BLT Salad with Avocado and Grilled Croutons

BLT salad view

Bacon-ends: contemplate that. I spied a bag of bacon ends at the farmers market and had to examine. The bag was hefty, lumpy, and thick with triangular hunks of bacon mounded in vacuum packed togetherness. Bacon indeed, but not the typical neatly fanned skinny slices. You see, when those tidy OCD sliced packages are created, all irregular knobs and ends are discarded in order to produce supermarket packaged perfection. I am here to tell you that you want those ends. They are veritable chunks of heaven for bacon lovers, evoking food craving delirium. Of course I bought them.

BLT saladBLT Salad with Bacon Ends, Avocado and Croutons
Serves 4 as a main course salad

1 1/2 to 2 pounds bacon ends, excess fat trimmed, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups coarsely torn bite-size pieces of levain or ciabbata bread
Salt

Dressing:
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salad:
1 large head red leaf lettuce, leaves washed and torn into bite-size pieces
4 small vine ripened tomatoes, cut into wedges
Corn kernels cut from one ear of corn
1 large hass avocado, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

1. Prepare the grill for indirect medium heat (about 400°F for a gas grill). Trim any excess fat from the bacon ends. Cut the ends into 1-inch chunks and arrange  on a grill rack (or grate) set over a grill pan to capture the rendered fat. Grill until the fat is rendered and the ends are crispy golden, about 25 minutes. (You can do this in the oven with a broiler pan, if you like.) Transfer the ends to a plate.
2. Toss the bread in the rendered fat and lightly season with salt. Spread the bread on a grill pan or the grates and grill until golden and crisp, turning as needed. Set aside.
3. Make the dressing: Whisk the vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Add the oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly to emulsify.
4. Place the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Add half of the dressing and toss to coat. Scatter the bacon and croutons over the salad and drizzle with additional dressing to taste. Serve immediately.

Father’s Day Grilling: Spice Rubbed Baby Back Ribs

ribs bbq tastefood

Posted by Lynda Balslev

Next week is summer solstice. For those of you who know me and this blog, Midsummer is a big celebration for our family. Each year we throw a Danish-inspired party at the beach to celebrate the longest day of the year. You can read in great detail about our celebration in this feature I wrote for the June issue of Marin Magazine. This year, however, we are changing gears a bit and heading to the beach a week earlier where we will celebrate Father’s Day. Like the solstice, you can be sure that grilling and a bonfire will be the main attraction – worthy of any Viking (and Dad).

On the menu? Grilled baby back pork ribs, thank you very much. They are a hands-down favorite, coated with a sweet and spicy rub that permeates the meat with flavor and heat while cooking long and slow in an oven or on the grill. They are perfect for beach toting, as the ribs can be prepped and cooked early, then transported and thrown on the grill just before eating to caramelize and crisp.

Spice rub

Dry Spice Rubbed Baby Back Pork Ribs

These ribs are great as is, with a crispy coating and succulent meat. If you like your ribs more wet, baste with your favorite sauce  just before removing from the grill and serve with additional sauce on the side. Serves 6 to 8.

For the rub:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cayenne (or to taste)

3 racks baby back pork ribs

1. Preheat the oven to 200° F. Combine all of the rub ingredients together in a bowl and mix well.
2. Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel. Arrange in one layer on 2 rimmed baking sheets. Rub the spices all over the ribs on both sides, coating well. Bake in the oven for 3 hours.
3. Prepare a grill for direct medium heat. Grill ribs on a rack over direct heat, turning, until the meat darkens and crisps, 10 to 12 minutes.

Crispy Prosciutto

Crispy Parma tastefood

Do you like crispy bacon? Then try making crispy prosciutto. Oven baking slices of prosciutto (or any other dry cured ham) transforms supple ham slices into crunchy shards ready for munching or crumbling over salads, soups, pastas and vegetables. Baking dehydrates the meat, concentrating its flavor and intensifying its saltiness while cooking off excess fat. The resulting wizened slivers of dried pork add a punch of flavor to almost anything and taste great as simple finger food. I call these salty snippets crack-croutons because they are highly addictive and intensely flavorful. 

Crispy Parma Slices Lynda Balslev

Oven baking is a great way to use up any leftover parma, coppa or prosciutto in your fridge – if you’re lucky enough to have leftovers. If not, the method is so easy and quick it justifies shopping for a whole package to open and pop into the oven. And you don’t have to spring for the expensive stuff – any thinly sliced dry cured ham will do. I often use German prosciutto from Trader Joe’s that’s half the price of the Italian equivalent. 

crispy parma cru Lynda Balslev

To crisp the ham, arrange the slices in one layer, without overlapping, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in a 350°F oven for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and let the ham stay in the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove and cool, then break into shards. The crispy ham will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to one week – but I promise it will be long gone by then.

Five ways to use crispy prosciutto:
1. Scatter over mixed salads.
2. Sprinkle over creamy soups and chowders.
3. Garnish eggs and frittatas.
4. Crumble the shards and use to season cooked vegetables.
4. Add to cheesy pasta dishes and homemade pizzas before serving.

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

Here is an in-your-face stew, which says to the cold winter season: Bring it on. Nothing is bashful about this stew. Fortified with wine and spirits, perfumed with rosemary and juniper, this is a hearty slow-cooked wonder and a perfect vehicle for pork. The key ingredient, of course, is the Armagnac, a French brandy derived from grapes, in which inky prunes macerate, before the whole lot is dumped into the stock. Just be sure to pour yourself a little to enjoy before and after this rich and warming meal.

