Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chicken Avocado Salad, Revisited

So, once upon a time (read: for the past few summers), the hubby and I both had a love affair with Chicken Avocado Salad. I mean, seriously. It was basically deconstructed guacamole with chicken - what's not to love?

But then... disaster struck. More specifically, the hubby gradually realized that he had developed a tomato allergy. No more chicken avocado salad? Whatever would we do on those hot, sultry nights where we needed a legitimate cover for eating guacamole with a fork?

Summer hit with a vengeance in Massachusetts this week, and as usual, my thoughts turned to the beloved chicken avocado salad. Was it possible to swap the tomatoes out for something equally delicious, but in a completely different way? A quick Google search later, and I had cobbled together a recipe that, quite frankly, beat the pants off the original incarnation. And it took me, my cluttered kitchen and my pathetic knife skills only 30 minutes to put it all together. 

Chicken Avocado Salad: The Tomato-less Version
Makes 3-4 servings
Adapted from Avocado Chicken Salad and Chicken and Avocado Salad

  • 3/4 pound cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces *
  • 1/2 pound frozen corn, thawed but not hot **
  • 1 14oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large avocado or 2 small avocados, diced
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts sliced
  • a handful (about 1/4 cup) of cilantro, chopped
  • 2 limes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Combine chicken, corn, beans, avocados, scallions and cilantro in a large bowl. Zest (using a microplane if possible - it's much less frustrating than a zester) and juice limes into a small bowl and add the olive oil. Whisk together (or use a fork, it's easier) until it looks like a dressing, and dump it into the big bowl with everything else. Mix it all together with a big spoon. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed.

* I used Trader Joe's frozen grilled chicken.
** 3 minutes in the microwave on 50% power did it for me. I used Trader Joe's frozen Fire-Roasted corn - highly recommended!

Another beautiful thing about this salad - if you decide you want this taste of summer in, say, November, black beans and frozen corn never go out of season, unlike tomatoes. And sometimes, we all need a little summer in the middle of cold November rain.
Saturday, June 23, 2012

Food Processor/Stick Blender: Easy Olive Tapenade

Have you ever found yourself in one of these all-to-familiar situations?
  • Eating a piece of plain grilled chicken or fish and wishing you could jazz it up?
  • Making a sandwich and discovering that you're out of mayo and mustard?
  • Putting out crackers or sliced baguettes for company, but missing just one more spread for them?
Well, there are certainly many solutions for each situation. But what if I told you there was one recipe that could fix all of those problems, and more, in one fell swoop?

Enter olive tapenade. From Wikipedia:
Tapenade is a Provençal dish consisting of puréed or finely chopped olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil. Its name comes from the Provençal word for capers, tapenas.
Well, doesn't that sound fancy! However, your Slacker Gourmet alarm bells are probably going off. Finely chopped? Capers? ANCHOVIES? Breathe, people! Let's break this down:
  • You don't have to chop anything up into itty bitty pieces, as long as you have a food processor or stick blender. Traditionally some tapenades were made with a mortar and pestle - we're definitely not going down that road either. 
  • Yes, capers are one of those items you've typically bought for one recipe and one recipe only. They usually come in expensive little jars, of which you use 7/8ths for the aforementioned recipe. But - if you find yourself at Trader Joe's or an Italian grocery (not just a specialty shop), they sell capers in larger jars, and if you keep 'em in the fridge in their brine, they last for quite awhile. If you have them around on a regular basis, you'll find yourself using them in pasta/grain salads, stews, chicken sautés, or anything that needs a briny kick. However, if you still don't want to buy them, they are NOT essential to my quick tapenade recipe (which I suppose would technically make it an olive relish instead, but whatever). 
  • Anchovies? So not necessary. If you happen to have them around, sure, go ahead and throw a fillet in, but there's no reason to go out and buy them. 
What kind of olives should you use? Well, that's a matter of personal preference. I do recommend using a mix of a couple different kinds of olives if you're not using capers. Buy them pitted, since, well, this is the Slacker Gourmet. You don't necessarily have to get them from the fancy olive bar in nice supermarkets; there are many perfectly nice jarred olives out there. The only guideline I personally have is: if it comes in a can, it's really not appropriate for tapenade.

