Sunday, May 29, 2016

Recipes of the Month: Mixed Salad, Creamed Cauliflower and Baby Bella Mushroom Soup

A week or so ago, I noticed that we were coming up on the end of May and we still hadn't prepared a new fruit or vegetable Recipe of the Month. It was kind of a pity, because we'd actually tried several new recipes in April that would have fit the bill. Savory magazine, a freebie we get at the Stop & Shop, had several good ones in its Passover issue, including a delicious rhubarb and strawberry compote we brought as a dessert to my parents' Seder and a roasted cauliflower kugel that we tried as a lighter alternative to potato kugel (though it wasn't as good as Brian's Skillet Kugel by a long shot). But I reluctantly concluded it would be cheating to count either of these as the Recipe of the Month for May when we'd actually made them in April, so I went rummaging through our recipe files looking for something new to try.

Eventually, I selected two recipes we'd pulled out of Cooking Light, back when we used to have a subscription to it, and never got around to making. The first was just a simple mixed greens salad with honey-orange dressing, and while that is certainly a vegetable dish, it seemed kind of like cheating to call it a new vegetable "recipe." All we really did to prepare the salad itself was just pull some fresh greens out of the garden and throw them in a bowl, which we've done many times before. (Speaking of the garden, by the way, our lettuce is doing incredibly well this year. Partly, I guess, the varieties we selected were just good growers, but I think a lot of the credit is due to our "carpet seeding" technique, which packs the little lettuces so tightly together in the bed that there's absolutely no room for weeds. True, the heads are so crowded together that they don't have much room to grow, but that's okay—we just keep thinning the patch throughout the season, pulling out a few of the plants, letting the remaining ones get a little bigger, and then pulling some more. So we can expect to have lettuce all spring and into the summer, until it starts to bolt—which, in the heat we're having now, might not take long.)

But I digress. I was going to say that the only thing that was really new about the salad was the dressing, a fat-free blend of orange juice, white wine vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and minced shallots. (The recipe called for 2 teaspoons of minced fresh shallots, but we substituted a smaller volume of dried shallots from Penzey's, which we'd picked up some time ago and needed to use up anyway.) We tossed this with a mixture of this year's bibb-type lettuce, arugula, and some winter lettuce that showed up unexpectedly from last year's planting. Then, since there was a bit of the dressing left, I finished it the next day over a salad of mixed lettuce topped with diced avocado. And it was pretty good, but not extraordinary—certainly not as good as our go-to dressing, Mark Bittman's honey-garlic balsamic vinaigrette from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I might consider trying it again, but I think I'd definitely want to cut down on the mustard, which got a little overpowering toward the bottom of the bowl.

The second recipe I pulled from the file was a creamed cauliflower with herbed crumb topping. This called for fresh bread crumbs made from sourdough bread, which we didn't have on hand, so Brian substituted panko, which we'd picked up a can of on sale last month. We also substituted skim milk for 2 percent, making up for it by using a little more butter to cook the cauliflower, and grated Parmesan from a can for the fancier Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese that the recipe called for. So maybe these substitutions were partly to blame, but I found the result underwhelming. It certainly looked impressive, and it didn't taste bad by any means; it just wasn't really delicious enough to justify the amount of work that went into it. With nothing in it but veggies, white sauce, and crumbs on top, it's really not substantial enough to make a meal of all by itself, and it seems like an unreasonable amount of trouble to take for a mere side dish. If we're going to go to the trouble of cooking a cauliflower and mashing it to put in a casserole, I'd rather use it in our baked macaroni and cheese recipe, found on Parent Hacks, which is substantial enough to serve as a main dish. Or perhaps we could combine the two, dressing up the mac-and-cheese recipe a little by throwing in the leek, parsley, and thyme found in the creamed cauliflower dish, and have something that was both savory and substantial.

Now, as it turned out, I needn't actually have gone to the trouble of scrounging up a recipe for May, because Brian ended up inventing a new one a few days ago. On our last trip to Aldi, we'd picked up a whole bunch of "baby bella" mushrooms (otherwise known as cremini) on sale for a mere $2 a pound, and we still had some of them that needed to be used up soon, so Brian just sliced them up and started experimenting. The result is a vegan soup that's surprisingly hearty, which I'm calling
BRIAN'S BABY BELLA SOUP
Saute 1 chopped leek in 1 Tbsp. olive oil until it starts to brown.
Add 3 cloves minced garlic and saute another minute.
Add 12 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms and saute until they begin to release their moisture.
Add 1/2 Tbsp. of vegetable soup base (we like Penzey's version) dissolved in 4 c. water, and bring to a boil. Simmer 10-15 minutes.
Add about 4 oz. chopped arugula, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme.
Simmer another 5-10 minutes, then add 1/2 c. coconut cream.
Slowly stir in 2 Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbsp. water, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened slightly.
Turn off heat and let the soup cool for 5-10 minutes.
I added that last instruction about letting the soup cool because it was tongue-burningly hot when we dished it up, but once it was cool enough to eat safely it was quite good. Brian was actually a bit disappointed with it, thinking that there was something in the mix of flavors that struck a discordant note, but I found it very rich and flavorful. I admit, I'd probably enjoy it more on a cold winter night than a sultry evening in May, but I would be quite happy to eat it again once the cold weather sets in. (That's assuming, of course, that we could find another good deal on baby bella mushrooms, since they're normally quite expensive).

So, of the three new veggie recipes we tried this month, none was an unqualified hit with both of us, but all three were edible. Brian thinks the soup may be worth trying again with a bit of tinkering, perhaps substituting spinach for the arugula or cream for the coconut cream. Without quite so many other flavors competing for attention, perhaps the taste of the mushrooms can come out more and play a starring role.
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