Nearly a Nicoise: A kitchen sink version of the French classic

In theory, I love the nicoise salad — I like green beans, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and olives, and I definitely like the idea of a big salad as a meal. However, I am a little weird when it comes to tuna (I really only eat it in tuna salad sandwiches, which I only eat when I make them myself) and I’m a little iffy in general on anchovies. So, considering my fish issues, it’s a little surprising that I even considered making a Nicoise salad for dinner last week.

The classic salad (made even more famous by Julia Child) is no stranger to change — give it a Google and you’ll see what I mean — tons of recipes will pop up. So given the multitude of variations, I didn’t feel bad at all taking liberties with it to create this version.

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Teriyaki Chicken Wings and Asian-Style Succotash

I had big plans last Friday. I had a hankering for grilled steak with fresh corn, green beans and some perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes. In fact, I even bought all of my ingredients while I was at work (yay for being a meat distributor — a good steak is easy to find!) and biked them all the way home. The bike ride was not fun, and might be why you do not see a picture of a fat grilled steak at the top of this post.

See, when you bike a backpack brimming with goodies uphill 8 miles on a sunny Friday afternoon it does something to your motivation level — like kill it completely.

As I was unpacking all the groceries, I spied a bag of chicken wings in the fridge and suddenly the thought of starting up a grill seemed like too much effort. And the thought of chicken wings sounded like the most brilliant idea ever.

I have talked before about my serious love for my grandmother’s chicken wings. They are Heaven on Earth. They are the reason I keep five-pound bags of frozen wings on hand at all times — because it just doesn’t make sense to make any less than that. I can eat about a third of a batch in a single sitting. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

So…my grilled steak turned into this:

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What’s up, chicken butt? (the best roasted chicken recipe ever)

The stuff dreams are made of!

I have a friend named Jenna. She and I share many interests: long aimless walks through Target, good beer, Caribbean cruises and chicken skin. Oh, chicken skin…We love nothing more than sneaking bits of it, peeling it off before the bird is even carved. And it must be crispy — that is an absolute must! — and a wee bit salty.

But even though we love the same thing, we have two very different ways of getting the same result. I have eaten her roasted chicken — rubbed in butter, seasoned with salt and pepper, and baked until it’s golden. And I can say for sure that the skin is succulent and crunchy — just as it should be — and the meat is juicy and delicious.

Yet I take a different approach, one that manages to call for one less ingredient. Here’s how it became my favorite.

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Baked lemon pasta with a side of humble pie

A couple of weeks ago I was on a Meyer lemon kick and every recipe that contained even regular lemons got pulled out of my recipe binder to be examined. I saw one from Cooking Light that caught my eye, this Baked Pasta with Spinach, Lemon and Cheese, but when I read the reviews online, everyone seemed to hate it. There were complaints about how long it took to make, coupled with numerous comments about how bland it was. This was by far my favorite comment because you really got a feel for how bitter this person was after making a dinner that sucked: “We just had the ritual burning of the recipe. Now we’re making sandwiches so we’re not hungry the rest of the night.”

Now since I’ve had years of experience cooking professionally, I have to admit my first thought was to blame the cooks and not the recipe. If you keep tasting while you cook, you should end up with something fairly decent. I have also learned to add copious amounts of salt, as well as extra cheese, to Cooking Light recipes to avoid working hard at a meal just to find it severely lacking in flavor when you sit down to eat it.

So I thought, screw it, I’m a good enough cook to make this pasta dish and have it turn out fabulous. Oh, I was so wrong…I did everything from upping the garlic and lemon tremendously to even making a little more bechamel so the final dish was creamier. Nope. It sucked. The flavor was terribly bland — it was only after squeezing two lemons over the pasta that I found it palatable. The main problem was the spinach. It turned into a gross mush. Ugh. I can’t even express my sadness over this dinner, but I will tell you my lesson in humility was also a lesson in perseverance.

Since I was still craving pasta with lemon I decided to take Pioneer Woman’s recipe for Baked Lemon Pasta out for a spin. I started with fresh pasta which I was a little nervous about, but the chive linguini I had in my fridge coupled with sour cream and lemon sounded too good to pass up. Optimistically I pushed the thought of the failure from the night before out of my head and got started.

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The dinner that would have gotten me on The Price is Right!

So last week, while grocery shopping, I had a moment to revel in the fact that if I had been on a game show, I would have won big, like maybe a new car or a trip to France.

This is how it happened…

I had some stuff at home to make dinner out of — chicken breasts, brussels sprouts and a little bit of spinach — but it certainly wasn’t cohesive enough for an actual meal. In fact it was rather underwhelming. I had also forgotten to bring my debit card to work, which meant I was very limited in what I could buy in terms of produce on my way home (since I commute by bike errands need to be very streamlined). I did however manage to scrounge up four dollars in cash.

