Thursday, February 23, 2012

Grilled Fig & Chicken Salad with Blue Cheese, Walnuts, and Honey-Tarragon Vinaigrette

One of my favorite things about making a meal is surprising my husband with something he hasn't always loved (beans, salad, etc) and making it awesome!  He recently declared that he was so glad that he married me and (thereby) discovered that beans are delicious.  Victory!  Last night I made a richly-spiced dish of cannellini+kidney bean and roasted bell pepper enchiladas with a guacamole side salad over spinach, garnished with homemade, baked tortilla strips... I didn't have time to snap a picture before we dove in, so I'll wait to post that one till next time when I have a photo.  But suffice it to say that the 100% vegetarian meal gained the hubs' approval.  Score.  Enough about beans...

All day today I was craving a salad.  (It's summer here in the southern hemisphere: prime salad-craving season).  But if I want to make a salad for dinner it's got to be one that will also satisfy the appetite of my fellow diner (the one who has a history of distaste for beans and salad).  I had bought some ripe figs on sale a couple of days ago, and they were just about past their prime.  So on the way home I grabbed some greens and a little block of blue cheese to whip up a dinner-worthy salad.  We barely brushed a little soy sauce over the split figs, coated some butterflied chicken breasts in a splash of soy and a squeeze of honey, threw those on the barbie (grill), and I whisked up a little vinaigrette with some things from our pantry and little balcony herb garden.  The resulting salad was just what I had in mind: fresh greens, grilled fruit and lean meat, creamy blue cheese and walnuts, finished with a peppery sweet tang.  And we both enjoyed it!
Southern Spoon Blog: grilled fig and chicken salad with blue cheese, walnuts, and honey-tarragon vinaigrette
grilled figs and chicken + blue cheese and walnuts
I don't prefer drowning salads in dressing, so the dressing amount made is just enough to splash a little flavor onto the greens.  If you'd like a more generous drizzle, increase the ingredients for the vinaigrette to 4 tablespoons rice bran or extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons honey, 4 teaspoons white vinegar, a generous squeeze of lemon or lime juice, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon (or other mild garden herb).

Whether it's warm or cold where you are, this salad will brighten things up and fill you up, too.

Grilled Fig & Chicken Salad with Blue Cheese, Walnuts, and Honey-Tarragon Vinaigrette
2 hearty main servings, or 4-5 first course servings

3 cups mild lettuce greens, washed and roughly torn (I used green oak lettuce)
1 cup fresh baby spinach, washed
5 fresh, ripe figs, rinsed and tops trimmed
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided (make sure it's gluten-free if cooking g-f)
2 tablespoons honey, divided
2 tablespoons rice bran oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
2 teaspoons white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice (about 1 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon (other mild, fresh herbs would work here, such as marjoram)
scant 1/4 cup coursely crumbled blue cheese
2-3 tablespoons coursely chopped walnuts
ground sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Fire up the barbeque to medium heat.  Combine the lettuce and spinach leaves, and divide evenly onto two large dinner plates (or four salad plates); set aside.

Split the figs in half lengthwise, and brush just a bit of the soy sauce over the outside and inside of the fruit; set aside. Butterfly the chicken breasts and slice all the way through to make four thin portions.  Toss the chicken with the remaining soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of honey.

Place the chicken on the grill and cook for about 8-12 minutes, flipping when necessary, until chicken is still tender but no longer pink in the center.  (I've given a big window of time here because cooking time will depend on your barbeque).  Watch closely at the beginning to ensure that you turn the chicken before it burns.  The soy and honey will brown a bit, which is fine.  Place the figs on the grill, flesh side down, and cook for about 2-3 minutes.  Flip over to the skin side and cook about 2-3 minutes longer, until soft and slightly browned.

While the chicken is cooking, combine the rice bran oil (or extra virgin olive oil), remaining one tablespoon honey, the vinegar, squeeze of lime or lemon juice, and the tarragon.  Season with just a little salt and a generous grinding of pepper.  Whisk thoroughly, and sprinkle evenly over the plated salad greens.  Sprinkle the walnuts and crumbled blue cheese evenly over the salads, and top each salad with a tiny pinch of salt and more ground pepper.

Remove the chicken and figs from the grill when done.  Slice the chicken across the grain into thin strips. Arrange the chicken strips across the center of each salad, then arrange the figs evenly around the edge of each salad.

Serve immediately with a warm baguette or fresh loaf of wholegrain bread.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Brown Sugar Pavlovas

Pavlova is an iconic Aussie dessert (the Kiwis claim it, too... an iconic antipodean dessert, perhaps).  A crisp meringue holds lightly whipped cream and fresh fruit.  Delicious.

The pavlova's eponymous Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, traveled to the antipodes in the 1920s and was honored by a local chef with this dessert, created to resemble her swirling skirts.  This sweet treat is an appropriate post for 2012 as the Australian Ballet celebrates its 50th anniversary!

In my first couple of weeks in Australia, I dined with friends at Bill's, the restaurant begun by Australia's first Master Chef winner, Bill Granger.  I had my first authentic pavlova for dessert (following an incredible meal of moroccan roasted lamb).  Rather than the traditional sweet whipped cream, Bill dollops his pavlovas with a lighter combination of whipped cream and plain yogurt.  The slightly tart filling contrasted with the sweet base and fruit is mouth-watering, and even my most ardent Aussie guests approve of this departure from tradition.  I also like to make pavlovas with a bit of brown sugar, which gives the meringue a slightly caramelized flavor.

