Tuna nicoise with some help from Trader Joe's

Tuna nicoise salad is the first thing I ever cooked for R*. He came over to my apartment for a week night dinner, so I needed some that felt fancy and fitting but would also be flash-in-the-pan fast to serve since I would be racing home from work to get my impressive dinner together. I guess the tuna salad worked since we’re still together, but I hadn't made it since.

On Sunday I decided to take a second try at making tuna nicoise salad. I wanted a light and clean-tasting dinner so that we had plenty of room for the chocolate cake desert. Since I had a busy Sunday, I wouldn’t have a lot of time to cook and I wanted to focus most of my energy on the cake.

The tuna, of course, is the main draw of tuna nicoise. Finding fresh tuna is difficult and expensive. As I did when I first made it for R*, I got the tuna at Whole Foods. Buying the lettuce, lemons, olives, potatoes, Dijon mustard and all at Whole Foods got to be a pretty pricey dinner.

This time, I had Trader Joe’s on my side. I went to TJ’s first and picked up excellent baby roma on the vine tomatoes (I usually don’t like raw tomato at all except for hand these were delcious!), Dijon mustard, some decent haricot verts, and real nicoise olives. Feeling French, I picked up some cornichons too. TJ’s did have one pack of fresh tuna left in the meat section, but it looked a bit brownish-grey. I passed. I still needed little potatoes and lemons – I had seen both at our new TJ’s in the past, but the store was packed and picked over by the time I got out of brunch.

No worries. While waiting in the long but fast-moving line at Trader Joe’s, I figured out what else I needed. With Whole Foods right down 14th Street, I could get a great price on some parts of my salad from Trader Joe’s and then pick up the rest at Whole Foods. I ran through Whole Foods to get $25 fresh tuna, a bag of baby fingerling potatoes and a bag of organic lemons and got back in another line, feeling slightly weird about having three Trader Joe’s bags.

Nearly every subway to Brooklyn was out on Sunday, but I eventually found a cab home. I got in my apartment and got right to work blanching the haricot verts and boiling the potatoes and eggs. I got all the vegetables in the fridge and freezer, secret weapon of super cold salad construction, and got to work on the chocolate souffle cake. Our guest arrived just as I popped the cake into the oven.

We put our big platter out on the island and the three of us had fun art-directing and assembling our salad while the tuna seared away. By dredging the potatoes and haricot verts through the dressing before adding them to the salad, we made sure the whole salad was flavored with the dressing without drowning the fragile farmer's market greens.

Some notes I’ll remember when I make a tuna nicoise next time:
-- Take the hard boiled eggs out of the water faster, so they don't get that ugly dark edge around the yolks.
-- If you leave the olives in the freezer too long, they freeze rock solid.
-- There’s a lot of pit and not so much meat in TJ’s nicoise olive. Research olive options. If you don’t use nicoise olive, is a nicoise salad still nicoise?
-- There’s something so great about Hellman’s mayonnaise and the tuna. Instead of hiding the jar on the floor, I’ll incorporate mayo right into the design of the salad. Maybe some dollops on top of the eggs.
-- Some of the other recipes I’ve seen incorporate fresh herbs like chervil and tarragon. This could add some fun spark to the salad, but I wonder if it would break the great saline/clean/refreshing taste from just the tuna, olives and a little Dijon.


I love Edy's lemonade Fruit Bars

Last night, walking home from the subway, my lemon craving took me over and wouldn't let go. I had to have an Edy's lemonade fruit bar popsicle. I ran to the grocery store -- hoping they would still be open -- and went straight to the frozen case. I saw what looked like a fresh shipment of Edy's. I saw Edy's Grape, Coconut, mixed berry flavors, Lime, Tangerine, but where was my favorite flavor lemonade?!?

I'll admit it. I dug into the freezer case, shuffled the other flavors around because sometimes the lemonade gets hidden behind the other flavors. No such luck.

I think my lemon craving was rooted in a post I read on Chocolate and zucchini about lemon curd earlier in the day.

Here's an email I sent to Edy's last night:

Hi Edy's,

I wanted to let you know that I am completely addicted to your Lemonade Fruit Bars, but they are all but impossible to find in my area. There are two grocery stores in my area that carry your fruit bars, but the Lemonade flavor always sells out. When I see them in the store, I stockpile and buy three or four boxes at once.

Our grocery stores in Brooklyn are so small. I bet they don't restock with your products all that often. The strawberry, grape, coconut and tangerine flavors are always there, but there is never enough lemonade. I've tried the tangerine in the past and it was okay -- with a taste very true to that of a real tangerine -- but I am not a big fan of tangerine. Last night, I bought a box of lime flavor and I had one (ok, I had two!) and they were pretty good. The flavor reminds me of a refreshing margarita, but still, nothing comes close to the Lemonade flavor.

I'm going to try Pathmark next since the store locator on your site says they carry the Lemonade flavor. I hope so.

Summer's about to start. Please send more lemonade flavor to your fans in Brooklyn!

Thank you.

My new favorite chocolate cake

Ever since I bought our standing mixer, I've had ants in my pants, just so excited and anxious to use it. I've been searching for recipes that require a mixer, jumping from food blog to food blog to recipe sites and fast-forwarding through Tivoed episodes of the Martha show. For my first use of the mixer, I made pizza dough. The pizza dough came out great, but it was only in the mixer for a couple of minutes and really, though it would have been a big chore, I could have kneaded it by hand. This time I wanted something that really required the mixer's power.

I found this dark chocolate souffle cake on Well Fed and waited for the weekend to have enough time to cook it.

Whipping up the eggs (first the yolks and then the whites) for this dark chocolate souffle cake was the perfect test for our new mixer. I got to shift the mixer into high speed, listen to it make a satisfying noise and watch the egg whites beat into soft peaks. This is also the first time I've ever cooked with good chocolate (Ghiradelli from Trader Joe's) using a double-boiler. I used my cleaver to chop the chocolate into smaller chunks to help it melt faster.

Since I don't have a double-boiler and -- in spite of my addiction to all things All-Clad, don't really want one since it would be one more thing to store in my small apartment kitchen -- I jerry-rigged one from a glass mixing bowl and a four quart pot.

The recipe said you could melt the chocolate and butter right in a heavy bottomed pan, but this way I was sure not to burn anything, and since I could mix the cake right in the bowl I used as the top of my double-boiler, there was no extra clean up. Since I'm not a very confident baker, it was great to work from the recipe's excellent step by step pictures.

The cake is delicious. It is light and spicy from the cinnamon and Khalua with a very complex chocolate flavor. The thin crust has a meringue-like crunch and the eggy, gooey center melts in your mouth. I served it with a side of Trader Joe's cherry preserves. I'm wondering if red pepper or other flavors could be added or replace the cinnamon to build on that complex Mexican Hot Chocolate taste.

I've been searching for my signature chocolate cake and this might be it. It definitely de-thrones my previous favorite -- the recipes from the back of the Hershey's cocoa can. And it is much better than Shirley's Tunnel of Fudge and the dusty strange-colored chocolate cake I made for my grandmother's birthday from a Cooks Illustrated recipe. My only criticism is that it surely is "rustic" as Well Fed explained, rather than beautiful. This isn't something you can bathe in icing and write Happy Birthday on, but with full on flavor and a total baking time of under an hour, who cares?