Culinary Quest #13 – Chicken & Grape Salad

There is something really fresh about chicken salad.  It screams summer!  The only bummer is the nutrition factor which gets shot out of the water with mayonnaise.  😦 I discovered a mayo-less version in Dean & Deluca, but was very skeptical – so I bought some out of curiousty.  Wow!  It was so good!  I had to be convinced…and I was.

Below is my version of chicken & grape salad.  Although consideration needs to be given to refrigeration due to the chicken content, without the mayo I am a little more relieved when taking it to picnics, parties, etc.

The citrus really makes this salad pop, but it doesn’t dominate the flavor.  Also, when shopping, look for firm grapes.  Too soft and it makes the salad texture mushy.  The celery is the crunch; the chicken is the soft; and the grapes are the Goldilocks – just right in the middle.

This cool, summer salad can be served in a bowl on its own, or on a croissant, in a pita or between slices of bread.  The photo above shows this salad with hearty sourdough.

The vinaigrette makes more than enough for this recipe.  Depending on your preference, save some vinaigrette for later (great on lettuce salads or as a marinade) or use it to wet the salad almost like a citrus au jus.  Either way, it’s this easy recipe is a great way to beat the summer heat.  Enjoy!

Chicken & Grape Salad

Ingredients:

3              Chicken breasts

3c            Red grapes

4              Celery stalks

1/4c         Italian (a.k.a. flat) parsley; diced

salt, pepper, and herbs de provence to taste for the chicken

Citrus Vinaigrette

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Citrus Vinaigrette:

2T           rice vinegar

4T           fresh squeezed lemon juice w/ pulp

7T           frozen orange juice concentrate

4T           canola oil

2T           granular sugar

1/2t          salt

1/4t       pepper

Directions:

Trim fat from chicken and rinse under water.

Bake seasoned chicken in a foil-lined baking dish in oven @ 350 for 20 minutes or until done (do not over cook or it will dry out).  OR, boil in a large pot on the stove until done.  (Boiled will produce a milder flavor.)  When I bake, I use a dish that squishes the chicken close together so it doesn’t dry out.

While the chicken cools, prep the grapes and celery (wash first, then cut in large pieces).  Chop parsley.

Make the vinaigrette.

While chicken is still warm, cut into cubes.

Toss everything together in a large bowl. (The warm chicken helps absorb the vinaigrette.)

Let it sit several hours or overnight before serving.  Stir well before serving.

Culinary Quest #12 – Pecan & Pear Salad

Oh man!  These hot temps are really pushing cool food, so here we go with my family’s weekly pick.  Recently, we visited one of our favorite eateries in D.C. called Matchbox.  Great pizza, very cool atmosphere and it is a local favorite.  And, as of this trip, home to an incredible salad.

We walked the National Zoo in record heat for 9 hours before reaching the restaurant and were hot beyond belief!  We were seated immediately, and although we never order appetizers, etc. because of our family budget, we couldn’t pass up a cold salad.  Honestly, we had eaten so much fast food on the trip from vending carts to tent stands to Union Station with its food court, I told my kids the next meal absolutely had to have something green on it.

We all shared Matchbox’s rendition of a pear, pecan and gorgonzola salad.  It was so fresh and chilled and yummy that we splurged and ordered a 2nd one to split!  My kids liked it so much, and I am bored of making the traditional lettuce, tomato, cucumber salad at home, I thought I’d try my own version of theirs.  Glad I did!

This salad is very savory, without having to use a ton of ingredients.  Sometimes, using a few flavorful ingredients packs more of a punch than many mild ingredients.  This is one of those dishes.  The sweet, sugared pecans and pears mixed with the slightly pungent gorgonzola cheese and rich balsamic vinegar makes this salad taste like you worked on it for hours – but you did’t!  (Shh, it’s our secret!)  Great to serve when impressing company or just sitting barefoot in the backyard under a shade tree.

The secret to any salad being a success, in my opinion, is the dressing.  I once paid a hefty price for a salad in a bistro.  I instantly knew at first bite that something was off.  I asked the server if the dressing was made in-house.  She confided in me that they walk across the way to the grocery store and buy a common brand by the bottle off the shelf.  What?  I knew I tasted mass production in there.  It killed the experience for me.

Below is super tasty summer salad that can be a starter, side or add protein to it (fish, chicken or steak) and you’ve got an easy one-dish meal.  The dressing is so simple, don’t settle for bottled.  Your taste buds, and budget, will thank you.  It takes me about 3 minutes to whip it up, seriously!

