bowl building: ready to roll

How to Build a Bowl

Bowls have been a thing since long before you saw “bowl” on offer everywhere you looked. I’m a grazer, so bowls are pretty  much my favorite way to eat. This super simple guide promises super easy bowl building with whatever ingredients and combos float your boat.

Bowls optimally include the following:

  • Dressing, which goes on the bottom of the bowl; for this one, I made a balsamic mustard maple vinaigrette.
  • Grain or starch: I used quinoa here, into which I grated a beet.
  • Roasted veggies; here, I diced up some sweet potatoes.
  • Raw veggies: Kale and cabbage are ideal because they’re so sturdy.
  • Protein: Mine of choice was feta cheese.
  • Something sweet: I had a pomegranate on hand.
  • Something crunchy, and if you’re traveling, packed separately: I roasted some walnuts.

bowl building ingredients

I used this recipe from Clean Eating pretty much verbatim, except that the dressing they recommend is WAY too tart for me (1/4 cup of vinegar and no oil?? that’s nuts.) So I just made your basic vinaigrette, which is pretty dark due to balsamic and maple syrup.

Now the thing with published bowl recipes is that they put them in Mason jars, which looks beautiful but has never worked for me. I like to be able to toss my salads so they really get coated in dressing, and just shaking a packed Mason jar up and down doesn’t cut it for me.

We like to do a little bowl building before a road trip, so we just layer ours in this handy plastic bowl. As noted, keep the roasted crunchiness (nuts in this case) separate and add when you eat. Soggy crunchy stuff is for the birds. Actually, watching the birds chow down on sunflower seeds right now, I must argue with myself and say birds look askance at soggy crunchy stuff, too.

Here’s how our to-go pack looks.

bowl building: salad packed and ready to hit the road

And here, taking with unfortunate night-time overhead lighting, is how our salad looks plated. It tasted really good. Please excuse the near-sepia tone.

bowl building: plated salad

Bowl Building: Inspirations and Ideas Aplenty

You can find good bowls all over online. Check out my Pinterest board for suggestions from around the web, or try one of my recipes.

Or just give bowl building a shot on your own. Enjoy!



rapini and how to make it tasty

Rapini

How do you solve a problem like…..rapini? On the shelf, it looks so adorable, bright emerald green baby broccoli flowers amid plenty of leaves that look like mustard greens, with crispy-looking jade green stems…

rapini, raw and innocent looking

You may think, well, there’s nothing to that but to pop it in a pan with some garlic, and…Yum! But should you do that very thing, you are likely to see troubled looks on the faces of your fellow diners—they trusted you, and you give them this?—and may end up barely able to swallow what seemed like a great idea.

If that sounds as if it comes from bitter (pun very much intended) experience with this particular vegetable, you have perceived correctly. I once innocently sauteed up a pan of rapini, blithely served it to Steve and Henry. I insist on honest reactions to my creations here, and I got them. Steve, normally a totally easy keeper on the vegetable front, said, “Wow. This is horrible.” Henry stood up and poured his in the garbage. Steve and I followed suit.

Rapini, you saucy trickster! You’re not broccoli at all, but a very stylish member of the turnip family. Hence the extreme bitterness. So why bother, when you could just get broccoli, which is honestly pretty hard to screw up? Because if you can get rapini right, it’s a wonderful way to zazzle up your taste buds. Tempered correctly, which you will shortly learn how to do, rapini provides a pleasant bang of bitterness, a wonderful texture—it doesn’t get mushy, but you also won’t feel like a horse chewing it—and a veritable powerhouse of nutrition. Vitamin K and C, cancer-fighting properties, anti-inflammatory, alkalizing: Read all about it at this link (though I caution against preparing the soup recipe unless you follow the de-bittering step here).

What is this magical step to render rapini ravishing? A big old pot of boiling water. Bring it to a boil, throw in about a tablespoon of salt, and blanch for about 2 minutes. (I break off any tough-looking stems prior to boiling.) The process mellows the bitterness to a manageable amount, and the broccoli stays bright green. Then simply drain, squeeze out as much water as possible, and chop coarsely. The amount shown below is the yield from the big batch of rapini at the top of the page (probably about 2/3 of a pound).

