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Simple is sometimes better when it comes to food

Building a salad is about tantalizing the eyes with colors from fresh vegetables and fruits. Dinner doesn’t have to be complicated, just be creative with your ingredients.

There are times, after several long days of reporting and writing at the Seattle Times, that I just want a simple and easy dish to eat that doesn’t destroy my clean kitchen. In my younger years that meant grabbing a burger or tacos at a fast-food joint, just to kill the hunger pangs. Since then I’ve learned a few things about single cooking along the way and I hope you can take a few of my ideas into your kitchen.

There are days I’m jazzed about tackling complicated, multi-step recipes, realizing I have the time and patience. But often times we all are in a rush or getting home late from errands or a fun happy hour with friends and we still need to nibble.

If you don’t have the time to cook something elaborate, don’t worry about it. The reason some dinners and snacks are so great is because they are simple and fresh – and that typically means healthy too.

My garden produced golden sweet tomatoes and purple carrots

Visit your farmer’s market or local store and grab fruits and vegetables that are in season. Those fresh foods are the foundation of a flavorful, simple dish. So when I’m in a hurry, salads are my go-to meal. Chopping the vegetables, greens and toppings take only a couple minutes and you can create your salad.

I grabbed fresh greens, tomatoes and purple carrots from my garden. The purple carrots catch your eye with the color and surprise the palate with a spicy, sweet flavor.

Hot in the Kitchen

Mixed Green Salad with Plum Vinaigrette:


Three cups chopped or torn fresh mixed greens, including any combination of mesclun, spinach and arugula if available

Two carrots sliced into coins

Four cherry tomatoes quartered

Two tablespoons crumbled blue cheese such as Cabrales

One tablespoon fresh herbs like thyme, cilantro, oregano and parsley if available

Any other ingredients from your pantry or kitchen that inspire you

Plum Vinaigrette (Bon Appetit, August 2012)

2 black plums, pitted, chopped and halved

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Dash of salt and pepper

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Bring plums and ¾ cup water to boil in small saucepan and then simmer on medium-high heat, stirring and mashing plums for about 15 minutes until they are broken down. Pour plum mixture through fine-mesh sieve, pressing solids through to make a puree. Let cool. Then add oil, vinegar, 2 tablespoons water and salt and pepper and whisk. Add hot pepper flakes, if you like a little kick. This can be made ahead of time and will last for at least one week in frig.

Toss salad ingredients and drizzle dressing on top.

A plum vinaigrette adds a sweet tanginess to this mixed green salad with blue cheese.

Tailor a salad for your palate

Another great thing about making salads is that you literally can open up the refrigerator and use leftovers or extras from a previous dish. Maybe you grilled salmon the night before and you can add some bites to your salad. When I grill a chicken breast for dinner, I make sure I either buy an extra large one to grill so that I have chunks to add to the next day’s lunch.

Also see what mood you are in that day. Are you craving protein? Then add tofu, salmon or shrimp. If you are craving something sweet, add fruit like strawberries, nectarines or apples. Are you yearning for some salt? Add some olives, pecans, pumpkin seeds or hazelnuts. Be creative by topping your salad with something different. My favorite additions to a simple salad are any of the following: edamame, avocado, hard-boiled egg, peas and dried cranberries. You can also add caramelized onions or crispy fried shallots. If you are like me, I also love cheese as part of my salad, so I usually sprinkle feta or goat cheese on top.

What are your favorite foods to add to your salad? Let the Solo Cook know.



Swap fresh food from garden with neighbors and friends

I call it neighborly love – and the old adage give and you shall receive rings true in my life when it comes to food.

For me, food is about sharing an experience with those you care about and why not share your fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs with neighbors. You will reap the benefits in many ways.

These fresh picked strawberries from my neighbor Tony’s garden are best when simply prepared. Try them with balsamic vinegar or thinly sliced mint.

There’s usually a neighbor within a couple blocks of your apartment, condo or house who you’ve gotten to know or need to get to know now. People love to talk about their gardens – including me. Trade food stories and exchange fresh garden items. If you have a bumper crop of sugar snap peas, deliver them to your friends and neighbors. Like me, you’ll soon find fresh veggies like zucchini sitting on your porch.

Tony, my neighbor, is surrounded by swiss chard, peas, potatoes. strawberries and beets. He’s always willing to share food from his verdant garden.

I’ve learned so much about gardening from my neighbor Tony. In many talks over beers, I’ve gotten tips on planting my garden. Whether it’s irrigation, compost or protection from critters, Tony has shared helpful stories with me. His garden is amazing and I, for some reason, have earned a pass to enter it at any time and pillage.

You can’t possibly find the time or space to grow everything you’d like to in your garden or in pots. So find fellow food growers in your neighborhood and see if food can be shared. For example, I have one neighbor who graciously gave me fresh greens for a salad and when my potatoes are grown I’ll drop some off for her. And don’t just think of food. I’ve given fresh herbs to a friend and, in exchange, received fresh-cut flowers from her yard. Another reward is discovering new recipes by asking how your friends prepared the food. If you are feeling ambitious, form a neighborhood cooperative or exchange that’s more organized.

Carrots literally pulled from the ground like these are so sweet and earthy. Cook them with thyme and a touch of butter, but that’s only if you don’t eat them raw first.

I’ll be honest with you I’m not good at growing corn. This is an embarrassing fact, since I grew up in Iowa. It could be my soil, or that my garden doesn’t sit in a hot, sunny spot or that I’m too far from my original roots. But I’m sure my neighbor Tony will have corn this summer and yes I will pillage. And yes he will receive an ample supply of my fresh, sweet raspberries. I’d love to hear your food swapping stories and ideas.