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Summery Balsamic Quinoa Salad

16 Feb

See this?

Stick a fork in winter and call it done, y’all. I am ready for summer. Bring on sunshine and short sleeves and flip-flops and days at the pool, and bring on some fresh summer produce!

Sadly, I have little to no pull with Mother Nature, so I’m making do with recipes that make the most of summer-ish fruits and veggies I can find in my supermarket in February. They’re not as tasty as their summer siblings, but give me a little burst of July when stirred into dishes with the right flavors. Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese are some of the ingredients that make not-so-spectacular produce pop a bit more, and I broke them out this morning to make something new for lunch.

Quinoa salads aren’t unique–they’re everywhere. What I don’t get, though, is why most of them call for cooking your quinoa (you know quinoa, yes? Cook it like rice and enjoy its perfect protein?) in one pot and your veggies and aromatics in another. Dudes, quinoa is just like rice–it’ll suck up whatever flavors you cook it in. And softening onion and garlic on the stove makes for some darn tasty bits on the bottom of your pot. Why not stir the quinoa grains right in there and make the most of them?

This recipe came out of the space between my ears. It’s not Julia Child–go ahead and mess with it. I added pine nuts for crunch, but it’s just as good without them. Throw in mushrooms or chicken or shrimp or tofu to make this a substantial entree. Ease up on the cheese. Whatever makes you happy. Quinoa, just like rice, is very forgiving. Play around without fear.

This made a big bowl o’ salad that’s happily resting in my fridge. I have lunch for a few days here. And every day. it’s going to be like pulling out a little bit of summer, which sounds really good right now. Want some? You need:

1 cup quinoa, rinsed well (I find it at Target now–check your market near the grains or in the health/organic aisle)

1/2 a yellow onion, diced finely

1 clove of garlic, diced finely

1 tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 cups broth–I used chicken but veggie would work


About 1/2 cup of grape tomatoes, halved

About 1/3 of an English cucumber, diced (These come in plastic wrap–the skins are thinner than regular cukes)

1/2 cup pine nuts (leave out if you want–no harm, no foul)

About 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

A handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

About another tablespoon olive oil

About 2 tbsp Balsamic vinegar

In a medium saucepan, heat your olive oil over a medium flame and then stir in your onion. Cook that until it softens up, and then stir in your garlic. Immediately stir in your quinoa grains and stir them around for a minute to let them toast a little bit. Then stir in your broth, stick a lid on the pot, and let it cook for about a half-hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the liquid is absorbed and you see little rings around the outside of your quinoa grains. Take it off the flame and let it cool to room temperature.

(note: this is a great thing to do while you’re making dinner at night. You’re going to refrigerate this anyway, so make it the night before when you have time–it’s just one more pot to clean)

Once the quinoa has cooled, stir in the tomato, cucumber, pine nuts, Parmesan, basil and olive oil and Balsamic. Stir it up, pop it in the fridge, and look forward to a summer lunch!

Use ‘Em Up Tomatoes au Gratin

30 Aug

We were supposed to go to a party on Saturday–a baby shower for my husband’s cousin who is very happily expecting. Baby showers make me happy, and I gleefully shopped for the perfect gift and then the perfect dish to contribute to the event. It was to be my tomato-cucumber salad, as produce is at its amazing height where I live and I have a big mess o’ basil growing in a box on my deck.

Mother nature apparently shares not my love of showers. While I was wrapping up a little something to welcome the new person to the world, she was wrapping up a hurricane. And then she flung it right up the east coast to my house. When Saturday morning arrived, I sadly put my perfect outfit back on its hanger, called the party-giver to offer my regrets, and stowed my basil and other herbs in the garage to wait it out with our lawn furniture, toys, and random bits of outside life we didn’t want blown away.

That, my dear friends, left me with a mess of tomatoes to use up. And what do we do when we have veggies and need a little pick-me-up?

We toss carbs on top. Carbs and olive oil and garlic, and we toast it up under the broiler to make the most amazing, simple side dish (my lunch today, but who’s really counting?) you can imagine. Your house will smell like Italy and your mouth will be delighted.

This is so good that I’m going to stop rambling on and tell you how to make it, and then you should, right now, while the little red fruits are still at their peak. Go on. You need:

Tomatoes, cut into quarter-inch slices

Italian-style bread crumbs–I used about a third of a cup

Garlic powder–I used about a teaspoon

Grated Parmesan cheese–I used about two tablespoons.

Olive oil


Pre-heat your broiler, to low if you have a choice. Spray a small casserole dish with olive oil or nonstick spray. Layer your tomatoes in the dish, in a single layer as much as possible, overlapping where necessary. Sprinkle them with a touch of salt and a drizzle of oil.

In a small bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, cheese, and garlic powder. Lay that mixture on top of your tomatoes until they’re just peeking out. Drizzle a bit more olive oil on top and put the dish under the broiler until the crumbs are brown and toasty. Enjoy.

