Apple, Pomegranate, and Arugula Salad with Cider-Honey Vinaigrette

It’s so easy to get into a salad rut – lettuce, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, bottled dressing. A salad like that is just fine, but not every day. It becomes a chore. At least it has in my house. I’m a cook and even I’m guilty of making the same salad a hundred times.

I bought a great salad cookbook for a Hanukkah gift, Catherine Walther’s Raising the Salad Bar. It turned out to be one of those gifts you just have to have for yourself–I promptly bought a second copy to keep. Walther’s goal is to get you out of the salad rut and into using far more varied ingredients like fruits, cheeses, grains, beans, and quick homemade dressings from various vinegars.

This salad comes almost straight from Walther’s pages; I’ve only made a few quantity adjustments and I didn’t have any arugula, so I picked bright green leaves from a spring mix and added black pepper to make up for the lack of arugula’s spiciness. I’m keeping arugula in the recipe, though, as it would have been even better.

If you’ve never opened a pomegranate, there is a great picture guide here. It seems like a lot of steps but it’s very quick. The ruby seeds, glistening like jewels on your plate, will be worth it. Pomegranates are expensive (mine was $2.99 at Whole Foods) but you only need one for several servings of salad.

When slicing apples, there’s no need for an apple corer.  Simply cut a very thin slice from the top and bottom of the apple.  With the apple upright on its newly flat bottom, cut the cheeks from the apple in four sections, leaving the core with squared edges, as pictured below.  The sections can then be laid flat on the board and easily sliced as thinly as needed.

A little salad trick: Serve beautiful salads on a plate, not in a bowl. The ingredients will spread out, be more visible, and be much more attractive. In this salad, the pomegranate seeds would become invisible in a giant salad bowl. Salads are also easier to eat this way because the heavier bits don’t sink to the bottom and you can easily load each forkful with a variety of flavors.

A unique salad can really set the tone for the rest of the meal, even if you’re just having another rotisserie chicken or spaghetti dinner. This is especially true if you’re having guests over. If you start with a unique, gorgeous salad and a glass of wine, everyone is already happy and the pressure is off.

Apple, Pomegranate, and Arugula Salad with Apple Cider-Honey Vinaigrette
Crispy apples and tart pomegranate seeds add serious crunch and flavor to peppery arugula. Tossed with a simple tart vinaigrette made from apple cider vinegar, honey, and olive oil. A final sprinkling of toasted almonds and goat cheese round out the flavors.

serves 4
adapted from Catherine Walther’s Raising the Salad Bar, 2007

1 apple (I used a Fuji), thinly sliced
6 to 7 cups arugula, washed and dried, large stems removed
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
goat cheese, crumbled

for the vinaigrette:
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
1 ½ tsp. honey
6 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, optional

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients until emulsified. The mixture will turn from clear to cloudy. Adjust salt and pepper.

Seed the pomegranate. (Instructions here.)

Slice the apple. Toss the slices with a little of the dressing to keep them from discoloring.

Just before serving, toss the apples and arugula with just enough dressing to coat the leaves. Divide among four plates. Sprinkle each plate with pomegranate seeds, almonds, and crumbled goat cheese. Use the tip of your whisk to lightly drizzle with a little extra dressing if needed. Serve immediately.


High Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury

Yeah, you read that headline right – there’s mercury in high fructose corn syrup.  Not in all HFCS, but in at least some.  It apparently depends on the type of caustic soda used in the processing of the corn.  Sounds yummy, yes?

We already know of the possible links between HFCS and obesity, insulin resistance, and (eventually) diabetes, and that we should consume it in moderation, if at all.  (Studies here, here, and here, just to name a few.)

Now, with mercury possibly contaminating a large percentage of our processed foods, moderation is no longer enough. There is no truly safe limit of mercury exposure, especially in pregnant women or children. We are already exposed to it in fish, meats, and vegetables (due to bioaccumulation) – we shouldn’t also consume it in every cracker, slice of bread, or can of soda.

The study that found the mercury (abstract and full PDF, for free, here) estimates that that potential average daily mercury exposure from HFCS could range from zero to 28.4 micrograms mercury.

To put that number in perspective, the researchers point out that Canada and other countries do not recommend the use of dental amalgam, a common source of mercury exposure, in pregnant women or children.  Dental amalgam exposure ranges, on average, from 0.79 to 1.91 micrograms of mercury.  The possible exposure from HFCS is 14 times that.