Rapini loves garlic. Heat your pan, heat some oil (olive is perfect), sauté your super thin garlic slices with a little salt for about 45 seconds so they’re just starting to turn gold. Then add your chopped rapini.

Rapini is no delicate creature. I give it about 8 minutes, but it can go longer. You’ll end up with a lovely big batch that you can keep on hand for about 3 days and throw into all kinds of things.

The night I made this up, Steve threw a big handful into some soup. I had some naan on hand, which I brushed with a little garlic oil, toasted briefly in the oven, then topped with the sauteed rapini, some leftover meatballs sliced thin, and some fresh mozzarella and a little parmesan. A heavenly little personal pizza. Don’t stop there. Throw some sauteed rapini into pasta or rice. Use it as your green in a bowl; it would be amazing as a bi bim bop component. Just one warning: Now that you know how rapini should taste, you would be wise to avoid ordering it in U.S. restaurants, and if you see it in a deli case, be sure to get a sample. Rapini always looks good. It stays bright green pretty much no matter what.

Of course, if you see it in Italy, go nuts. They kind of invented the stuff.



kale, stemmed and ready for slicing

Kale: How to Love It Again

I first encountered kale at a Portuguese Christmas dinner. But not like this.

kale, stems removed, ready for the knifeSo a little background—but if you want to jump past the story straight to the cooking, click here. My first husband was half Portuguese on his mother’s side, but looked entirely Portuguese. The German half of his genes always eluded me, probably just as well given that neither of us ever got along with his father. His mother didn’t either; when I met Karl, they’d been long divorced. Karl was born in New London, CT, then moved to New Milford before coming to New York to act. He made his living as a bartender. I knew him for exactly 5 years. We met on July 10, 1984, and he died on July 10, 1989. He was fond of saying, “The 80s are NOT my decade.”

Since my family was all in my native California when Karl and I were in love in NYC, we would spend Christmases with his mom and her many Portuguese relatives and friends near Danbury, CT. That entailed a huge Portuguese dinner, complete with Bacalhau, salt codfish, and a lot of other stuff I wouldn’t eat. Alas, I grew up picky, and before I learned to eat—which was about when I learned to cook, a few years later—even true love couldn’t get me to sample food I deemed “weird.”

But one dish passed my muster: Kale Soup. You cannot, at least in my experience, go anywhere with Portuguese cooks and avoid kale soup. It is wonderful stuff, the green leaves stemmed, rolled into tight cigar-shaped rolls, and sliced into perfect ribbons, alongside grated potatoes cooked to disintegration, and spicy linguiça sausage adding a tiny amount of fire and savory fat to the mix.

The holy trinity of kale, potatoes, and pork unite ever and again in cuisines around the world; when meat is scarce or simply opted out of, kale and potatoes do just fine. But what separates cooks who did kale before it was cool is the cutting technique. Karl’s Portuguese relatives knew this; apparently, most prep cooks dishing up inedible lacinato salads at high-end delis across the country do not.

Because kale is sturdy. Hell, it’s downright tough. It’s a winter crop, and it’s been growing for literally millenia. Dinosaur kale is a thing in more ways than one—as in, not only does it look like the stuff that friendly stegosauri tread underfoot in those 19th century engravings, they actually chomped it down.

You, my poppets, should not feel as if you need T-Rex choppers to finish your kale salad. Yet often, I do. My son brought home a bag of pre-cut kale from Trader Joe’s the other day; the leaves had been cut, but the stems kept intact. People, those stems could dent a molar. Meanwhile, those clueless prep cooks referred to earlier merrily tear the leaves into 1-inch squares and then toss it with a simple dressing. Time after time, I’ve seen kale salads languishing, unfinished, on otherwise clean plates. They looked like a great idea, but nobody had the stamina to chew, chew, chew more than a bite or two.

So here’s how you get the kale-traumatized back into the garden.

