Quinoa Salad with Grapes, Avocado and Feta Cheese

What you're looking at up there is what I've been eating for lunch just about every day for the past couple of weeks.  And I just made another batch.  Up until my discovery of this luscious little salad, lunchtime around here was really nothing to get worked up about... a slice of turkey, maybe a clementine or a piece of cheese.  Like I said, nothing very exciting.

All of that changed after I made this as a side dish for dinner and the leftovers beckoned at lunch the next day.  Let me say that before it transformed my lunches, it totally charmed us at dinner; the sweet of the grapes, the crunch of cucumber, the bright notes from lime and mint.  I added some feta cheese for a salty kick, and of course, a little avocado is always a good thing. 

If you haven't made quinoa very often (or ever), it couldn't be easier.  Just don't follow 90% of the recipes you'll read online.  I've mentioned this before, but as with rice, the 2-1 ratio of water to quinoa will 100% of the time result in mush.  Don't do it.  For 1 cup of quinoa, you'll want to use 1 1/2 cups of water and a little salt and you will be rewarded with fluffy deliciousness.  I'm pretty sure that people think they don't like quinoa because they're not cooking it right.  You'll find more specific instructions in the recipe below.

A recent discovery that I've been using quite a bit lately is that little container of True Lime up there.  I ordered it online and don't use it so much in place of lime, but to boost the lime flavors in certain dishes.  One of the best things about this salad was the hit of lime and rather than adding more juice which could have made the whole thing a bit soggy, I sprinkled in a little of this lime powder and it gave a little boost of brightness.  It's also awesome in guacamole and on fish or anywhere you're looking for a citrus-y punch.  (And no, I received no monetary reward for that endorsement).

It goes without saying that any barbecue, picnic or summer bash will be all the better if you add this to your menu.  Just make a little extra and give yourself an awesome lunch to look forward to. Here's the recipe...

Quinoa Salad with Grapes, Avocado and Feta Cheese

This was a delicious salad recipe as written, but I felt it needed just a couple of tweaks, the first being to move the avocado from the inside of the salad to the top where it retains its flavor and bite (it gets pretty mushy after a few hours if stirred into the quinoa).  The other tweak was to add some feta cheese which gave it a nice little salty kick.  There is no doubt that the key to this salad is the lime.  Don't skimp on the lime zest, and you could even replace some of the olive oil with a little more lime juice if you wanted. Trust me on this one.  Good stuff.

Click here for a printable recipe

Recipe adapted from Katie Lee

Zest and juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup of quinoa
2 cups grapes, halved
1 1/2 cups diced cucumbers
1/2 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
4 scallions, white and light green parts, sliced
2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
diced avocado for serving

Rinse the quinoa really well in a strainer set into a larger bowl.  Swish the quinoa around in the water and then drain.  Repeat this 2 or 3 times to remove the bitter coating on the quinoa.

Place the drained quinoa in a pan with 1 ½ cups water and ½ teaspoon salt.  Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Cover the pan and let it simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let sit for 5 minutes before removing the lid and fluffing with a fork.  Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together lime zest, lime juice and olive oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Toss the cooled quinoa, grapes, cucumbers, mint, parsley, scallions and feta cheese together in the bowl with the dressing. Sprinkle with diced avocado.  Serve chilled.

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Pasta Primavera

Although we're rounding the corner from spring to summer, we're still in celebratory spring mode here.  Beginning around May 15th, our neck of the woods is mind-blowingly beautiful. Actually, celebrating spring is a fairly new phenomenon in my life.  And by fairly new I mean the last 8 to 10 years or so.  Did you know that the longer you live, the more the word "recent" changes meaning?  Yes, I'm actually old enough now to consider the last 8-10 years as recent.  Be that as it may, growing up in Southern California meant that spring was more of a date on the calendar than a real life experience.  Sometimes the change from winter to spring was almost imperceptible.  Not to say it wasn't a nice time of year, just not all that different from the "seasons" before and after, and not something we really noticed out loud.

But then about 10 years ago, with our move to the Midwest, spring took on a very real, very charismatic personality.  The sub arctic temps and brown/gray color scheme of winter suddenly exploded into overwhelming shades of spring green and an intense lushness that literally blew my mind and continues to do so.  But not literally.  That would be gross.

