Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Recipe: Stuffed Tomatoes with Herbed Chicken & Orzo Salad

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am very close to my mama. From a very early age I always considered her my best friend (and apparently introduced her as such to everyone I encountered; never did clarify that she was also my mom, lol), and I consider myself truly blessed to have a mom that's not just a mom, but a tremendous friend.

Like most BFFs, there are situations in which we realize we kind of share a brain. Sometimes we'll finish each other's sentences; sometimes we'll both surprise each other with the same present; and yes, sometimes we even crave the same meal. Which is exactly how this awesome little recipe came about.

I love stuffed edible things, something else that's quite evident after a good perusal of ye olde blog. If it's food and can be turned into an edible container, then I'm probably not too far away, figuring out what to stuff into said container. I'm all about efficiency and love a dish that can pretty much serve itself without much help from heavy dishware. But except for the occasional stuffed pepper or squash, I've only done this with breakfast (wait, I lie; there was that one very ancient stuffed tomato appetizer I posted years ago. I'll have to give that one a photo makeover).

Since summer is in full swing and tomatoes of all colors & sizes are popping up everywhere, I thought I'd break out of that rut and stuff a tomato for lunch instead. My original idea was to use some quinoa in there (and I still plan to do so; that recipe's going in the book, though), but when Mom told me she was also craving a stuffed tomato for lunch, she had an entirely different vision from mine. And it sounded really good.

Stubborn mule that I am at times and still deep in New Recipe Developing Mode, I was quite adamant about the quinoa idea. But then Mom suggested I try remembering what it's like to eat something other than quinoa, since it had been a while since I'd posted something with a different grain. As usual, she was right (why are moms always right?!); while it's not a bad thing, I do use quinoa quite frequently, so it's nice to change things up a bit. After doing some mental food math with her stuffed tomato idea and mine, I came up with this lovely idea and its fantastic results.

With its sweet, juicy tomatoes and pile of fresh herbs, this little dish is pure summertime. A nice break from the usual mayo-laden pasta salads that seem to dominate warm weather meals, this little salad gets its flavor from cool herbs like basil and cilantro, and tender chicken. I happened to have some fresh chicken thighs I needed to use, so I cooked those especially for this orzo salad. However, this is really meant to be one of those Use Your Leftovers meals, so if you have leftover cooked chicken from the night before, be sure to use that in this recipe, rather than cooking up a whole new batch of chicken.

I've gotten into the habit of whisking together vinaigrettes to go with whatever salad I'm making, and I've included a super basic one in this recipe. But again, this is a leftovers dish, so if you're putting this together on a weeknight after a crazy day and don't want to deal with making your own, feel free to use your favorite bottled vinaigrette. My favorite bottled dressing is Wishbone Italian, and I have no problem giving this lunch an extra drizzle of that for added zip! Since this is a tangy vs. creamy salad, I wouldn't recommend using ranch or blue cheese dressings, but if that's all you have on hand, use it. It definitely won't detract from the flavor.

Last thing to note: unless you have absolutely zero choice but to buy regular grocery store tomatoes, please don't. At least not until the summer winds down and tomato season wraps up. This is prime tomato harvesting time and tomato fans should take advantage of any and all tomatoes they can get from the farmers' market, CSA boxes, or their own backyards. Since they're in season right now, many varieties are running about $1.50 to $2.00 per pound at farmers' markets, and you can score some phenomenal deals if you shop wisely.

Remember, buying produce in season not only gives you the best flavor & quality, it also saves you money by cutting out all those extra costs associated with storing or transporting produce that isn't quite ready to consume. Of course, come wintertime that gets a little more challenging, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, enjoy this awesome little taste of summer. : )

Stuffed Tomatoes with Herbed Chicken & Orzo Salad (makes 3-4 servings; average cost per serving: $1.85)

Depending on the size of your tomatoes, you may have a lot of the orzo salad left over. Don't fret, though! You can always use it in a different meal, or save it for more tomato stuffing. Speaking of tomatoes, when you're done hollowing them, don't throw away the tomato flesh and juice! Mix them into a salsa or use it as the base for gazpacho or pasta sauce and you're good to go with zero wasted food!

3-4 medium to large tomatoes (Beefsteak, heirloom, Shady Lady, etc. all work)
1 c cooked orzo
1 c cooked chicken, cut into bite-size cubes
1/4 c finely chopped herbs of your choice (any combo of parsley, cilantro, basil, chives will be lovely)
1/4 c finely chopped scallions
1/2 c vinaigrette (recipe to follow) or bottled vinaigrette dressing of your choice
Simple Vinaigrette
1/4 c olive oil
1/3 c white wine vinegar
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt & pepper to taste

1. If you're making the vinaigrette, whisk together the last four ingredients in a bowl until mixed thoroughly. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, combine the orzo, cubed chicken, chopped herbs & scallions and mix well. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for about 10-15 minutes, to allow the flavors to meld together.
3. In the meantime, slice off the top of each tomato (about 1"-1.5" should suffice). Using a spoon, carefully scoop out the flesh, seed pockets and juice, making sure not to break the sides of the tomato. (If the tomato innards are being uncooperative, feel free to use a knife to help you loosen it out. Just be careful not to cut through the sides.) Spoon generous amounts of the chicken & orzo salad into each tomato, top with extra chopped cilantro or basil, and enjoy!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recipe: Asian Noodle & Veggie Salad with Soy Vinaigrette

Back in the day when I used to work at a regular 9-5 jobs in offices filled with cubes of modular furniture, lunchtime was a big deal. It marked that special moment when you can say your workday is almost half done; it gave folks a chance to escape the stale, recycled office air and catch some sun; and, of course, it was a chance to go fill one's tum.

Here in Sacramento, one of the 9-5ers' favorite haunts is a popular deli chain called La Bou. Specializing in tasty baked goods, sandwiches and fresh salads, it offers standard California lunchtime fare with subtle Asian twists and is definitely an area staple. There were many days in my past when I'd stop by to enjoy one of their breakfast sandwiches, or their ever-so-tasty Chinese chicken salad. But even when I did have enough money to spend on dining out, I always felt there was one problem with the place: the price of the food. I never have felt like the items offered should be done at such high prices, so after awhile, La Bou became more of an once-in-a-blue-moon treat than a daily ritual.

Except for the croissants and other baked goods outside my pastry-making expertise, there isn't much on their menu that I can't recreate at home, so every once in awhile when I have a craving, I'll throw something together that's La Bou-esque and call it a day (not that hard to do with simple paninis, etc.). But there's one particular salad I've been meaning to try for a while, and with another weekend of soaring temperatures looming, I figured now was the right time to give it a go.

There's not much to it, really, and that's why I like it. Just lots of chewy noodles filled with tangy soy vinaigrette flavor and plenty of crisp, colorful veggies. You can use any Asian-style noodle you like, from lo mein (which is what I used) to good ol' soba noodles (udon noodles are awesome but due to their larger size, may require more marinade, so I'd try to stay away from these until more tweaking is done). Type of veggies used is also totally up to you, but the more colorful & crispy, the better. The usual assortment is made up of peppers, broccoli and bean sprouts, but this would also be awesome with edamame, carrots, mushrooms, and a whole slew of other veggies. The sky's the limit!

The beauty of this recipe is that it's ridiculously easy to prepare and yields so much, it lends itself beautifully as a leftovers-for-lunch-or-dinner generator. For around $6 for the whole recipe (as written; the price will obviously go up the more veggies you use), you can make enough of this salad to make a nice lunch or dinner for two, and still have more than enough for lunch the next day (again for two). Noodles are just awesome like that, which is why having them and other bare bones staples on hand is great for extremely lean times.

Compare that to the $5 you'll spend for a small lunch serving alone when you're actually at a deli that serves stuff like this, and you can see why it's so much more cost effective (and tasty) to make your own at home and brown bag it to work.

Feel like your plate's a little naked sans protein? No problem? This salad is perfect for pairing with your favorite proteins, from chicken or fish, to tofu or seitan. Add one of these to your salad and voila! Instant balanced meal. Have fun with this one, folks!

Asian Noodle & Veggie Salad with Soy Vinaigrette (makes 4 servings; average cost per serving: $1.50)

If fresh veggies like broccoli florets are a little too crispy or hard on your teeth, feel free to give them a little blanch first. Bring 4-6 cups of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the broccoli and let it cook for 45-60 seconds, until it turns bright green and is still crunchy & firm, but yields easily to a fork's tines. Immediately transfer the broccoli to a bowl of water with ice (to stop the cooking process). Drain and set aside to use in the salad. Done! : )

1/3 c canola oil
1/2 c low sodium soy sauce
1/2 c rice vinegar
1 T brown sugar
1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t granulated garlic
1 10 oz package Asian style noodles (lo mein, chow mein, soba, etc.)
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1" strips
1 c broccoli florets
1 c bean sprouts
1/2 c chopped cilantro
1/2 c chopped scallions
3/4 c chopped peanuts or cashews (optional)

1. Prepare the dressing by combining the first 6 ingredients in a bowl and whisking together vigorously until smooth. Cover and set aside.
2. Cook the noodles according to package instructions. Drain and rinse under cold running water until the noodles are at room temperature or cool. Drain them very well a second time and place in a bowl. Pour about 2/3 of the dressing over the noodles and toss together until completely coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3. Remove the noodles from the fridge and add the broccoli, pepper strips, bean sprouts and any other veggies you may be using. Add the rest of the dressing and toss everything together until well-coated.
4. Serve generous portions of salad in bowls or on salad plates. Top with chopped scallions & cilantro, add a healthy sprinkle of chopped nuts, and enjoy!


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