Kale: Two Musts

  1. Chop finely. You can do the cigar style roll, which isn’t difficult at all and looks impressive. Or you can just de-stem, stack, and chop. But cut it fine, whether you’re going to cook it or eat it raw. The only time I can countenance tearing the leaves is if you’re going to make chips, which alters the texture to a shattery crunch. For either cooked or raw dishes, I reiterate, CUT IT FINE.

shred kale by slicing it finely

2. Pamper any kale you intend to eat raw with a little oil and salt massage. You don’t need much of either. Then just put on a short-ish song—Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs is a good one—and rub, rub, rub the toughness away. (BTW, if you’re adding cabbage to the mix—a combination that works nicely and that I’m seeing fairly often—don’t massage the cabbage along with the kale unless you like really soft cabbage. I don’t. )

pamper raw kale with an olive oil and salt massage

Kale: The Treatment

I do love this stuff, so it will be coming up a lot. For now, I leave you with my favorite super simple sauteed kale…

sauteed kale, simplest side ever

and an easy salad.

kale, served raw in a salad

Either makes a welcome addition to your holiday table, a relief from the truckloads of starch and sugar, and a bounty of fiber on a day that can be a bit rough on the belly.

And watch over the next couple of months as I revisit my first husband’s family soup, as well as incorporate these glorious prehistoric leaves in other surprising ways.

cranberries in their raw state

Cranberries in the Kitchen

Cheery and garnet-colored when raw, deep rich ruby when cooked: Cranberries beautify any harvest or holiday celebration. Bags begin to appear in U.S. stores right around Halloween. I recommend you stock up; they freeze well, and their tart, spiky flavor cuts through rich fare like a sharp knife through a tomato. And while November and December tend to be especially indulgent months, you may still get a craving for cranberries off-season. You’ll be able to whip out a bag, thaw it in no time, and slam together a sauce that you can use to perk up all sorts of dishes, from cheesecakes to a sandwich, to a super healthy bowl.

cranberries

A little background: Cranberries hail from North America. Native Americans harvested them for food and medicine; they’re essential to pemmican, that paste of dried meat and berries that was an early (if not the first) energy bar. Loaded with vitamin C, antioxidants, pectin, and fiber, cranberries pack a health whallop in a small package. (For ridiculous amounts of data on their health benefits, see this article.)

Here’s the rub. Cranberries are CRAZY SOUR. To get them palatable for modern tastes, most of us need to sweeten them with a good amount of sugar. One part sugar to four parts cranberries is most often recommended, but that doesn’t exactly boost the nutritional value. What’s a health-conscious cook to do?

Here at Le Chou Fou, we try to help. So we recommend any of the following.

Cranberries: The Cooked

The cranberry sauce that I grew up was shaped like a can, complete with a bulge around the middle. Then Mom discovered how easy it was to make the stuff from scratch. Cooking the cranberries with some liquid and some sugar until the skin pops releases the pectin; let the fruit stand for a while—overnight is great—and the sauce thickens, giving you that nice jammy texture that’s so good on a sandwich.

Mom did the old school method: A package of cranberries, a heaping cup of sugar, and some water. But you can knock that sugar way back by getting creative with the liquid. You can use fruit juice that you have on hand, or diluted port wine (port full strength is a bit much). Maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar can substitute for table sugar at about 1/2 the amount; try a 1:8 ratio instead of 1:4. Mince an apple or pear for more pectin and sweetness. You can even add Stevia if you don’t find the taste too weird. (I always taste bitterness with Stevia, but Steve doesn’t mind it.)

