Dressings and sauces

This is my all-time favorite family dinner.  Not because it’s the most delicious or quickest meal I cook, but because nobody complains about it.  Even the one who habitually glares at every plate like I’m trying to poison her can’t muster a grimace.  And why would she?  Scallion pancakes are everything kids love:  mildly flavored, wedge-shaped, and dippable.

This version of the Chinese restaurant favorite is surprisingly easy to make at home and, less surprisingly, much healthier than take-out.  We like them with a huge plate of raw and steamed vegetables (carrots, red peppers, snow peas, and broccoli are good) and a tangy sauce or two for dipping.

Scallion pancakes

Yield:  24 wedges, serving at least 4

1 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 c. white whole wheat flour

1 c. warm water

3 – 4 tbsp. canola oil, for brushing and frying (or use toasted sesame oil for brushing)

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

4 scallions, tender green parts only, thinly sliced

Measure flours into a large mixing bowl and stir with a wooden spoon.  Pour in water and stir again until dough comes together into a shaggy ball.  Turn dough out on a clean counter and knead until smooth but still tacky, adding a bit more flour if necessary to prevent sticking.  Lightly oil bowl, then drop in dough ball and turn once to coat.  Cover bowl with a clean dish towel and set aside to rest for at least 20 minutes.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured counter and roll into a long rectangle of roughly 12 x 20-inches, dusting with additional flour as needed to prevent sticking.  Brush surface of rectangle with oil (canola or sesame) and sprinkle evenly with salt and scallions.  Starting at one of the longer edges, tightly roll dough into a rope.  Divide rope into four equal lengths.  Tightly coil each rope into a spiral, tucking open end under to make a round shape.  Flatten each round with your palm, then, adding flour as needed, roll from the center outward in all directions to make a flat pancake roughly 9-inches wide and 1/8-inch thick.  Lightly flour each round to prevent sticking, and stack between pieces of wax paper.

Warm a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Drizzle in just enough canola oil to thinly coat the bottom of the pan.  Lay one pancake into the hot skillet and cook until lightly browned on the bottom, 2-3 minutes.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Remove to a cutting board and slice into 6 wedges.  Keep warm in a towel-covered bowl or plate while you cook the remaining pancakes.  Serve hot.

Soy-ginger dipping sauce

3 tbsp. tamari or other soy sauce

2 tbsp. rice vinegar

2 tsp. brown sugar

1/2 tsp. finely grated, fresh gingerroot

Whisk all ingredients until sugar is dissolved.

Ersatz duck sauce

1/4 c. apricot preserves (look for one without high-fructose corn syrup)

2 tbsp. rice vinegar

1/4 tsp. finely grated, fresh gingerroot (or more, to taste)

Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan or microwave-safe bowl.  Whisk well and remove from heat.  Cool to room temperature.  (If your preserves are very chunky, you can puree your sauce for a smoother texture.)


This robust, sweet-tart jam makes a stunning appetizer spread on toasted baguette slices and topped with herbed goat cheese.  Stir leftovers into pasta or pizza sauce, or tuck into a grilled cheese or roast turkey sandwich.

Sun-dried tomato jam

Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

Yield:  Makes about 2 cups

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 (8-ounce) jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped, oil reserved

1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 c. water

1/2 c. chicken or vegetable stock

1/4 c. red wine vinegar

2 tbsp. granulated sugar

1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves

1/2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more as needed

Freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Warm a saucepan over medium heat.  Drizzle in olive oil and 1 tbsp. of the reserved sun-dried tomato oil, then add tomatoes and onion.  Cook 5 minutes.  Add garlic and cook,  stirring, until onion is very soft and starting to brown, about 3 minutes more.  Stir in water, stock, vinegar, sugar, thyme, and salt.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, for half an hour.  Uncover pan and raise heat so that jam bubbles vigorously, and continue cooking an additional 5 minutes or until reduced and thickened.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: You can substitute dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes for oil-packed (I don’t buy them, because they’re invariably processed on equipment shared with pine nuts, but they will work well in this recipe).  Just soak them first in very hot water until soft and plump, then drain before using.  Use an additional tbsp. olive oil for sauteeing in place of the tomato oil.