Our food system is slowly killing us.

Next time you want to pour a bowl of cereal with HFCS for breakfast or crack open a soda with lunch, why not lick a broken thermometer too?

Check your pantry and get rid of HFCS. It’s in more items than you might realize. The government won’t act quickly or on our behalf – the industry lobbies are too strong and the FDA too incompetent. (They have long insisted that HFCS is “natural”.)  But if we stop buying it, manufacturers will stop putting it in everything.



15-minute Garlicky Shrimp Gratin

Melissa Clark of the NY Times recently posted a very simple recipe for roasted shrimp and broccoli. It’s been all over the internet; folks who’ve tried it say it tastes much better than the sum of its parts.

One repeated comment about that recipe is its extreme simplicity – the one-pan-ness and healthfulness of it all. Recipes like that can turn a weeknight of takeout in to a healthy meal without much more work. It’s not a meal trying to be a huge production; it’s a simple meal of basic ingredients with methods anyone can manage. We all need more of this.  We need to let go of the pressure to cook like chefs and instead just cook at all.  Our health depends on it.

Unfortunately, most cookbooks are for serious foodies who want to spend hours cooking. Publishers sell more copies when the content is splashy and food-pornorific, but most home cooks can’t manage the recipes without a significant time investment. I dare anyone to actually prepare a Rachel Ray 30-minute meal in 30 minutes, with cleanup, unless you’ve got her ridiculous (annoying?) energy. She can barely do it on TV with production help. It takes most people I know 5 minutes to mince an onion. I give her credit for trying, but I still find the approach lacking. On the far end of the spectrum are the junior league cookbooks full of canned mushroom soup and bottled Italian dressing.  Where’s the middle ground?

Jacques Pepin wrote a terrific book called Fast Food My Way which is centered on a simple approach to cooking and the idea that preparing even a very simple meal with wholesome ingredients is infinitely more satisfying than another heart-clogging, chemical-infused cheeseburger and fries and it has the definite appeal of not slowly killing you.

This Pepin recipe for “Little Shrimp Casseroles” is a perfect example of his approach, with only a handful of simple ingredients, very little prep, and only one dish if you make a large gratin instead of individual ones. Your seafood counter probably sells peeled and de-veined shrimp, which are certainly worth the higher price if you’re in a hurry or slow to prep shrimp. Most people can get this dish in the oven in under 15 minutes, with minimal cleanup involved. Lest you think this recipe is here just for its ease, I assure you it’s also quite delicious, with the white wine and butter letting the natural sweetness of the shrimp shine through.

You’ll need a very small amount of white wine – only a quarter cup. If you’re not up to opening an entire bottle, consider purchasing little “airplane” bottles.  They are available at most supermarkets, and while the quality available in small bottles is limited, they’ll do just fine for cooking. I used half a 187-ml bottle of Cavit Pinot Grigio for this recipe.  If you want to drink wine with your dinner, buy a full bottle of a better wine.

As an additional bonus, this gratin can be prepped ahead, chilled, and baked off at the last minute. You can even make two gratins and have it freshly baked on two different nights.

Add a simple green salad or vegetable (perfect broccoli?) to complete the meal.

Garlicky Shrimp Gratin

A fantastic simple gratin of sweet shrimp, earthy mushrooms, slivers of green onion, and the bite of fresh garlic, all topped with bread crumbs and baked until bubbly and crispy. You can make one large gratin or four individual ones if you want an excuse to use cute little gratin dishes. If you buy peeled and de-veined shrimp, this recipe takes less than 15 minutes to prepare.

Adapted from Jacques Pepin’s “Little Shrimp Casseroles” in Fast Food My Way, 2004.

Serves 4.

1 1/4 lb. shrimp, peeled and de-veined
4 tsp. fresh garlic, minced
1/2 cup green onion, minced
1 cup button mushrooms, small dice
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 Tbs. canola oil
1 cup panko (see note)

Heat the oven to 425F.

Grease a 4-cup capacity shallow gratin dish or casserole dish.  (Or use four 1-cup dishes.) Add the shrimp, mushrooms, green onion, salt, pepper, melted butter, and white wine. Stir to coat and evenly distribute the shrimp.

In a separate bowl, combine the bread crumbs and oil. Toss to coat. Sprinkle crumbs over the gratin.

