Recipe: Spanish-Inspired Green Bean Salad

With Spanish flavors still lingering on my palette from when I was in Barcelona and Valencia a few weeks ago, I came up with a Spanish-inspired cold summer salad made of green beans, roasted red peppers, and a few other simple ingredients. It has some unusual combinations, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

Spanish-Inspired Green Bean Salad
Serves 4
1/4 diced red onion
4 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 roasted red peppers, cut into 2-inch long strips
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 cups fresh green beans, cleaned, trimmed, and cut into 2-inch long pieces
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped

Place the diced onion in a bowl and toss them together with the next 4 ingredients, through salt. The onions will become more mellow and slightly pickled as they marinate in the vinegar.

Meanwhile, blanch and shock the green beans.

Layer the next ingredients in the bowl in the following order, but do not toss them in with the liquid until you're ready to serve: red peppers, parsley, green beans, egg.

Toss gently before serving.

Recipe: Peanut Butter Frosting (or Peanut Butter Whipped Cream)

Peanut butter frosting should taste like peanut butter. This cake frosting is the most delicious thing ever with moist chocolate cake, such as my no-ingredients chocolate cake, made from only eight ingredients, all of which you're likely to have on hand, or this richer chocolate sour cream cake. (Photo is my own of an original no-bake peanut butter mousse pie recipe, which uses the "frosting.")

I've written a short-hand version of my peanut butter frosting recipe at the top of the chocolate sour cream cake post, but here are some more detailed instructions. The one I used for the "salty" cake is heavy, sticky, and salty. The one posted here is a little lighter without sacrificing that strong peanut buttery flavor.

Peanut Butter Frosting
Makes enough to frost the layers, sides, and tops of a three-layer, eight-inch round cake.
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar, granulated or superfine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup smooth peanut butter, the processed kind works better than natural peanut butter because the oil won't separate
1/2 to 1 cup powdered sugar (confectioners' sugar)
3 to 8 tablespoons hot water

Either by hand with a balloon whisk or in a mixing bowl with the balloon whisk attachment, or using electric beaters, beat the cream and granulated sugar on high until the cream begins to hold shape. Do not over beat or you'll make butter. Err on the side of caution and beat a little less than you think you need because you can always whip it once or twice more if necessary. Fold in the vanilla extract and set the whipped cream aside.

In another bowl, either using electric beaters or the paddle attachment in an electric mixer (or a wooden spoon and a lot of muscle power if working by hand), beat together the peanut butter and a half cup of powdered sugar. The mixture will be crumbly. Add a few tablespoons of very hot water, a little at a time, until the peanut butter returns to a smoother texture. It will still be very thick and not spreadable. Add a few more tablespoons of hot water if necessary and give it a taste. If you like very sweet frosting, add more powdered sugar and more hot water until you have the sweetness right. The consistency should still be quite thick.

Turn the mixer to low-medium and add a few scoops of the whipped cream to the peanut butter mixture and blend them together. Add more whipped cream and continue to blend until the frosting lightens in color and becomes softer and more spreadable. You don't need to add all the whipped cream, so taste as you go to get the frosting where you like it. If the frosting has too much whipped cream, it won't hold up well between the cake layers.

Be sure to refrigerate this frosting and any cake that uses it!

Middle Eastern Eating in the Rust Belt

Off the coasts of the U.S., into the expanding midsection of this country, it always surprises me a little how people eat differently. While some differences are evident—the reliance on pre-prepared, processed, shelf-stable, and frozen things, as well as "casual dining" and family restaurants, of the Applebee's, Ruby Tuesdays, Chili's variety, establishments whose mainstay dishes include things that are fried and things that are smothered in ranch dressing, sometimes both—others are less apparent. I'm traveling this week by car for work from Detroit, Michigan, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with pit stops in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio; then looping up through Buffalo, New York en route to Ithaca, New York; then east to Boston, Massachusetts, and finally south back to my home city of New York.