All that to say, spring is, indeed, a celebratory event in these parts.  And sometimes I like to mark the occasion by buying bushels of fresh, spring veggies and then scrambling to keep them from rotting in the fridge before I can get them used up.  So when I came across this recipe from Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats, I knew I had found not only a perfect way to celebrate spring (it's PASTA!!) but also a way to use up the veggie overstock threatening imminent decomposition (which included asparagus, sugar snap peas, broccoli and zucchini).

The bad news is that it's a Kenji Lopez-Alt recipe.   Which means you must get out your inch-thick spectacles and set aside a couple of hours just to read the recipe.  I love how his mind works and the way he can truly test the heck out of 31 different methods and ingredients before settling on the most perfect version of a dish that he can come up with.  

And the good news is that it's a Kenji Lopez-Alt recipe.  Which means you can pretty much trust that it's going to work and deliver exactly what you're hoping for, as it did in this case.  What an absolutely beautiful bowl of pasta primavera.  It really was everything I had hoped it would be.  That didn't preclude my need to make a couple of changes or distill the recipe down to its essentials so that you would actually try it.  I did both of those things, and yet you will amazingly still arrive at the table with what I believe is everything that pasta primavera was meant to be... light, fresh, and still just a little bit indulgent.  In other words, perfect.  

The recipe really does make a lot.  I think it would easily feed 4 very hungry people and 6 who are on their best behavior.  We put a pretty good dent in it, but then got to enjoy the leftovers with some barbecued chicken (Circle B Kitchen-style).  Simply delish. Here's the recipe...

Pasta Primavera
(Springtime Pasta)

Click here for a printable recipe

This is a Kenji Lopez-Alt recipe, which if you're familiar with his work, then you know that his recipes can be, shall we say, wordy?  Complicated?  But no matter, as usual, it was delicious.  I have streamlined his scientific verbiage and made the recipe a little more user-friendly, I think, without sacrificing the flavors or the spirit of the original.  If you'd like to see the original recipe, just click on the link below.

Recipe Adapted from Serious Eats

4 cups of veggies (like asparagus, broccoli, broccolini, snap peas, fava beans, snow peas, English peas,              zucchini, etc)
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
2 whole cloves garlic, lightly smashed with the side of a knife
3 ounces pine nuts
l lb pasta (fresh or dried - I used cavatappi)
6 oz creme fraiche
2 oz soft goat cheese
2 teaspoons finely grated zest and 1 teaspoon fresh juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup minced fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

1.  Cut the vegetables into 1 to 2-inch pieces.  If using asparagus and snap peas, cut them on the diagonal.  You can slice broccoli and broccolini into small florets and zucchini into half moons. 

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and prepare an ice bath.   Blanche the vegetables in the boiling water for 1 minute, and using a spider or other strainer, transfer to the ice bath to cool, then transfer to a paper towel–lined tray and pat dry.  Empty pot, refill it with fresh water, season generously with salt, and return to a boil.

3. Meanwhile, place the pine nuts in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium high heat.  Toast the pine nuts, stirring often until they are a deep golden brown.  Remove from the pan and reserve. 

4. In the same skillet, heat butter, olive oil, garlic, over low heat until gently sizzling. Cook, swirling pan constantly, until the garlic aroma is very strong. Do not let butter brown; remove it from heat occasionally if it starts to sizzle too rapidly. When the garlic has taken on a little color, discard it and add the blanched vegetables to pan and toss to combine. Remove from heat.

5. When water is boiling, add pasta and cook until just shy of al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Transfer pasta to pan with vegetables and add the goat cheese and crème fraîche, lemon zest, lemon juice, basil, and parsley. Set over high heat and cook, stirring and tossing constantly and adjusting the consistency as necessary with a few splashes of the starchy pasta water, until liquid reduces to a creamy sauce. The sauce should coat the pasta and leave a creamy trail on the bottom of the pan when you drag a wooden spoon through it.

6. Off heat, stir in a generous shaving (or grating) of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, drizzling with olive oil and sprinkling with freshly ground black pepper and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.

