Roasted Green Beans and Red Pepper with Harissa and Pistachios

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Have you ever wondered why some cuisines feature spices more prominently than others?

I think of this question whenever I’m eating at the home of my mother-in-law, who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. Dinner at her house nearly always includes traditional family favorites such as pelmeni (a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli), salads made with various root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets, for example) in a mayo or sour cream-based dressing, chicken cutlets (patties of ground chicken bound with egg and fried in oil) and smoked and preserved fish, all seasoned primarily with salt, some pepper, and occasionally a few herbs such as dill and parsley. But spices such as paprika, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and cumin? Never heard of ‘em!

In contrast, other cuisines that I love are practically defined by their reliance on specific, often indigenous spices. True Mexican food (not Tex-Mex) is spiked with chiles, both fresh and dried, as well as cinnamon. Thai cuisine is redolent with lemongrass, galangal (a root related to ginger), and Thai bird chiles. Star anise, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns shine in the regional cuisine of China’s Sichuan province.

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Asparagus, Green Bean and Edamame Salad

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One of the things I like most about summer is the abundance of vegetables that can be made into salads. No, I’m not talking about salads consisting mostly of lettuce greens topped with a few lonely chunks of cucumbers and tomatoes and doused in some uninteresting dressing. I’m talking about salads made up entirely of vegetables that, while more typically eaten as stand-alone side dishes, can be combined in innovative ways and livened with inventive seasonings.

Vegetables were definitely on my mind one recent Saturday afternoon as I was pleasantly meandering through the vibrantly photographed recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. Ottolenghi is an Israeli-born, London-based chef who has published several wildly successful cookbooks, two of which, Plenty and its successor Plenty More, have focused exclusively on vegetables. I have both, and they are terrific. They’re delicious proof that vegetables don’t have to be limited to playing second fiddle to meat but can be the star all by themselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are times when I crave a big steak or a superbly roasted chicken as much as the next person. Indeed, what would a summer barbecue be without a big hunk of meat slathered in a tangy barbecue sauce? But there are other times where I want the focus to be on the vegetables. Summer, with its grocery store bins and farmers market stalls overflowing with freshly picked vegetables in a rainbow of colors, is definitely one of those times.

Today’s post features an adaptation of Plenty More’s Spring Salad recipe. The original version caught my attention because it includes two vegetables that I adore but which I had never thought to combine in one dish, asparagus and haricots verts (a.k.a. skinny French green beans). It then takes the dish in an entirely different direction by adding sesame oil, sesame seeds and a diced red chile to an otherwise standard lemon and olive oil-based dressing. The result is an unexpected but delicious blending of Mediterranean and Asian flavors in one dish.

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Green Beans with Herb Finishing Salt

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In my last post I shared my foolproof method (courtesy of Sally Schneider on the Splendid Table) for making an herb finishing salt that’s guaranteed to make you everyone’s favorite gift-bearing party guest this holiday season.  In this post, I describe one way that I use that herb finishing salt all through the year.

My favorite use is to sprinkle it on vegetables just before I serve them.  Green beans are a great choice.   I trim and wash the green beans and then steam them for no more than five minutes.  This brings out their full flavor and ensures they stay crisp.  (I find that steaming them for more than five minutes makes them too soft for my taste.) Read More