Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Figs, fennel, radishes, oh my! Recipes for a simple and scrumptious summer dinner!

Last night Ketch and I made the dreamiest summer dinner. We stopped at Agata & Valentina, this super-Italian grocery store just a few blocks from our apartment. It's got everything - the best olives I've had outside of Italy, tons of produce (including harder to find stuff like cactus pears and fennel), homemade pastas, soups, and salads, many of which are labeled vegan (vegan Portobello ravioli!!!), homemade Italian pastries, imported Italian candies, and more. It's like as if my little cobblestone street in Trastevere, Rome, lined with butchers, bakeries, cheese shops, and produce markets has been crammed into one store in the Upper East Side. The sale signs even say "promozione," adding to my ever-present heartsickness for Italy.

We scored cauliflower, fennel, fresh parsley, radishes, broccolini, cucumbers (as much organic as possible), extra virgin first press Sicilian olive oil, and vegan chocolate mousse. I had picked up figs earlier, and I knew we were about to have a killer dinner.

The color of these radishes is so vibrant and beautiful. I want lipstick and nail  polish in this color!!

Seared Cauliflower Steaks: Once home, Ketch sliced the cauliflower length wise to create two flat "steaks." He baked each steak at 375 degrees for 15 minutes and then seared each one in a cast iron pan on medium high heat for 5 minutes. You can bake longer if you like your cauliflower more soft and tender. I topped my cauliflower steak with fresh parsley, truffle oil, sea salt, and cracked pepper. Ketch made a quick wing-style sauce out of Frank's Red Hot and Earth Balance in a saucepan and drizzled it on his "steak."

Roasted Cauliflower florets: Then he chopped the rest of the cauliflower and put it in a baking dish with fresh parsley, olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and paprika. We threw in extra chopped radishes and baked at 375 degrees for 20 min or until tender.

Sautéed Broccolini: While the cauliflowers were baking/searing, Ketch then sautéed up some Broccolini. Broccolini is rather new to me and I LOVE it! It's less bitter than broccoli rabe but still super flavorful. It's like if Broccoli and Broccoli Rabe had a baby! We cut the ends off the stems (leaving them long but without the tough part at the bottom) and sautéed on medium heat with sliced garlic and oil. Also, we usually add in a 1/4-1/3 cup water after a few minutes to make sure it's not too crunchy. Only sauté for 5 minutes or so - the broccolini should remain bright green and a bit crisp - it's not as yummy if it's soggy and overcooked.

Broccolini party! 

While Ketch was making all that delicious magic happen, I was prepping the ingredients for my two simple refreshing salads. 

Cucumber Radish Salad: First, I sliced half of a large cucumber into thin slices. Then, I did the same to about 3  medium/large radishes. This amount was perfect for the two of us. If feeding 4 people, use the entire large cucumber and 6-7 radishes. I paid extra care and attention when I was slicing, as I wanted each piece to be similar in thickness and fully rounded on all sides. (I wanted some cute circles!) I alternated slices of each on a square plate, drizzled that full-flavor Sicilian olive oil,  and cracked salt and pepper lightly over it all. I added full sprigs of fresh parsley on the sides, and minced parsley on top. THAT'S IT! It was SO delicious - light, fresh, crunchy, juicy. The pepper-y bite of the radish is softened by the more neutral cucumber. I also would like to try this with Cilantro instead of the Italian Parsley next time.

Fig and Fennel Salad:
Figs are one of my top three favorite fruits (the other two being watermelon and cactus pears). I grew up eating figs right off the trees in my Nonna and Nonno's backyard (see my previous post about my always-exciting Sicilian family.) I waited and waited with anticipation all summer, checking on the figs in the trees to see if they had finally turned purple and ready for picking. As a little baby toddler Melanie, my Mom has told me that I'd come home from my Nonna's with a case of the poops from eating nothing but figs all day. (In case you didn't know, figs will definitely help keep things moving along your digestive tract!)

That being said, I usually just eat figs as is. I rarely have done anything culinary with them so this salad was especially exciting. I love fennel as well, and usually make a blood orange and fennel salad when blood oranges are in season. I enjoy fennel raw as part of an antipasto, as it is another veggie that's good for digestion. It's always on the Thanksgiving table at my Nonna and Nonno's house, along with olives, cheeses, and other standard antipasto fare. Our Italian Thanksgivings are a funny (and  filling) mix of Italian must-haves like antipasto, stuffed shells, etc. plus all the American classics. I know the licorice-y taste of fennel isn't for everyone, but it's another Italian staple I grew up loving.

I cut the top stalks off the fennel bulb, then the tough bottom butt part. Then I just continued cutting up the fennel bulb, rather like a large onion, to make curved slices about an inch or less long. It really depends on what shape you enjoy eating. For a salad, I like the fennel pieces to be a bit smaller. If I'm eating them raw, I like them more celery-stick sized. For one fennel bulb, I used about 6 medium/large brown turkey figs. I chopped the figs into chunks and tossed in a bowl with the fennel, the Sicilian olive oil, fresh parsley, and freshly ground sea salt and pepper. I also have used classic balsamic vinegar and blood-orange infused balsamic vinegar when making fennel salad in the past, but I wanted this one to be bright and simple. 

The Ambiance: I don't have the energy to set a stylish elegant table for dinner every night, especially if dinner is a thrown together mishmash of whatever beans and fading vegetables we happen to have around. But a special meal like this deserves intentionally special ambiance. I set the table with a pretty floral placemat flanked by 2 straw lemon-slice placemats. I  broke out the cloth napkins that match the floral placemat, and Ketch made up a pitcher of ice cold water with lemons and cucumbers floating about. Lemon cucumber water is ESSENTIAL for summer survival. Drinking it feels like drinking some kind of magical healing elixir a fairy or elf gave to you. The subtle flavors also help mask the sometimes funkiness of urban  tap water. I lit some candles, set out our forks and knives, and Ketch plated everything so prettily.

Dinner was dreamy, light, delicious, and full of different flavors. Nothing too heavy in this already sluggish humid heat. I wait all year for these simple summer dinners made up of a bunch of veggies and herbs, all lightly cooked or just tossed with olive oil. Mmmmmm......



  1. Can't wait to try that fig and fennel salad!

    1. Yay! Let me know how it turns out or if you add/change anything to make a new variation. :)

  2. Did you know there is actually an app for your phone that can show you nail polish shades that match things you take a picture of? I'm not sure of the ethics of the company, China Glaze, but it's kind of a fun time-wasting activity either way! I read about the app here:

    1. Whoa thanks for the tip! I'll check it out... It's a really good idea. I can search around and see if a vegan-friendly company does the same.

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