8 – Side Dishes

Hey folks, we’re going to enjoy a short, simple dish this week. I’m in the middle of prep for a two-week stretch of recipe development, hopefully my last big push in the kitchen before I focus on writing other parts of my next book!

I think there’s something unfairly simple about wedge salads. They’re a cinch to put together at home, but I often find myself ordering them at restaurants, despite the fact that I’m paying someone to simply chop a head of lettuce into quarters. This week’s recipe is the classic preparation of the dish, which is wonderful in its ease and approachability; for something a little more challenging, I encourage you to check out my Muffuletta Wedge Salad recipe from last year.

A little history on wedge salads, from The Ancestral Table:

Salads served wedge-style date back to the 1910s and reached peak popularity in the 1960s. Iceberg lettuce, the staple lettuce used in this dish, has slowly been replaced by leaf lettuces over the years, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for this crispy, blank-canvas lettuce; it stays fresher longer than leaf lettuces and pairs better with creamy dressings and heavier toppings, as in this recipe.

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One of my new favorite discoveries while developing recipes for my next cookbook is the versatility of green bananas.

I’m definitely comfortable cooking with plantains, both as a hearty side (see: Mofongo and Mangú) or as a complement to dishes like Jerk Chicken, Picadillo Cubano, and Ital Stew. As I started to dig a bit more deeply into Caribbean cuisines, I grew to appreciate the simplicity of just grabbing a few unripe bananas and giving them a quick boil – their texture is not unlike potatoes, but with a rib-sticking quality that is maybe a tiny bit more satisfying than your typical boiled spuds. They even do well in a cold salad, like this week’s recipe.

Guineitos en Escabeche (Pickled Green Bananas) is an excellent example of how you can take seemingly discordant ingredients – bananas, onion, garlic, olives, and vinegar – and come up with something that blends together pleasantly (and unexpectedly). Escabeche is a process of marinating food in a vinegar solution, most commonly used to preserve delicate fish in the Mediterranean and Latin America. For this dish, which is most associated with Puerto Rico, bananas take the center stage; try it as a side for your next summer cookout!

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Everyone needs a steady, foundational salsa recipe. One that is worlds better than the jarred stuff you find in the store, but also won’t take a million years to throw together. I like to think that my Simple Salsa Roja easily fits that requirement: unbelievably fresh just as you pull it off the heat, and even richer the following day.

Two elements make this salsa unique. First, I like to use one dried morita chile pepper to add a hint of smoked fruitiness. Next, I simmer the salsa with a couple tablespoon of lard, for a balanced bite and smoother mouthfeel.

Moritas sound exotic, but they are just smoked red jalapeños (also known as fresno chiles), much like chipotle peppers. The difference between morita and chipotle chiles is that moritas are smoked for less time, retaining a bit of fruitiness. To make things even more complicated, this pepper goes by several other names, like blackberry chile, chipotle colorado, mora chile, or black dash red chile. My advice: check out the dried pepper section of your local grocery store (or latin food market), and if you can’t find a morita or chipotle, pick them up online for relatively cheap. They are worth the extra bit of effort, and since only one pepper is needed for the recipe, one bag will last you a while.

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Mangú is a staple food of the Dominican Republic, and often served with breakfast. It is a signature element of los tres golpes (“the three hits”), served alongside fried eggs, fried cheese (specifically, a firm, salty cheese called queso para freir), and salami or longaniza (a dry-cured sausage not unlike chorizo).

There are two ideas as to the origin of Mangú. The first, and likely more accurate, story is that the dish and name are both byproducts of the Dominican slave trade. But there also exists a popular folk tale, in which this dish of mashed plantains was served to American soldiers during the American occupation of the country in the early 20th century, and that one of the dining soldiers exclaimed, “Man, good!”, and the rest is history.

Regardless of its etymology, there’s no denying that Mangú is an excellent way to start (or end) your day – it’s equal parts hearty starch and tropical comfort food – all topped with pickled red onions for a bit of extra zing.

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Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the last time I published a recipe that features corn, so I figured it was about time to share another.

We don’t eat corn often in our house – usually only popcorn on movie nights, and maybe corn tortillas or tamales when visiting our local Mexican restaurant, or sometimes a bowl of grits on cold mornings. Corn is not a particularly nutrient-dense food, but I think it’s a fine ingredient in the context of a nutrient-dense diet filled with all sorts of other good stuff – much like my take on eating rice.

As I develop recipes for cookbook #3, I’ve been experimenting with other corn dishes, and this Southern-style cornbread recipe is far and away my new favorite. First, I like to cook with the same stone-ground grits I use for making my own grits, so that I don’t have a million varieties of corn taking up space in my cupboard. I also love the heartiness, and slight grittiness, of grits-based cornbread – this is a far cry from the muffin-like cornbread you’ll find in the North.

But my favorite aspect of this skillet cornbread is its fleeting nature; right out of the oven, this cornbread is divine, but after an hour or so, its beauty wanes. This is the perfect dish to enjoy amongst friends, with big knobs of butter, and generous drizzles of honey.