A little more explanation on the puréeing technique: typically a food processor is the easiest tool for the job. But - this recipe only makes a cup or so of tapenade, so if you have a 14-cup food processor and can't find your little mini processor, it's definitely not worth getting the big processor dirty if you have a stick blender.

Homemade olive tapenade (Project 365: 87/365) 

Easy Olive Tapenade
Makes 1 - 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 1/2 cups pitted olives, rinsed (this is important!) and divided (any kind, or a mix - see notes above) 
  • 2 tablespoons capers (optional - use a mix of olives if not using)
  • 1 whole clove garlic 
  • 1/2 - 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, basil, or oregano (optional)
  • 1/2 - 1 tablespoon lemon juice or red wine vinegar 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Fresh cracked black pepper


Food Processor:
Combine 1 cup olives, capers (if using), garlic, herbs (if using), and 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice or red wine vinegar in the food processor bowl. Pulse until all components are between chunky and finely chopped. Drizzle olive oil in while processing until the mixture comes together and looks almost like a paste. Add the reserved 1/2 cup of olives and pulse until the new addition is coarsely chopped - this will add some extra texture. Taste and add the additional 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice/vinegar if necessary, and stir in pepper to taste.

Stick Blender:
In the smoothie cup that comes with your stick blender, or a medium bowl, combine 1 cup olives, capers (if using), garlic, herbs (if using), and 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice or red wine vinegar. Hit it with the stick until the texture is between chunky and finely chopped. Add the olive oil all at once, and hit it with the stick again, until the mixture looks like a rough paste. Add the reserved 1/2 cup of olives and give it another hit with the stick until those olives are coarsely chopped and the tapenade looks like it has a variety of textures. Taste and add the additional 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice/vinegar if necessary, and stir in pepper to taste.

Okay, now you have tapenade, and it should keep for at least a week in the fridge. Now, what can you do with it?
  • Use it as a relish for grilled chicken or fish. 
  • Slather it on raw chicken or fish, wrap in parchment paper or foil, and bake for 15 minutes (thin cuts of fish), 20-25 minutes (thicker cuts of fish), 30-40 minutes (chicken) at 350 degrees.
  • Use as a delicious sandwich spread (especially on a Mediterranean-inspired sandwich)
  • Spread it on baguette slices or crackers for an elegant appetizer. If you want to jazz up the spreading platform, brush baguette slices with garlic olive oil and toast in the oven or toaster oven until golden brown.
  • Toss it with cooked pasta and top with a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano for a quick meal or side dish.
  • My mother, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, once suggested using tapenade as a non-dairy/non-fish spread alternative to cream cheese and lox - and let me tell you, it's darn tasty! You get that nice saltiness without the fishiness, which is a huge bonus for my smoked-salmon-hating hubby.
Easy, savory, and versatile - the perfect Slacker Gourmet condiment.
Monday, June 18, 2012

Slacker Gourmet Formula: Pasta/Grain Salad

Well, more than a year has passed since my last Slacker Gourmet post. Oops. I could make all sorts of excuses about buying a house, and job changes, and blah blah blah, but instead, I'll just refer you to the "Slacker" portion of the blog title, and just go from there.

As a UI Developer by trade, creating web page templates is a big part of my day-to-day life - a basic structure for a page, filled in with different content, depending on a particular database call. For a large site with hundreds of thousands of pages, templating is completely necessary, otherwise we'd be reinventing the wheel over and over again.

But what does that have to do with cooking? Well, as I postulated in my Fondue Theory post, the creation of a basic formula (or template) for a type of dish makes it easy (and nearly foolproof) to implement nearly infinite variations, limited only by your own imagination. Some basic knowledge of complementary flavors is certainly helpful, but I'll happily make some suggestions to get you started.

My Pasta/Grain Salad formula has been a couple of years in development. Its roots are in Lemony Couscous with Chickpeas, which I've made a shockingly large number of times. However, as a Slacker Gourmet, I crave variety - no matter how easy and tasty something is, I will get sick of it after eating it enough times.

Enter the formula. As long as everything stays in the same basic proportions, there is no reason that nearly every component can't be swapped out for something else in the same basic family (black beans instead of chickpeas - yes; M&Ms instead of olives - not so much). This is where that general idea of complementary flavors will come in handy.

And now... the magic formula!

Quinoa salad (Project 365: 86/365)

Pasta/Grain Salad
Serves 4-6 as a main dish, 8-10 as a side dish
Adapted from Lemony Couscous with Chickpeas

  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked pasta/grain
  • Enough water to cook the pasta/grain
  • 1/4 cup citrus juice or other acidic liquid (vinegar is untested; will probably need less)
  • 1 tablespoon citrus zest, if using citrus juice
  • 3 tablespoons high-quality oil (extra-virgin olive oil is probably best in most cases)
  • 1 14oz can of beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 to 1 cup of something briny, like olives, capers, artichoke hearts, rinsed (the stronger the flavor, the less you need)
  • 1/8 to 1/4 cup of something crunchy, like nuts, seeds, wasabi peas, freeze-dried edamame (though the latter two will soften up the longer the salad sits)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped herbs and/or scallions
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta/grain according to package directions; let cool. Chop or slice the briny component if it needs it. Whisk together the oil, acidic liquid, and zest (if using). If using nuts, toast in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes, moving them constantly with a wooden spoon, until lightly browned and fragrant (as soon as you smell them, get them off the heat). Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary.

What's so amazing about this salad? Well, it's freakin' delicious. You can make a huge batch and eat it for a week (it keeps wonderfully in the fridge). Depending on the starch component you choose, you don't even need to heat up the kitchen to cook it (see this post for Slacker Gourmet-approved easy starch cooking).

And since it's that time of year, I'd be remiss if I didn't say how great it is for summer potlucks: there's no mayo or dairy to spoil in the heat, and it can easily accommodate special diets and allergies without sacrificing flavor. Gluten allergy? Use gluten-free pasta, rice or quinoa. Vegetarian/vegan? You're already all set as-is! Nut allergy? Leave 'em out - they're not a deal-breaker.

"Okay, okay, I'm sold!" you say. "But, I need some inspiration for the flavor combos... help me out here!"

Flavor combo Pasta/grain Acidic liquid Oil Beans Briny Crunch Herbs
Mediterranean * Quinoa** Lemons EVOO Chickpeas Kalamata olives Slivered almonds Parsley
Italian Orzo or farro Lemons EVOO Cannellini beans Black olives Pine nuts Basil
Mexican Rice Limes EVOO or canola Black beans Black olives Pumpkin seeds (pepitas) Cilantro and scallions
Moroccan Couscous Oranges EVOO Chickpeas Oil-cured black olives Pistachios Mint
* Pictured above.
** Yes, I know quinoa is technically a seed.

Want to mix it up more? Go ahead and throw some raisins in the Moroccan variation, some feta in the Mediterranean variation, or avocado in the Mexican variation (though it may not keep as long with avocado). Just keep those flavors complementary, and you can't go wrong!

Slacker Gourmet Basics: Easy Starch Cooking

Hate waiting for pasta water to boil? Don't have a rice cooker? Too hot to use the stove? Living in a dorm room? Never fear, there are still some easy and foolproof starches that you can make using just your microwave.

Rice: this isn't really a recipe, per se, but both Birds Eye and Trader Joe's make frozen, steam-in-the-bag rice. I think it comes out nearly as good as rice made by traditional methods, and way, way better than instant rice. Without a rice cooker, I'd choose the frozen rice over attempting to make it on the stove.

Couscous: all you need to do is boil water: 5 parts water to 3 parts couscous. Put couscous in a heatproof bowl with a good pinch of salt. Boil your water in the microwave, and pour over couscous. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes, then fluff couscous with a fork.

Quinoa: Rinse quinoa for a couple of minutes under running water (most quinoa comes pre-rinsed, but it can't hurt). Combine 1 part quinoa, 2 parts water and a good pinch of salt in a microwave-safe container. Cover loosely and microwave on high for 8 minutes. Let sit for 10-15 minutes (longer is better - more water will be absorbed), then stir gently and microwave it for another 2 minutes. Quinoa is done when the seeds are translucent, and the little white spiral-like germ is separating from the seeds. If there is still water left in the bowl, drain it.