Additionally, cranberries love spices and strong flavorings: cinnamon, clove, fresh ginger, rosemary, thyme. All of those contribute to a richer, more interesting cranberry sauce that isn’t so heavily dependent on sugar. Here’s my recipe blueprint for cooked cranberry sauce. Feel free to to make it your own.

ruby red cranberry beet sauce

Cranberries: The Raw

Raw cranberry relish sparkles—literally, from all the sugar crystals. It’s lovely and wonderful, but the most difficult of the three options to make without sugar. Nonetheless, the same rules apply. Grate in an apple or pear dipped in cider vinegar (less puckery than lemon juice and helpful in keeping the apple or pear from turning brownish). Be generous with orange peel and chopped orange flesh. The great thing here is that you can add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Steve and I like it with just 1 tablespoon; that a 1:16 ratio, which we think is pretty cool. (The courageous can substitute Stevia.) Always, always, always taste test until you hit the proportions that work for you and any people who may be joining your table. Here’s my recipe blueprint for raw cranberry relish.

Sparkling Raw Cranberry Orange Relish

Cranberries: Ketchup!

My head remains on my shoulders; I assure you, I have not lost it. Despite what the Heinz corporation would like you to believe, “ketchup” simply means a thick sweet/savory sauce. It can be made with any number of fruits, and the variety made from cranberries is particularly nice. It also works on anything regular old tomato ketchup will work on. The primary difference between cooked cranberry sauce and cranberry ketchup is the addition of onions and vinegar, as well as more savory spices than you’d typically use. But don’t kid yourself that you can eliminate the sugar altogether. Ketchup is meant to be sweet. And man, does it make a dandy topper for a potato waffle (I promise to do a video and post on vegetable waffles soon.) As above, start with a 1:8 ratio, then increase as you taste. Here’s my recipe for sweet savory cranberry beet ketchup.

Sweet Savory Cranberry Beet Ketchup, made from cranberries, beets, and spices

Cranberries: Other Uses

Cranberries act like a shocking pink pillow in all white room, a welcome kapow or tartness. You just don’t want too many; imagine a dozen shocking pink pillows and you’ll get the idea. Toss a handful of cranberries into a smoothie with plenty of sweet fruit like bananas and mangos; they add beautiful crunch, a hint of pucker, and a ton of antioxidants. Add them to a bowl of vegetables destined to be roasted, coating everything with oil and spices. Fold leftover sweet cranberry sauce or raw cranberry relish into a cheesecake or batch of muffins to turn those comfy sweets into jewel-studded divas of the dessert table. Add any of the recipes in this post to sandwiches, or as the sweet component of a bowl meal. Throw some on top of mashed sweet potatoes. And know that, thanks to a little forethought, you can indulge your cranberry love whenever you like.

Salad Principles: Simple, Healthy Greens and Dressings

Salad principles are simple: clean, dry, ultra-fresh lettuce, and a straightforward dressing to help wilt that lettuce just enough to make it palatable.

But while they may be minimal, there’s an art to mastering the classic side dish. It’s easy

Salad Principles, Part 1: Clean, Dry Greens

You gotta dry your greens, kids.

I do buy boxed greens, especially baby spinach for smoothies, because spinach is annoying to clean. But there is tremendous variety in the plants that one can serve—thoroughly cleaned, spun dry, lightly crisped, refreshingly cold—in this thing called Salad.

Two possible approaches to dinner salads

Click for a great guide to making your own salad mixes from Bon Appetit.

If you do make your own mixes, and/or are lucky enough to get lettuce from a garden or local farmer, you need to wash the greens in 3-4 changes of water. Only when the washing water is clear—you won’t believe the interesting things that get caught in the folds of lettuce—do you then subject your leaves to a hearty spin. If there are any kids around, they LOVE this part. Make them salad spinners in chief. Then wrap the dry greens in a clean kitchen towel, and put the towel in a plastic bag. Voila! Salad, ready to be dressed, every night.

Don’t be tempted to just tear off a leaf or two and throw it in a bowl with some dressing. The greens get crisper when they’ve been washed and dried, and there’s also the critter/dirt factor. Biting into grit is a nasty experience.

Salad Principles, Part 2: A Simple Dressing

Salad dressing is so easy to make, and you can tailor it perfectly to whatever you’re serving. The flavor’s in the fat, as many a cook will tell you. A small bit of top quality olive oil cut with an even smaller amount of acid, whether of the citrus or vinegar families, turns a bout of dutiful roughage chewing into a sensual palate cleanser. That’s the goal, right? Nourishing the senses and the body at once.

