Square foot garden salad, lemon thyme vinaigrette, and a simple saute

May 10th, 2010

Arugula basil salad

When a couple comes in for marital counseling, a counselor looks for clues as to exactly where the couple is at in their relationship – say on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 representing marital bliss, and 1 signifying divorce.
One of the things I used to ask when a couple came into my office for counseling was, “Do you fight?”
If they answered yes, I knew they weren’t as bad off as they might have feared.

Square foot garden

For one, fighting means each person has a sense of individuality and self and knows that he or she is worth standing up for and being understood, and it also means that the couple is at least attempting to communicate and address issues – albeit badly many times.

Lower on the scale is the development of total silence, often called “stonewalling“, which can happen when one or both people feel there is little hope left and have already emotionally left the relationship, and have shut down to such a degree that even fighting feels pointless and futile.

If a couple told me they had stopped fighting altogether, or that they had stopped trying to have their point of view heard in the relationship, that is when I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Red leaf lettuce

So, fighting’s not all bad – that’s what I tell myself when my husband and I have occasional spats.

Truth be told, my husband is a pretty great guy. He helps around the house, takes care of the yard, shares the care of our son, is a great cook, and he does cool things like make square foot gardens. It doesn’t hurt that he’s tall, dark, and handsome either.

And he is my friend. I like that.

Lemon sage chicken

Our days are pretty simple…

We work from home. We take care of our son. We eat. We sleep. We eat again.

Occasionally we travel – mountains and beaches, London and Paris, Germany, Italy, Costa Rica, Jackson Hole and the Golden Gate, next is NYC; these are the highlights that stand out from the daily.

And then we come home. We eat. We sleep. We love our son. I cook. Brian gardens. I eat Brian’s garden. I’m happy. I haven’t always been happy. Happy feels good.

No, happy feels great.


Here is a standard meal for us. I like chicken. I know many feel it is boring and common. Common, I’ll give you. But only boring if you let it be.

Brian calls chicken “foul”, but he likes this.

I saute lightly floured chicken in olive oil with fresh herbs from the garden – this time I used sage, but rosemary or oregano work just as well.  I add lemon juice and zest, a clove of diced garlic, a bit of crushed red pepper (we like to make our own), and sometimes a splash of white wine and whatever vegetables are hanging around the fridge at the time – in this case, green onions. It all simmers down and creates a lovely concentrated tangy, spicy, herby coating on the chicken that tastes anything but common.

This dinner takes me less than half an hour to prepare and I often serve it over a simple pasta, or just as is with a salad like you see here. I don’t measure anything, so the recipe is just a best guess – but no matter, there’s plenty of wiggle room in there to make it your own.

Lemon thyme vinaigrette

We eat a lot of salad around here – another perennial dish that is only boring if you let be. I make homemade salad dressing about once a week – usually a vinaigrette, and I like to try new flavors to keep it interesting. This week I used lemon juice and zest for the acid, and added thyme from the garden, shallot, whole grain mustard, a dash of sugar and sea salt, black pepper, and olive oil.

I really liked this dressing. We ate it the first day on salad beside the chicken with homemade croutons, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and fresh grated parmesan.

Day two it was perfect for my lunch on a salad made from the greens from Brian’s square foot garden – spicy arugula, young red leaf, and sweet basil leaves. I marinated fresh artichoke hearts in the dressing first and then laid them on the salad next to toasted pine nuts and large chards of parmesan. After I took my first pictures, I snuck in one of the last slices of another amazing quiche/savory tart (I’ve gone a bit tart crazy as of late, so I decided I should give it a rest here for the week and share the tart recipe at a later date) to eat alongside.

Lemon thyme vinaigrette saladLemon thyme vinaigrette saladSpinach, bacon, Emmanthaler quicheSommer's amazing banana bread

And finally, I made this banana bread, a recipe by my former college roommate and fellow food blogger, chocked full of pecans and coconut, for Jonathan to have for breakfast and snacks. It’s been gone for three days now and he’s still asking for it, if that tells you how it was.

