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Summertime and the Living is Easy – Greek Salad with Wheat Berries and Bulgarian Feta

The last few weeks in Nashville have been riddled with sweltering hot afternoons and equally steaming evenings. With little respite from the heat our garden began to look depressed and tired, its little green stems drooping towards the ground, leaves yellowing. Water as we would the veggies protested the heat, our cucumbers became warped and deformed from a lack of moisture, pinching in at their “waist”to resemble barbells. The tomatoes cracked under the pressure.

At a canning class organized by Delvin Farms (who run our CSA) the farmers asked the participants to pray for rain. And perhaps the power of those prayers – palms to palms, foreheads to ground, or swishing feet in dance – brought down upon us the rain that so swiftly ensued, but not more than two days after that class entered the deluge. Days and days of rain, almost unsettling amounts of rain poured down upon our city, a city already a bit wary of copious downpour following the recent flood that took out much of its low lying tenements, burying entire malls in water, closing roadways and barring much of Nashville’s commerce for days on end.

As humans, we have an amazing ability to adapt to changes, our bodies adjust to temperature fluctuations with relative ease, we weather the rain and snow, inhabit barren desserts, and marshy wetlands, indeed we are capable of so much variety. It always amazes me that with such an uncanny ability to thrive in almost any climate, almost any area, that many people are downright unreceptive to change in their own lives. Rather then spending the sullen sweltering days standing over the stove or grill moaning about the heat, I try to target my cooking to techniques that suit the hotter climate, saving steamier projects for those unseasonably cold days that take us by surprise during the summer months.

In our kitchen, one of those rainy day projects typically involves cooking a large batch of whole grains. Rather then spending time boiling and cooking grains like farro or wheat berries for a salad, I typically cook a large batch once or twice a month and freeze cooled portions in bags for later use. They defrost fairly quickly and, provided you cool them completely before freezing they should keep well for 3-4 months (not that they will last that long 🙂 I would recommend running cold water over the grains or dunking them in an ice bath and then draining them well before freezing as this will keep them in the best condition possible throughout their time “on ice.” I do my very best to flush out as much air as possible before freezing the grains to keep them fresh.

With the grains cooked this salad is fairly easy to throw together on a sweltering summer day. It does require a fair bit of chopping, but I have a feeling that this is something that many produce lovers are well accustomed to – those veggies don’t chop themselves now do they. Personally, I would not used dried oregano in the stead of the fresh oregano listed here, if you cannot find it, I would reach for mint, or basil as a substitute before rummaging around for the dried oregano as it wont bring the zing that is needed to balance out the dressing. I love the sharp tang of Bulgarian feta in this dish, it is pungent and unctuous and adds a slightly gaminess to the otherwise straightforward dish. As the salad does follow fairly traditional “Greek salad” lines it would make a nice addition to a pot luck dinner or picnic, and may be a nice way to get new diners indoctrinated into the grain salad “movement” (I know its not really a movement but it should be!) So without further ado, I give you my new favorite grain salad – Greek style. Enjoy!

Greek Salad with Wheat Berries and Bulgarian Feta

This Recipe makes a large bowl – enough to feed a small picnic crowd or large family gathering, it can easily be halved for smaller get-togethers.

4 Cups Cooked Wheat Berries (Farro or other hearty whole grains may be substituted)
3 Cucumbers Cut into 1/2 inch Dice
2 Pints Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1 1/2 Red Onions, Halved, Sliced Thinly, Slices Cut into Thirds or Quarters
2 TSP Sugar
Juice of 1 Lemon
1 TBSP White Balsamic or Good White Vinegar
4 Small Cloves of Garlic, Peeled and Sliced
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 TSP Salt
2 Green Bell Peppers, Diced
2 TBSP Fresh Oregano, Finely Chopped
1/2 Cup Roughly Chopped Parsley
About 20 Pitted Kalamata Olives, Rougly Chopped
1/2 Cup Crumbled Bulgarian Feta (or substitute another brined feta)
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Place the Cucumbers and Tomatoes in separate colanders and sprinkle liberally with kosher salt (don’t worry about the amount of salt, it will be rinsed off later) This salting helps draw some of the water out of the vegetables so they don’t make the dressing watery later on. Allow the cucumbers and tomatoes to sit and drain in the sink while chopping the other veggies.

Place the Onions in a large bowl with the sugar, lemon juice and vinegar and toss to combine. Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes to take the bite off of the onions. Add the garlic and slowly whisk in the olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste.

Rinse the tomatoes and cucumbers well with water and drain. Add to the bowl with the dressing along with the bell peppers, parsley, oregano, wheat berries and olives. Toss well, seasoning as you see fit, remember that the feta will add a bit of additional salt. Crumble the feta over the top just before serving and toss lightly (if combined too early the feta will color and look murky.) Serve to friends and enjoy!

