8 – Side Dishes

As we enter into November, I have exciting news – I’m just about done with developing and photographing recipes for my next cookbook! I’ve been at it for nearly two years straight – researching, testing, and retesting. I’m looking forward to moving to the next stage of the book-writing process, as I organize the contents, design the layout, and edit the manuscript. To be honest, editing is my favorite part of writing books; I like making small, incremental tweaks to refine my voice, and perfectly lining up every little element of the narrative.

So in celebration of moving on to the next (and arguably the most complicated) stage of the process, let’s enjoy this simple Greek stewed okra recipe. These okra fall into the lathera (λαδερά), or oil-based, dishes commonly found among Greek home chefs – simple to prepare, but packed with flavor. This dish works well as a hearty side, but really shines during Lent or other fasts, since it is remarkably filling thanks to its generous helping of olive oil.

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Every once in awhile, I get a big craving for beets. The craving doesn’t hit me often, but when it does, I typically turn to my Vinegret (винегрет) recipe from The Ancestral Table. So without further ado, here is the text from the book:

Vinegret is the name of a Russian salad that is likely not of Russian origin, but rather borrowed from German or Scandinavian cuisine. In traditional Russian cuisine, salads were pretty rare. Vinegret is often cited as the first Russian salad, first mentioned in the 19th century.

Another Russian favorite is Olivier salad, which has a much more interesting history. It was invented by Lucien Olivier, a Belgian chef working in Moscow in the 1860s. The original recipe was a closely held secret and was never truly duplicated. Documents reveal that the salad likely included caviar, crawfish tails, aspic, and veal tongue. Over the years, these rare ingredients were replaced by common ones. Instructions for making Olivier Salad are also found below, as the method is similar.

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Salad Shirazi is a herb and vegetable salad from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. It’s enjoyed year-round as a side dish, but is often served as a full meal during the hot summer months. While the vegetables are often diced – giving them an appearance not unlike Pico de Gallo – I have found that using larger chunks give each ingredient a bit more distinction, and results in a livelier eating experience.

There isn’t much to this recipe; theoretically, you could just throw all of the ingredients together and chow down. But I prefer to soak the onions in cold water first, which removes some astringency, and to salt the tomatoes and cucumbers to leech out a bit of their juice. That way, most of the salad’s moisture comes from more flavorful sources, like olive oil and lime juice.

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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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