It’s been a good week. If you are interested in anything garden related, mention it in the comments, and I’ll have Brian answer anything outside of my knowledge.

Lemon thyme vinaigrette
adapted from here

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon minced shallot *
1 1/2 teaspoons whole grain Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sugar
leaves from 4 sprigs of fresh thyme, lightly chopped or minced to release oils
1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil (to taste)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Whisk all ingredients together or place all ingredients in a secure container and shake well. May be used immediately, though flavors blend nicely overnight. Dressing should last several days in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before serving if oil begins to harden.

* I imagine garlic would be a nice substitute, but I would not use more than two cloves for this amount of dressing

Spicy Lemon Herb Chicken

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts *
olive oil
1 fat garlic clove
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper *
zest of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons of flour *
6 – 8 sage leaves finely chopped or 1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano or 1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary *
6 green onions, including green parts, washed and chopped into 1/2 inch dice
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cover a 12 inch skillet with 1/8 inch of olive oil. Heat over medium high heat until shimmering, but not smoking. Add the lemon zest, garlic, sage, and crushed red pepper. Allow to sizzle and infuse the oil, but do not brown the garlic or fully crisp the herbs.

Season the flour with salt and pepper (I use about 1/2 t. sea salt and generously crack the pepper). Dip each side of the chicken breasts in the flour mixture and place in the hot oil. The oil should sizzle around the chicken as it is laid in the pan, but still not smoke. Sprinkle up to 1 tablespoon of extra seasoned flour over the tops of the chicken breasts. Once the pan has recovered it’s heat from adding the chicken, turn the heat down to medium or medium low to slowly brown and saute the chicken.

Cover the pan and cook till the first side of the breasts are golden, about 4-6 minutes. If pan is starting to dry out at any point, add just a bit of water, one tablespoon at a time and allow to evaporate before adding more.

After turning the breasts, add the lemon juice and half of the green onions. Again, add a few drops of water at any point the pan is beginning dry out. Cover again and cook another 4-6 minutes. During the last couple of minutes of cooking, add the rest of the green onions to cook just till wilted. I usually knife into one breast in a thick portion to check for doneness. Try to get the chicken just done, but done! Sprinkle again with salt and pepper to taste (you may wish to taste a small bite first to check).

Transfer the chicken to a serving plate. Turn the heat up on the stove and add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water to release the pan drippings. The water should mostly evaporate in the hot pan leaving a just a small amount of concentrated pan juices. Pour this over the chicken while it is resting. As the chicken rests before serving, it will release more juices. Be sure to pour these juices back over the chicken on each plate when serving and check again for salt and pepper.

* the quality of the chicken makes all the difference in taste and texture – of course free range and organic is ideal, but I also obtain good results with Tysons

* if you do not like spicy, just eliminate the crushed red pepper

* I like to use white whole wheat flour because I think it has more flavor than regular white flour

* the fresh herbs should be to taste. You may use more than this or a combination, though you may try it with these proportions the first time and add more to taste on your next trial.

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Posted in Main Courses - Meat, vegetarian | 23 Comments »

Gruyère, leek, asparagus, shitake, and roasted cherry heirloom tomato tart

April 19th, 2010

Slice of tart served

We have had over a week full of sunny days perfect for being outside. I always feel I have missed something I can never get back if I do not spend time outside on gorgeous days like we are having now.

Cherry heirlooms

Little Jonathan wants nothing less, banging at the back door, grabbing at the door knob at every moment he is not eating or sleeping, unable to contain his enthusiasm for exploring all the nooks and crannies of our yard, smelling the flowers, and making full use of these newly balmy spring days.

“No, Jonathan, do not put rocks in the garden,” we seem to be saying over and over, as if on tape, on replay.

Cherry heirlooms sliced

We went and picked out flowers at the nursery last week and Brian planted them by the mailbox and around the house. This means so much to me. We are slowly building a collection of perennials in our flower beds and I get excited each spring when I see the first wave of blooms unfold.