After a childhood spent watching The Price is Right and Supermarket Sweep, this shopping trip was a challenge I gleefully accepted. I started with a couple of cups of cake flour from the bulk section (it was the same night I made my Banana Caramel Upside Down Cake and quite honestly that was my priority). Then I grabbed a handful or two of tiny red potatoes. I actually picked out the smallest ones because they were just so damn cute. Then I carefully selected three carrots, a head of garlic and a few green beans. Mentally I calculated their prices, weighing everything a second time. Hesitantly I grabbed a red onion. Then on my way to check out, I haphazardly lunged for a bunch of parsley.

Nervously I approached the checkout stand and watched the tally climb as each item slid across the scanner. This was definitely a time where I was grateful that I live in a city with no sales tax! After the last item went into the bag, the cashier gave me the total:

Four dollars on the dot!

And this is when I envisioned Bob Barker giving me a big hug and congratulating me on winning both Showcase Showdowns. I’m embarrassed to admit I would have been one of those women that practically mauled him they were so excited. Man, I loved Bob Barker as a kid.

I proudly packed my goodies away and upon arriving home, immediately got the oven hot and set to work making dinner. I wasn’t too sure what I was going to make, so I started with the easy stuff first — roasting some vegetables.

I rubbed the head of garlic in olive oil, wrapped it in foil and put it in the oven. Then I did the same to the red onion (cut into slices), brussels sprouts (cut in half) and potatoes (left whole). A quick splash of oil, some salt and pepper, and in the oven they went.

I contemplated roasting the carrots as well but thought I’d do something a little different with them just for the hell of it. I wanted to preserve their vibrant colors so I went with a simple glazing technique from America’s Test Kitchen’s Light and Healthy cookbook. It’s simple, quick and, well, healthy.

But before we get that far, let’s take a moment to appreciate my pretty carrots.

So pretty!

Now the carrot recipe is one I use fairly often because it only requires one pan (I use a large skillet) and a handful of ingredients — carrots, sugar, olive oil, water and (if you’re me) butter. Start off with a cup of water, a splash of sugar and a dash of olive oil in the pan and bring to a boil. Add in the carrots (parsnips also work great) and cover. Let simmer until the carrots are just tender, about 7 minutes or so. Then remove the lid, turn the heat to high and let the liquid evaporate, stirring often. The carrots will brown and caramelize quickly so keep your eye on them. This is where I add a nubbin of butter just to help things out. Remember, there is a fine line between caramelized and burnt.

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Something old, something new — Meyer lemon chicken piccata

I love chicken piccata. It’s tart, tangy, slightly briny and just a little buttery. It’s a fabulous match for chicken, fish, pork or veal. When I have no idea what to have for dinner, I can usually scrounge up the ingredients to make some variation of piccata.  So when I saw this recipe for Meyer Lemon Chicken Piccata in an old issue of Cooking Light magazine, I ripped it out without a second thought.

Two things made it a little different than the other piccata recipes that I use. For one, it didn’t contain butter. I am a big fan of buttering out a sauce, so this part made me hesitate slightly stop in my tracks. I understand it’s supposed to be healthy but a small bit of butter just seems necessary to me when making a sauce. But even though that might have made me rethink things, the fact that it called for Meyer lemons instead of just regular ones, hooked me. I was intrigued enough to give it a shot.

Meyer lemons, thought to be a cross of a regular lemon and a mandarin, are something I enjoy experimenting with in the kitchen. And although I love the sourness of lemons, the sweetness and floral notes that come with Meyer lemons make them fun in their own way. Plus their thin skin makes them perfect for juicing.

I was hoping I had some orzo (which I love serving with piccata) hanging out in my pantry, but I couldn’t find any stashed away. However, I did have half of a bag of cavatappi so I figured I’d give that a shot. In hindsight, I think piccata works slightly better with smaller pastas or even just a grain, maybe some rice or farro, to soak up the goodness. This certainly wasn’t the best application for this particular noodle, but it still came together to make a pretty delicious dinner.

I started by blanching some asparagus, cut into two-inches pieces. The day before I had royally overcooked some asparagus, to the point where I actually threw it away, so this time I watched it like a hawk. I tend to be a bit obsessive with my vegetables.

Once the noodle were al dente, they were drained and then tossed with some raw spinach, just to give it a quick wilt. I threw in a little red chili flake to add some excitement. Because no one likes dull greens — bland is almost as bad as overcooked. I put the noodles back in the pot with the asparagus and added a generous splash of chicken stock and butter to the mix, keeping it on very low heat while I finished things up.

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