The Great Watermelon Challenge

So, I was in Trader Joe’s grocery shopping and I saw that they had these small watermelons for sale. I know that Sarah isn’t a big fan but even if she didn’t eat any I could probably eat one of these small ones. So, I bought it and put it in the fridge. When Sarah came home and saw the watermelon she challenged me.  “Make me like watermelon!  That is your mission!” she said.

OK. So now it was on. I had to come up with something. One night when Sarah said she wanted something light I went to work. I made soy and honey marinated chicken breast salad with red onions and watermelon. And for dessert, I made a watermelon granita with Limoncello on the side.

For the salad I made a raspberry vinaigrette in which to marinate the onions. For the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup raspberries (fresh or frozen)

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Olive oil

Juice of one lime

Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a blender or food processor. Gradually add the olive oil until it comes together to the desired consistency.

Slice one red onion into rings, place in a bowl and pour the vinaigrette over the onions. Allow to marinate for an hour or longer.

For the chicken marinade:

1/4 cup of canola oil

Juice of one lime

2 tbsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp regular soy sauce

2 tbsp honey

1 inch of ginger root sliced

Salt and pepper

Stir ingredients together and add chicken breasts. Coat and marinate for an hour or so.

Shake the chicken of excess marinade and cook on the stove top on medium high heat. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until the sugars in the marinade begin to brown. Transfer to a baking dish and finish in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool for five minutes and slice into strips on the bias.

Construct the salad by laying down a bed of arugula. Top with the marinated onions, cubes of watermelon, the chicken and some of the vinaigrette.

For the granita, add 3-4 cups of watermelon, juice of one lime and some pomegranate syrup to a blender. Blend until smooth and slowly add in 1/3 cup of simple syrup (1/3 cup of sugar dissolved in 1/3 of boiling water and cooled for at least 10 minutes). Strain through a strainer pressing the solids through. Pour into a baking dish and put in the freezer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Every half hour scrape and stir the granita until fully frozen. Serve in martini glasses with Limoncello served on the side in vodka or shot glasses.

Sarah was happy with the dishes. I was happy because I can add watermelon to a growing list of foods that Sarah will eat because of me.

Both dishes are gluten and dairy free.

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Spinach Salad with Feta and Pine Nuts

It’s true, I admit it: I’m obsessed with spinach salads. I can’t get enough. I’m forever thinking of delicious things to do to a bowl of baby spinach. I realize this obsession is a little strange, but since most of my food obsessions tend to involve things like duck fat or pork belly or ghee, a spinach obsession is probably a healthy thing!

I whipped this little salad up last night to accompany the tasty Whole Foods mushroom ravioli Joe was making. I just grabbed some things we had in the house, but it turned out to be marvelously tasty. It was so good I had another one later, while watching Jericho (excellent show, by the way), and packed one for lunch today. It’s that good. And it’s very simple to whip up.

Spinach Salad with Feta and Pine Nuts

Large handful of baby spinach, rinsed

Handful of pine nuts

A few tablespoons of crumbled feta cheese

Extra virgin olive oil (the best you can get)

Lemon juice

Pieces of leftover roast chicken (optional– use whatever you’ve got lying around)

Put the pine nuts in a dry pan and toast over medium heat until they are dark golden brown, but not burnt. They’ll be crunchy and release their oil, which is full of flavor. Crumble the feta over the spinach. Add the pine nuts, chicken, and olive oil and toss. Give it a few squirts of lemon juice and dig in. Repeat.

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Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

This is a classic American salad and a real favorite of mine. We took the classic Fannie Farmer cookbook recipe (reprinted in Saveur here) and updated it a little. This is an easy, delicious gluten-free meal.

Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

(serves 2)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tsp. sugar

2 tbsp. plain yogurt

1 tsp. rice wine vinegar

7 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 strips bacon (thick slices are best)

1 bag of baby spinach, stemmed, washed, and dried

6–8 medium white mushrooms, sliced, with stems cut off

1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

2⁄3 cup vegetable oil

2 poached eggs*

1/4 cup banana chips

1. Combine garlic, sugar, yogurt, vinegar, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl and let rest for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, separate strips of bacon, then lay the bacon in a large skillet in a single layer. Cook over medium heat, turning occasionally, until browned and crisp, 10–15 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to let drain. Pour off all but 2 tbsp. of the bacon grease and set skillet aside.

