Homemade Vegetable Dip - An Opportunity to Improvise, Or Not

Margie needed a vegetable tray to share with her teaching team last week. Instead of putting out a jar of commercial salad dressing or dip I made this for her. It was good. It also got me thinking.
  • I love cooking from scratch - because it gives us WAY better tastes, almost all the time. It's also usually healthier - few/no preservatives, chemicals, etc.
  • I usually make use of reliable recipes, rather than improvise. That is, improvise totally cold. Meaning....
  • I RARELY make something without referring to some source (including my memory) for a general outline of ingredient proportions and flavor combinations.

It may seem that I just told you I can't cook without a recipe. That was litaerally true for a long time, but now, not so much. Let me explain.

When I learned to cook seriously, I learned a lot from watching TV cooking shows. Back in the 1980's there was a lot more true instructional content on TV. I also studied a few cookbooks. Actually, very few. Each one was one of the best of its kind. Marcella Hazan's Italian cookbooks, Diana Kennedy's Mexican work. The Silver Palate books were current at the time and rather good. The New York Times Cookbook was almost a bible - as it covered so much ground. Today's equivalent is How To Cook Everything.

Most important to my learning curve was anything by Pierre Franey. He was co-author of the NYT Cookbook and provided the 60 Minute Gourmet column. He took classic techniques and recipes, made them approachable and modern, and did so in a reasonable amount of time for the home cook.

With all that great instruction and hundreds of quality recipes in just a few cookbooks, I rarely improvised. Why? I wanted to learn from them first and get really good in the kitchen before I improvised.

Back then, I'd often make the same recipe several times, making a few mistakes along the way. But at some point in the first two, three or four times I made the recipe, something would click. I'd nail a technique, or master the subtleties of an ingredient, or more simply - just plain get it right.

At the time, I thought I needed to pay my dues, learn techniques, master recipes....THEN I could improvise. That's not a way to quickly earn your professional chef stripes, but my approach worked for a serious home cook (according to the people who eat my results these days).

What does this have to do with vegetable dip? How far off track have I rambled? Not far, really. I'll boil it down like this:

  • If you don't cook from scratch extensively, make recipe below following the proportions and ingredients QUITE closely.  At least the first time or two. THEN, improvise.
  • If you already love to cook and just need some fresh ideas, have your way with this recipe....follow it loosely, and it will pay dividends.

Why? Because I believe if you just casually throw ingredients together you'll get casual results. It may even be satisfying. But if you follow a master recipe at first, one that's got great proportions, good balance and multiple layers of flavor, you'll be rewarded on many levels. After that, tweak it and make it your own.

Gospel? No. Decent advice? I hope so.

Fresh Vegetable Dip

2 cups sour cream
2 scallions, chopped finely, white and green parts
1 cup vegetables chopped very finely*
     ---- I recommend 1/4 cup each carrots, red pepper, poblano pepper, celery
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 teaspoons horseradish
1 tablespoon dried dill**
Juice of one small lemon
Salt and fresh ground pepper

 Make this dip a day in advance to let flavors develop. Serve with sliced vegetables.

* The vegetables you chop for the dip should be chopped VERY finely - 1/16" or so. If that sounds a little oppressive (or your knife won't cooperate), chop the vegetables coarsely, then pulse in a food processor.
** I wish I could grow fresh dill in my herb garden - it doesn't seem to be able to handle the Texas heat. If you have it, use at least 2 tablespoons.

Tom's Vegetable Dip Improvisation #1

1 cup sour cream
1 small shallot (instead of green onion)
1 cup vegetables chopped finely (as above - yes, that's double the proportion)
Juice of half a lime (instead of a whole lemon)
2 teaspoons dill
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons horseradish
S & P

Chicken Breasts with Balsamic, Garlic and Thyme

Chefs tend to have little respect for chicken breasts, especially boneless and skinless. While one might say the breasts are a palette that can be used to paint with flavors and sauce, the general consensus among pros is that breasts are too bland to be saved, and too easily dried out in the cooking process.

Coincidentally, Mark Bittman wrote about this in the NYT today. Interestingly, I drafted these comments last week. Cool.

To some extent, I think home cooks can get discouraged choosing to cook "healthy" boneless, skinless chicken breasts. OK - you can add all kinds of seasonings to doctor them up - from packages to bottles. But I think it takes a good recipe with fresh ingredients and a reliable technique to really make chicken breasts take the stage and receive due applause.

So, how to cook breasts without drying them out, ensuring plenty of flavor, yet not spending a lot of time? I took inspiration from my old mentor Pierre Franey and his bible, the cookbook Cuisine Rapide.

Pierre often calls for an old school technique we don't see a lot anymore - dredging chicken pieces in flour before browning/sauteing. Yet, he holds short of coating with egg and bread crumbs. The flour creates a nice little texture around the chicken, helps keep the breasts from sticking to your skillet, and may even assist in retaining a little moisture.

After browning the breasts for just a few minutes per side, I added chicken stock, bay leaf, a half dozen or so whole garlic cloves,fresh thyme sprigs and balsamic vinegar. Cover and simmer for 10 mins. Perfect. Finish with a touch of butter to thicken the sauce slightly. Optionally, add some chopped sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes. Wonderful. My kids really liked this chicken, including a "best you've ever made" comment from Alex, the pickiest of the bunch.

I served the chicken with a side of steamed broccoli and pasta with fresh tomato sauce. However, I'd recommend plain pasta or rice instead - as the sauce is so good you'll want to soak it up.

