The Gayest Salad in the History of the World

What we’re exploring: Dupont Circle Farmers Market

What we Found: Edible flowers

Cost: Minimal

Why use them: They’re tasty and they look fancy!

Uses: In salads; as a tasty garnish for meat or fish dishes; as a dramatic topping for soups

What do they taste like: Nasturtium flowers – peppery (like arugula); Chive blossoms – oniony (think chives times five)

Wow. To say I’ve outdone myself would be an understatement. I have single-handledly and accidentally created The Gayest Salad in the History of the World. I went to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market again this week, with the innocent idea of grabbing some salad greens, and just look what happened. Here’s how it all came together:

  • Mesclun Mix (including radicchio)
  • Arugula
  • Nasturtium Flowers
  • Chive Blossoms
  • Blueberries
  • Hazelnuts
  • Goat Cheese

The resulting salad has some peppery flavors from the arugula, radicchio and nasturtium, as well as some sweet-tartness from the blueberries and the vinaigrette. The hazelnuts give an earthy crunch and the chive flowers lend a nice oniony hit. The mild creaminess of the goat cheese is a nice foil for the base salad’s sharpness. The dressing is a blueberry-balsamic vinaigrette, using some blueberry-balsamic vinegar I picked up on my last trip to Maine. (The recipe follows; regular balsamic will work just fine.) Just look at the colors – purple from the radicchio, blueberries and chive flowers, orange and yellow from the nasturtiums. As you can see from the photo, the resulting salad, while both tasty and pretty, is without a doubt The Gayest Salad in the History of the World. It needs its own theme music. In fact, I fail to see how you can even eat it without wearing a tiara.

I posted the photo on my Facebook page and here were some of the comments:

Cielo P. show me the flower power…hehehe

Ivan F. Gayer than a clutch purse

John M. Serious LOL

Brant B. It looks delicious, though!

Matt D. Delicious salad Matthew! And it’s so gay, straight men will take 2 bites and switch teams… which is why I am making you prepare it for me as my secret conversion weapon.

Few great things in life are created alone. My friend Matt D. was with me when I made the salad (for our lunch), and he helped to choose hazelnuts as the crunchy element. (The other option was Marcona almonds – hazelnuts were a good choice, Matt!) Also deserving some credit here is Becky, the super-charming Lettuce Lady from the farmers market, who threw in an extra handful of nasturtium flowers with the mesclun mix at my request, even though the boss lady said no. What can I say? I guess I’m charming, too.

Blueberry-Balsamic Vinaigrette

2 teaspoons minced chives

2 teaspoons minced shallot

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 Cup blueberry-balsamic vinegar (or regular balsamic vinegar)

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon blueberries

Whisk together all ingredients except olive oil and blueberries. Slowly whisk in olive oil to emulsify. Stir in blueberries. Allow dressing to sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to blend. Mix again before serving. And remember, the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice (see photo – Yes, Micah is actually wearing a t-shirt that says this.)

Later in the day I brought some of this salad to Micah’s birthday barbecue at Seth and Ben’s place. I couldn’t help but notice, even though a few people ate a bit of the salad (what my Mom would call a “no-thank-you helping”), most of the guests simply gawked at it. The one straight male guest actually looked a little terrified when I unveiled it. His girlfriend confessed she was not a fan of goat cheese but politely enjoyed some of the blueberries (Thank you, Terri).

When it came time to leave, Seth asked if I wanted to take my platter, which still had at least half of the salad on it. Thinking back, it sounded rather like a plea. Noting that I would be back next week for another party, I said I would just get the platter then.

Seth agreed, and mentioned that next week I shouldn’t trouble myself to bring anything.

“Just bring yourself,” he said.

I’m not quite sure how to take this.


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Notes from Costa Rica

What we’re exploring: Costa Rica

What we found:

  • Abundant wildlife and gorgeous scenery
  • Great recipe ideas

A couple weeks back, my sister, Tree, and I took my mother to Costa Rica for Mother’s Day. A lot of families take vacations in order to GET AWAY from each other, but my sister, my Mom and I get along really well and we travel well together. Tree and I have been all over Europe together, and Mom and I traveled to Amsterdam a couple years back. (We must get along well – I mean, who the hell goes to Amsterdam with their MOM?). As a trio, we’ve ventured to Ireland and several U.S. destinations.

