Salad Days

Lucky us. Each week this month delivers the best of California farms, making us the envy of other states in the nation. Between truckloads of just-picked corn; vine-ripened tomatoes, sugar-sweet red strawberries, and juicy watermelon; eggplant, peppers, and green beans, each of my Saturday mornings begins with a trip to the ATM. With all the irresistible produce at the farmers’ market it’s easy to shop like the 1%…on a pauper’s budget.

Even though most of us limit kitchen-duty during the summer, that doesn’t stop Californians from entertaining with plenty of barbecues and picnics. Depending upon who’s in charge, though, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. A few tubs of preservative-laden side-dishes from the warehouse store do not a party make.

We’ve all been to those potlucks where you’re faced with a big bowl of over-cooked fusilli dotted with chopped ripe olives and shredded carrots or some other crazy jumble of unidentifiable chopped vegetables, all drowning bottled salad dressing. I usually take a small spoonful to be polite and then move on down the buffet line, silently praying for something better. The easiest way to avoid starvation at these affairs is to leave that bottle of wine at home—the host probably has plenty already—and bring something delicious to eat.

Homemade ravioli on kitchen wooden board

So here it is–one of my standby recipes for summer parties. I have been making versions of this salad for years, and always seem to receive compliments and recipe requests. And I never tire of it. (The salad. Or the compliments.)

In addition to actually tasting good and being moderately healthy, this salad has definite “curb appeal”—fresh and seasonal vegetables, with bright colors reminiscent of the Italian flag. It is so appealing in its simplicity, in fact, that I usually serve it on a large rimmed platter instead of in a bowl…just because it provides more surface to admire.

In order to keep the salad looking its best, try to assemble it only a few hours before serving. Conveniently, however, the various components can easily be prepared a day or two in advance. Whenever your kitchen is cool.

Pasta Salad 2.0
8 ounces fresh haricotsvert or other thin green beans, trimmed
12 ounces refrigerated or frozen cheese-filled pasta, such as tortelloni or tortellini*
8 ounces vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, halved if large
Yogurt Vinaigrette (recipe follows) or salad dressing of choice

1. Set a big bowl of ice water near the stove.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the haricotsvert and let the water return to a boil. Cook for 1 to 3 minutes (depending upon the size of the beans) just until they are bright green and crisp-tender. Remove the beans with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge them into the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the color. When cool, lift the beans out of the water with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Add more ice to the bowl of water.

3. Once again bring the same pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Remove the pasta with the slotted spoon and plunge into the bowl of ice water. When it is cool, drain well in a colander.

4. To serve: In a large bowl, combine the green beans, pasta, and cherry tomatoes. Add just enough Yogurt Vinaigrette to moisten, usually about 1/4 cup.(Start small, and add more dressing if needed. You want the dressing to coat the ingredients only enough to glisten.)Serves 8 as part of a buffet.

*I recently made this using store-bought ravioli filled with creamy ricotta cheese and Sicilian lemon zest. Oh yeah.

Yogurt Vinaigrette
A number of variables determine how much dressing the salad will require, and it seems I always have some left over. But that is actually a bonus. In addition to being a terrific all-purpose salad dressing, this makes an excellent marinade for chicken, and the perfect finishing touch to drizzle over any cooked veggies.

2 heaping tablespoons plain yogurt
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon local honey
1 large garlic clove, minced or crushed through a press
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
1/3 cup California olive oil

In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, honey, garlic, salt, and hot pepper sauce. Whisk gently to mix. Gradually whisk in the oil until well blended. Taste, adding more salt if needed. Use at once, or cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at s1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well!

Coffee Grounds in Your Garden

Q. I recently read in a gardening book that coffee grounds should not be used in compost piles as they may be toxic to some plants. We have access to a lot of coffee grounds and I’d love to use them in the garden. Are they too acidic?

Organic waste for backyard compostA. Oregon State University Extension Service has found that coffee grounds are beneficial to plants. Cindy Wise, coordinator of the compost specialist program at the Lane County office says, “Coffee grounds by volume have about two percent nitrogen, and are a safe substitute from the pathogens concerns when using animal manure in a compost pile.” The grounds provide all the necessary bacteria needed to turn organic matter into compost. Contrary to popular belief, she also has found that coffee grounds are not acidic. Instead, the grounds are close to pH neutral, between 6.5 and 6.8 after brewing. The acidity in the beans is mostly water-soluble, so it leaches into the coffee we drink. Coffee grounds can be used in several different ways in a garden. Besides a compost pile, they’re used as a soil amendment and mixed into the native soil when planting new ornamentals. They’re used as a mulch when mixed with other materials and spread around landscape plants and in open areas.

Un-composted coffee grounds will use up the available nitrogen when encouraging the growth of microbes in the soil: hence, it’s important to feed plants often with Dr. Earth All Purpose fertilizer or similar product while the microbes are breaking down the grounds. This will prevent the plants from turning yellow from a nitrogen deficiency. Coffee grounds can be added to both active and passive compost piles. In an active compost pile, one that is turned often and creates heat, layering one part dry leaves to one part fresh grass clippings to one part coffee grounds, by volume is recommended. When turned weekly, the compost will be ready in three to six months. You can add coffee grounds, to an existing pile but be sure add an equal amount of high carbon (brown) source, such as dry leaves, straw or strip of paper to balance right. We’re looking a fifty-fifty ratio between the green and brown components. Oregon State University Extension has had some issues with poor seed germination when using in un-composted coffee grounds in the seed trays or flats so it may be wise to avoid them in this occurrence.

Coffee grounds are readily available and you should make prior arrangements with a neighborhood coffee shop to collect grounds. I’d provide them with a clean five-gallon bucket with a lid. Label the bucket with your name and telephone number on the bucket and lid and then pick it up at the shop’s convenience. Coffee grounds may be stored in large plastic bags for future use but only if they’re to use in an active compost pile. They may develop a mold that disappears in the composting process. And yes, the paper coffee filters may be composted with the grounds.

Buzz Bertolero is Executive Vice President of Navlet’s Garden Centers and a California Certified Nursery Professional. His web address is www.dirtgardener.com and you can send questions by email at dirtgarden@aol.com or to 360 Civic Drive Ste. ‘D’, Pleasant Hill, Calif. 94523 and on Facebook at Facebook.com/Buzz.Bertolero

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