March 25, 2009
Crimes against food: Caesar's salad

caesarsalad.jpgMany years ago, when I first started reading Nigel Slater's food column in the Observer, I remember he ran a piece on "crimes against food". By this, he meant dishes that can be quite good if done correctly but which are most often done criminally wrong. His example was prawn cocktail, which is frequently just a load of defrosted shrimps plopped in a cup with a mixture of commercial mayonnaise and ketchup. When I lived in the US, I think my first nomination would have been rice pudding, with nachos a close second. Now that I have ten years of experience visiting and living in the UK, I know that I only have one dish to nominate: Caesar's salad.

When I started visiting the UK with the Critic a decade ago and more, I was frequently taken in by the lure of Caesar's salad. It's not a dish that shows up frequently on French menus and it's one of my favorite dishes of all time. When it's done right. But pretty much universally - and especially in theoretically "American" restaurants - it's criminally awful in British restaurants. Anchovies rarely figure in the salad or the dressing. The tomatoes are woody and flavorless. It actually tastes like someone has taken salad cream (i.e. watered down sweet mayonnaise) and added a teaspoon of grated industrial Parmesan per cup of sauce, plopped on some wilted lettuce, added a few dried out bits of bread and the aforementioned tomatoes and - ta-da! - served something that tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike Caesar's salad.

It makes me very, very angry. Or it did until I learned better and swore off ordering Caesar's salad in the UK.

This salad is also, sadly, not a true Caesar's salad. But the difference - and the reason it is not a crime - is that it is true to the spirit of a Caesar's salad and sings with flavors. I just cut out ninety percent of the fat so that I can have it frequently for lunch and still lose weight. Feel free to increase the amount of olive oil and add some paper thin shavings of Parmesan if you are not on a diet; you will undoubtedly be glad. But if you are looking for a relatively low calorie version of this classic salad, this is the one for you.

Low Calorie High Flavor Caesar's Salad (serves two generously, 4 WW points per serving)

2 medium Romaine heads
1-2 tomatoes (optional - they are not in season, so I omitted them)
1 slice of whole wheat bread
1 small tin of anchovies, rinsed
2 tsp olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 tsp mustard
1/2 Tbs grated fresh Parmesan
juice of half a lemon
2-3 Tbs water
salt, pepper

Toast the slice of bread. Cut the clove of garlic in half and rub it on the bread thoroughly. Reserve the clove. Measure the olive oil into a small food processing basin and brush a minimal amount of it on the bread with a basting brush. Sprinkle with salt, cut in squares and set aside.

Add the anchovies (minus one or two if you like whole ones in your salad) to the basin, as well as the Parmesan, garlic clove, mustard, lemon juice and anchovies. Add a tablespoon of water and process. If necessary, add a bit more water to get the consistency you prefer. Pepper generously.

Wash and cut or rip the salad and spin it dry. In a large bowl, toss it with the dressing to coat thoroughly. Dress the plate with salad, tomatoes (if any) and bread croutons. Oh and the reserved anchovies (if any). Don't let any of the flavor go to waste!

Note on the photo: a keen eye will notice that I did NOT toss the salad with the dressing but instead drizzled it on the lettuce and croûtons. It actually is much nicer when you take the time to toss the lettuce, but I was only making one salad and was loath to dirty another dish.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:00 PM | Comments (12)
March 17, 2009
Spicy Scallop Stir Fry

I am not a trained chef, despite the name of our blog. (Apparently a band in Canada snagged the "toomanycooks" domain before Barrett could get his hands on it.) And the one area of cooking where I am most painfully aware of my lack of formal training is Chinese cuisine. I love it and I love making it, but I'm pretty sure that watching me would make an actual Chinese person shudder in dismay. This is why I rarely post recipes that purport to be Chinese. And it's also why I didn't photograph this recipe. I thought it would be good enough to eat (I'm competent enough for that) but nothing more. About five minutes after serving it, I heard the Critic saying for the third time "This is really good!" and realized that - pathetically short on training or not - I had come up with a really tasty dish. I love it when that happens; it makes me feel like maybe I do know what I'm doing when I fly by the seat of my pants. It also shows that if you have a good selection of fresh seasonal vegetables in your refrigerator, the world is your oyster. And a packet of frozen scallops also helps.

What I loved about this dish was the way the sweetness of the scallops played against the spiciness of the pepper. Add to that a colorful selection of crunchy vegetables and the whole mess sang with flavor and interesting textures. I have another package of frozen scallops in the fridge and the vegetable delivery is due today. I have my fingers crossed for the same boring old root vegetables as last time, because this dish turns them into stars. Oh and it's only 7.5 points per generous serving, including the rice. Heaven on a plate.