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Greek-ish Cobb Salad with Roasted Salmon

Sort of thinking that a big bowl of salad might be an appropriate follow-up to last week's decadently delicious cookie bars, and since I've had cobb salad on my mind for the last couple of weeks, that's what we're doing today.  It's actually a Greek-ish riff on the traditional cobb salad, which is high up there on my list of favorite things.

I didn't have to change all that much to give it a bit of a Greek twist; just swapped out the blue cheese for some feta, the chicken for some salmon, switched up the dressing, and I threw in some chickpeas just for fun. Am I the only one who thinks chickpeas are fun?  Well, they are.  

And they're very fun in here.  In fact, this is a pretty awesome collection of ingredients for a salad, and we ate more than we ever thought possible in one sitting.  But it's salad, so a little gluttony can't be held against you.  I've mentioned a few other ingredient swaps in the recipe headnote below.

I served this with some crusty bread from the Whole Foods bakery, but it would be even more Greek-ish with some warm pita flatbreads.  

And who doesn't crave a fresh, beautiful salad as summer heat starts to settle in.  But who am I kidding, we scarfed this baby down in the middle of a spring thunderstorm and cared not a bit as the temperature spiraled down into the 50's.  A good salad is not weather-dependent.  And this is most definitely a good salad.  Here's the recipe...

Greek-ish Cobb Salad with Roasted Salmon

I like to think of this as a template for you to collect the ingredients that reflect your own personal cobb salad desires.  Having said that, this is a pretty awesome collection.  But if you wanted, you could swap out the chickpeas for artichoke hearts or use kalamata olives instead of bacon or some chopped red peppers instead of tomatoes, things like that.  Make it your own!  But make it good.

Click here for a printable recipe

For the salmon:
2 6-8 oz salmon filets, skin and pin bones removed
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
salt and pepper

For the Salad:
lots of romaine lettuce, chopped
3-4 slices of bacon, cooked and chopped
3-4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 1/2 cups chickpeas
1 avocado, chopped
1 cup chopped cherry or grape tomatoes
1 cup feta cheese 

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 teaspoon each kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Mix together the 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and 2 teaspoons of olive oil.  Sprinkle the salmon filets generously with salt and pepper and then brush the tops and sides with the balsamic vinegar-olive oil mixture.  

Place the salmon on a parchment or foil-lined baking pan and roast in the oven for 15 - 20 minutes, depending on how thick your filets are.  Mine were cooked perfectly at 16 minutes.  But do not overcook them!.  Set aside to cool.

Mix the dressing ingredients in a jar and shake to combine.  Set aside.

Place the lettuce in a large serving bowl and then top with rows of bacon, eggs, chickpeas, avocado, tomatoes, salmon and feta cheese.  Sprinkle the eggs and avocado with sea salt and then give the salad a good grinding of fresh cracked pepper.

I like to present the salad at the table intact before adding the dressing and tossing to combine all of the ingredients.  Only add as much dressing as needed to lightly coat the greens.

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No-Bake Chocolate Oat Bars

Unbeknownst to myself, it seems I'm just a bit partial to a cookie bar.  I only recently discovered this when I came across this little gem, flagged it and then realized how many cookie bar recipes I've collected on this blog.  Whatever.  One can never have too many cookie bar options.

And this one has several qualities that make it a bit of a stand-out.  Firstly, and certainly not most importantly, there are the oats which give them a little nutritious kick.  Then there's the no-bake part which means no oven heat when summer sets in, and of course they're super easy to make which is always a plus.  Then there's chocolate.  Big plus there.  But not just chocolate, no...there's chocolate AND peanut butter.  'Nuff sed, huh?

Of course, if I'm being honest, I must also mention the copious amounts of butter that go into the making of our delicious little cookie bar, but for some reason that had absolutely no effect on my eagerness to get these made.  Butter and I are sort of making up after years of quarreling.  I've become a lot less judgmental and more appreciative, so we're getting along much better these days.

And in case you and butter are on good terms, here's the recipe...

