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Basic Lunchtime Favorites
part of "The Basics at Home" Series
With "The Basics at Home" series we offer pages of simple recipes within a theme. Also included is food for thought about how to use the basics as a jumping off point to create your own versions and links to other applicable recipes within the aPinchOf website.
On this page: Basic Chicken Salad, Sesame Noodle Soup, Egg Salad with Walnut Oil, Egg and Tuna Roll-ups; My Favorite Pasta Salad; Grilled Rueben
Other articles you might enjoy:
Reuben and Rachel
Ah, the grilled cheese sandwich. Chances are good that this was one of your first culinary accomplishments. I would be willing to bet that you have made at least one in the last six months. It's comfort food that can be prepared in minutes with ingredients found in most every kitchen: bread, cheese and butter.
After you made that first one, how long did it take before you realized you could add a bit of ham, a little mustard, maybe, or sliced tomatoes? What's your favorite version now that you're an adult? For me, the ultimate grilled cheese must be on a good whole wheat bread with a touch of mustard and then carefully cooked until just golden brown.
It might also include rye bread, pastrami, sauerkraut and a spicy sauce. Sound familiar? That hot deli sandwich the Reuben is really just a fancy grilled cheese. I offer you my gold standard Grilled Reuben in the recipe below.
The perfect Reuben is often the subject of passionate culinary debate. Most folks will agree that is should be on rye bread although pumpernickel rye does have devotees. The addition of sauerkraut, in my opinion the whole point of the Reuben, seems to be universal. How about the cheese? Swiss is typical but I love the melting quality of Muenster. Also debatable is corned beef or pastrami. Reprimand me if you wish but at some point over the years I decided to prefer pastrami. One last decision must be made concerning the "sauce." You could choose a good grainy mustard. Some would maintain that the proper Reuben will always include Russian dressing. I say it should be Thousand Island dressing and might even add that it's pretty much the same thing as Russian dressing.
Lastly, we must discuss the butter-the-bread-or-add-the-butter-to-the-pan debate. Until I got out into the world I knew nothing but the butter-the-bread method. The add-the-butter-to-the-pan method seemed so extravagant! Finally I realized the only "right" way to do it is the way your mom showed you with that first grilled cheese.
To make one sandwich:
3/4 cup (packed) sauerkraut
2 slices rye bread
2 slices Muenster cheese
4 ounces thinly sliced pastrami
4 teaspoons Thousand Island dressing
3 teaspoons butter, softened
Place the sauerkraut into a strainer to drain and then use your hands to squeeze out as much excess liquid as possible.
Set a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat to warm while you build the sandwich.
Start with one slice of the bread, add one slice of cheese, then half the pastrami; arrange the sauerkraut in an even layer over the meat. Drizzle all of the dressing evenly over the sauerkraut; top with remaining meat, the other slice of cheese and add the other slice of bread. Press down lightly. Spread the top with half of the softened butter. Carefully flip the sandwich into the preheated skillet buttered side down. Spread remaining butter onto what is now the top slice of bread.
Allow to cook undisturbed for about 1 1/2-2 minutes before using a metal spatula to peek at the browning sandwich. If it is nicely browned and toasty, carefully turn the sandwich over to toast the other side for a minute or two.
Transfer to a cutting board and cut into halves or quarters.
By the way, have you heard of the Rachel sandwich? Cousin to the Reuben, it is made with pastrami or turkey and cole slaw replaces the sauerkraut. Reminds me of a "Jack's Special" I enjoyed at my hometown Upper Krust Deli in Dayton, Ohio: Roast beef with cole slaw and tomatoes on untoasted rye. Delicious!
Find the recipe for Thousand Island Dressing.
Or the ultimate Mexican grilled cheese: Quesadilla with Zucchini-Epazote Filling.
If you're crazy about Rueben sandwiches, visit the Reuben Realm website.
Almost Instant Pasta Salad
Years ago, when they first came onto the market, I used to buy pasta salad mixes all the time. It finally occurred to me that in the time it takes to boil pasta I could cut up a few fresh ingredients that would be far superior in nutritional value and taste to the few dehydrated veggies in the box.
Basic pasta salad is made up of three components: pasta, vegetables and dressing. Cooked beans are always a welcome addition. Garnishes are optional but tasty improvements. The recipe that follows includes all of these and gives you a method to developing your own favorite combination.
Although a small shaped pasta is most often used in salad you can use any type you have on hand. I have found leftover spaghetti makes a quick lunch salad and works well when chopped into smaller lengths. Ravioli and tortellini are best tossed in dressing on their own and used with leafy green salads. For this basic example, use a pasta that captures the vegetables and dressing, like shells or rotini.