The Rust Belt
Much of this route tracks along the rust belt, where the east coast and Midwest meet. People say Detroit and Buffalo are dying cities, though I see them more as struggling. The residents of these two towns have put up with this reputation for decades, and they simply endure. I'd love to say there's a vibe of tough people aggressively wrestling to make their cities vibrant again, but my take is it's more a matter of resilience. It's been too long and hard a battle to fight it anymore.

I did my undergraduate work in Buffalo, so that town and everything east of it is pretty familiar territory. My mother is a graduate of Ithaca College, who grew up in Rochester, New York. When I was a kid, we took plenty of trips to upstate New York, and more while I was at University at Buffalo.

Detroit marks new ground for me, though. And Pittsburgh—I'd been there when I was quite young, but not old enough to remember much of it, and I'm sure it's drastically different now anyhow.

What's to Eat?
Before I took off for Detroit, I did some research about where I might find a couple of good meals. My expectations in check, I settled on keeping my food bill low there. Greektown, I heard, would have the best food in the city center.

Unfortunately, I live in a decidedly Greek neighborhood in New York and already eat my fill of lemon potatoes, grilled fish, taramosalata , and tzatziki. What about other Middle Eastern food, I asked. A friend tipped me off that the suburb Dearborn had more, though she wasn't sure exactly what. Bingo. My hotel was in Dearborn, and I had a car. After a few more searches, I found a handful of Lebanese restaurants and bakeries to hit.

Food in Dearborn is cheap. Even hotel food, which is notoriously overpriced, was cheap. Nightly specials at the hotel bar for a specialty sandwich paired with a wine or beer ranged from $9 to $12. In most cities, a glass of wine alone would cost that much. Granted, the specials were horror shows for my taste (a Budweiser Wheat paired with a Philly cheese steak, for example), though not all were positioned as blue-collar meals. Riesling, shrimp, and curry all made appearances on some night of the week.

Veering away from the hotel food and onto the wide open streets of Dearborn, I noticed a lot of Arabic writing alongside English on business signs. I got take-out from Amani's Restaurant first, a $6 dinner of beef-lamb shwarma sandwich and a small fattoush salad, which came with a generous portion of soft pita on the side. There was more bread than I could eat, but I was happy with the meal. The sandwich had a reasonable portion of chewy meat without being overwhelming, and the vegetables in the fattoush were dressed and barely wilted, the mint leaves having already turned a deep, dark green color. The next day, dinner came from New Yasmeen Bakery, which sells not only sweet and savory homemade food, but also some grocery items as well.

I opted for a kofte sandwich and large square of a dessert: shredded wheat filled with a mild sweet cheese, the texture of thick yogurt, topped with ground pistachios and drizzled in warm syrup. The kofte was singularly the best I have ever had. Kofte (sometimes written as "kafte" or "kefte") can be spiced in a way that leaves it smelling like a sweaty man. If you can get past that pungency, it's great in small doses. New Yasmeen's kofte came straight from the refrigerator raw, then spent close to ten minutes getting a char. Sensational with flavors from the grill, the spices laid a tone to the meat without even being noticeable on the nose. Wrapped with pickles and garlic whip in a warm blanket of lavash, the meat struck helped to strike a perfect balance in the whole sandwich. It was small, perhaps even too small for a dinner, but it was divine. The only thing I would change is that I would order two next time. Including a bottle of water, the entire meal was $7.

The Middle Eastern influence turned up in unexpected places. I was glad to see it in Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, when I stopped for lunch at The Stone Oven Bakery & Cafe. I ordered a soup (curry carrot) and half sandwich (roast vegetables on focaccia) combo (about $7), which came with a side. My choices: chips, couscous, or tabouleh. Looking over a few other menus on display in and around Detroit, Dearborn, and in Cleveland's suburbs, tabouleh seems to be a standard option, delightfully revamping the old mayonnaise trifecta of sides: coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni salad.