“I want to make something beautiful this week,” I thought to myself.

Slicing leeks

Asparagus dicedLeeks sliced


I’ve been a tart admirer for some time now, both savory and sweet. I love how tarts are so casually sophisticated, with their endless possibilities of fillings, carefully supported by a flaky, buttery crust, and adorned with beautiful, often avant-garde, garnishings. They are an ideal canvas for experimentation, as well as turning humble ingredients into art. Yet, in all their artistry, they remain perfectly suited for a simple lunch or brunch. Yes, tarts have a certain restrained panache. I like that about them.

“A tart will be perfect,” I decided.

Tart sliced

When I was living and working in D.C. shortly after college, I would occasionally find myself in a la Madeleine cafe (do you know the ones?) sipping coffee, and encountering some of my very first tarts. I am quite certain they serve any number and variety of tarts there, however, those that stand out in my memory are of the sweet variety, made with a soft creamy custard filling and topped with a simple but elegant assortment of fresh berries. These petite tarts, or tartlettes, were one of my favorite treats.


I have not been to a la Madeleine in years, and truthfully I do not know how good the tarts are in reality, but that does not really matter. What matters is that the essence and concept of the tart made a strong enough impression on my subconscious to be carried into the present and push me towards giving it a go in my own kitchen this week, even if it took seven years to achieve this.

Yes, this was my very first homemade tart!

Thyme, bay leaf, and Vermouth

After plenty of poking around, I also honestly do not know if it would be more appropriate to call this a quiche, since it is baked with eggs, milk and cream, or, if since it was baked in a “tart pan” and is relatively slender and full of vegetables, if it may rightly pass as a savory tart. In the end, I simply like the sound of “savory tart” over that of “quiche.” So, for now – save being duly informed otherwise – I will call it a savory tart.

flour and butterDough rolled

Tart dough

I couldn’t find a recipe that combined all the ingredients and flavors I was craving, so I decided to blend all my research into one recipe that consisted of a bit of everything I wanted. But lest you tune me out now, having already admitted that this was my first tart attempt, I am happy to share my concoction of inspiration – I’m sure you know many of them well - from this, to this, and this, and even a consultation with this.

Dough in tart pan

I sauteed leeks and shitake mushrooms with thyme from our garden, bay leaf, and a splash of Vermouth and set them under a layer of small dice fresh spring asparagus, all blanketed by a surprisingly light tasting cover of egg, Greek yogurt, milk and cream, Gruyère, pinch of nutmeg, sea salt, ground pepper, and Parmesan.

For the crust I decided to use part whole wheat pastry flour to impart a nutty quality without adding weight, and an addition of grated Parmesan for additional depth of flavor and character.

Finally, I dotted roasted heirloom cherry tomatoes on top, which resulted in a welcome sour and chewy contrast to the overall delicate nature and flavor profile of the filling.

Tart dough in pan

“That was different from any quiche I’ve ever had,” Brian said to me after we finished our first slices, making me a little nervous to hear what was to follow.

“It’s like I was tasting real quiche for the first time!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know how hard this is to make, but we could make this all summer long using the vegetables from the garden!”

I laughed. Apparently, at least one person has no qualms whatsoever in calling my tart “quiche,” just so long as it is not my last.