I haven't come across any vegetable that won't work in pasta salad. Some, like green beans or eggplant, are better lightly cooked while other, more delicate ingredients like avocado and tomato are best used as a garnish rather than mixed into the salad. Roasted or grilled vegetables are especially delectable with a vinaigrette dressing.
The choice of salad dressing is left completely to the discretion of the chef. Creamy or any sort of vinegar and oil mixture, pasta salad will take them all. Just remember you will impart the most flavor into the pasta if you toss the salad soon after the pasta is cooked and given a quick rinse in cool water.
Aside from vegetables, consider giving your pasta salad a more toothsome quality with the addition of rinsed and drained canned beans, bits of ham, crab or chicken, even chopped boiled eggs. One of my favorite add-ins is tuna.
In the recipe below we use tomato and avocado as the garnish. Other ideas could include a sprinkling of grated cheese or a handful of chopped mixed herbs. Whole peeled shrimp or tiny bay scallops are spectacular garnishes.
As always with the Basics at Home, you get the idea. Now forget the box and do it your way!
My Favorite Pasta Salad
This recipe will store for several days in the refrigerator but the pasta will absorb the dressing. You may wish to add a bit more salad dressing before serving. If you do prepare it ahead of time, wait to add the avocado and tomato until the last minute.
2 cups whole wheat rotini
1/3 cup petite peas, fresh or frozen
1 small carrot, grated (about 1/2 cup)
3 green onions, sliced 3 inches into the green part
1 cup (half a 15 ounce can) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup Ranch-style dressing
black pepper, to taste
1/2 an avocado, peeled and cubed
1 small tomato, cored and chopped
2 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Set the pasta to cook according to package instructions. Meanwhile, place the peas into a colander. Once cooked, drain the pasta so that the boiling water runs over the peas to blanch them. Rinse contents of colander lightly in cool water; drain thoroughly.
Place the carrots, green onions and chickpeas along with the cooked pasta and peas in a large salad bowl. Add the salad dressing and plenty of freshly ground black pepper; mix well.
Just before serving, scatter the avocado and tomato across the top of the salad and sprinkle with the parsley.
Makes 3 1/2 cups.
A cache of hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator means you will never want for a grab-an-go snack or the basics for an easy, satisfying meal. Chop a boiled egg into your tossed salad for added protein; devil one or two of them for a zesty treat. You can always go back to your childhood with a good old egg salad sandwich.
The following recipes breathe new life into that old standby. Egg salad sandwiches are quick to mix and taste terrific but if you're counting carbs, check out the different tortilla wraps that are out there now. Even if you are don't mind the carbohydrates you might also consider stuffed tomatoes or just scoops on a leafy bed of lettuce with sprouts and other veggies.
Egg Salad with Walnut Oil
Pretty purple flowers are an occasional gift from your garden's tuft of chives. They serve as a gorgeous garnish but be warned: they pack an intense onion punch when consumed whole.
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
2 or 3 small chive blossoms, if available
2 Tablespoons walnut oil
1 Tablespoon minced fresh dill weed (or use 1 teaspoon dried)
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the eggs into a small bowl and use a fork to break them up into coarse bits. Mince one of the chive flowers and mix into the eggs along with the walnut oil and dill; season with the salt and pepper. Serve on toast or crackers, if desired, garnishing the dish with the remaining chive flowers.
Makes one or two servings.
Egg and Tuna Roll-Ups
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
1 can (6 ounces) tuna, drained
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon dill relish (or minced dill pickle)
1 Tablespoon snipped chives
2 teaspoons minced fresh savory (or whatever fresh herb you have on hand)
Salt and pepper to taste
4 whole-wheat tortillas
1/2 cup alfalfa sprouts
Place the eggs into a small bowl and use a fork to break them up into coarse bits. Stir in the tuna, mayonnaise, relish, herbs and seasoning. Mix well to combine.
If desired, make into wraps: Heat a large non-stick griddle (or skillet) over medium-high heat. Warm the tortillas, two at a time, on both sides. Transfer to plates. Divide the salad mixture evenly between the four tortillas, spreading it down the center of each one. Top with 2 Tablespoons of the sprouts. Tuck in the ends and roll up, burrito style.
Makes 2 servings.
Soup Up Your Lunch
All around the world people find comfort in a steaming bowl of soup. Every culture has a favorite they enjoy at different times of the day. Here we put a slightly Asian twist on the all American favorite, chicken noodle soup.
A bit of fresh ginger (see a tip for keeping ginger on hand) gives the soup fragrance and zip while the tamari (a tasty Japanese soy sauce) enriches the chicken stock in flavor and color. Edamame provide a surprise with their natural nutty crunch. If your tastes run on the spicy side, use hot chile sesame oil for the final cap.
The recipe below is a springboard for your own creativity. If you substitute thyme and parsley for the ginger and garlic, remove the tamari and edamame and change the thin vermicelli to wide egg noodles, you have a more basic chicken noodle soup.