But do not, under any circumstances, buy salad dressing. It’s got weird stuff in it. Have you ever in your life thought, “I’m REALLY craving some xantham gum!”?

And salad dressing is so ridiculously easy. The simplest of all is the classic French vinaigrette. My kitchen-stained and ancient copy of The Silver Palate Good Times cookbook contains this easy to remember formula, know as the four people needed to make a vinaigrette:

  • A miser with the vinegar
  • A spendthrift with the oil
  • A wise woman with the salt
  • A madman with the pepper

Pretty self-explanatory. Be stingy with the vinegar or citrus juice, generous with the oil. The standard ratio is 1:3, but 1:4 on up to 1:8 can yield a superb dressing. Salt and pepper are very much to taste, but in general exercise a judicious hand with the former and a free hand with the latter.

Now, let’s say you see a dandy looking salad in some magazine. Just keep your salad principles in mind and check that acid to oil ratio. I often see recipes where acid and oil are mixed in equal amounts, a guarantee of soggy, lackluster greens overpowered by too much pucker-making liquid.

Salad Principles, Part 3: No Water. EVER.

Even worse, sometimes salad dressing recipes call for water. NEVER DO THIS. If you see a salad recipe that looks attractive but has water and/or a high proportion of liquid that’s not oil in the salad dressing, I beg you to NOT USE THE WATER and scale liquid way back to the minimum 3 parts oil to one part liquid proportion.

Wilted, wet greens are gross. I love water to drink; it is absolutely the worst thing in the world to add to a bowl of raw vegetables. Lettuce and other leaves—spinach, chard, arugula—are delicate. A mixture of oil, salt, and acid wilts your greens a little, making them a more manageable volume to eat. Water just drowns them. Yuk.

This is what simple vinaigrette looks like before adding pieces of flair and greens to it. NO WATER.

Vinaigrette made according to salad principles, with greens and tomatoes standing by.

The exception to the no water rule is some Asian salad dressings. Often, by the time you add soy sauce and a little liquid sweetener (often the rice-based wine mirin), you are ending up with a dressing on the liquid side. Keep in mind that many Asian salads feature naturally crisp and sturdy veggies like cabbage and carrots, and some protein and/or noodles, all of which can stand up to a hearty pour. But delicate lettuce is miserable if it gets wet. That’s why we say someone wilts under pressure. We don’t mean they become delicious. We mean they become a mess.

Salad Principles, Part 4: Adapting Recipes.

The rule with following a salad dressing recipe: Be careful. Recipes that yield a large amount of salad dressing often are meant to be used sparingly, so don’t dump it all in your bowl. Add a small amount, toss gently but joyfully, and only then, after you’ve tasted and determined that you need a little more, add some. And for those folks who think soggy food is awesome, bring the extra to the table in a cruet and let them trash their own meal. Enable if you must, but set a good example.

For those who like to see proportions spelled out, I offer the following recipe, cautioning that it is meant to be adapted to your taste. Steve’s favorite vinaigrette, which he makes fresh every time he’s in charge of salad, has pesto. I am fond of a bite-y fine mustard, like Dijon or an artisan one we pick up someplace or other. Artisan mustard is cool stuff. Either substance (not both, please) adds a nice bang of flavor to your greens, and, while optional, I feel that without them, the salad’s a little naked and edging into “Eat the Damn Thing, It’s Good For You” territory. I find the surest way to not eat something is because I Should. The best way is because I Want. Experiment away and discover the combo that is unmistakably yours.

Enjoy.

The Life Beyond Recipes philosophy from Le Chou Fou

Life Beyond Recipes: Getting Started

What does “life beyond recipes” mean?

In my book, it means being able to do all of this:

  1. Know Yourself as a Cook.
  2. Understand Ingredients.
  3. See Recipes as Springboards (as opposed to “join-me-or-die!” decrees from the Powerful Cooks That Be).
  4. Become a Substitute Boss.

All of which leads to: Embracing your power in your kitchen.