Chicken Breasts with Balsamic Vinegar, Garlic and Thyme

2 pounds boneless chicken breast and thigh pieces. Large breast pieces should be cut in half diagonally.
4 tablespoons flour
8 cloves garlic, whole
1 cup chicken stock
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs of fresh thyme. Oregano can be easily substituted.
1-2 tablespoons butter
Optional: Sun-dried tomatoes, chopped.

  1. Add salt and pepper to flour, then drag the chicken pieces through the flour. Replenish if needed.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet (or two medium skillets) over medium-high heat. Cook chicken pieces for 3 minutes, browned a bit on one side only.
  3. Add garlic pieces then turn the chicken pieces over. Cook another 3 minutes. Chicken will not be done.
  4. Add stock, balsamic vinegar, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and cook for 10 minutes.
  5. Optional: Remove chicken pieces to a plate and cover with foil.
  6. Optional: Add chopped sun-dried tomato pieces.
  7. Turn heat up to high, and boil the sauce to reduce it slightly.
  8. Add butter to sauce. Check seasoning and add S & P as needed.
  9. Pour sauce over chicken pieces and serve; alternately, spoon sauce onto plate and place chicken pieces atop.

Summer Salad with Tomato, Mango and Goat Cheese

This simple, summery salad serves about 10 people.

3 heads romaine lettuce
1 ripe mango
6 plum tomatoes
3 tablespoons red onion, diced finely
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
3 tablespoons vinaigrette (see below), or more to taste

  1. Cut the romaine leaves once lengthwise, then cut across the leaves to create thin strips (1/2" or less in width).
  2. Peel and dice the mango. Detailed tips are available in this post.
  3. Core the tomatoes and cut into any shape you wish.
  4. Add the onion, goat cheese and vinaigrette. Toss.

Subtle Viniagrette

Vinaigrette can be as simple as 1 tablespoon vinegar to 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus salt and pepper. Classic French versions add Dijon mustard and herbs. Lately, I've like using sherry vinegar and rice wine vinegar in equal parts, and peanut oil and olive oil in equal parts, with a little lemon juice:

1/4 cup Sherry vinegar
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
3/4 cup peanut oil
3/4 cup olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and fresh ground pepper

Peeling and Dicing a Mango

If you've not peeled and cut a mango before, your virgin attempt might become a little intimidating. The skin is very thick, the flesh very slippery, and the pit will pose a mysterious challenge. That's becuase the pit is a flattened oval shape. If you don't slice the fattest, meatiest side of the mango then it seems like you're not getting any flesh off the fruit at all. But after cutting just a few mangoes, you'll get the hang of it. Here are my tips:
  1. Use a very sharp peeler for the skin, such as the Kyocera ceramic peeler I recommend on my website http://www.recipereview.biz/
  2. Peel from pole to pole, not side to side. By pole, I mean the end with a stem button.
  3. Using a chef's knife or paring knife, cut a slice, also pole to pole.
  4. If you meet resistance on the first slice, then stop cutting. Turn the mango 90 degrees and cut that edge. It should provde a nice, thick slice.
  5. Turn the mango 180 degrees (that is, opposite side). Cut another thick slice.
  6. Lay one cut side down on your cutting board, then slice off the two remaining sides. You won't get much flesh.
  7. Cut off any additional flesh you can get to around the pit.
  8. From the four main slices, cut thin lengthwise slices. Then chop across these to make a small dice (cube shape).

Secret Weapons for a Great Summer Salad

This spring and summer I've been making a salad with large chunks of tomato, avodado and mango. In fact, I shared the recipe in early May.

I've been getting rave reviews about the salad since the first time I put it together.  What makes the salad work so well, besides being a nice combination of ingredients, is the viniagrette. It's just five ingredients, but the recipe has very nice proportions, using both olive and peanut oils, and rice wine vinegar and sherry vinegar. The viniagrette proportions are in the same recipe article, and I'll include them in the next post too.

The only downside is that the salad is a little pricy, as avocados and mangos are fairly expnsive ingredients. So when serving a crowd it's not so economical.

Last week I was cooking for our extended family, usually fifteen or sixteen people per night. On our "Steak Night" I wanted to serve a green salad with a few tomatoes. Simple enough. But I also had ONE mango that hadn't yet been used. So I decided to dice it up and add it to the salad. That decision too, was simple enough. Then I added 4 ounces of crumbled goat cheese. I thought it would get used on our happy hour cheese tray, but so far had been overlooked.

Why am I telling you this salad story? Because that simple salad, almost an afterthought of a dish, was the big hit of the night. Maybe even the hit of the week. Let's go over it again:

Romaine lettuce + plum tomatoes + a tiny, tiny bit of diced red onion + only one mango + goat cheese = rave reviews and requests for the recipe

I know the viniagrette, of which I used about three tablsepoons on three heads of romaine, is kind of a secret weapon that makes almost any salad special. Yet most of the discussion was about the mango. From my perspective, it was nothing much. But as with the avocado/mango/tomato salad, the mango seems to be a real crowd pleaser. The fact that the little bit of goat cheese turned the viniagrette into a creamy salad dressing was an added bonus.

It really was pretty darn good salad. It also was very, very simple except for one thing, which you can master quicly, if you haven't already. Peeling and dicing the mango. There are a couple ways to attack a mango. What I share in the next post is what seems to be easiest for most people.


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