To mention about the sugared pecans, traditional candied pecans (often made at Christmastime) call for double the sugar and less cinnamon.  Because these are just one element to the salad, I was able to half the amount of sugar and double the cinnamon.  Just another tip to reduce calories.  We didn’t miss the sugar at all, and the extra cinnamon was tasted without overpowering the pecans.  When I bought the pecans, I used 2, 6oz bags of pieces.  This gave me an extra cup left over to either save or let my family indulge. 🙂

Also, I bought the field greens by the bag (3 bags) at a reduced price because of the sell by date.  I was using them the same day, and the sell by date was still 2 days off, yet I received $1 each bag.  Every little bit helps!  The greens were perfectly fresh.

When cooking at home, a great advantage is tweaking dishes to your preferences.  Although Matchbox’s salad was delicious, for still far less than buying it there, I was able to add extra pecans to some, extra gorgonzola to others, and still extra pears to others depending on my family’s taste.

Enjoy a taste of summer! ~ Kristi

Pecan and Pear Salad

Serves 6

Salad

15oz                       mixed field greens

7oz                          gorgonzola cheese; crumbled

3                              pears; sliced thin

2c                            sugared pecans (see below)

Honey Balsamic Dressing (see below)

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Sugared Pecans

2c                          pecan pieces

1                             egg white

1T                           water

1/2c                       sugar

1/2t                        salt

1t                          cinnamon

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Honey Balsamic Dressing

1/2c                        canola oil

4T                           balsamic vinegar

4T                           honey

1/4t                        salt

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Directions:

#1           Pecans – whip egg white and water until foamy.  Add pecan pieces to froth & mix.  Add remaining ingredients and mix until completely coated.  Spread on parchment paper-covered baking sheet & bake @ 275 for 50min – tossing twice while baking.  Slide parchment off of baking sheet and onto counter and allow pecans to cool. Set aside.  (These can be made a few days in advance. Store in airtight container.)

#2           Dressing – mix all dressing ingredients in blender, Magic Bullet, or food processor until whipped.  Set aside. (Can be made at least a week in advance. Keep refrigerated.)

#3           Salad – when ready to serve, toss lettuce with dressing in large bowl with lid.  Shake until evenly coated.  Layer on plate: lettuce, gorgonzola, pecans and then fan pears around the edge of the plate.

Culinary Quest #11 – Corn & Basil Salad

We cook what is in season.  This keeps the freshest ingredients on hand and at their peak flavor.  The other day, I bought corn on the cob.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but it’s something we enjoy regardless, so I took advantage of the sale price.

Tired of steaming and grilling, I wanted a fresh taste for summer to help beat the heat.  With the addition of a few other natural ingredients, a brand new salad emerged as one of our favorites!

The tomatoes, basil and balsamic vinegar blend well with the sweet corn and cucumbers.  Add a little kick with red onion and a peppery vinaigrette and this yields a sweet and savory flavor that is delicious.

My daughter asked me why I didn’t just use canned corn.  There is a huge difference in fresh corn and canned corn, especially when serving the dish cold.  Go the extra step and use fresh corn.  You’l be glad you did!  My son kept asking what the incredibly sweet taste was.  I replied, Simply the corn!  This dish lets the corn brag on itself with its crisp, sugary goodness.

This recipe combines the corn and pepper with salad ingredients and everything pulls together as a salad or side dish that tastes a lot more complicated than it is to make.  And, its variety of color shows off a great presentation on the table that you will be proud to offer.  I hope you enjoy it as much as my family does.  Easy, fast and flavorful!  Just they way we like it. 🙂

Corn & Basil Salad

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients:

5 ears                    fresh corn on the cob

½                            small red onion; diced

5                              vine-ripened tomatoes; diced

1 bunch                   basil; chopped

1                              cucumber; peeled & diced

Dressing:

3t                            white balsamic vinegar

2T                           olive oil

1/4t                        salt

1/4t                        black pepper

1/4t                        sugar

1 clove                  fresh garlic; crushed

Directions:

Steam, roast or grill shucked corn.  Cool to touch.

Using a knife, cut the corn off of the cob and place in a large mixing bowl.

Add remaining ingredients each as prepared above.

Combine dressing ingredients in a container with a lid and shake well.