3. Put spinach, mushrooms, and shallots into a large salad bowl and set aside. Return skillet with rendered bacon grease to medium heat. Stir in oil and lemon–garlic mixture and heat until hot. Pour hot dressing over spinach salad and toss well. Coarsely crumble as much of the cooked bacon as you like and add it to the salad, saving any remaining bacon for another use. Top with banana chips and poached eggs.

*Poaching eggs is tricky. You should get the hang of it after a few tries, but if you really get discouraged, you can always go the classic route and chop up a few hard-boiled eggs. I recommend doing everything Alton Brown says, especially the bit about using fresh eggs. The texture, firmness and taste of farmer’s market eggs really can’t be beat.

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Brunch at Cuba Libre

Joe and I are brunch eaters. I’ve come to believe that brunch is the best of all possible meals. First of all, it’s the meal of leisure: you don’t eat brunch on work days, you eat it on the weekends, after sleeping in. You eat brunch with your sweetie after a relaxing morning, or with a group of friends. You take out-of-town guests to brunch. It’s fun. Second, there’s the meal itself: It’s breakfast! It’s lunch! Technically it’s both, but really it’s about being able to decide which meal you want after sleeping late enough that you really ought to be eating lunch. And unlike breakfast and lunch, brunch comes with delicious cocktails. And coffee. The dishes, too, tend to be more creative at brunch: restaurants try to outdo one another with unusual meals that draw crowds.

Brunch, in other words, is awesome. Any restaurant that can do it justice (and so many do not) is one I will frequent.

We’d heard good things about the Tropical Brunch at Cuba Libre in Old City, but it wasn’t until last week that we finally made it over there. I’m almost reluctant to write about it, because we didn’t have to wait for a table, and if I tell you how good it is you might all start going and then I’ll have to wait in line. But- sigh- I’m a food blogger, and that’s my job, so I’ll let you in on my secret: Cuba Libre’s brunch is amazing. It’s been a week and I’m still salivating at the memory.

The restaurant’s main dining room is built to resemble the patio of a Cuban villa, with tile floors and an upper level with traditional architecture and plants hanging down. In warm weather, the outer doors open onto sidewalk seating. The black-clad waitstaff darts back and forth from their sections to a small coffee bar built into a nook underneath the stairs.

Drinks are all themed, and would be a little gimmicky if they weren’t so good. Joe had a Cafe Cuba Libre, a large cup of Cuban coffee flavored with coconut milk. It was rich and sweet enough not to need sugar (which Joe normally adds). I had a pomegranate champagne mojito, which was strong, sweet and served with lots of properly muddled mint. Yum. The serving was generous enough that I had a hard time finishing mine.

Joe ordered the Torrejas, described thusly: “hazelnut and almond encrusted French toast stuffed with Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese, aromatic honey drizzle.” It’s a huge dish, beautifully presented covered in crushed nuts, honey and powdered sugar. The inner Mascarpone filling is incredibly rich. The pleasant surprise here was that it was not, as you might expect, overwhelmingly sweet. In fact, the filling and bread were very subtle, and most of the sweetness came from the drizzle and powdered sugar on the outside.

I ordered the Duck Frita Salad, and I swear to you, a week later I can still taste every bite. I’m not normally a big salad person, but this just floored me. Here’s the official description: “Warm braised duck leg meat shredded and crisped, garlic mojo, mixed greens, hearts of palm, banana chips and a poached egg, orange-saffron vinaigrette.” Yeah, I know, and it tastes even better. The duck meat was rich and crispy, with a complex flavor that contained hints of garlic, mint, anise, and possibly cumin, and the serving was generous. The greens were fresh and crispy, mostly spinach with some romaine, evenly tossed with the subtle vinaigrette. I prefer spinach in my salads and was pleasantly surprised. The poached egg added even more richness, and the hearts of palm and banana chips liberally sprinkled throughout gave the salad a wonderful crispy texture. Did I mention this dish is gluten-free? It is, like many of the dishes on the menu.

Service was mixed- we sometimes had trouble getting our server’s attention, but that was mostly because she was busily attending to the next table over, which was filled with people who hadn’t read the menu and then got surprised when their food was served exactly the way they’d ordered it and demanded changes. (I really hated customers like that when I was waiting tables.)

The brunch at Cuba Libre isn’t cheap enough for us to do it regularly– entrees average around $12– but it’s really worth the splurge. I’m looking forward to having that salad again as soon as possible.

[where: 10 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106]

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Cuba Libre in Philadelphia