(My amounts are inexact–it depends on your dish size and the number of tomatoes you use. But this is a perfect playing recipe–you can’t possibly mess it up. Guesstimate, adjust, and have at it.)


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Barbecue Chicken Chopped Salad

24 Aug

A couple of you asked me to explain this salad yesterday when I mentioned it in a post about roasting canned or frozen corn to freshen it up. Your wish is my command, loves.

First up, I’ll admit–that photo above isn’t mine. That’s the chopped barbecue salad at Panera Bread, which inspired me to roast some corn in the first place. I took a photo of my salad yesterday, but the chicken didn’t look so much like chicken (we’ve established that I am not a photographer) and that didn’t seem right.

On to the good stuff. This works equally well with pulled chicken already mixed with barbecue sauce, or plain sliced chicken (poached, roasted, or rotisserie) onto which you pour a little BBQ. I’ve seen it done both ways. I prefer pulled only because I am a barbecue sauce fiend and enjoy a lot of it on my greens, but you do what makes you happy.

My only solid recommendation for this salad is that you stick with romaine lettuce. It’s crunchy and crisp and mild, so it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the salad. You can still taste everything else. I’ve tried other lettuces and they’re either too watery (iceberg), too limp (butter) or too strong in flavor (everything else).

This is a layered salad. I usually layer all the ingredients except the chicken and dressing in a big bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and keep it in the fridge for a few days, scooping out what I want at any moment, adding chicken and dressing to that, and returning the rest of the naked greens and veggies to the icebox for the next day.

Be creative with this. If you don’t like beans, leave them out or change them up. Ditto for cheese, onion, or anything else. This is a very flexible plan for a yummy salad. My only other bit of advice is to go easy on the dressing–you really just want a drizzle to perk up the barbecue sauce a bit. Too much, and your sauce will be overwhelmed and the whole thing will taste a bit off.

So. On with the party! In a big bowl, layer all or some of the following according to your taste:

Romaine lettuce

Corn kernels (roasted as we chatted about yesterday, or plain)

Black or pinto beans, rinsed well and drained

Tomato, either cherry/grape or big and chopped

Onion. I prefer red and chopped small, but caramelized sweet onion is also delicious.

Cucumber, peeled and chopped.

Cheddar cheese or queso fresco

All of the above will store in the fridge for several days. When you’re ready to eat some, scoop it into a bowl and add:

Chopped avocado

A drizzle of ranch dressing

Pulled chicken (or rotisserie/roasted/poached chicken with bbq sauce on top)


Mix together and enjoy!


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!


Trick Your Canned or Frozen Corn

23 Aug

Once or twice a month, you’ll find my family at our favorite restaurant, enjoying fajitas, burritos, and, for me, a yummy barbecue chicken chopped salad. I’m not a huge salad lover, truth be told, but the combination of barbecued chicken and fresh greens and veggies is among my favorite meals.

We took the kids to the beach last weekend and, sandy and exhausted, stopped at a Panera for dinner on our way home. They have a barbecue chicken chopped salad on the menu, and having stuffed myself with fried yumminess and caramel popcorn earlier in the day, I ordered it–fresh and light sounded wonderful. This salad lacked the chopped avocado of my favorite, but kicked its butt in the flavor department. It took me a minute, but I figured out the difference.

Roasted corn. Just a bit of browning on the corn kernels boosted their flavor in an amazing way–I really couldn’t believe the difference. And so I tried it today while making my own barbecue chopped salad for lunch, with the same effect.

It’s very simple. Preheat your broiler (to low, if yours lets you choose a temperature). Drain canned or frozen (and thawed) corn and spread it on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Pop that under the broiler for about five minutes, or until it starts to brown along the tops and edges:

Turn on your exhaust fan. It’s a little smokey.

Once you have some brown on the corn, take it out of the oven, cool on the baking sheet, and toss it into your salad. You won’t believe how good this simple trick is!

(You can absolutely do this with fresh corn, but it’s a great trick for frozen or canned when fresh isn’t at its peak.)


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!

Multi-Tasking Lemon-Balsamic Roasted Asparagus

31 Mar

I have not been intentionally ignoring you guys. I promise. Work is crazy-nutso busy this week and there has been little time for kitchen playing. I’m going to make up for it today, because this recipe is a triple-duty treasure that works as a side dish, appetizer/finger food, and for breakfast (stay with me on that one).

I made this for a baby shower my bookclub held for one of our members last night. We had appetizers and desserts (Georgetown Cupcakes–mmmmm!) in potluck style. Easy and cheap for everyone, and really a lot of fun to see who made what and enjoy so many different flavors and textures. This recipe worked because you can pick up the stalks with your fingers and eat them that way, or cut them into bites and use a fork (if you’re all civilized and stuff). It’s very low fat, very high in vitamins, and quite delicious with the sweet vinegar and the sour lemon playing very nicely together.