Few moments in my life have been as special as Mother’s Day of this year, when we took Mom to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, where we enjoyed the splendor of the Costa Rican rainforest from up in the treetops. Not a bad way to celebrate your 68-year-old Mom!

Yes, Mother is quite spry, but after the hanging bridges, the rough ride to Monteverde on the largely-unpaved roads nearly turned  into Complain-fest 2010 (could this have been payback for all my childhood road-trip whinings of “Are we there yet?”)

No need to worry, awaiting us in Costa Rica’s Northern Zone was not only the misty, majestic Cloud Forest reserve, but some really good chow, too.

The Monteverde area is known for producing great coffee, and a great cup is easy to find, much to Mom’s delight – she’s a true coffee lover. We even took a tour of the relatively new family-run San Luis Coffee Growers. A few years back on another trip, Tree and I explored a much larger local outfit, the Don Juan coffee plantation. On that previous trip, Tree and I also fell in love with the restaurant Chimera (Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde), a Latin-fusion tapas restaurant. Their small dishes are lovely and highlight fresh, local flavors while bringing in some excitement with a variety of sauces, garnishes, and special touches. This time, we made it a point to also try the other restaurant in town owned by the same folks, called Sofia (just off Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde).

Sofia is a bit fancier, with a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style dining room and a fusion menu that calls upon Latin, Asian and Caribbean influences. I had a wonderful dish of pork loin with figs, which I have since been working to recreate. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly how I’d like it, but here’s my version:

Pork Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Fig Glaze

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 pork loin chops

1 Tablespoon butter

10 dried figs, stemmed and cut in half

1 T minced shallot

1 clove garlic, minced

1/3 C balsamic vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider, or apple juice

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1. Soak the figs in very hot water. Season the pork chops liberally with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and add pork chops. Sauté the chops until they are almost cooked through, about 4 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Set aside.

2. Add the shallot and garlic to pan and sauté for a minute (adding a tad more butter or olive oil if necessary). Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to combine and to release any browned bits from the pan. Boil until the liquid begins to thicken and reduce slightly. Drain the figs, discarding the soaking liquid, and add them to the pan, along with the pork chops. Simmer until the pork is cooked through, coating the pork with the glaze.

At Sofia, the pork was served with fufu, a side dish of mashed plantains with bacon and onion. In my research, I learned that fufu (with alternate spellings including foufou and foofoo) originated in Africa as a word to describe a variety of dishes that are starchy and mashed, sometimes made from yams, cassava, or even rice or flour. Fufu traveled to the Caribbean along with West African immigrants, and transformed along the way to use available vegetables and flavorings. Hence the Caribbean-style fufu I enjoyed in Costa Rica. Here’s a version I found on the web and played with a little:

Fufu

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

4 sweet plantains (peeled and cut into uniform pieces)

1/4 pound of bacon (cut into small pieces)

1 medium onion (diced)

4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

1. In a saucepan, cover plantains with cold, salted water and bring to a boil.

2. Cook until plantains are soft (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, sauté the bacon until slightly cooked and some fat is rendered. Add the onion and continue to sauté until the bacon is cooked and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes more.

3. Drain the plantains (reserving some of the water) and mash.

4. Fold the bacon, onion, and about 2 Tablespoons bacon fat into the plantains. Discard any additional grease. If the mixture is dry, add some of the reserved cooking water. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

The pork and fufu go together marvelously. If you’d like a little heat to offset the sweetness of the dish, you can prepare a simple jalapeno salsa to garnish the fufu. Just mix 1/2 of a jalapeño pepper with 2 chopped scallions and a little fresh cilantro. Mix in the juice of 1/2 a lime and a pinch of salt and allow it to sit for 15 minutes or so for the flavors to blend. The heat and acid will balance nicely with the sweetness of the plantains and the sweet-and-sour glaze.

Our meal at Sofia was likely the gastronomical high point of the Costa Rican journey. However, great food was easily found elsewhere, too. Gorgeous, fresh fruit was in abundance everywhere we went – Tree made a sport of taste-testing mango smoothies in each of the towns and villages we visited. Furthermore, I love the Costa Rican take on breakfast, where black beans and rice, and sauteed sweet plantains are staples on the morning table. Though Costa Rica is not exactly a culinary travel destination, one could certainly do a lot worse. Go for the wildlife and scenery, but be sure to enjoy a few good bites along the way!