Photo by Alexa Speyer
(Originally posted on livejournal blog June 2011)
I have a fairly large collection of cookbooks, yet I rarely find myself referencing one to cook a meal. I use them more for inspiration. The photographs are usually so visually appealing that I strive to plate my food in the same appetizing fashion. I occasionally need to refer on the execution of a cooking technique or a term I am not familiar with. But for me, recipes slow me down and hold me back. Growing up, watching my mother cook, I don’t recall a cookbook coming out for reference. She cooked what she knew and experimented on her own. She always told me you had to love your food—hug and kiss it while preparing it, and never rush it. I guess it is like anything else in life—the result will equal the effort. That being said, not everyone is a great cook or had a culinary role model at their fingertips. I am certainly not a trained chef and I’m sure the experts would cringe at how I cut an onion or crack an egg. I just know that I enjoy it, it relaxes me and my friends and family seem to enjoy my food. I really can’t ask for more than that.
Because I don’t tend to cook with recipes, I am finding it challenging to write them. How can I just say drizzle this and sprinkle that with no amounts to guide you? A friend called me to ask how to make a salad she had at my house last summer. I had to be reminded which salad she was asking about, because I made it without thinking. Fortunately, my daughter took pictures of that salad; it was one of her favorite dishes I made last summer. I actually grew the tomatoes and basil and bought the rest of the vegetables at a local farm stand. There is nothing more refreshing in the summer than a lightly dressed salad with vegetables freshly picked. I find the best way to dress a salad is to drizzle the oil and vinegar right on the salad and then slowly add the herbs and seasoning. Keep mixing and tasting until the salad is lightly coated but not dripping in dressing. If you do it correctly, there should be no excess at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes I do need to make the dressing ahead, so not to be overwhelmed when my guests arrive. The requested salad is a combination of a true Greek salad and an Italian Panzanella salad. Greek salad has no lettuce, just tomatoes, onions cucumbers and chunks of feta cheese. The Panzanella salad is a bread salad. The combination works well together. Look for a light and airy Tuscan bread. I buy a large round one and cut off the crust. I cut them into 1-½ inch cubes and pan toast them with a little olive oil. You can make the toasted bread cubes the day before. If you are lucky enough to have fresh herbs on hand, dress the salad with the oil and vinegar then add the herbs and toss. I’ve added fresh basil, oregano, parsley, chives and dill. Sometimes I use only a few and other times I add a little of each. Do what pleases your taste buds. Just don’t forget the hugs and kisses!
Greek Panzanella salad
4 to 5 large tomatoes cut in thick slices
2 cucumbers cut in chunks or thick slices
1 small red onion thinly sliced
2 red, yellow or orange peppers cut in chunks
1 round Tuscan bread with crusts removed and cut into 1-1/2 cubes
1 pound slab of feta cheese
1-cup basil leaves
Heat a large skillet and coat with olive oil. Add the bread cubes, constantly turning as each side browns. This can be done a day ahead.
Cut up all the vegetables and put in a very large mixing bowl. Drizzle with oil and vinegar, tossing until coated. Add salt and pepper to taste, a teaspoon of sugar and 2 cloves of crushed garlic. Mix well. Add the basil and any other fresh herbs you like. I always add oregano, but sometimes add dill, chives or parsley as well. Break the feta into chunks and add to salad. Add the toasted bread cubes. Toss to coat. Transfer into a large salad bowl. There should be little or no excess dressing left in mixing bowl. If you would like to make the dressing ahead, I recommend to mix the fresh herbs in with the vegetables, not the dressing. If you only have dried herbs on hand you can add the herbs to the dressing. Below is a Greek salad dressing using dried herbs.
Greek Salad Dressing
1-cup olive oil
¼-cup red wine vinegar
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 tsp. sugar
2 cloves crushed garlic
Combine all ingredients and whisk well, shake in a cruet or emulsify in a blender. Drizzle over salad, mixing and tossing to coat. Do not overdress. You will not use all the dressing. Keep in the fridge for later use.