Spicy Scallop Stir Fry (serves three, 7.5 WW points per serving)

200 g frozen small scallops
2 small red chili peppers, minced
4-5 brown mushrooms, sliced
1/2 a small savoy cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, sliced in thin coins
1 leek, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs ginger, finely chopped
1 Tbs sunflower or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp oyster sauce
2 Tbs mirin or sherry
Soy sauce to taste
2 large portions of cooked rice (225 g cooked, 90 g dry)

Heat the wok to a very high temperature and swish the oil in it. Add the carrots and cook for a few minutes. Add the cabbage and the mirin or sherry and cook for a few moments more. Add the peppers, leeks, garlic and ginger and cook for a few moments but not long enough to burn the garlic and ginger. Push all the vegetables up the sides of the wok (where it is cooler) and add the scallops. Sear them on each side very quickly. Add the rice and mix the vegetables and scallops with it thoroughly. Add soy sauce to taste - but do not go overboard. I added less than usual and the Critic, uncharacteristically for him, did not add any more to the finished dish. Remove from heat and stir in the oyster sauce and sesame oil. Taste again for seasoning and serve on large plates, with a big smile as you smell all the wonderful flavors wafting up from the plate.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:27 AM | Comments (81)
March 13, 2009
Tuna with salsa verde

tunaverde2.jpgFish can be a real minefield for the ethical shopper. Is the fish endangered? Has it been flown across the globe? Frozen? Farmed in an ecologically unsustainable way? Does it have a dangerous level of mercury? Was it tucked tenderly into bed before being caught on a dolphin friendly line? As a result, despite the fact that fish is much healthier than other traditional protein options (read: meat) I don't buy it very often. When we lived in Paris, I did love to make mussels, which are farmed off the French coast in a fairly environmentally friendly way, are abundant, cheap and do not have to travel far. I would also occasionally buy sole or cod. But more often, I resort to the easily interpreted "organic free range chicken" label - especially as I haven't yet found a good fishmonger here in England. I'm lazy even if I do try to be ethical.

Now that I am on a diet, though, I have decided to cut myself (and the family) a bit of slack on the fish issue, albeit temporarily. Seafood is remarkably low in calories and since it's become such a rare treat for us, it makes up for other sacrifices in my diet. (Which, oddly enough, include the only two fish dishes that are easily accessible to me without a fishmonger: kippers and fish and chips. Sigh.) I remember going through a similar phase when pregnant. Can't eat raw oysters? Fine, I'll have another square of chocolate. No wine with dinner? Hand me a pain aux raisins for breakfast, please. And yes, I'll have another tomorrow and in fact every day until this child breathes his first gulp of air.

So when I noticed that my online supermarket had fresh unfarmed tuna on offer, I jumped. Weight watchers points: 3 for a medium portion of tuna and healthy omega oils on the side. A treat no matter how you look at it.

As the tuna, being an oily fish, is higher in calories than most seafood, I wanted to find a really tasty low calorie way to dress it: a simple oil-free salsa verde made with frozen basil, anchovies and lemon juice. You could keep the points insanely low (as I did, after an indulgent breakfast and lunch) and serve it with a lot of freshly steamed broccoli. Or you could add some steamed new potatoes with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Or, if you are not counting calories you could make a nice lemon rice. No matter what else you put on the plate, the tuna will be a star: with a bit of crunchy spice from the peppercorns and zingy green sauce.

Tuna salsa verde (serves 2, WW points per serving: 4, including sauce but no other accompaniments)

2 medium tuna steaks (around 140 g each)
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
crushed black peppercorns

For the sauce:

1 small tin of anchovies, drained and rinsed
4 heaping Tbs fresh or frozen chopped basil
1/8 tsp pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
2-3 Tbs water

Brush the tuna steaks with the olive oil and press crushed black peppercorns into the steaks. Heat a nonstick or cast-iron frying pan until very hot and add the steaks. Cook for 2-3 minutes until seared and then turn over.

In the meantime, throw all the ingredients for the sauce in a mini-blender and whiz them until smooth. Taste for salt and pepper and check that you like the consistency.

Check the tuna steaks; how long you cook them will ultimately depend on whether you like them fashionably red in the middle or - like the Critic - just barely cooked through. Serve each steak with half the sauce and your choice of accompaniment. Enjoy!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 5:11 AM | Comments (661)
March 5, 2009
Simple foods

endives.jpgAfter an exhausting week on holiday in France (believe me, with two children under five, holidays can be very tiring for aging parents) we have been suffering from a spate of illnesses. First little brother, after a week long cold, developed a nasty stomach flu. Then I caught it. And then the Critic caught a head cold. The result was that we were all home at lunch time yesterday and in need of comfort food. Big Brother had Hoops (the British equivalent of Spaghetti-Ohs, heaven help me) and the Critic and Little Brother had beans on toast. Neither of those appealed to me, nor did they fit the bill for a light Weight Watchers lunch so I rummaged in the fridge and found a pair of Belgian endives.

I have to say that endives (or chicory if you are here in the UK) have to be one of my favorite winter foods. They keep forever. (The pair I found had been in the vegetable drawer since well before our holiday in France and were still beautiful.) They are low in calorie and high in crunch factor when you put them in a salad. And when you braise them, they make the perfect light lunch. Savory with a hint of sweetness, extremely healthy and filling. And they take all of about 15 minutes to cook. The only frustrating part is waiting five minutes or so for them to cool down enough to eat.

I know I wrote up my recipe for braised endives a few years ago, but I thought it was worth directing you to the recipe again. Firstly because you might not have caught it the first time around. And secondly because I neglected to mention how low calorie this satisfying lunch is. If you cut the sugar to 1/2 tsp (which you can easily do if the endives aren't too old and bitter - and my 3 week old pair were not yet bitter at all) and limit the butter to 2 tsp in a non-stick pan, the whole dish is only 2.5 points. I generally increase the amount of stock to 250 ml and serve it in a bowl, so that after I've eaten the endives I have a lovely endive-flavored soup to finish.

So how do you like your endives? A crunchy salad with walnuts and blue cheese? Or covered in a creamy bechamel and baked with ham? Or simply braised with good quality stock? If you have any new ideas I'd love to hear them!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 5:46 AM | Comments (327)
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