A pavlova ('pav' to the locals) is the perfect ending to a BBQ, and a must for Australia Day in January.  Any combination of fresh fruit can be used, but my Aussie husband assures me that passion fruit is necessary.  You can make one large pavlova, but they bake more quickly and are an easier presentation when prepared as individual shells.  Don't be intimidated by all the mixing, just keep going until the egg whites are thick and glossy and stand in stiff peaks when you lift the beaters out.  The meringue shells can be stored in an airtight container for a week, making it an easy dessert to assemble last minute.  Try them now for a taste of Aussie summer, or break them out for your first BBQ when the weather turns warm in your hemisphere!

(picture to come... every time I make these they get eaten up immediately!)

Brown Sugar Pavlovas
makes 6 individual pavlovas

4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cornflour (cornstarch)
2/3 cups sugar (preferably caster sugar or superfine sugar)
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon white vinegar
3/4 cups whipping cream (or, if you're in a hurry, 1 cup of light whipped cream from a spray can!)
1 tablespoon powdered sugar, divided
1/2 cup non-fat plain yogurt or greek yogurt
2 cups chopped fresh fruit (such as strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, passion fruit, peaches)

Preheat oven to 350F/180C.  Cover a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper.

With an electric mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites, vanilla, and cornstarch in a large glass bowl until stiff peaks form.  Add the white sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating continuously.  Add the brown sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until the meringue is very thick and glossy.  Gently stir in the vinegar with a large spoon until incorporated.

Divide the meringue mixture into six equal portions on the parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Spread each portion into a shell about 4 inches in diameter, making an indentation in the center with the back of a spoon so that there are high ridges along the outer edges of each shell.

Place the meringues in the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 280F/140C.  Bake for one hour, until the outsides of the meringue shells are firm (they will be very slightly brown because of the brown sugar, but should not darken too much).  Leaving the meringues inside, turn off the oven.  Crack the oven door slightly and leave the pavlovas inside for about four hours, or until completely cooled.  When cooled, carefully peel the meringues off of the parchment paper.  Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to one week.

When ready to serve, prepare the toppings.  Sprinkle a half tablespoon of powdered sugar over the chopped fresh fruit and gently toss; set aside.  Whip the cream and the other half tablespoon of powdered sugar with an electric mixer for about 6-7 minutes, until it thickens.  (Or just spray about 1 cup of light whipped topping into a bowl... this is what I usually do!) Gently fold the yogurt into the whipped cream.

Top each meringue shell with a generous dollop of the whipped cream and yogurt mixture.  Arrange fruit on top of the cream, and serve with a spoon.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Light Pear Muffins

Most of the recipes I post on this blog are pretty healthy, but these delicious muffins are really healthy.  The only sources of fat and cholesterol are three egg whites and a half cup of skim milk (and a smidge from the ground flaxseed)... no oil, no butter, no yolks.  There's also no added sugar.  Rather, they're sweetened with pear/applesauce and honey.  And since the whipped egg whites are folded in during the last step, the texture is a bit lighter than usual.  These moist muffins make great breakfast or snack food, especially with a little low fat cream cheese spread on top.

Southern Spoon Blog: Light Pear Muffins
light pear muffins: moist, healthy, and pefectly spiced

This recipe is adapted from Tea & Cookies, originally from Sophie Dahl.  I made a few changes, including using half a cup of pear puree (one little baby food jar) and half a cup of smooth applesauce (I'll just use all applesauce next time), and drastically cutting the honey from the original 3/4 cup to just a 1/4 cup.  They are still plenty sweet for my taste.  I had enough batter for a dozen plus six mini muffins (baked the mini muffins for just about 11 minutes).  Make some soon, and keep a few in the freezer for a quick-fix snack (defrosting in the microwave at about 80% power for 1.5 minute intervals till warmed through).

Light Pear Muffins
makes a baker's dozen (or a dozen plus a few mini muffins)

3/4 cups plain flour
3/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
pinch of ground sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
dash of allspice
1/2 cup skim milk (or almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, etc for dairy-free)
1 cup pear puree or applesauce (or combination of both)
1/2 cup honey
3 egg whites
1 pear, peeled and cut into chunks (I saved 12 thin half-slices for the tops)
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 375F/190C, and line a 12-cup muffin tin with muffin liners or parchment paper (or a light spray of oil and dusting of flour).  You may have a bit of extra batter... line a few mini muffin cups or one cup in another muffin tray if necessary.

Thoroughly whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and make a well in the centre.  In a separate bowl (or a pyrex measuring cup), mix the milk, pear/applesauce, and honey.

Whisk the 3 egg whites in a medium sized bowl until they are slightly foamy.

Pour the milk/applesauce mixture into the dry ingredients and whisk just a few times until barely incorporated.  Add the chopped pear and raisins, stirring just a few times.  Fold in the egg whites only a few times, until just incorporated.

Spoon batter evenly into the muffin tin, topping each muffin with a thin sliver of pear, if desired.

Bake at 375F/190C for 23-25 minutes, until tops are just starting to turn golden brown and the top of a muffins springs back when touched.  Enjoy as they are, or split and spread with low fat cream cheese.