No-Bake Chocolate Oat Bars

Click here for a printable recipe

Makes 16-20 Oat Bars

Recipe courtesy of TipHero

1 cup butter
½ cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups rolled oats
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup dark chocolate chips
¾ cup chunky peanut butter

Line a 8-inch-by-8-inch baking dish with parchment paper, and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar and vanilla extract. Heat over low-heat, until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved.

Add the oats, cinnamon and kosher salt. Cook, stirring constantly, for 4 to 5 minutes.

Pour half of the oat mixture into the prepared baking dish. Spread out the mixture evenly, pressing down.

In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine the chocolate chips and the peanut butter. Heat on high in the microwave, in increments of 40 seconds, stirring in between each increment, until melted and fully combined.

Pour ⅘ of the chocolate mixture into the pan over the pressed oats, reserving about ¼ cup for drizzling. Top with the remaining oats and drizzle with the remaining ¼ cup chocolate mixture.

Refrigerate for 4 hours, or until set.

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Parmesan Chicken

First of all, Happy Mother's Day to all you Moms out there!  I hope you have a wondrous day to do whatever it is that celebrates you.  And even if you're separated from your loved ones, I wish you a day of good eats and simple pleasures.  Sort of like Parmesan Chicken...

Not to be confused with Chicken Parmesan.  No, Parmesan Chicken is definitely not Chicken Parmesan, in which marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese and pasta are involved.  Parmesan Chicken, depicted above, happens to be one of Ina Garten's (Barefoot Contessa) creations and a dish that she describes as one of her main go-to weeknight meals.  It has has now become a staple here in the Circle B Kitchen as well.  

The dish begins very much like Chicken Parmesan in that you will be pounding a chicken breast until it is thin-ish and then seasoning it and dipping it in flour, egg and then a breadcrumb-Parmesan mixture.  

It will then be sauteed until golden brown and cooked through and this is where all similarities with Chicken Parmesan disappear.

Instead of melting cheese and marinara sauce, this now very tender, crispy, parmesan-y chicken breast will be topped with salad greens that are bathed in a lemony vinaigrette and then topped with shards of salty Parmesan cheese.  As I describe it here, it may not seem all that remarkable, but in real life, it is.  It's actually quite remarkable and very tasty; the Husband declared it a keeper the first time I made it, and in the last month I've made it at least 3 times.

It's pretty wonderful served with some lemony orzo, which is what I like to do, but if you can't resist, go ahead and leave off the salad, top it with marinara sauce, melt some Mozzarella all over the top and serve it with spaghetti.  But then you'll just have to call it Chicken Parmesan. Not the same thing. Here's the recipe...

Parmesan Chicken

Click here for a printable recipe

Firstly, we must not confuse this dish with Chicken Parmesan, which includes lots of melted mozzarella, marinara sauce and often a platter of pasta.  No, Parmesan chicken begins with the same chicken cutlet, but then takes a left turn by topping it with some fresh salad greens and shards of parmesan cheese.  For the salad you can use the lemon vinaigrette recipe included below, or use your favorite vinegar-based dressing.  A balsamic vinaigrette is awesome too. 

Recipe from Barefoot Contessa, Family Style

Serves 4-6

4 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 extra-large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 1/4 cups seasoned dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for serving
Unsalted butter
Good olive oil
Salad greens for 6, washed and spun dry
1 recipe Lemon Vinaigrette, recipe follows

Lemon Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/2 cup good olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pound the chicken breasts until they are 1/4-inch thick. You can use either a meat mallet or a rolling pin. (I sandwich the chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap)

Combine the flour, salt, and pepper on a dinner plate. (I season both sides of the chicken with the salt and pepper).  On a second plate, beat the eggs with 1 tablespoon of water. On a third plate, combine the bread crumbs and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan. Coat the chicken breasts on both sides with the flour mixture, then dip both sides into the egg mixture and dredge both sides in the bread-crumb mixture, pressing lightly.

Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saute pan and cook 2 or 3 chicken breasts on medium-low heat for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until cooked through. (Be sure to keep the heat at medium low or the parmesan coating will burn).  Add more butter and oil and cook the rest of the chicken breasts. Toss the salad greens with Lemon Vinaigrette. Place a mound of salad on each hot chicken breast. Serve with extra grated Parmesan.

Lemon Vinaigrette:
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

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