Packed into my garden among the winding cucumber vines and towering tomato plants, basil is taking over.  I’ve tried growing this quintessential summer herb in years past without success.  Instead of producing full, lush bouquets, my young plants grew spindly and yellow, yielding barely enough leaves for one insalata caprese.  This year, I learned the secret to an ample basil harvest:  regular pruning.  To get your single-stemmed, young basil plant to branch out, pinch off the top set of leaves and few inches of stem just above the second set of leaves.  As the plant grows, it will branch from the pinch point.  Once the new branches each have a few sets of leaves, you can pinch their stems in the same fashion.  This produces a large, bushy plant that you can harvest at will — just make sure you always pinch off stems immediately above a set of leaves.

What to do with the copious fruits of my new-found knowledge?  Versatile, freezable pesto is an obvious choice.  We have no pignoli or Parmesan in our now nut- and dairy-free household, so I gambled that a simplified version using just basil, garlic, olive oil, and salt would be good enough.  Indeed it is!  What my sauce lacks in the earthy richness of the original it makes up for with a bright, peppery zing.  Use it in any way you would use traditional pesto — with pasta and grilled, sauteed, or fresh vegetables, on pizza, with chicken, or drizzled over thickly sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese.

Basil-garlic sauce

Yield:  Makes about 1 c.

8 c. fresh basil leaves (from 2 fat bunches), loosely packed

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

Combine basil, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.  With machine running, slowly drizzle in oil.  You want a loose and spoonable — but not excessively oily — consistency.  If puree is too thick, add a bit more oil a tablespoon at a time.

Basil-garlic sauce keeps for up to 5 days in the fridge, or about 3 months in the freezer.

We ate it this week tossed with pasta, chicken, and cherry tomatoes from the garden, and on a pizza with sauteed zucchini and red onions (add fresh ricotta or mozzarella, if you like).

I’m not an impulsive person by nature, but take me to a farm stand in mid-August and I get as wide-eyed and flush-faced as another woman would stepping in front of a sale rack full of shoes.  Before my brain has caught up to my eyes I’m loading my basket with all manner of freshly-picked produce.  It’s not until I spread my haul out on the kitchen counter that I start thinking about what exactly I’m going to do with so many vegetables.

This weekend, it was a 10-lb. crate of glossy, red plum tomatoes — for $6! — that bewitched me.  The sturdy, relatively dry-fleshed plum varieties (Roma and San Marzano are two) are better for cooking than salads, so after two pizzas and a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, I turned the remaining 6 lbs. into sauce.

Making sauce from fresh tomatoes is a bit more work than making it from canned — you have to blanch and peel them first — but the results are ethereally light and sweet and well worth a bit of extra effort.

Fresh plum tomato and basil sauce

Yield:  Makes about 2 qts.

6 lbs. plum tomatoes (about 2 dozen big ones)

1/4 c. olive oil

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes (or more or less, to taste)

Two handfuls fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Using a sharp paring knife, score an X in the bottom of each tomato.  Blanch tomatoes in boiling water for about 90 seconds, then drain and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water.  Slip skins off tomatoes, peeling from the scored end toward the stem end.  Core and finely dice.

Warm a large pot over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and just starting to color, about 8-10 minutes.  Add garlic, pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring, for another minute or two.  Add diced tomatoes and another pinch of salt, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until tomatoes are soft and somewhat collapsed.  Stir in basil, season with black pepper and additional salt if necessary, and serve.

There’s a Greek church in our neighborhood that has a biannual street festival so grand you can hear it clear across town and smell it from blocks away.  It’s a magnificent spectacle, and the food never disappoints:  spanakopita, moussaka, and souvlaki, of course, as well as orange-scented, country-style sausages called loukaniko and lamb roasted on a spit and sliced right onto your plate.

The festival invariably coincides with my mother-in-law’s birthday in the spring and my father-in-law’s in the fall, and we’ve come to associate the food of the eastern Meditteranean with celebrating special occasions.  So it came as no surprise when Andy requested Greek-style chicken kebobs, grilled vegetables, and rice pilaf for his birthday dinner this weekend.

No Greek feast in our house is complete without tsatziki, a simple yogurt and cucumber sauce that’s particularly good with a grilled dinner.  The secret to great tsatziki is to draw as much excess liquid out of the ingredients before combining them (watery tsatziki is a sorry sauce indeed!).  That means salting the cucumbers and using a thick, Greek-style yogurt.  If, like me, you’re hesitant to spend upwards of four dollars on a 16-ounce container of Fage, you can fake it: spoon your usual plain yogurt (any fat content will work — 2% is my preference) into a fine-meshed sieve lined with a coffee filter (use two or three, torn open, if your filters are small) and set over a bowl.  Let the yogurt strain in the fridge for an hour or two, until thick and creamy.  It will reduce about 1/3 in volume and triple in deliciousness.  Try not to eat it all before you make the sauce — especially if it’s for someone else’s birthday.