An interesting variation emerged during the first test run of this recipe. I used 1 1/2 cups vermicelli and ended up with a noodle-ramen sort of consistency. Although not at all what I envisioned, the texture was pleasing and shows how new ideas can crop up during experimentation.
Sesame Noodle Soup
5 green onions, see instructions for preparation
1 Tablespoon butter
1 large carrot, minced (1/2 cup)
1 rib celery, minced (1/4 cup)
1-inch length fresh ginger root, minced (3 teaspoons)
1 fat garlic clove, minced (scant Tablespoon)
1 Tablespoon tamari, plus more for passing at table
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup vermicelli noodles or tiny pasta shapes, see note
1/2 cup shelled edamame
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, plus more for passing at table
Mince the white part and about 2-inches of the green tops of the onions. You should have about 1/3 cup. Slice remaining green tops for garnish.
Melt the butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the minced green onions along with the carrot, celery, ginger and garlic. Cook and stir for five minutes until softened but not browned. Stir the tamari into the chicken stock and pour over the vegetables in the pan; bring the soup to a boil. Add the noodles and edamame, return to a boil and then reduce heat to maintain a strong simmer. Simmer for about 6 minutes or as noodle package directs. Season with black pepper and taste for salt, adding if necessary. Remove from heat and allow to sit for five minutes.
To serve, ladle the soup into four warmed bowls, drizzle each with 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil and a good pinch of the sliced green onion tops. Serve immediately, passing additional tamari and sesame oil at the table.
Makes 4 one-cup servings.
Note: Vermicelli is thin egg noodles (often found in the ethnic section of the supermarket) that provide a slightly richer flavor to the soup than plain pasta but is somewhat hard to find. A tiny pasta shape, like alphabets, is a good substitute that is easier to come by.
Basic Chicken Salad
Chicken salad conjures up different ideas for people. To some it's old fashioned, the ever present ladies' luncheon entree or a standard from the corner diner. To the enlightened, chicken salad has a place in the picnic basket or the brunch buffet. For everyone, however, it is a quick, nutritious basic we should know how to prepare.
The meat used for chicken salad can be leftover from last night’s roasted bird or cooked just prior to preparing the salad. White meat only or a mixture of light and dark is the cook’s choice. Some folks are adverse to the dark bits so consider your crowd. You may be tempted to use chicken from a can for quick assembly but pound for pound you will pay at least twice as much for the rather inferior canned product.
The best part about chicken salad is that is never has to be the same twice. The basic recipe below begs to be varied with curry powder or other fresh herbs replacing the tarragon. Fruits and nuts add colorful crunch along with flavor. Dried fruits like raisins, cranberries and cherries complement chicken salad but so do fresh grapes, apples or pineapple. Any nut will do, toasting them before adding to the mix is a good idea.
You will notice that the basic recipe includes plenty of fresh vegetables. Not only does this addition "health" it up a bit, veggies boost flavor while also stretching your chicken dollars.
Aside from the classic stuffed tomato and the usual sandwich on white toast, chicken salad is a versatile dish. It becomes chic when served on a bed of spring greens with a radish rose or some carrot curls. Use it to fill pita bread or spread it on a hearty whole grain wheat with sprouts and sliced tomatoes. Pack it up to go by slicing a long baguette in half lengthwise and stuffing in the chicken salad; replace the top half and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Just don’t forget to take the bread knife along!
Chicken salad develops a stale taste if held much more than a day or two. To keep it fresh, place in an airtight container and then press plastic wrap to the surface before covering and storing in the refrigerator. You may need to add a little more mayonnaise before serving.
Basic Chicken Salad
This recipe involves poaching raw chicken. If you are using chicken that is already cooked you'll just need to combine all the ingredients.
2 cups water
5 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2 4-inch sprigs fresh tarragon, optional
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 ribs celery, minced
5 green onions, sliced with about 4 inches of green part
1 large carrot, shredded
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons grainy mustard
1 teaspoon dried tarragon (or 1 Tablespoon fresh)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a skillet over high heat, bring the water, bay leaf, peppercorns and tarragon, if using, to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Place the chicken into the water. The chicken should be about halfway immersed in the water, add more or remove some as necessary. Cover and poach by keeping the water just barely at a simmer until it are cooked through, about 10-15 minutes, depending on thickness of chicken pieces, turning once. Remove from the water to cool. (Discard this water or use for chicken stock in some other recipe.)
When cool enough to handle, shred the chicken or cut into bite-size pieces. Place in a large bowl and add remaining ingredients. Mix well. Chill, if desired.
Makes about 3 cups chicken salad.
Other good stuff for lunch: Eggs Scrambled with Chives and Cream Cheese; Shrimp and Spinach Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette Dressing; Spicy Pasta for One
More pages in the Basics at Home series: