Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Food Court Salvation: Spicy Red Lettuce Salad

If you try to maintain any semblance of a healthy lifestyle, you don't get psyched to eat in mall food courts. (Unless of course, you have a weakness for Arby's - not naming any names here - in which case, bring on the Horsey Sauce.) It recently got to the point where I was pushing "business casual" a little too far, so I resignedly hit the mall. Cringe. I used to relish the mall. I could spend hours window shopping and searching for killer deals. But that was back when: a) I could leisurely cruise the mall on a weekday, sans the throngs of weekend shoppers who, literally, could not give a sh*t that they are directly in your way of getting anywhere; and b) I had reason to shop for clothes other than button-down shirts and knee-length skirts.

So picture this: you're tired of shopping and hungry for a salad. You survey your food court choices - bad, bad, worse, barf-worthy, and then . . . a little ray of hope? Salad Creations. It looked pretty unimpressive with its sad neon sign and non-existent line, but nothing was pre-packaged and the ingredients looked pretty fresh. So I ordered the spicy veggie salad, which included cilantro and cayenne pepper, two of my faves. I can safely say that my expectations (granted, they were low) were blown out of the water. The food court grew dim and a shiny gold light emanated from my plastic salad container.* Angel voices poured from the greens.* Shoppers crowded around me for a glimpse of my ethereal meal.*

*Gross exaggerations. But, heck, the salad was good. 
These red beauties came straight from our little veggie garden. And in case anyone's curious, the photo above might be one of my favorite that I've ever taken.
Shortly after my Salad Creations revelation, I decided I needed to recreate it at home. The key players are the cilantro, the cayenne pepper and the avocado. Nothing too crazy about the ingredients individually, but the combo is a flavor bonanza that's hard to find elsewhere in a cold salad. My friend Jenn was coming over for dinner - one of my few friends that I could serve a vegetarian salad to as a main course and not have her question it - so I gathered my fixins and let 'er rip.

My salad didn't taste exactly like the one from Salad Creations (I have to imagine that they use a high dose of salty seasoning that jacks up the flavor), but mine was pretty darn good. I've found that cilantro is a polarizing herb - people either love it or hate it. But when coupled with the spicy cayenne pepper, creamy avocado and crisp red lettuce, I can't imagine anyone not liking this salad. The cilantro and pepper provide a flavorful heat and the avocado is like a soothing palate cleanser. A built-in sorbet if you will. In any event, for those who like to make salads at home, this is a fun, delicious twist on your average veggie salad. And if it's not on your radar, red lettuce is awesome. It's no more expensive than romaine, but in my opinion, the curly red leaves retain their crispness better. Make it happen.

I served the salad with rosemary roasted sweet potato slices, which were a perfect, hearty compliment. Instructions included below.

Spicy Red Lettuce Salad

Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2-3 as a main course

1 large head of red lettuce
2 big carrots, shredded
1 large tomato (or 3-4 little guys), diced
1/2 cucumber, cut into chunks
1 green bell pepper, cut into chunks
3/4 cups black beans, rinsed and drained
1 whole avocado, diced
cilantro, roughly chopped (I used 1 heaping cup of leaves loosely packed, or about 1/2 a bunch)

3 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. seasoning salt
(makes for a lightly dressed salad)

Add all salad ingredients to a bowl. Mix dressing ingredients in a small bowl with a whisk and pour over salad. Toss the salad to distribute dressing.

Serving suggestion: Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes (serves 4)

Wash and slice two sweet potatoes or yams, unpeeled (I might peel off a few strips if the skin is particularly rough or knotty). Toss potato slices in 3 tbs olive oil and 2 tbs chopped, fresh rosemary. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until roasted. Flip potatoes halfway through roasting.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Chewy Chocolate Chip Gingerbread Cookies

Good news: we survived the earthquake. And the hurricane. The only casualties were an Ikea picture frame (earthquake) and a Saturday bike ride (Irene). And I may have sustained some minor injuries to my liver. Nothing like a natural disaster to promote drinking. On the upside, as a result of Mother Nature's two field days, I got an entire afternoon off work and had reason to test out this recipe for chocolate chip gingerbread cookies. Two big wins in my book. 

A couple weeks ago, I went to a bachelorette party at a resort in Leesburg, VA. Before I got there, the girls had gone to the Leesburg Farmer's Market and returned with a solid haul. (I wish I could have joined them, but unfortunately, no amount of sacrificial Ikea frames was going to get me out of work that Saturday morning.) The gals bought homemade yogurt, fresh flowers and an assortment of locally-made cookies. Oh, the cookies.

The cookies came from Lola Cookies & Treats and yikes, they were dangerous. One flavor in particular, the ginger chocolate chip, blew me away. Generally, if I look at a cookie tray and chocolate chip is an option, that's what I choose. And when I go for something different, I usually wish I had just chosen chocolate chip. But Lola's gingers - which showed no visible signs of chocolate chips - looked super chewy and smelled like ginger heaven. Little did I know that hidden in the depths of each brown-sugary ginger bite, was bits of milk chocolate. When I started munching and discovered the chocolate chips, I nearly. freaking. screamed. In case you haven't noticed, I'm really passionate about good desserts. (Largely because so many storebought desserts are a tragic failure and a waste of calories.)   

The ginger base of the cookie was just as deliciously chewy as it looked and the big chocolate chips were like solid flavor gold. Mixing ginger cookies with chocolate had never occurred to me. Surprise flavor combinations rock my baking world.

One of the reasons I loved the Lola's cookies so much is because the chocolate was a total surprise. They just looked like regular ginger cookies and then, BAM! Chocolatey goodness. So here, I wanted that traditional ginger cookie look of cracks on top, with surprise chocolate chips in the middle. But it's a little time consuming to fold the chocolate chips in the the center of each individual cookie. And I'm guessing the general public is not obsessed with hiding their chocolate chips like me. So for this recipe, I recommend that you just fold the chocolate chips into the dough. If you like the idea of "surprise" cookies, take 5-6 large chocolate chips and press them into the center of a pre-scooped dough ball (like in the photo above). Then wrap the dough around the chocolate chips and roll between your palms for an even ball shape.  

Chewy Chocolate Chip Gingerbread Cookies
Ginger cookie recipe from epicurious

Makes 30 2" cookies

2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 cups (1-1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses (unsulphured)
1 cup large chocolate chips (Ghirardelli and Guittard brands are both large)
sugar for rolling (1/4 cup)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together first 6 ingredients. Cut room temperature butter into chunks and add to dry ingredients. If you've forgotten to take your butter out early, microwave butter for 7 seconds, flip, and microwave for another 7 seconds. Using a hand mixer or stand mixer, blend dry ingredients and butter for 4 to 5 minutes or until the mix resembles brown sugar. There should be no chunks of butter remaining.

Add brown sugar and mix for another 30 seconds. Add egg and molasses; mix until fully incorporated. Fold in chocolate chips with a spatula (obviously, if you can't find large chocolate chips, regular-sized chips are fine). Using a medium cookie scoop, scoop out even portions of cookie dough and roll between your palms to get a nice round ball. If you don't have a cookie scoop, use two tablespoons of dough per cookie. Roll each dough ball in sugar. Place each ball on a parchment-lined or silpat-lined baking pan around 2 inches from the next cookie. Bake at 350 for 11-12 minutes.

Please report back if you are as obsessed with the result as me. Thx.

Note: Molasses smells bad. Just trust the recipe. I used Grandma's Original (unsulphured). Just make sure to buy molasses that is unsulphured and don't buy anything that says robust or blackstrap.

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