Ready for bakingWork surface

Tart complete

Gruyère, leek, asparagus, shitake, and roasted heirloom cherry tomato tart

1 recipe for savory tart crust to fit a 10″ tart pan
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup Greek Yogurt (higher fat percent is preferable)*
1/2 cup half & half, heavy cream, whole milk, or combination of these*
1/2 t. sea salt
1 T. butter
2 1/2 T. olive oil
1 1/2 T. Vermouth or dry white wine
1 bay leaf
6 sprigs fresh thyme
pinch or two of nutmeg – according to your preference for nutmeg
3 oz. Gruyère cheese (about 1 1/2 cups loosely packed)
1 oz. freshly grated Parmesan (about 1/3 cup loosely packed)
8 asparagus stems, cut into half inch diagonals
6 oz. leeks, white parts only, cut into thin circles (2 leeks)
4 oz. shitake mushrooms, washed, stems removed, cut in slivers
About 20 small cherry heirloom tomatoes, if available, or Roma/plum tomatoes (may sub thinly cut slivers of sun dried tomatoes)
1 t. balsamic vinegar
natural sugar
sea salt and ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Begin by preparing the tomatoes for roasting by cutting in half, placing in a bowl, drizzling with 1/2 T. olive oil, splash of balsamic vinegar, light sprinkling of natural sugar and sea salt and pepper, carefully mixing to coat, and laying tomatoes on foil on a cookie sheet with seeds facing up. Roast for 45 minutes and set aside.

Now make the tart dough, with the idea that by the time the dough is ready and had its 30 minute fridge time, the tomatoes will be out of the oven.

While the tomatoes roast and the dough sits in the fridge, saute leeks in the butter, 1 T. olive oil, bay leaf, and three sprigs thyme till beginning to wilt, about five minutes, and then add mushrooms, 1 T. olive oil, Vermouth, and salt and pepper to taste, allowing to cook another five minutes, or until leaks and mushrooms are just soft. Remove bay leaf and thyme sprigs. In the mean time, parboil the asparagus by boiling three cups water, and adding the asparagus to the boiling water for 1 minute. Rinse hot asparagus in cold water to stop the cooking. Whisk egg, Greek yogurt, 1/2 t. salt (and pepper to taste), pinch or two of nutmeg, and half & half together to combine. Finally, add in the Gruyère.

Fill the par-baked tart crust by spreading the leek mushroom mixture evenly over the bottom of the crust, then add the parboiled asparagus evenly on top. Next, pour the egg cheese mixture over the vegetables. Finally, sprinkle the top with the parmesan.

Place the tart in the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes. Remove the tart at 20 minutes, and add the roasted tomatoes evenly across the top. The idea is for the tart top to be partially solidified so that the tomatoes do not sink into the tart, yet the tart is still soft enough to cook around the bottoms of the tomatoes and keep them in place. Return the tart to the oven for another 20 minutes, or until the top begins to brown and the tart is set. Allow to cool on a wire wrack for at least 15 minutes before cutting. Add extra sprigs of thyme for garnish.

* I used a 2% Greek yogurt, but mascarpone cheese or sour cream would likely make good substitutes and would yield a richer, creamier tart.

* I used a combination of whole milk and half and half, but thought it would have been nice a bit creamier – you may decide based on whether you want an overall lighter taste, or richer, creamier taste.

Savory whole grain tart crust with parmesan

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
3/4 cup pastry flour (can use regular all purpose flour)
1 T cornstarch
3/4 (.75) oz. finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 Tablespoons buttermilk
6 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 8-12 pieces

Lightly beat the egg yolks and buttermilk and set aside. In a food processor (or using a fork or pastry knife and a bowl, working quickly), combine flours, cornstarch, salt, and cheese and pulse a couple of times to combine. Add cold butter to the flour mixture and pulse another few times to turn mixture into sand like texture with some pea sized bits of butter remaining. Working quickly (you want to keep the butter cold without melting the little lumps and without strengthening the gluten by over handling the flour in order to produce a light flaky crust), pour the flour butter mixture into a medium bowl and add the beaten egg, stirring just to combine and bring mixture together. When mixture is beginning to clump together, dump onto a work surface and press dough together to form a ball. You may need to wet your fingertips with ice water a few times to add a small amount of moisture needed to achieve this. Try to handle the dough and add as little water as possible to make a cohesive dough. Flatten the dough into a 5 inch round, wrap in plastic wrap, place in the fridge for 45 minutes or up to 36 hours (allowing the gluten to relax so the dough will roll out more easily).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Turn dough out on well floured work surface and roll into a 12-13 inch circle with a flat rolling pin. Again, use ice water on the fingertips to solidify the dough, only if needed, and as small amount as possible. Roll the lightly floured dough over the rolling pin in order to transfer into a 9 or 10 inch tart pan. Gently push dough into the pan and use the rolling pin to roll around the edges of the pan to trim off the excess crust. Using a fork, prick the surface and sides of the dough. Par-bake the crust by placing in the oven for 12 minutes. Remove crust and allow to cool at least five minutes on a wire wrack before adding tart filling and baking further.*

* You may substitute regular whole wheat flour, but in that case, I would not use more than a 1:3 ratio whole wheat to white flour and would recommend white whole wheat flour.

