Thai-Inspired Flank Steak Salad

Steak Salad

For some reason, I’ve seen a ton of steak salads recently in magazines, on television and on the web. I’m guessing that it has something to do with the time of year. On a very warm summer evening, a salad that’s worthy of a meal makes a lot of sense. In any case, this steak salad was adapted from several similar recipes I uncovered with a little research. It’s inspired by the flavors of Thailand (or maybe southeast Asia), and it will be showing up on our table frequently for the rest of the summer, you can be sure.

One of the things that makes this recipe interesting to me is that the steak marinade and the dressing are essentially the same. The marinade gets just a little more lime juice and a bit of fish sauce, both of which help tenderize the meat. I used flank steak mainly because it’s reasonably priced and generally always available, but I can think of some other cuts of beef that might work, including flat-iron or skirt steak, or maybe even top round steak.

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Small Batch Basic Tomato Sauce — From Scratch

Maybe the best thing about summer is fresh tomatoes. And whether you grow your own and have a surplus, or simply go tomato crazy at the local farmer’s market, making a basic tomato sauce from scratch is one of the best ways to enjoy this summer treasure.

Sauce Components

Sauce Components

This sauce is designed for small batches — enough for 2-3 meals. It’s simple and versatile and does a great job of bringing out the fresh tomato flavor with just the right balance of sweet and tart, and a touch of acidity. It does require a food mill or the kind of strainer that’s sturdy enough to push the pulp through. Either item is a really good investment. You’ll use them a lot. 

I’ve read articles and recipes that spend a lot of time discussing the various attributes of different tomatoes for sauce-making. One thing that I’ve found is that while the choice of tomato can make a small difference, the most important factors are the ripeness, freshness and flavor of the tomatoes you buy, regardless of the variety. If you can, taste samples before buying. Great tasting, ripe beefsteaks are way better than unripe flavorless plum tomatoes any day.  Ideally, I want a mix of varieties, including big round juicy fruits and plum (or if you can get them, San Marzano) varieties. Just don’t fret over it too much. And by all means, buy or use the ugly tomatoes. No one will know.

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Genuine Italian Festival Sausage Sandwich

Italian Hot Sausage Sandwich

Every summer, in just about every town of any size in the stretch of the Ohio River valley from Pittsburgh to, perhaps as far as Cincinnati, you could count on an Italian street festival materializing. In the little town where I grew up, you could count on it coming sometime in August, and it was a signal that summer would soon end and school would be starting soon. The photo below (which I “stole” from a friend still living there) gives you an idea what they’re like. The cornerstone of these festivals was (and apparently still is) the hot sausage sandwich.

italian festival

Italian Festival in the Ohio Valley

The hot sausage sandwich I knew as a kid, and can still find at a festival or Italian restaurant in towns up and down the river (actually throughout western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia) has no counterpart in Italy, as far as I can tell, though there are similar sausages in southern Italy and Sicily. The sausage is seasoned ground pork in natural casings with varying amounts of hot red pepper, fennel and occasionally basil in the mix. The best sausages come from an Italian butcher shop, and while I’ve occasionally had to settle for packaged grocery store varieties, those sausages don’t hold a candle to the real thing. I’ve read that the festival-style sausage sandwich originated in Pittsburgh and spread from there. It isn’t the only sausage sandwich. There are versions from Boston to Chicago, and I suspect in any community which had or has a sizable Italian immigrant population. In fact, it appears that the first American sausage made as it is today was created in 1895, in Pittsburgh, by a gentleman named G. Pasquinelli who founded the now defunct Italian Sausage Company. Can’t say that surprises me.

There are rules for the genuine festival sandwich, of course. Authentic hot Italian sausage links are the start. They must be grilled over charcoal (with no wood smoke). There must be green bell peppers and onions, also grilled (not fried, and certainly not sautéed — we’re talking Ohio Valley here, people. Nothing fancy if you want them to sell). And sometimes, if you were lucky, there would be sweet-hot red peppers. Serve that baby on a sausage-size roll made like a small Italian bread. The cardinal rule was/is, no tomato sauce, ever. Sometimes, you could get fresh tomatoes cut, salted and peppered on the side, but that was, essentially a salad. This sandwich is street food, meant for eating while you stroll through the festival in nice clothes (well nicer than everyday, anyway). You can’t have soggy rolls and dripping red sauce and expect parents to cough up a couple of bucks just to create a laundry disaster, right? 

