Eyes Wide Shut: Asian Cucumber Salad, Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous

1 Aug

Lunch lady

Sometimes, caving is delicious.

I spend most of the year treating corn products like pot holes or wads of fresh chewing gum on the street. They’re little more than unpleasant nuisances of modern existence that I feel my hard-earned tax dollars should be spent eliminating from my life, but that I’m quite sure, through a series of nefarious double deals on both sides of the aisle and inbetween, help fund their omnipresence. Corn is everywhere!

Grill a burger, top it with ketchup and a bun, eat some fries and drink a soda and you just consumed not just what was on your plate, but acres of corn, corn, corn. It’s in the high fructose syrup that sweetens our sodas and acts as the building block for our hamburger buns and sauces (like ketchup), it’s fed to the cows that produce most of the beef for our burgers (not to mention the cheese that goes on top of that burger), and the fries that we eat with that burger are fried in a vat of the corn’s oil.

In all, about half of our calories come from corn.

The crop has taken over much of America’s arable land, kicking out multi-use family farms, turning our meadows and prairies into a bland beige-yellow monoculture, stretching from sea to shining sea and eliminating and endangering dozens of adorable / delicious / environmentally essential plants and animals that eat plants other than corn to survive. Corn is the Kardashian Klan of foods; it could have been a quirky, snarky little snap of entertainment, but it went and got greedy. Its ubiquity has deleveraged the value of the brand, eliminating my appetite for it, even straight up.

Most of the time.

This summer, I’ve thrown my sociopolitical vendetta against corn in the compost heap. I ended up with a cob of it on my plate at a cookout a month ago, and I bit into it, knowing full well that it was probably flown in from a giant factory farm thousands of miles away that pollutes and uses pesticides. It wasn’t very green of me, but it was … delicious. Sweet, salty with a smear of lime-spiked mayo and some chipotle. More please! I’ve been buying it by the bushel ever since, and feeling mildly transgressive.

Is corn and corn alone okay to eat? I mean, if it’s local and / or organic and ensconced in its little green husk, nature’s wrapping paper, is eating corn still as bad as beating up blind baby seals with a mink-covered baseball bat?

I don’t know. Ask Michael Pollan.

I do know this: it tastes like America. The America I grew up loving; a slightly sweet, slightly nutty, crunchy-crisp-soft-with-a-touch-of-tough-loveliness that needs little more than a bit of elbow grease, a lick of fire and a dash of salt to whip it into prime shape. In salads, wraps, stir fries, soups and just plain.

I’ll go back to the corn ban in September. This week, I made a Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous and a Crispy Cucumber Salad. Yes, a crispy cucumber salad. The water-logged vegetable has met its match, and its soupy reign on my parade is over.

Click on for recipes and photos.

Asian Cucumber Salad

Makes 4 servings

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated (July & August, 2011)

Ingredients:

  • 3 big cucumbers, seeded and sliced thin
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • ½ lime, juiced
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ½ jalapeno, seeds and core removed, minced
  • 1 tsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup fresh mint and basil, sliced thin
  • 2 TBSP roasted peanuts, crushed
  • Salt, to taste

Method:

  • Heat vinegar to simmer in small saucepan. Simmer until reduced by about half. This takes about 8 minutes on a slow simmer. Take off heat and allow to come to room temperature.
  • Meanwhile, slice cucumbers in half crosswise and then lengthwise. Scoop seeds out with a metal spoon. Slice crosswise. Layer cucumber slices on paper towels to drain excess moisture. Cover with another towel and put a plate with a can on top to press out excess moisture.
  • Transfer vinegar to a large mixing bowl. Whisk in lime juice, sugar, oyster sauce, jalapeno and then the oil. Toss with cucumbers, herbs, nuts and salt to taste.

Nutritional Breakdown of Asian Cucumber Salad: About 100 calories and 4 grams of fat per serving. Great source of Vitamins A, B6, C, fiber. High in sugar.

Cost Breakdown of Asian Cucumber Salad: About $1.00 a serving.

Verdict / In the Future: This is totally lunchbox ready. A few days later, the cucumbers are still crisp. The flavors are assertive, tart with a touch of sweet and a bit of funk from the oyster sauce. The jalapeno provides a nice kick. Stephen wouldn’t touch this salad with a 10-foot pole, claiming that the reduced vinegar smelled like a “pickler’s butt.” His feelings regarding fish sauce and jalapenos are quite vivid, colorful and complex, but not necessarily suitable for reprinting in a blog that my Mom reads.

Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds cherry tomatoes, separated
  • 2 TBSP olive oil, separated
  • 3 ears corn
  • 1 TBSP butter
  • 1 leek, cleaned well and sliced thin
  • ¼ cup dry vermouth
  • ½ cup parsley and basil (fresh, stems and minced leaves separated)
  • 2 cups Israeli couscous
  • 3 cups chicken stock (homemade if possible; can swap in vegetable broth)
  • ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Optional: Serve with grilled sausage, chicken for a heartier main dish

Method:

  • Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Drizzle 1 TBSP olive oil on parchment paper-lined baking sheet
  • Cut 1 pound cherry tomatoes in half and dump on baking sheet (reserve the other half). Sprinkle with plenty of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Pop in the oven and roast low and slow until the tomatoes are shriveled and caramelized. This takes about four hours; it can be done faster at 300 degrees, but the result won’t be quite as subtle and complex. Set aside.
  • Crank oven up to 450. Clean and shuck corn, sprinkle with salt and pepper wrap in foil and roast for about 8 minutes. When cool enough to handle, cut corn off the cob. Set aside.
  • Melt butter over medium heat. Sautee leeks, season with salt. When leeks are softened a bit, about two minutes, add olive oil and the remaining 1 pound of cherry tomatoes (whole), salt and sautee on medium-high until tomatoes burst and brown slightly, about 5-7 minutes. Deglaze with vermouth. Carefully remove pot from heat before putting the vermouth in – and never pour booze straight from the bottle. Cook the vodka off until the liquid has almost evaporated. Add ¾ of the roasted cherry tomatoes, plus the stems from the parsley and basil. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Re move from heat, take out the stems and bring down to room temp. Puree the sauce with a handheld blender or transfer to a stand blender and puree. Set aside.
  • Pour couscous, chicken stock in medium saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, then remove from heat. Pop a cover on the pan; after five minutes, all of the liquid will be absorbed and the couscous should be cooked. (If it isn’t, heat again and cover until liquid is absorbed).
  • In a big bowl, toss couscous with leftover tomatoes, roasted corn and sauce. Garnish with plenty of herbs, pine nuts and salt and pepper to taste. I served mine with grilled sausage. Yummers!

Nutritional Breakdown for Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous: Great source of Thiamin, Vitamins B6, C and E, fiber, magnesium. High in sugar. About 500 calories and 5 grams of fat.

Cost Breakdown for Summer Corn and Tomato Couscous: About $3 a serving.

Verdict / In the Future: Stephen said that it tastes like gourmet Spaghetti-O’s, which believe it or not, was meant as a compliment. And you know what? He has a point. It does taste like gourmet Spaghetti-O’s!

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