cheat with the stir fry. A couple of weeks ago I was perusing my favorite recipe websites, feeling uninspired. What I really wanted was something full of spice, flavor, lean protein and still crisp vegetables. An observant friend sitting nearby pointed out I was describing the prefect stir fry. That is what I set about to make, and that is the recipe that follows: a combination of all the flavors I craved on that day, one that I've revisited several times since, it's that good.

Gingered Pork Loin Stir Fry
1 to 1 1/2 pounds pork loin
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1 medium sweet onion, halved then sliced thinly
3 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger root
1-2 pinches red chili flakes (depending on your heat preference)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 cups broccoli florets
3 cups cauliflower florets

Slice the pork loin crosswise into 1/2 inch rounds. Cut those round to measure uniform cubes, about 1 1/2 inches in size. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and just a pinch or two of salt (the soy sauce later will add a lot of sodium, so go easy on the salt). Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, wide skillet. Wait until the oil shimmers and is very hot then add the pork and resist stirring for a few minutes, you want to get a nice sizzle and browning on the meat. While the meat browns, add the onions on top along with the ginger and chili flakes. Stir and flip the meat around to try and get the caramel color on as many surfaces as possible. When the meat is almost completely cooked through, add the soy sauce and stir to incorporate. Add the broccoli and cauliflower on top and, without stirring, cover the whole thing with a lid and allow the veggies to steam for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, stir to incorporate all the ingredients. Taste and season with more soy sauce or a few tablespoons of water depending on the saltiness. Test the veggies, if they are crisp tender, the meal is done, if still too crunchy, replace the lid and allow to cook another minute or two.
   This can be enjoyed on its own or on a bed of egg noodles. Serves 4-6 depending on how hungry you are!