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Grilling, Finally – Fish with Cucumber Salsa

It has been a supremely exciting couple of weeks. My bridal shower sped by in a flash, our new house is finally, starting to feel like a home. Photos are up on the walls, our spices have finally found a new roost in the organizational challenge that is our kitchen. And our first garden is growing by leaps and bounds, some days I feel as though, if I sat outside and watched, I might actually catch a glimpse of the tomatoes inching up the posts that hold them upright. They have grown at least three feet in the last three weeks, maybe it’s all the love in the air.

In addition to sewing our first garden, Dustin and I recently purchased our first grill. Our little webber smokey joe may not measure up size wise to look like the biggest and baddest around, but what it lacks in surface area, it makes up with in ease of use and pure smokey grilling flavor. Since buying the little guy, we have been grilling a few times a week.

Recently we started experimenting with fish on the grill, first a few whole sardines made their way onto the fire and onto our plates. Spurred by this “tiny” fish success Dustin and I ventured to whole foods to try a fresh catch. when we arrived we were a bit overwhelmed by the choices (and a bit by the prices as well.) I knew that I wanted to pair the fish with a cucumber salsa I saw in Bon Apetit’s June 2012 issue – we had just received a gorgeous gaggle of hot house cucumbers in our first CSA allotment of the season, and the magazine had auspiciously featured them in their “Four Chefs One Ingredient” challenge, I took this as a sign.

Getting back to the market, I asked the fishmonger which fish he might pair with a cucumber salsa. “Cucumber salsa?” he remarked quizzically, something told me this might not be standard fare for fish but I was determined it would work, and he tried to keep an open mind as we walked through potential foils for said salsa.

Initially I had thought a tuna steak would pair nicely, but not only was the tuna obscenely expensive, but it just didn’t look quite as nice as its neighbors. Salmon was on sale and in season, but the fishmonger and I agreed it might be a bit, how shall we say this, odd, with cold cucumbers. We moved on, US caught mahi mahi was a strong contender, and I was ready to put in my chips when a man in rubberized overalls laid a vision of a fillet down before me. “What’s that?” I asked my new fish friend, whose patience with me was astounding, “Mackerel,” he replied. I asked him his thoughts on the mackerel with salsa, he paused, smiled, and replied that he thought it was a “real winner.” I was sold.

As it turns out, my fishmonger friend was right on the money. Not only does the mackerel pair well with the salsa from a textural perspective, but the slightly oily flavor of the fish stands up to the fresh zing of the salsa. These are nice together with a side of grilled veggies or grill roasted new potatoes. Dustin and I mused that, with the addition of some nice shredded cabbage and a zingy crema, the grilled fish and salsa would make for some excellent fish tacos. Leftover salsa can be used in a myriad of ways, but one worth mentioning is that the salsa is quite close to a cucumber gazpacho, in fact, with the addition of some nice olive oil, a slight splash of water, and a tad more lime, the salsa leftovers may be transformed into a nice (spicy) cold soup for lunch the following day.

Fish with Cucumber Salsa (From Bon Apetit)

1/2 C Finely Diced Red Onion
2 C Finely Diced Peeled Cucumber
1/4 C Chopped Cilantro
1/4 C Chopped Mint
1 Jalapeno, With Seeds, Finely Minced
3 TBSP Fresh Lime Juice
1 TBSP Vegetable Oil

Mix first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Stir in lime juice and oil. Season to taste with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and more lime juice, if desired.

Set salsa aside and allow flavors to meld while you prepare the fish.

I didn’t specify a size or type of fish above because, really, a whole slew of fish would go nicely, pick a slightly oily and fairly flavorful fillet that looks fresh and will hold up to grilling. For grilling I prefer my fillets with skin on, but obviously with some fish, like tuna, this is not an option. The salsa in this recipe will easily provide for up to three pounds of fish, and, if you plan to make less fish, I think its highly unlikely that the cucumbery leftovers will go to waste.

Preparing the fish is quite simple. Run your fingers down the centerline to check for pin bones. Remove any pin bones with fish tweezers. Rub remaining fish with a very light coating of canola or other flavor neutral oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and some good cracks of pepper.

Grill over high heat about 3-5 mins per side (depending on the thickness of the fillets, ours took about four mins per side and came out perfectly cooked.)

I like to serve my grilled fish with some grilled citrus, grilling lemons and limes mellows the flavor and allows it to zest up the fish (also great with grilled veggies like broccoli or zucchini) without completely overpowering it with acid, to grill the citrus simply slice it in half and place over medium heat on the grill until the flesh bears a slight char.

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