Over a lifetime, Cousin Martin and I have traveled to many faraway places together. In Australia, I watched him eat a witchetty grub in an Andrew Zimmern-like moment that, for me, sealed his reputation as an omnivore. So when I suggested we make pesto a couple of weeks ago, and he informed me he doesn't like garlic, I was stunned. My first thought: how did I not know? My second thought: roast the garlic! The flavor of raw garlic can be harsh, but slow cooking mellows and sweetens the garlic, so that's what we did. Then, we added some roasted red peppers, also sweet, and fruity extra virgin olive oil. The pesto, which I tossed with pasta and extra parmesan cheese, almost won my cousin over. Not quite, but almost. My husband Ted and I happily polished off every leftover mouthful.
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Lately, it's been too hot to turn on the oven or tend anything cooking on the stove. In our house, salads rule. However, not every salad begins with lettuce. This lentil and chicken salad, bumped up with chunks of crisp cucumber, sweet raisins and salty feta cheese, defines the kind of meal-in-a-bowl dishes we love, and because there's no mayonnaise, it's perfect for picnics or potluck. If your market sells pre-cooked lentils (in airtight packages, in the produce section of the store), and rotisserie chicken, this salad becomes a very easy assembly job. If you're cooking lentils and grilling a chicken breast, it's still a quick and easy summer lunch or supper. You can make the salad several hours ahead, and store in the refrigerator until it's time to serve.
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Every May, with great optimism, I set four or six dill plants, purchased at the local organic garden center, into my herb garden. I choose the most vigorous plants I can find, ones that look like survivors. I plant, and I water, and I whisper sweet nothings to them. And I count the days -- usually not more than two weeks' worth -- until the plants shrivel and keel over, deader than dead. Until this year. As I write this (I'm whispering so I don't jinx anything), my dill plants have survived for almost six weeks. I've snipped them back so they don't set seed this early in the season, and with my trimmings I couldn't resist making this Greek-inspired chicken salad. I added sun-dried tomatoes; you could add (or substitute) kalamata olives. Keep your fingers crossed: I'd love to have dill in my garden all summer, or at least for a few more weeks.
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Remember when spinach salad meant warm bacon dressing and chopped hard-cooked eggs, and we all loved it and felt oh-so-sophisticated when we ordered it at a café? Did you know (I didn't) that spinach salad, an adaptation of a German dish of dandelion greens with a bacon-vinegar dressing, probably originated in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and not in the kitchen of a French chef? These days, when it comes to spinach salad, there are no rules, as this version with bell pepper, olives, feta cheese and pine nuts proves. There are a few secrets to making great salads that draw on ingredients in your pantry, and they all come down to this: be fearless! Combine unlikely ingredients, using whatever's in season. Take a sauce you'd made for pasta, or a chutney, and thin it with some water to make a salad dressing. Don't be afraid of color. If you don't have baby spinach for this salad, pluck a few lettuce leaves from your garden. And if you don't have good feta, try ricotta salata or another salty cheese.
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