A cheerful summer salad

I love the little jar of harissa in my fridge. It cheers me up just looking at it. I love the orangey-red contents even more. Harissa is a Tunisian chili sauce made from piri piri peppers, coriander, garlic paste and caraway seeds. It was one of the first things I bought after I got back from Ireland this spring, where I had eaten it slathered on grilled sardines.

I have been smearing it on all kinds of grilled meat, vegetables and egg sandwiches. So last week I went looking for a raw salad that incorporates this fragrant paste and came across this one on Food52’s website. I was intrigued by the combination of harissa with turnip-like kohlrabi, salty feta, fennel seed, sweet carrots and bright lemon juice.

In my own version, I bumped up the feta amount and added finely chopped scallion for a little oniony bite.

Note: In case you aren’t familiar with kohlrabi, it’s a weird looking member of the cabbage family that tastes like a cross between a turnip, radish and cabbage. If you can’t find it, you can substitute with small turnips or daikon radish.

Kohlrabi and carrot salad with harissa and mint

    1 medium kohlrabi
    3 carrots
    Juice of 1 lemon, divided
    1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
    1 teaspoon harissa (or more if desired)
    1/4 teaspoon sugar
    1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
    1 large scallion, finely chopped
    4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
    Salt and pepper, to taste

Method: With a paring knife, generously peel away the rough skin of the kohlrabi, cutting away any woody bits.

Kohlrabi without his tentacles

Cut the remaining white root into thin slices. Then stack the slices, square off the ends and cut into roughly 2-inch matchsticks. Don’t worry if they’re not perfect, unless of course you’re preparing this salad for a chef. Toss the kohlrabi sticks in half of the lemon juice to prevent them from discoloring. Cut the carrot into similar matchsticks.

Toast the fennel seeds in a small dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Crush them with a mortar and pestle or place them in a sturdy plastic bag and pound several times with a heavy skillet.

In a small bowl, whisk together the rest of the lemon juice, along with harissa, crushed fennel seeds and sugar. Then slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Taste and season with salt, pepper, additional harissa or sugar, depending on your taste.

Add the kohlrabi and carrots to the harissa dressing. Fold in the mint leaves, scallion and feta. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed.

Serves 3-4 as a bright side salad.

Simple dinner for one (with leftovers)

This spoon rest is one of my favorite kitchen tools. It was handmade by Chicago-based Circa Ceramics–they do all kinds of colorful, functional porcelain pieces fired with funky screen prints (these lidded bowls are another favorite). I found it last year while I was browsing the Renegade Craft Fair on a stifling summer day in Wicker Park. I met the artist at the fair and told him I wanted a custom spoon rest with the piggy parts print. He slipped me a business card while juggling a wiggly baby boy in his other hand. Two weeks later, I visited the studio where he had made and glazed it, paid him right then and carried my spoon rest home to put to work that very evening. It was lovely to work with the artist throughout the entire process–it made the piece that much more valuable to me.

But I digress. My piggy spoon rest got quite a workout last week with Sunday pot pie, Tuesday lentils, Thursday bolognese and Friday paella. So on Saturday, tomato-poached eggs offered a light yet satisfying counter to a week of meat-heavy meals. Penny the Peanut and I had the house to ourselves, so I poured a glass of wine, served my eggs on the fancy china and turned on Downton Abbey (oh, the shame). It was the perfect night in.

As for the eggs, I started by sautéeing a small onion, half a red bell pepper and a few cloves of garlic in olive oil. I poured in a can of chickpeas and some whole tomatoes in tomato purée. Then I carefully cracked four whole eggs into the pan and sprinkled sharp white cheddar cheese over the top. A quick bake just to set the whites, a sprinkling of parsley and dinner was served. A few hunks of baguette helped me sop up all the egg yolk and tomato broth.

Tomato-poached eggs with chickpeas

    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 small onion, diced
    1/2 red bell pepper, diced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    1 teaspoon sweet paprika
    1/4 teaspoon cayenne
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 14-oz. can chickpeas, drained
    14 ozs. whole tomatoes in tomato purée
    4 eggs
    4 ozs. sharp white cheddar or feta cheese, diced or crumbled
    1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
    Crusty bread, for serving

Method: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Heat a small Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and add the olive oil, onion, bell pepper, salt and pepper. Sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Next stir in the paprika, cayenne, garlic and chickpeas; cook for 1-2 minutes until everything is fragrant and reddish-tinted.

Add the tomatoes and crush the whole pieces with your spoon. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed.

Next, carefully crack the eggs one at a time into a small bowl and pour them into the pot, allowing some space between the other eggs and the edge of the pot.

Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. Put the lid on, and slide the pot into the oven. Bake for 7-8 minutes, just until the egg whites have set and the yolks are still good n’ runny. (Up the bake time by a minute or two if you like your yolks a bit more done.)

Remove the pot from the oven, and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Taste to make sure the seasoning is to your liking, and adjust if needed. To serve, spoon 2 eggs into a bowl along with some of the chickpea-studded broth. Top with a sprinkling of parsley. Serves 1 with another meal leftover. This dish is even better on day 2.

A companion for crusty bread

One of life’s greatest pleasures is slathering something creamy on crisp bread. The melding of contrasting textures is so appetizing, and seems to satisfy an almost universal craving. I first had a version of this cucumber-feta spread at The Purple Pig in Chicago, on a platter piled high with crisp-chewy grilled bread.

I’m a little late in the season for this post–as mint and cucumber have passed their prime harvest time here in the Midwest. Still, this is one of those dishes that would be great–and easy–to bring to a party, especially because it gets better as it sits in the fridge, so you could prepare it the night before. You can swap out the 2 percent Greek yogurt for fat-free if you want, but you’ll be missing out on a little luxury. Just sayin’.

Feta and cucumber spread with crispy toast

    1/2 English seedless cucumber, grated
    1 large scallion, minced
    1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped
    1 garlic clove, minced
    1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
    Juice of 1/2 lemon
    16-ounce container 2 percent Greek yogurt
    8 ounces Feta, crumbled
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    1 baguette, sliced on a bias about 3/4-inch thick
    2 large garlic cloves, crushed

Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, mix the cucumber, scallion, garlic and herbs with lemon juice.

Add the yogurt, and blend until well combined. Next, pile in the cheese, making sure to break it up with your fingers as you add it. Drizzle the mixture with 2 tablespoons olive oil, and stir once again.

Taste the mixture, and add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a smaller bowl, cover with plastic and place in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld. (You can leave it overnight; the flavor will only get better.)

Meanwhile, place the baguette slices on sheet pans in a single layer. Drizzle them with olive oil on both sides; rub each side with garlic and season with salt. Bake them for about 8 minutes, flipping after about 4 minutes to ensure even browning. Keep an eye on them. You want to preserve some of the interior’s chewiness.

After baking, cut the slices in half with a sharp knife, and pile onto a platter. Spoon some of the chilled spread into a bowl, and place it on the platter next to the bread. Just before serving, drizzle the spread with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper.