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Star-Telegram.com

The Cowgirl Chef's sides of summer

Posted Saturday, Jun. 09, 2012

By Ellise Pierce

Special to the Star-Telegram

PARIS -- After living in the no-grill zone (Paris, where this sort of outdoor fun with fire is strictly interdit, or prohibited) for the past five years, I totally get Texans' big love for meat that has been cooked over an open fire. Beef. Lamb. Pork. Even fish. Whatever. Serve up just about anything with some black grill marks on both sides, and I love it, too.

But my beef is this: Why are the sides that are served along with the grilled meat-of-choice usually so lame? So lacking in flavor ... and creativity?

Not that I don't love baked potatoes; I do. Potato salad; ditto. And borracho beans and an icy, crispy coleslaw, if they're done right. But I think we can do better ... and without a lot of fuss or extra time in the kitchen.

Because let's face it, meat on a plate needs something that is not also brown- or beige-colored. It needs color, crunch and different flavors, from juicy-sweet to tart and from hot and smoky to sharp and citrusy. And, if you're really lucky, some well-balanced combination of some or all of these elements.

Which is what I tried to do with each of these summer side salads, any of which would go nicely with whatever you have just taken off of the grill. They even can be eaten on their own, for a light dinner or lunch.

I thought about what was in season and paired those things that made sense and would look pretty together, like peaches and cabbage and chunks of melon with blackberries. My rule of mixing and matching isn't tricky or hard ... more often than not, things that grow together go together. So that's where I always begin, by looking at what's in season (which -- bonus! -- will also be less expensive). Then, I imagine how to pull the elements together, and for me, this almost always means some sort of vinaigrette.

Fruity salads of just about any sort are light by nature, so I stick with citrus and neutral oil vinaigrettes to enhance, rather than take away from, their delicate flavors. On the other hand, sweet potatoes throw out the welcome mat for hot and spicy, and beets and carrots, both available practically year-round, are happy to play with bolder tastes, too.

Spending the summer in Texas, where everyone -- including my mom -- has got a grill in the back yard, is like heaven for me. In the next couple of months, I am planning to grill as much meat as I can, and if I'm invited to a backyard barbecue (hint, hint), I promise to show up with a bottle of chilled rosé under my arm ... because that's what I would do if I were in France.

If I were allowed to grill, that is.

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Acc ent (Running Press, $25). Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on www.cowgirlchef.com. You can also follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/cowgirlchef

Peach-jalapeño slaw

2 ripe Texas peaches, peeled and pitted

1/2 small head cabbage, chopped

A handful cilantro, roughly chopped

1 jalapeño, chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

A few splashes rice wine vinegar (I like the one with garlic)

Sea salt and pepper

1. Slice your peaches into fat slivers and toss them into a large bowl along with the cabbage, cilantro and chopped jalapeño. Next, add the vegetable oil and rice wine vinegar along with a pinch of sea salt and pepper, and toss. Taste. This tastes best if you give it a chance to chill for a few hours -- or even overnight -- before serving.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 121 calories, 7 grams fat, 14 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, no cholesterol, 28 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 50 percent of calories from fat.

Sweet potato and avocado salad with lime-chipotle vinaigrette

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

Olive oil

Sea salt and pepper

1 avocado, chopped

A generous drizzle of lime-chipotle vinaigrette, see recipe at right

1/3 cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped

Lime wedges, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a cookie sheet with foil.

2. Spread sweet potato cubes on the cookie sheet. Drizzle them with just enough olive oil to coat them (about two to three tablespoons will do it) and sprinkle them with salt and pepper, using your hands to coat them well. Bake for 30-45 minutes, flipping them about halfway through so they will brown evenly. Let the potatoes cool.

3. When you are ready to serve, put the room-temperature sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the avocado, add some of the lime-chipotle vinaigrette, and toss. Sprinkle the pecans on top and serve with wedges of lime on the side.

Nutritional analysis per serving (with vinaigrette): 279 calories, 21 grams fat, 22 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, trace cholesterol, 33 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 66 percent of calories from fat.

Lime-chipotle vinaigrette

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 chipotle in adobo, finely chopped

About 1 tablespoon adobo sauce

Sea salt and pepper

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1. Put the lime juice, Dijon mustard, chopped chipotle, adobo sauce and a pinch of salt and pepper in an old jam jar and give it a shake. Let it rest for 10 minutes, add the oil, and shake again. Taste and adjust.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 102 calories, 10 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein, trace cholesterol, 56 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Blackberry and melon salad

1 cantaloupe, cut into 1-inch chunks

6 ounces blackberries

A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

Sea salt and pepper

1/4 cup vegetable oil

About 2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese

1. Toss cantaloupe and blackberries in a medium bowl and set this aside while you make the vinaigrette.

2. Put a few of the thyme leaves in an old jam jar along with the lemon juice, mustard, honey, sea salt and pepper. Give it a shake, shake, shake, and let rest for about 10 minutes. Add the oil and shake again. Taste, adjust seasonings, and lightly drizzle over the salad -- you may not need it all.

3. Sprinkle the feta on top along with more of the thyme leaves and serve.

Swap it: No feta? No worries. Use Roquefort instead. It'll give you the same salty kick.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 210 calories, 15 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 62 percent of calories from fat.

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