Pour over salad and thoroughly mix everything together.

Chill until cold.

Culinary Quest #10 – Loaded Baked Potato Casserole

Looking for a crowd-pleaser that won’t break your budget?  This recipe isn’t rocket science, but it tastes out of this world (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).  Sometimes I want to bring a dish to an event that I absolutely know everyone will like, but after scouring cookbooks and the Internet it usually winds up costing a fortune!  Not this time…

Who doesn’t like a baked potato with cheese, bacon and butter?  Baked potato “bars” are good and all, but the foil-wrapped potatoes can get messy from trying to squeeze in the toppings.  Plus, the toppings always look a little –  well, tired.  This way, you throw it all together, bake it and ta-da!  You have a nice dish for your family or to take with you.  Great for picnics, dinners, brunch or stay-home movie night.  It is also good as a side dish when grilling – one less thing to tend to when family and friends are over.

It’s extra budget-friendly if you shop sales and get the cheese buy-one get-one free and bacon tends to regularly go on sale depending on the brand.  The rest is nominal.

Loaded Baked Potato Casserole

8                            Russet baking potatoes

1/2 stick                 salted butter

1/4c                       milk (we use 2%)

8oz                         sour cream (we use reduced fat)

1/2t                        black pepper (to taste)

1T                           salt (to taste)

1 pkg                     center-cut bacon

1 bunch                  green onions; diced

2c                           shredded cheddar cheese (Any favorite variety.  I used Triple Cheese by Kraft (Vermont white cheddar, sharp cheddar & mild cheddar w/cream cheese added)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place bacon on vented baking sheet and bake until done.  Drain fat on paper towel.

Peel, halve and boil potatoes until a fork can easily go through them.

Drain and place potatoes in a mixing bowl.

Add butter, milk, sour cream, salt & pepper.

Mix with electric mixer on medium until creamy (no lumps).

Bacon should now be cooled.  Using a large kitchen knife, dice bacon on cutting board into bits.

Blend in green onions and bacon with large spoon into the potato mixture.

Lightly grease a 9×13 baking dish.

Spoon potato mixer into the dish and spread evenly.

Top with cheeses and bake @ 350 about 15-20 minutes until cheese is melted and it is hot all the way through.

***This dish can be made a day ahead.  Simply hold back the cheese, bake the potato mixture COVERED (to keep from drying out) until hot, then add the cheese and bake a few more minutes until it melts.

***For added flare as a dinner side dish, instead of using a baking dish, use individual crocks – fill, top with cheese & bake as directed.

 This is what it looks like prior to adding the cheese.

Culinary Quest #9 – Twisted Blueberry Peach Cobbler

Summer cobbler is so yummy! Apples and cinnamon work in cooler weather, but bring on peaches and blueberries for stokin’ hot temps. Below is our twist on an old-fashioned favorite. The lime gives it a surprise we hope you enjoy. The crunchy top has a granola texture that stays crisp with every bite. Happy summer!

Fruit filling:
4c fresh blueberries

8 medium peaches

1/4c granular sugar

1/2t cardamom

1t vanilla

1t lime juice

1t lime zest

2t corn starch

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Crumble topping:

2c flour

1/4c granular sugar

1/2t baking powder1/4t cardamom1/4t salt

½ stick butter

2 eggs

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Drizzle:

1T. honey

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In a mixing bowl, combine all fruit filling ingredients and toss well. Pour into baking dish (9×13 or equivalent).

In another mixing bowl, combine all crumble topping ingredients. Mix with electric mixer until well mixed and uniform.

Evenly distribute cobbler topping over the fruit mixture.

Drizzle with honey.

Bake for 30 minutes or until topping is brown and fruit is soft and bubbly.

Fruit filling

Ready to bake…

Culinary Quest #8 – Mexican Breakfast Flatbread

We love Mexican food!  Just give me chips and salsa and I’m set.  But, for days when a proper meal is in order be it breakfast, brunch or dinner, I set out to create a dish that incorporates savory Mexican taste with traditional breakfast ingredients.

This hearty dish stands alone, and a fork & knife are required for this mucho grande meal.  Adapt veggies to taste.  Use egg whites, reduced-fat cheese, reduced-fat sour cream and turkey bacon to help with dietary needs.

Loaded with veggies, and a kick of lime, it’s a great break from store-bought, frozen breakfast burritos or the predictable taco night!  This flat bread is filling in an “I’m ready for the day” feel, not “I need to go back to bed” feel.  🙂 Enjoy!

Mexican Breakfast Flatbread

Serves 8

One bag                 Fresh pizza dough

2T                           Corn meal

1T                           Garlic powder

1/4t                        Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

1 bunch                  Fresh cilantro; chopped

1 pt                        Mushrooms; thinly sliced

1                             Red pepper; chopped

½ medium              Red onion; thinly sliced

½t                           Lime juice

2                              Beefsteak tomatoes; thinly sliced (use the centers for most even distribution)

8                              Eggs

1#                            Center cut bacon; cooked & diced

2c                            Mexican blend shredded cheese

2                              Avocadoes; sliced

1c                            Sour Cream

1c                            Your favorite salsa

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Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

On a floured surface, roll out dough till flat using rolling pin.

Place dough on pizza pan or stone that has corn meal sprinkled on it. (To keep the dough from sticking to the pan)

Sprinkle garlic (and optional cayenne pepper) onto dough.

Layer in order: cilantro, mushrooms, red pepper & onion.

Sprinkle lime juice over top.  Add tomato slices.

Bake in oven for 25minutes.

While flatbread is baking, fry 8 eggs in a large skillet on the stove.  I use a little cooking spray to avoid excess fat and break the yokes so they more evenly distributed.

Remove flatbread after 25 minutes, and add eggs evenly on top. Using a spatula, simply cut out the eggs like pieces of a puzzle.

Sprinkle with cooked, diced bacon.  Cover with shredded cheese.

Bake an additional 5 minutes until cheese melts.

Remove from oven and top with salsa, sour cream, and avocado slices on top.

Just veggies at this point…pre-baked.

Frying up the eggs (with a little pepper).

Hot out of the oven…

Bless the meat let’s eat!

Culinary Quest #7 – Banana Blueberry Bread

Blueberries are in season, and that means they are delicious at their peak and most economical (I bought them BOGO this week!).  They are great stirred into yogurt, whipped into a smoothie, or just eaten by the handful.  But, combine their tender goodness with warm banana bread and it’s a perfect match.  This marbled bread is also pretty.  It looks like it wants to be eaten. 🙂

Some breads can be overloaded with oil and sugar, making them a hybrid of bread and cake, and I feel guilty serving them for breakfast to my family.  I was able to keep the granular sugar at a reasonable level because of the natural sweetness of the bananas.

What we especially enjoy about this bread recipe is the dense, moist texture of the banana bread, yet it’s not “wet”  so it holds together nicely.  The texture is more like a pound cake, but healthier than one.  The banana flavor is tasty enough on its own.  Add the blueberries, with their juices, and a beautiful balance of sweet and tart, dense and moist perfectly compliments the crunchy top of golden crust and oats.

This recipe makes two loaves, so perhaps keep one and give one away! It also freezes well.  Great for summer mornings, work on the run, or you can make them into muffins or pour into a 9×13 dish and cut into small squares for a crowd.  Let’s get baking…

Banana Blueberry Bread

3                             eggs

3/4c                        oil

1 ½ c                      sugar

1t                            salt

2t                            cinnamon

1t                            cardamom

1 ¼ t                       baking powder

3t                            vanilla

3                              ripe bananas

3c                            flour

3c                            blueberries

1/2c                       oats (divided)

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Preheat oven to 350 (325 convection).

In mixing bowl, cream eggs, oil & sugar with electric mixer.

Add salt, cinnamon, cardamom, baking powder & vanilla.  Mix.

Peel bananas and break into large chunks and add to bowl.  Mix.

Mix in flour just until incorporated.  Like all breads, don’t over mix or the bread will be tough & rubbery.

Using a large spoon, blend in blueberries.

Pour into 2 lightly greased loaf pans (or muffin, casserole dish, etc.)

Sprinkle equal parts (½ c each for loaf pans) oats over bread mixture.

Using a clean, dry hand, press the oats into the mixture so they stick to the bread and won’t flake off once bread is cooked.

Bake for 1hr 25 minutes (or until testing stick comes out clean) for loaf pans.  Reduce baking time depending on which pan you use (about 20 minutes for muffins and 9×13).

*** Freezing tip: My grandmother had a great trick for freezing breads.  Wrap them in plastic wrap, then wrap them in newspaper.  She did this for our wedding cake and it was just as fresh on our 1 year anniversary as it was on our wedding day!