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Potato pancakes are kind of a big deal in many homes, and everyone has their own method. There’s a lot of speculation as to what goes into making a good pancake, and my guess is that’s because it’s easy to mess up such a seemingly simple dish. Too many eggs and your pancakes are rubbery; too much flour or starch, and they’re too dense. Some insist on using cooked potatoes, while others insist you can’t.

Today’s recipe is my take on a middle-of-the-road potato pancake. It’s not tied to one specific culture, but takes cues from several approaches; mostly, I like the heft of Belorussian dranikis, but the crispiness of Jewish latkes.

Many recipes use wheat flour to ensure that the potatoes stick together, but I’ve found that my favorite approach is to re-employ the starch from peeled potatoes: dump them in a water bath and allow the starch to settle at the bottom, then pour off the water to use as a binder. This step takes an extra 10 minutes, but is well worth it in terms of reducing food waste (and saving money buying tons of potato starch).

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I’m probably not in the majority of Americans by saying this, but mayonnaise is my favorite dipping condiment. Yep, I would prefer to dip french fries in mayo over ketchup, barbecue sauce, or any of the various mustards available (although ketchup and mayo mixed together is pretty fantastic). True, if we’re looking at condiments wholesale, I probably use hot sauce the most often, but nothing really beats the texture and richness of mayonnaise atop a burger.

Like most folks, there was a stage in my life when I didn’t dig it. Heck, I think there was even a time when I preferred the tanginess of Miracle Whip, but those days are behind me. By the way, I recently learned that the reason that Miracle Whip is labeled as a “dressing” and not mayo is because the FDA requires mayo to be at least 65% vegetable oil by weight, and Miracle Whip apparently isn’t. Additionally, Miracle Whip was first introduced during the Great Depression as a cheaper alternative to mayo.

But enough about Miracle Whip, this is a mayonnaise recipe. No big surprises in my recipe this week, just a simple, essential condiment. While I’m not sure if this recipe will make it into my next cookbook, it’s a glaring omission on this site. My method has two tricks – first, I prefer to use egg yolks for a richer flavor, and secondly, I like to let the eggs come to room temperature to aid in the emulsification stage. You can use any number of tools – immersion blender, food processor, or even a blender on a low setting – but I prefer to use a whisk and elbow grease, because it really creates a sense of accomplishment when you whip it yourself.

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One of the more unexpected tasks that come with writing a cookbook is establishing a baseline for the reader. For example, presenting a simple (meat + rice) recipe isn’t as simple as throwing together (meat + rice), especially if you’re going to reference a similar rice preparation in other parts of the book. So a (meat + rice) recipe turns into two separate recipes – one for the meat, and another for the rice. Likewise, if you want any vegetables to accompany the dish, you need to decide whether to include the vegetables as part of that recipe, or create a standalone vegetable side. And since the rice recipe will likely call for broth, you need a broth recipe, too. The layers keep coming, until the book just grows and grows.

This concept isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it allows me to focus deliberately on each portion of the dish to make sure it gets the attention it deserves. So today I’m going to share with you a simple recipe for Spanish Rice, sometimes referred to as Yellow Rice (Arroz Amarillo), which I’ll use a few different times in my upcoming cookbook. This recipe uses a healthy two pinches of saffron for its distinct yellow color, a reflection of its Spanish roots and famous cousin, Paella. Some preparations use annatto (anchiote) seeds to give the rice its yellow color, and I have included instructions for both methods below. The saffron and annatto will each bring very subtle flavors to the rice: the saffron is floral and a little pungent, while the annatto is nutty with hints of nutmeg. If you own both saffron and annatto, feel free to use them at the same time.

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This week’s recipe is unique for a couple reasons. First, it is the result of collaboration with my new friends at American Kitchen Cookware, who sent me a set of their American-made cast aluminum cookware to test and share with you folks – be sure to keep scrolling for more info on their products, and a giveaway for a set of your own.

The second reason this recipe is unique is because it is actually two dishes in one. Both the Boneless Fried Chicken and Carolina Shrimp Bog would be excellent on their own, but a) I wanted to highlight two distinct pieces of cookware, and b) I was drawn to the challenge of writing you through the process of building two dishes at once. Crafting a single recipe is relatively easy, but balancing multiple dishes to create one whole meal is more reflective of how most of us spend time in the kitchen; I hope this week’s recipe will give you some insight into how I tackle multiple tasks simultaneously.

When it comes to frying chicken, I’ve made a few breakthroughs over the years, and this Boneless Fried Chicken is like a culmination of those efforts. To start, we’re going to use the seasoning I developed in last year’s Seasoned Southern Fried Chicken recipe, which has a flavor not unlike what you’d find from Colonel Sander’s secret 11 herbs and spices. Next, we’re going to use boneless thighs to speed up the cooking process. Finally, we’re going to use a traditional 3-step breading for the chicken, but with potato starch, eggs, and crushed pork rinds for the different coatings – a technique I use in my Tonkatsu/Chicken Katsu recipes in Paleo Takeout – which gives the chicken a crispy crust and unforgettable bite.