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

Serves 6

20 prunes, pitted
3/4 cup Armagnac brandy
3 pounds pork shoulder, excess fat trimmed, meat cut into 2-inch chunks
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces bacon, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bottle full-bodied red wine
2 bay leaves
1 bouquet garni: 4 juniper berries, 3 rosemary sprigs, 2 thyme sprigs, and a handful of parsley leaves wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with a kitchen string

1. Combine the prunes and Armagnac in a bowl and let stand at least 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
3. Season the pork on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or oven-proof pot with a lid. Add the pork in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining pork.
4. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon pork fat from the pan. Add the bacon and sauté until its fat renders. Add the carrots and onion and sauté until the onions soften and the carrots are crisp tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Return the pork and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the prunes and Armagnac, the wine, bay leaves, bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and transfer to the oven. Cook until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
5. Remove the stew from the oven, discard the bay leaves and bouquet garni, and taste for seasoning. Serve warm with mashed potatoes or polenta.
(The stew may be prepared up to two days in advance. Warm over low heat or in a 300 F. oven before serving.) 

Skillet Dinners: Spicy Sausage, Mustard Greens and Cauliflower

sausage greens tastefood

~ a farmers’ market bounty in a skillet ~

Last week I came home from the farmers’ market with an armful of mustard. I shop with my eyes and couldn’t resist the bunches of mizuna mustard leaves – frizzy purple, spiky red, scalloped green – not to mention their sunny flowers strung together in tidy bouquets. Since then, they’ve made themselves at home in my fridge, while I’ve reached for pinches and handfuls at each meal, tossing in salads, sprinkling as garnish. Yesterday was our last hurrah. I up-ended the remaining mustard into this quick one-dish skillet dinner, along with my other market acquisitions: spicy Italian sausages, violet-tinged baby cauliflower, orange cherry tomatoes and a few handfuls of curly kale for good measure.

Spicy Sausage, Mustard Greens and Cauliflower in a Skillet
Serves 4

Extra-virgin olive oil, divided
12 ounces Italian sausages, sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 cups cauliflower florets, any color works
Salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 generous bunches mustard greens and/or kale, tough stems removed
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage in one layer and cook until golden brown on both sides, turning once. With a slotted spoon transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. If the skillet is dry, add 1 more tablespoon oil. Add the cauliflower and a sprinkle of salt; sauté until crisp tender, about 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the greens, 1/2 teaspoon salt, cumin, paprika and black pepper. Saute until the greens are tender and bright in color, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sausage. Cover partially, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Serve warm with couscous or farro.

Sizzling Fourth of July Grill Menu

We are wilting under the shroud of a spectacular heat wave here in the Bay area. Stifled by the temperature, nothing is moving – even the leaves are too warm to rustle. It’s so hot right now, it’s impossible to cook. In fact it’s so hot right now, it’s impossible to even write about cooking. So, let me treat you to a photo round up of a sensational summer grill menu in preparation for the fourth of July. Keep cool.

Blackberry Spritzer tfBlackberry Spritzer and Mojitos

gazpachBeat the Heat Chunky Gazpacho

fattoush salad tastefoodFattoush Salad

ribsSummer Solstice BBQ Baby Back Ribs

marinated chicken skewers tfGrilled Chicken Skewers with Sriracha Marinade

quinoa kale slaw tfRed Quinoa and Kale Slaw

apricot bruleeCaramelized Apricots on the Grill with Yogurt and Honey

Chipotle Pork Carnitas

Pork Carnitas TasteFood~ Chipotle Beer Braised Pork Carnitas ~

Carnitas are perfect weekend food. Festive and fun to eat, they are great for a casual party or a large family gathering. Begin the meat early in the day so that it will slow cook in the oven while you go about your daily business. As the meat breaks down, it will be infused by the beer and chipotle braising liquid until it’s falling apart tender at the bone. A little shredding and a final turn in the oven with the reduced sauce turns out smoky, spicy, caramelized pork, ready to pile on tortillas with salsa and guacamole. If you have any leftovers, the meat may be used in sandwiches or loaded on homemade nachos the next day.

Chipotle Beer Braised Pork Carnitas

Serves 8

2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (4 pound) bone-in pork shoulder
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 cup Mexican beer
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Accompaniments:
Warm flour or corn tortillas
Guacamole
Salsa
Fresh cilantro
Sliced green onions

Heat oven to 300 F. Mix the cumin, paprika, sugar salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spices all over the meat. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a dutch oven. Brown the pork on all sides. Remove the pork. Add onion, garlic, beer, orange juice, chipotles, lime juice and brown sugar to the dutch oven. Bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits, then reduce heat to a simmer. Return the pork to the pot. Cover and transfer to oven. Cook until pork is very tender, about 3 to 4 hours, turning every hour or so.

Remove pork from the braising liquid and transfer to a cutting board to cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, shred the meat. Place the meat in a baking dish. Strain the braising sauce into a saucepan. Boil until reduced to a sauce consistency. Drizzle over the shredded pork. Transfer the pork to oven and broil until the meat begins to caramelize, 3 to 5 minutes.

To serve, spoon some of the pork in the center of a tortilla. Top with guacamole, salsa, fresh cilantro and scallions. Roll up and eat.