An Answer To That Perplexing Question: What To Take To A Potluck?

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Call me anti-social if you like, but in general, I’m not a big fan of potlucks. I guess, I’m afraid there won’t be anything I want to eat. My worst nightmare is a table laden with boxes of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken, tired raw veggies and dip, congealed pizza, cookies from Safeway, and convenience store soda.  And so, when someone says “potluck,” I tend not to hear. But once in a while, to be social, I violate my unwritten rule against participating in these sometimes sad affairs, and promise to attend.

And what then? Then I must come up with something to bring.  As a professional cook, I’ve convinced myself that a contribution like purchased salsa and chips would be an embarrassment. I feel obligated to cook something from scratch. But what?  My goal each time is to conjure up a dish which will serve as a complete meal, so I’ll have at least one dish that’s satisfying even if there’s little else that seems appetizing. By complete meal, I’m thinking: whole grain, protein and vegetables all in one dish. And that’s what today’s recipe represents.  Here’s what I took to a potluck yesterday: a wild and long grain brown rice salad with marinated tofu (I also made a version with poached and diced chicken breasts), arugula, roasted sweet potatoes and mushrooms, celery, dried cranberries and toasted sunflower seeds with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. If my approach seems selfish, so be it, but in reality I’m always thinking to make a dish lots of other people will enjoy as well.

Lest you think I’m a total curmudgeon, let me admit that I had a great time at yesterday’s potluck. I realize that the most important part of these events is not the food, but the getting together with folks, in this case gay and lesbian people and our friends in Vallejo (thanks to Ric and Richard for being such gracious hosts).  And by the way, there was a table laden with a wide variety of items, and I found a great plenty to eat. All in all, a good day–bright sun, warm conversation, and despite my worst fears, enjoyable food. A recipe for the wild rice and arugula salad is after the jump.

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Summer’s Harvest: What To Eat On A Hot Day? Veggie Salads With A Refreshing Lemon-Mint Dressing

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Quick, satisfying, colorful, seasonal, nutritionally rich.  Isn’t that how you want to eat on a warm day? You’ll likely be able to get this salad on the table in 20 minutes or so.  Make the lemon-mint dressing while the corn steams, then it’s just a matter of slicing and arranging. Yes, arrange the little salads elegantly, but don’t be too fussy as this meal is meant to be casual. I’m providing a recipe, but it’s just a template–make a similar salad with whatever you have available or like best. Take a photo of  your salad and email it to me so I can post it. I’m sure other readers would love to know how you put yours together. Detailed recipes after the jump.

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Great Grains: Wheat Berries Shine In This Vibrant Orange-Dressed Salad

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Most of us who grew up in Western countries have a love affair with wheat. We eat it without thinking, disguised as it is in bread, pasta and myriad other tasty but not always nutritious treats. We forget that wheat, like brown rice, can be eaten as a whole grain. And we know that keeping grains more intact slows oxidation and preserves their fiber and nutritional profile. For culinary purposes, we call the unbroken, hulled whole wheat kernels “wheat berries.” My friend Adele devised this salad some years ago when she cooked at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and she’s been making it to rave reviews ever since. One secret of this salad’s success is its vibrant orange flavor–use orange juice concentrate straight from the pack. You should be able to find wheat berries, hopefully in bulk, wherever natural foods are sold. To cook, rinse the wheat berries, place in a roomy pot, cover with about two inches of water, bring just to a boil and simmer 45 minutes. Taste, and cook only until al dente–they should be tender, but still retain a subtle crunch. Drain thoroughly, and dress this salad while the wheat berries are still warm. Cool an hour or more, giving the berries time to absorb the dressing. Adele’s super easy recipe is after the jump.