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At home in the blue ridge mountains, a cabin retreat, and John’s caesar salad

April 7th, 2010

John's caesar salad

It’s a funny thing when people ask me where I am from, instinctively I respond,

“The mountains of North Carolina.”

Though, in fact, I did not move to Hendersonville, NC until age 7, and both my mother and father are rooted in Alabama, in addition to my having been born in one of Alabama’s southern most cities, Mobile.

Nevertheless, I am “from” the Blue Ridge Mountains. Often it is where our souls first define themselves, and where our souls once again feel at rest upon return, that we come to identify as “home,” and “from.”

For me, this is in and alongside the mountain town of Hendersonville, NC, known for its large migration of retiree Floridians during the summer months, close proximity to the Biltmore House, the annual apple festival, a thriving arts community, and four perfect and gorgeous seasons each year.

Bearwallow Den cabin

However, after I left for college and my parents parted ways, my mother married John and moved, and my father died shortly thereafter, my brother and I were left with no family ties to our beloved, quirky, artsy and beautifully seasoned hometown, nestled in the cradle of the Appalachians.

That is, until about a year ago, when my mother called, saying, “Laaa-ra,” in her distinctive, sweet southern accent, “I have something reeeally important to tell you.”

Mother sitting in the sunlightBeautiful Blue Ridge

“Yes, Mother?” I responded, as usual, for my mother often has important things to tell me.

“We are going to retire near Hendersonville. It is decided. I have already talked to John and we are going to start looking at real estate.”

“Yes, Mother.” I responded, as usual, for my mother loves to make plans, dream and prepare years ahead of fruition (as do I), and I figured only time could tell what was to come of this plan of late.

So, despite Mother’s convincing resolve, it still hit me as a lovely surprise last fall when Mother called saying, “I have the perfect idea!”

“Yes, Mother?” I said.

“John and I want to rent a cabin in Hendersonville where we can all meet and spend Christmas. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! We can start looking around at neighborhoods and retirement areas,” she said, in her characteristic, endearing, enthralled and punctuated manner.

Olive oil for dressingSmashing garlicAnchovy pasteSpreading dressing on sides of bowlWashing eggsPlacing romaine leaves in bowlBlending eggTossing saladParmesan Reggiano

So it was decided. For the first time in over a decade, I spent a week in my hometown with my family. Despite Christmas snow, icy roads, and power outages, I was finally home, and it felt wonderful.

And it seems a tradition is being born, as Mother called again in February saying, “Do you want to meet again at the cabin in Hendersonville for Easter? And maybe again in the summer?”

“Yes, that sounds lovely, Mother.” I said.

And so it happened, last week, that my little family – Brian, little Jonathan, and myself met my mother, John, and my brother in that same mountain cabin in my hometown, spending the days sitting on a sunny porch cuddling Jonathan, talking late into the night, laughing, resting, poking around stores downtown, and of course, cooking and eating.

The food with Mom and John is always wonderful. They really do know how to eat well. Simple, beautiful dishes prepared with the best and freshest ingredients. At their house in Oklahoma, it is three inch high filet mignons wrapped in bacon bought from local farms, slowly simmered risottos with tender shrimp, herbs, and greens, and homemade southern pound cakes made from recipes handed down. Yes, they know how to cook, and how to live, really.

Meals carefully planned ahead of time, playing ball with their standard poodle “Rufus” in the afternoon, aged cognac following dinner, and listening time – primarily to Bach – each evening in their music room.