Le Chou Fou* is here to help you do all of that, to show you life beyond recipes, and to help you become a Powerful Cook That Is.

Here’s what the points above mean in a little more detail:

Life Beyond Recipes Step 1: Know Yourself as a Cook

Life Beyond Recipes: Know Yourself as a Cook

Set aside about 20 minutes to start a page that you add to through the week. If you want something ready-made and fun to write on, sign up here for my mailing list, and you’ll get a super cute worksheet and all future downloads, exclusively available to subscribers. (See Step 4 for a preview of the substitution list currently in the works). Or just take some scratch paper and write down the following:

  1. Foods I/we love. These are the things you return to again and again, probably things where you’re already living beyond recipes.
  2. Foods I/we hate. Whether you’re cooking for one or for you and other folks, list your quirks.
  3. Foods I end up making a lot  but are kind of meh.
  4. How often I try something new.
  5. How often I’d like to try something new.
  6. If there’s a discrepancy between the 2 above items, what’s the issue?
  7. My routine. Everything from “I Hate Mondays and Never Want to Cook Then,” “Crazy Schedule Day,” to “Taco Tuesdays: non-negotiable.”
  8. My top kitchen goals. Pick one thing you’d like to do more than anything in the kitchen. Maybe it’s “try one new vegetable a week,” or “get my family to eat more salad,” or “make a killer meatloaf without cracking open a cookbook.” Star the top priority.

Once you understand yourself and what you eat, the right cooking path—one just for you—is a lot easier to define.

Life Beyond Recipes Step 2: Understand Ingredients.

If you know how a particular ingredient works, you’ll know how to prepare it. In the “Ingredients” section of this site (under “Kitchen How-to” in the main menu), I’ll be adding posts about how to put the building blocks of great meals—vegetables, sauces, spices, and more—to work for you. And please feel free to get in touch with any how-tos you’d like me to cover.

Life Beyond Recipes Step 3: Engage in Recipe Improv.

Recipe Improv: Be Inspired, Not a Slave to someone else's great idea

Life beyond recipes does not mean you never look at a recipe again. I love to look at recipes. I do it all the time: blogs, cookbooks, magazines.

But they’re not scripts. They’re inspirations.

I will follow a recipe fairly closely if it’s for something new, because that’s how you expand your repertoire and learn new things. I follow them very carefully if I’m baking, because baking is precise. But for our mains 80% of the time, I’m just cooking stuff.

This post, Recipe Improv, shows you how to get inspired by someone else’s great idea without being enslaved to it (hence the subtitle). The recipes you find on this site also invite you to adapt as you like, telling you what you can expect by switching it up.

Above all, have fun. Give yourself permission to fail. I cook a lot, and at least once a week, I’ll say to whoever I’m eating with (usually Steve, sometimes my son Henry), here’s what I’ll do different next time. Perfection is dull. Live it up.

Life Beyond Recipes Step 4: Become a Substitute Boss.

Life Beyond Recipes: Become a Substitute Boss

One of the most valuable things you can know in your kitchen is how to substitute. Coming soon: the handy Master Kitchen Substitution List (free when you sign-up for my email list, along with the “Know Yourself as a Cook” cheat sheet, available now).

Key to making the most of substitutes is the “everything out” rule before you start cooking. I doubt there’s a cook on the planet who hasn’t gotten halfway through a recipe, only to find that the one thing that basically makes or breaks the meal got eaten or tossed or just wasn’t there. This is pretty bad when you’ve hit the “point of no return” and you’re not prepared.

But with the “everything out,” even when you don’t use a recipe, you’ll be in great shape. But if you don’t have, say, BBQ sauce or salsa, a good grasp on substitutes helps you figure out how to fake it.

So Dig In.

Le Chou Fou is here to help you experience Life Beyond Recipes and total Kitchen Confidence. Because I want you to know that, with a little basic knowledge, you can cook faster and have a lot more fun while you’re doing it.

Shine on, crazy cabbages.

*Le Chou Fou is French for “the crazy cabbage.” “Chou” is also a term of endearment in France, usually used for children.