That’s it. Simple, delicious and traditional. 

 

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Tuscan Panzanella

Tuscan Panzanella

Ah, tomatoes. When I was growing up, my grandfather always had a dozen tomato plants in a little garden spot that actually was on a neighbor’s property (better sun) and from the early part of June I’d check them almost every day, first to trumpet the first tiny yellow blossoms, then the first little green fruits, and finally, the best day of all, when then first few tomatoes were ready for picking. Now, it’s the Saturday farm market, where the first ripe, local tomatoes are showing up. And that means it’s time for panzanella.

Panzanella (or at least the 20th century version) is a salad from Tuscany that’s designed to take advantage of fresh tomatoes. In its pure, traditional form, is it merely ripe, juicy tomatoes tossed with a little oil, vinegar, onions and chunks of stale crusty bread (which softens as it absorbs the tomato juices). Modern chefs have upped the ante by adding a host of other fresh ingredients, including fresh mozzarella, lemon juice, basil and other herbs, and garlic.

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Grilled Lamb Meatballs with Tabouleh

Grilled Lamb Meatballs With Tabouleh

Lamb makes fairly regular appearances on our home menu. It’s versatile and I think more flavorful than most other red meat. Lamb works very well with things like mint, rosemary, honey, vinegar, spices like cumin and cinnamon, and dark red fruits and berries. With those affinities, I can create or duplicate recipes that satisfy my taste for the odd bit of exotic without sending the rest of the family screaming out of the kitchen. It’s a win-win. Grilled lamb meatballs are a great illustration. In a household where traditional meatballs often get a “meh,” these are often requested. That’s fine with me, since they’re tasty, easy to make and evoke a middle eastern, mediterranean kind of vibe.

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Drunken Cherries

Druken Cherries

If you pay much attention to the world of food and nutrition, you’ve seen a rise of interest in fermented foods. It would be easy to think of that as just the latest fad, but in truth, people have been fermenting food for thousands of years. It’s easy, natural and when successful, delicious. Lots of foods can be fermented, but my favorite is fruit. The reason is simple — the fermentation produces lots of good ol’ alcohol. Cherries are among my favorites for this, but only when they’re fresh, in season and come from farmers who use no pesticides. cherries1

Fermenting fruit like cherries is not much different from the way wine was traditionally made. It’s chemistry. The skin of the raw, unwashed fruit is covered in natural yeast (and there always is natural yeast floating in the air, too). In the case of cherries, the stemmed and pitted fruit goes into a sterilized glass jar with a loose-fitting lid (like a candy jar), covered with water with a modest amount of sugar — about a quarter cup per quart of water. The yeast on the fruit begins converting the added sugar to alcohol, then when the population gets large enough, goes to work on the natural sugars in the cherries. Within 24 hours or so, you can see evidence of the reaction in the form of little bubbles of carbon dioxide, and within two or three days, there will be tons of bubbles and a definite aroma of alcohol coming from the jar. After about a week, the cherries are ready to eat, either by themselves or as an amazing topping for ice cream, cheesecake or other desserts. At that point, it’s best to put them in a refrigerator, which slows or stops the fermentation. They’ll keep for several weeks that way.

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Shrimp With Guanciale And Rosemary

Shrimp With Guanciale And Rosemary

One of the reasons I love to cook with seafood is that you can get great results with just a few ingredients and get a delicious, beautiful meal on the table rather quickly. This shrimp with guanciale and rosemary is a great example. It uses just half a dozen ingredients, some oil and salt and pepper. The flavor is straight from Italy and you can serve it by itself, with vegetables, over some pasta or to top some polenta. (For this post, I served it with some fresh peas sauteed with prosciutto and onions and that worked well.)

As with any seafood, good, fresh shrimp is essential, but the key to this recipe is the guanciale. I used to have to search high and low to find it, but I’ve discovered that you can buy it online through good ol’ Amazon. If you’re lucky enough to have a good Italian butcher shop nearby, you can and should get it there. Guanciale is a dry-aged bacon-like cured pork product made from pork cheeks. It’s got a unique flavor that really enriches anything it’s cooked with. 

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