I sprinkled these with Parmesan. I suggest you skip that. The cheese became a gloppy mess, to be quite honest, and didn’t bring much to the flavor party. I did, though, serve them with Prosciutto on the side for those who eat it (I don’t), and people seemed to enjoy the combination.

Apppetizer–check. They’re a great side dish for roasted chicken or steaks. I’d even go so far as to serve these alongside a light summer pasta dish, and they’d be great with fish too. You can, if you wish, cut the stalks into bites, roast them that way, put them into a bowl, and serve them as a traditional vegetable, or pop it in the fridge for a few hours, toss it with Parmesan at that point, and put this out as a salad–sesame seeds would be a lovely addition to that.

And breakfast. Y’all, I diced a few stalks up this morning and tossed them into a pan with some onion and a touch of butter, let them all soften, and then made an omelette with them, eggs, and a little cheese. Delish, delish, delish. Highly recommend. They’d work in a frittata too, with some onion and tomato.

Enough with the talk. Make these. They’re good. You’ll need:

About a pound of asparagus stalks, trimmed of their woody ends

The juice of one lemon

A tablespoon of Balsalmic vinegar

Olive oil

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees while you spray a baking sheet with olive oil or cooking spray. Lay the asparagus spears on the sheet. Drizzle them with the lemon juice, balsamic, and enough olive oil to coat, and toss with your hands to combine everything. Pat them down into a single layer, and roast for about 10 minutes, turning once. You’re looking for a bright, bright green color out of them–don’t let them go any farther than that or they’ll mush up on you. Serve hot or at room temperature as an appetizer or side, and cold as a salad.

Harvest Salad

15 Sep

A restaurant near my house has this great salad that I love.

I am not a salad eater. It’s not that I don’t like salads, but I eat one and then find myself starving an hour later, so it hardly seems worth the sacrifice when a sandwich would fill me up for longer. But that’s not true for this one. Packed with protein and some of the best flavors of fall, when apples are crisp and some of the cool-weather lettuces are sweet and crunchy, this one fills me up and makes me happy at lunchtime.

It also, sadly, is packed with calories and fat, at least at my little restaurant. So I re-created it at home. Healthy-fied. Made the way I’ve typed it out below, it’s 7 points on Weight Watchers. Reduce the dressing or use less cheese to get that number even lower. And it’s just as good as the one I eat out from time to time.

Pick a sweet lettuce mix for this. Arugula isn’t going to work with the cranberries. And your choice of dressing may vary. The restaurant offers this with a balsamic vinaigrette. I prefer a sweet onion or honey mustard but that’s my taste. You can rock this with whatever dressing makes your mouth sing.

This travels really well (pop an ice pack in the lunch bag to stave off warm-chicken ickiness later). Just don’t dress it until you’re ready to eat so you get all the crunch that makes it so good. And of course, feel free to make your own dressing–it’ll probably be better than the bottled stuff. I’m usually racing around at lunchtime and so the bottled works for me most days.

To make my harvest salad, you’ll need:

2 cups lettuce, any one or mix you like that’s not bitter

1/3 cup grilled chicken, sliced

1/3 apple, chopped

1 tbsp sliced almonds (I buy these in bags near my grocery store’s salad bar

3 tbsp Craisins or dried cranberries

2 tbsp crumbled Feta cheese

2 tbsp Ken’s Lite Sweet Vidalia dressing, or one of your choice.

Combine salad ingredients, drizzle with dressing, and enjoy.

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Tomato Cucumber Salad

8 Jul

Let’s start with the obvious: This is hardly a novel idea. Nor complicated, sophisticated, or terribly chef-ish. But like I told you in my first post here, I’m a working mom cooking for my family. This works for us.

We eat this salad all summer long, when produce is its freshest and the tomatoes (garden or farm market, please–none of those grocery store marbles) burst with flavor straight from their container. I’ve been known to cook up a half-pound of Rotini or shell pasta and toss it in here along with some shrimp to make a light entree.

Notice there are no proportions to this recipe. You make as much or as little as your family will eat. It’ll keep in the fridge for a day or two, but just-made is best.

You’ll need:

Tomatoes. I prefer Campari for their size and sweetness, but any variety will do.

Cucumbers. I prefer English, but again…whatever works.

A handful of fresh basil leaves

Extra-virgin olive oil

Balsamic vinegar.

Slice the tomatoes and put into a bowl. Give your cuke a quick peel, slice it, and add it to the tomatoes. Then, shred your basil leaves (you know how, right? Stack the leaves, roll them up into a cigar, and slice the cigar into shreds) and sprinkle that over top. Drizzle with the oil and vinegar (I prefer about a 4 to 1 ratio of vinegar to oil), and enjoy.

Happy summer.

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