May 27 2010

Fast Food My Way: Cool Salads for Hot Days

I love to cook, but when I’m in a hurry cooking has to take a back seat. And I don’t love cooking on hot, sticky days. Busy and hot are on my plate this week. So when I was planning the week’s menu, I sought meals that would take me very little time to put together. Additional requirements? The meals had to fuel the engine for cycling on hot days, so they had to be delicious and filling, high in carbohydrates and fiber, and low in fat. Best of all would be dishes which could be made in bulk in advance, and eaten over several days. Bring in main course salads. Now, I’m not talking about the soggy mayonnaise-based salads of my youth. My standby main course salads are healthier than that. Sound good to you? Me, too. Let’s get cooking. This week’s menu include two salads. Each requires the same selection of vegetables, but the main ingredient in one is couscous, and the other salad’s main player is pasta. Here are the supporting characters in each salad:

  • • chopped baby zucchini
  • • chopped plum tomatoes
  • • chopped carrots
  • • chopped green pepper
  • • chopped celery (including leaves)
  • • chopped red onion
  • • thinly sliced green onions
  • • frozen corn kernels
  • • frozen baby lima beans
  • • salt and ground black pepper
  • • one finely chopped raw garlic clove

The ingredient list is flexible, and can be customized depending on your tastes and what’s on hand in your pantry. I prefer to cut the veggies into small dice or thin slices, but I’m not fussy about it. How many veggies do I use? Depends. This time I used one small zucchini, two tomatoes, two carrots, half a pepper, two stalks of celery, two green onions, a quarter red onion, and half a cup each of the frozen veggies. All told, the pile of prepped vegetables totaled about one quart.

While prepping the vegetables, I cook the couscous or the pasta. When I’m in a big hurry, I make couscous. Bring 1.5 cups of canned low sodium chicken broth to a boil. Use water if you don’t have broth, or use a different kind of broth if you want. When it’s boiling, I stir in one cup of instant couscous, cover the pot, and then remove it from the heat to reconstitute while I’m working on the veggies. In less than five minutes the couscous is ready to use. I turn it into a very large steel bowl, and use a fork to break up the couscous so it’s fluffy. Next, I stir in a couple-three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and squeeze a quarter of lime over the bowl, then fluff again to distribute the dressing. A pinch or two of kosher salt and a few grinds of the pepper mill season the couscous. Next, I stir in the vegetables. No need to cook the frozen corn and limas—they’re blanched before freezing, and they thaw in no time in the salad. When the salad is all stirred together, I taste for seasoning and adjust with additions of olive oil, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Now’s the time to cover the bowl and put it in the refrigerator to chill. I make the salad in the morning so it’s well cooled by dinnertime. As the salad chills, the flavors mingle and mature, so taste the salad again before serving, and add more seasoning if needed, but be careful not to use too much oil or the salad will be greasy. Watch the salt, too, because it would be easy to over-salt the salad. You can always add more, but you can’t remove it once you’ve sprinkled it on. Dinner’s served!

For the pasta salad, I used the same ingredients, but substituted a pound of medium pasta shells for the couscous. I boiled the shells in well-salted water till they were al dente, drained, and then poured the cooked pasta in a large steel bowl. I immediately stirred in the olive oil and lime juice, salt and pepper, so the hot pasta would absorb the flavors quickly. Then I stirred in the prepped vegetables and tasted for seasoning. After a bit more salt and pepper, I covered the pasta and put it in the refrigerator for the rest of the day. When the dinner hour arrived, I gave the salad another taste, added a bit more oil and lime juice, salt and pepper, and it was good to go.

There was plenty of each salad so I could store leftovers in quart-sized plastic containers with tight lids. I needed about 30-45 minutes to make the salads, but then could capitalize on the effort for the rest of the week with healthy, filling, delicious cold suppers and lunches which hit the spot on hot days.

Cool Salad

 
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