Mother in the sunlight with garlic chives

It would be prudent from here on out if you take any recipe for which I give John credit, as one that would be regretful to overlook. John is a microbiologist. As a scientist, he is innately an experimenter, while at the same time being extraordinarily precise. As a cook, this combination of characteristics makes for something quite exceptional. He has inspired me greatly in my culinary endeavors and continues as one of my primary influences.

When Mom said that John wanted to make his caesar salad at the cabin over Easter, I was so excited. I knew I had to document this spectacular dish. It is quite simple, but completely blows away every other caesar salad I have ever tried.

John says the recipe comes from his own personal research on authentic caesar salads as well as trial and error over many years. No two salads are ever quite the same – my favorite type of recipe – perfected over time by taste and tradition.

Ready for the lettuceCrushed croutons and parmesan toppingSliced lemonCaesar in the sun

You start by adding two or three fat cloves of sliced or crushed garlic to a generous pour of a nice extra virgin olive oil, smashing the garlic against the sides of a large bowl until it is pulverized and has completely infused the oil.

“The quality of the ingredients is very important,” John said as he was putting the salad together. “The most important part of the salad is also what you have the least amount of control over. Fresh garlic and tender, sweet hearts of Romaine make all the difference.”

Next you add just a hint of a key ingredient, anchovies. You may use them whole and smash them into the dressing alongside the garlic, or you may buy a high quality anchovy paste, which is what we did this time. It’s important that the infused garlic anchovy oil is spread all over the bowl so that when you go to toss the salad, every leaf is thoroughly coated.

After this you add in whole hearts of Romaine leaves, and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Then you add in another key ingredient: two beaten raw eggs, which gives the salad a wonderful sticky quality that also invites the topping to adhere to each leaf.

Finally, you finish by topping the salad with a tumbling of freshly grated parmesan cheese and crushed oversized croutons. Oh, and I almost forgot one of the best parts. You eat it with your hands, curling each long sticky, garlicky leaf around the knobbly crunchy parmesan topping and eating it like a caesar burrito. It is out of this world.

Ready for toppings

It was good to be “home” again, finally. And it was even better to be with my family, sharing wonderful meals and most importantly, just being together.

John’s Caesar Salad

4-6 hearts of Romaine lettuce heads, rinsed and separated (4 large, 5 medium, 6 small)
1/4 cup of nice extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 large lemon
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed (2 large, 3 medium-large, 4 small/regular size cloves)
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or equivalent amount of whole finely chopped/minced anchovies
2 large organic eggs, outsides washed with soap and water*
1/3-1/2 lb. freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 package (5 oz.) high quality, all natural large restaurant style caesar salad croutons, crushed
Freshly grated sea salt and black pepper to taste

In an extra large bowl add olive oil, garlic and anchovy paste. Mix well, crushing and mixing garlic and anchovies thoroughly with the oil and spreading across the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add cracks of black pepper and sea salt to taste.

In a separate medium/large bowl mix grated cheese and crushed croutons. Set aside.

Add whole hearts of Romaine leaves into the large bowl with the olive oil, garlic, and anchovies, and drizzle or squeeze the lemon juice on top. After thoroughly washing the outside shells of the eggs and your hands, crack and whisk eggs in a medium bowl till blended and then pour on top of the lettuce. Using your hands, carefully toss the salad on top of itself in circular fashion until each leaf is coated with all ingredients. If you desire your salad to be more “wet” add a bit more olive oil to taste, and check for salt and pepper.

Finally, divide leaves evenly between all plates (approx. 6 leaves per serving), and top each leaf with a generous spoonful of the parmesan/crouton mixture. Wash hands. Serve immediately and eat with your hands! Makes 4-6 dinner plate servings. Recipe may be halved.

* People often think that salmonella lives inside raw eggs, but in fact, if an egg has salmonella, it is found on the outside of the egg, on the shell, not on the inside – so the important step in using raw eggs is to wash the outside of the eggs and your hands before cracking them, and to add them at the end shortly before serving. Nevertheless, please use at your own discretion.

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