Tsatziki with dill and mint

Yield:  Makes a little more than 2 cups, plenty to accompany dinner for 6

2 c. plain, Greek yogurt (or use 3 c. regular yogurt, strained — see instructions, above)

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced

Kosher salt

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tbsp.)

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh dill

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place diced cucumber in a colander in the sink.  Toss with a teaspoon or two of salt, and let stand for half an hour.  Drain well and pat dry with a towel.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, dill, mint, and a few grindings of pepper.  Pulse until finely chopped.  Add yogurt, and process until well-combined.  Adjust seasoning as needed.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Tsatziki keeps well in the fridge for 4-5 days — spoon off any liquid that’s risen to the top before serving.

What do I do with all these leftover herbs?

Make a marinade!  Whisk together the juice of  the remaining 1/2 lemon, a few tbsp. olive oil, a few lightly crushed garlic cloves, a few grindings of black pepper, and a handful of fresh mint and dill, finely chopped.  Cut 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or try lamb) into 2-inch cubes and toss with the marinade.  Cover and refrigerate for a few hours.  Thread onto 6 skewers, season with salt, and grill over medium heat (or broil) until cooked through.

Serve with grilled vegetables, rice, and, of course, tsatziki.

The best thing about growing leaf lettuces (as opposed to head lettuces) in your garden is that you can pick the outer leaves as you need them, leaving the rest of plant intact.  The small leaves in the center will continue to grow, providing you with a steady supply of salad for weeks and weeks.

My garden is full of leaf lettuce, and my favorite way to dress the soft, tender leaves is with a crisp, citrusy vinaigrette.  Use good mustard (I like Maille) and olive oil for this dressing because you’ll taste them both.

Lemon vinaigrette

Yield: About 3/4 c.

3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice (from about 1 good-sized lemon)

1 tbsp. minced shallot

1 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp. granulated sugar

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine lemon juice, shallot, mustard, and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk well to dissolve sugar.  Whisking constantly (if the bowl slides, coil a dishtowel under the bowl to steady it), slowly drizzle in olive oil.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  (Or just combine all ingredients in a jar with a tightly fitting lid and shake to emulsify.)

Don’t flinch at the anchovies in this classic, Italian sauce — their savory saltiness balances the crisp, fresh herbs beautifully.

Salsa verde

Adapted from Food and Wine

Yield:  About 1 c., serving at least 4

1 medium shallot, chopped fine

1 tbsp. white wine vinegar

2 c. fresh, flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/2 c. fresh mint leaves

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

1 tbsp. capers, rinsed and drained

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Combine chopped shallot and vinegar in a small bowl and let stand for 10 minutes.  In the bowl of a food processor, combine the parsley, mint, garlic, anchovies, and capers and process until finely chopped.  Add shallot and vinegar and pulse to combine.  Scrape down bowl with a spatula.  With processor running, slowly drizzle in oil.  Season with salt and pepper.

Sauce will keep in the fridge for a few days.  Bring to room temperature before serving.

A few things to do with salsa verde

  • Serve with just about anything grilled.  Chicken (I marinate mine in garlic, lemon zest, rosemary, and olive oil), steak, pork, salmon steaks, skewered shrimp, and vegetables such as eggplant, summer squash, red onion, mushrooms, and even potatoes are all fitting choices.
  • In cooler weather, try it with roasted meats (like leg of lamb or pork shoulder), fish (salmon is fabulous, or try a firm-fleshed, white fish), or vegetables (especially winter squash and potatoes).
  • Stir a spoonful into egg or potato salad.
  • Drizzle over thick slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella cheese (replace mint in the recipe with basil, if you like).
  • Toss with hot pasta.  Add steamed green beans, boiled potatoes, oil-packed tuna, or all of the above.
  • Add a spoonful to a bowl of minestrone soup.
  • Serve alongside ricotta and feta-stuffed eggplant rolls or sausages and lentils.
  • Eat it for breakfast with a piece of toast, slice of tomato, and fried egg.

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