Bake 10-15 minutes or until the topping is nicely browned the shrimp are cooked through. The cooking time will vary based on the size of your shrimp and baking dish.  You should be able to hear the liquid bubbling a little when it’s done.

Note: Panko are Japanese-style bread crumbs, which are very flaky and crisp easily. They can be found in the Asian section of most supermarkets.  Pepin calls for fresh bread crumbs, made by putting sturdy white bread in a food processor.

Do you have any good gratin combinations or alterations to this recipe you’d like to share? Please comment.

How To Make Challah: this shiksa’s favorite bread

I married into a Jewish family and was quickly introduced to their traditional foods. Many of them are just not for me. Gefilte fish I can definitely live without. (I can’t understand why anyone would grind fish into a goopy mess.) Matzo will never be something I eat outside of Passover; I think you must grow up with it and feel connected to it to appreciate the severe blandness. Otherwise it’s just a heavy saltine without the salt. (A ‘tine?) No matter, though, as matzo is not about culinary creation – it’s about necessity, tradition, and remembrance.  That part I get.

Some traditional Jewish foods have become great pleasures that I crave, like latkes with sour cream, matzo ball soup, and golden loaves of Challah. In it’s long history, challah has been an important part of Sabbath and holiday meals but it is simply a fantastic bread, regardless of why you might chose to eat it.

Challah is an egg dough, sweetened with honey and rich with fat. It is similar to brioche but with the major difference that challah is made with oil, not butter, in order for it to be parve, or neutral according to the kosher law of keeping dairy and meat separate within meals.

My version is not strictly traditional – it’s sweeter than most and more dense – but a good Jewish boy marrying a Gentile girl from the South already did us in on that front. The honey gives the crust a deep golden hue, the eggs and oil give a satisfying texture, and the sesame seeds are fragrant when baked. The interior crumb makes a perfect sandwich bread with enough structure for slicing but still retaining some of the flaky pull-apart-ness of lighter, more traditional versions.  The flakiness is most apparent when toasted and buttered; you can pull the strands apart with your fingers. We pick apart slabs of challah toast for breakfast, often with raspberry jam.

This recipe makes a gigantic loaf of challah. You could easily divide the dough in sixths instead of thirds before braiding if you want two smaller loaves.  I prefer the huge slices from one big loaf and the ease of braiding once, not twice. Besides, my husband would kill me if I gave any away so there’s no need for two loaves in my house.

If your conscience allows, toasted slices of challah make outstanding B.L.T.’s with the honey’s sweetness playing off the smoky bacon. Sacreligious but heavenly.

If you manage to have any go stale, it also makes fantastic French toast.

A rich, tender egg dough sweetened with honey and formed into a golden braid. You can leave the sesame seeds out (or substitute poppy seeds), but they add great flavor when toasted.

1 (0.25 oz) packet active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp.)
1 cup warm water (110-120F)
1 tbs. sugar
2/3 cup canola oil
2/3 cup honey
3 eggs
2 tsp. kosher salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg white plus 1 Tbs. water, for egg wash
sesame seeds, for sprinkling, optional

In a small bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water. Let stand 10 minutes. It should become foamy, proving your yeast is alive.

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment: Beat together oil, honey, eggs, and salt. Add yeast mixture, mixing well. Add four cups of flour and beat until smooth. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Switch to the dough hook after 5 (total) cups of flour have been added. When the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl, knead on low speed 5 minutes.

Place dough on a floured surface. Knead lightly by hand to help dough pull together completely, using a little more flour if needed, until smooth and elastic.

Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Flip the dough so that the newly-upright side is lightly oiled from contact with the bowl. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place, 1 hour.  The dough will not double.

Punch down (deflate) dough on your floured surface. (Literally punch and hit the dough to release trapped air.) Divide into 3 equal pieces.   Lightly hand-roll the sections into long, thick strands, 12-13 inches long. Braid and tuck ends under. Place diagonally on a baking sheet (preferably one with a lip around the edge to catch seeds later) lined with parchment paper. Cover and let rise 1 hour.

Heat oven to 350F. Lightly beat together egg white and water. Brush loaf with the egg wash, then sprinkle generously with sesame seeds.

Bake 35-40 minutes or until golden brown. Bread is done with it sounds hollow when thumped or an instant-read thermometer reads 190-200F internal.