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Menu of the Week: Greek Salad Stars in Mediterranean-Inspired Meal

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When planning warm weather menus, I often turn to the Mediterranean countries for inspiration. I reason that they might know a thing or two about a healthy, practical way of eating during hot, dry summers, given that they’ve had several millennia of experience. This meal, which we prepared for our Monday night dinner crowd in Palo Alto, is built around a Greek salad, with the addition of a rice salad, garbanzo and roasted vegetable salad, and pita bread with baba ghanoush. We began the meal with an Italian-inspired summer vegetable soup, for which I don’t yet have a shareable recipe, but I promise to post one soon, and we ended with Baklava (the recipe is here). After the jump, I explain this menu in more detail and share my easy-to-do method for making a tofu-based feta cheese substitute.

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Photo: Clockwise from center top: Toasted Rice Salad with Parsley and Mint, Pita Bread with Baba Ghanoush, Greek Salad, Garbanzo and Roasted Vegetable Salad.

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Produce Superstars: If You Want to Eat More Kale, Here’s a Refreshing Way to Do It.

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I know you’ve heard what a nutritional powerhouse kale is, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably vowed to eat more of this highly-regarded cruciferous vegetable.  Although I happily eat most veggies, up until now kale has not been one of my favorites. Boiled, it seemed rather stodgy and boring, and while it’s good stir fried with garlic, that gets tiresome too. Lately, to my surprise, I’ve become an enthusiastic convert to eating kale raw. I’ve discovered that the secret to making an appetizing kale salad is to take it off the stem, cut it fine (think coleslaw), and marinate it for an hour or more in a tasty dressing. Another secret, of course, is to use only tender, young kale, either grow your own, or be a very selective shopper. If kale isn’t available, cabbage or collard greens would be happy to receive similar treatment. I think you’ll agree that when the weather heats up, this Citrusy Red Kale and Arugula Salad is a refreshing alternative to the usual mixed greens (recipe after the jump).

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Produce Superstars: Does Belgian Endive Really Come From Belgium?

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For a long time I’ve wondered why in the world Belgian endive is called that. Did it originate in Belgium and does it still come from there? It turns out that the process for growing the blanched, mild endive we’ve come to know as Belgian endive did originate in Belgium in the 19th century. Part of the large chicory family which includes radicchio, frisée (curly endive) and escarole, Belgian endive is high in folate, Vitamins A and K and fiber. All members of the chicory family can be eaten raw in salads, and can be braised. The roots are dried, roasted, ground and added to coffee in New Orleans and elsewhere, and sometimes used as a coffee substitute. I love the bitterness of the endives, but I do like to contrast that bitterness with sweet and salty flavors. As you might guess, most of the Belgian endive available in the U.S. is grown on an industrial scale in California, much of it by California Vegetable Specialities in the Sacramento River Delta area. The glorious endive in the planter box below was grown by Henri de Fontanges in his cave in the Loire Valley, France. Henri is a former administrator of the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France who now grows endive as a hobby. After the jump, he explains how it’s grown, and I give you my recipe for endive salad with apples, glazed walnuts and a creamy apple vinaigrette.

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Great Food Fast: Try This Traditional Japanese Daikon and Apricot Sunomono

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I spent this past Saturday cooking with my friend Fumiko Arao in the lovely home she shares with her husband Ken in the hills above Silicon Valley. Fumi grew up in Tokyo and learned traditional Japanese cooking from her mother and grandmother and cooks in a style influenced by kaiseki which I would characterize as light, clean and elegant. We made six dishes which together compose a complete vegan Japanese meal.  In the next few days I will share with you everything we made, but I thought I’d start with the sunomono.

A sunomono is a traditional small side dish. Something between a pickle and a salad, a sunomono involves fresh, raw vegetables, sometimes cooked sea food such as shrimp or scallops, and always includes vinegar (“su” in Japanese). A sunomono which I’ve made many times combines lightly-salted, thinly-sliced cucumber with wakame, a sea vegetable, dressed with rice vinegar, a little sweetener of some sort, and sometimes a drop or two of soy sauce (not so much as give the dish a brown color). As these simple and quick-to-make dishes never contain oil, they are refreshing and low in fat (the vegetarian versions especially). Fumi’s sunomono, her grandmother’s recipe, beautifully balances the tartness of rice vinegar with the sweetness of dried apricots. Step-by-step instructions are after the jump… Continue reading