Joining the chicken is Shrimp Bog, a simple, thick Southern stew of rice, veggies, and (you guessed it) shrimp. While “Bog” isn’t the most appealing word to describe food, it is a little fitting, since this dish is a more liquidy version of another Carolina staple, Perloo (which is sometimes spelled Purloo, Perlo, Poilu, or Pilau – the latter definitely linked to its Pilaf origins). In the Carolinas, these two dishes were traditionally made with Carolina-grown rice, which fell out of favor as other Southern rices dominated our grocery shelves over the past couple centuries. Recently, Carolina Gold heirloom rice has been making a bit of a comeback among foodies and historians (here is an excellent writeup), and for good reason – the rice is creamy and nutty in a way that’s seldom found in long-grain rices – well worth the extra expense to try it once, if only to experience a bit of American history.

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The other day, as I was experimenting with pressure-cooked rice to enjoy with my recent Simple Saag recipe, I thought it was long overdue to discuss the merits of white rice in my diet. I usually mention this every year or two, and I’ve touched on it in each of my books, but it’s always good to open up the discussion from time to time.

The use of rice on a Paleo-friendly website might seem counterintuitive, since most Paleo resources suggest avoiding grains. The reasoning is typically that grains are relative newcomers to humankind’s three-million-year history, since agriculture didn’t spread until the start of the Neolithic era, some 12,000 years ago. But historians estimate that the progenitor of rice existed over 130 million years ago (you know, about 127 million years before humans appeared). It’s so old that similar strains were found in both Africa and Asia, indicating that it was around before the continents first shifted to where they are today.

There is evidence that wild rice was eaten by prehistoric peoples when available, and it was first domesticated around 13,000 years ago, before the end of the Paleolithic era and a couple thousand years before wheat was domesticated. So it’s been around for a long time, much longer that many other foods on our dinner plates – like tomatoes, which were exclusive to South America until about 600 years ago, and cultivated in the Andes only for about 1,000 years prior to that. I’m not picking on tomatoes, because they’re delicious, but you get my point: worldwide, they’ve had 1/12 the culinary lifespan of rice.

Another reason to avoid grains is the fact that many contain low-grade toxins and antinutrients, which can be disruptive to the digestive system. White rice has the lowest toxicity of all the cereal grains, and most of its toxins exist in the bran found in brown rice. A common concern is that grains contain phytic acid, which binds to dietary minerals like zinc and iron, causing them to be less digestible and potentially leading to micronutrient deficiencies. While brown rice carries a significant amount of phytic acid (about the same amount as whole wheat bread), white rice is much lower; in fact, it has less phytic acid than many foods approved by common Paleo diet standards, such as coconut, avocados, walnuts, almonds, and spinach. Finally, the majority of toxins that remain in white rice are destroyed in the cooking process. For this reason, I prefer white rice over brown rice (and it tastes better, too). I like to think of it this way: consider that rice has a reputation among many traditional cultures as being a safe food for digestion, and it is often given to children and the infirm as a way to provide safe, digestible calories. Rice is not nutrient dense, so it’s a good idea to cook it in broth and eat it as part of a nutrient-packed meal; we often top our rice with furikake, a Japanese rice seasoning made from seaweed.

Glycemic load is also a concern when eating rice, and I think my friend Paul Jaminet summed it up perfectly several years ago, here. To paraphrase, the GI of white rice is tempered by a number of factors, including its type (basmati is better than average), cooking method (boiling is best), and the presence of other foods which contain dairy (butter!), fat (meat!), fiber (veggies!), or acids (wine! fermented veggies!). So while the glycemic index on paper looks scary, rice is rarely eaten in a vacuum, but as part of a complete meal.

Last sticking point: it’s true that like other plant-based foods, rice absorbs inorganic arsenic, and there are some pretty frightening reports about the arsenic content found in rice products. First, it’s important to note that the vast majority of rice products with high arsenic content come from brown rice, not white rice. Moreover, the source of your rice is also critical; for example, most rice grown in the US is from Texas, Arkansas, or Louisiana, typically on former cotton fields. Those fields contain high levels of arsenic in their soil, as a result of using pesticides to combat boll weevils, and these rices absorb that arsenic. Alternatively, rice grown in California, East Asia, and South Asia generally contain less arsenic than rice grown in the Southern US. The type of rice also influences its arsenic content, with basmati rice containing the lowest amount of arsenic. While the effects of inorganic arsenic is often disputed, to play it safe, we stick to white rice grown in California or Asia (or Europe, if buying risotto or paella rice).

Okay, I hope I’ve made my point, that white rice isn’t some predatory frankenfood that should be avoided at all costs. So let me leave you with one last example: most people would agree that a meal of sautéed chicken, steamed broccoli, and a bit of olive oil is technically “healthy” meal (albeit one that would have me craving pizza afterwards). So how would that meal compare to the flavor, satisfaction, and nutrients found in this Seafood and Sausage Paella, made with broth, seafood, a bunch of veggies, and 1 1/2 cups of white rice spread among six servings? Case closed. Let’s make some rice.

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