Dishes for the holidays and beyond

Grilled Corn Panzanella. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Whenever we attend potluck get-togethers, I try to follow several of my personal unwritten rules. First, bring a dish that won’t infringe upon the host’s kitchen. The dish should simply be uncovered and ready to serve, whether it’s a chilled or a hot dish. The last thing you want to do to your host is having to use their oven or stovetop, which may interfere with the dishes they’re preparing. Second, I always create a new dish, as no host or guest wants to constantly eat the same dish from you — even if the host requests a dish I brought earlier, I usually just make a smaller portion of that repeat dish “just for them.” And because we do invariably bring home leftovers, I try to create a healthier version that I won’t mind eating over the next several days. For instance, I received a recipe for mushroom bread pudding many years ago, but the original recipe called for two cups of heavy whipping cream. When I recreated it at a future potluck, I replaced the heavy cream with whole milk. When I made the recipe for home consumption, I replaced the whole milk with skim milk.

So, this recipe for a Mexican-inspired bread salad or panzanella fulfills all three criteria and adds a fourth. It doesn’t require the use of the host’s kitchen. If you bring it to a potluck dinner, it will likely be the first time the host has sampled it (at least from you). It’s a relatively healthy dish and can also be created vegan. And almost as important as the three criteria, it can be prepared well ahead of time, tossing the ingredients with the vinaigrette right before leaving the house then tossing the baby greens when arriving at your destination.

Mexican Corn Panzanella Salad
3 medium shallots trimmed and cut into paper thin slices
1/2 medium jalapeño chile thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar (you can use regular white wine vinegar instead)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 oz bag of Safeway frozen, fire roasted corn
1 can black beans, drained
1/2 ripe avocado diced
2 ounces crumbled Cotija cheese
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 pint sweet 100 tomatoes halved
8 ounces French baguette or whole wheat ciabatta cut into one-inch cubes and toasted
2 handfuls baby kale, spinach or arugula

Toss the shallot, chile, white balsamic vinegar, lime juice and oil in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Toss the corn, beans, avocado, cheese, cilantro, tomatoes with the toasted cubes of bread. Then toss everything with the shallot mixture. Right before serving, add the baby greens, then serve. You can also use toasted cubes of cornbread in place of the baguette or ciabatta. Omitting the cheese (or using a vegan cheese substitute) makes the salad vegan friendly. I baked Brother Juniper’s Oreganato bread since garlic, cornmeal and oregano-infused bread supported the Mexican flavors, but purchasing the bread is fine

Beyond the Holidays
Since this month marks the 21st year that I’ve been penning this column, I run the risk of repeating a recipe, so I’ll take a 90 degree turn and simply deconstruct recipes to their basic components and give you suggestions on how to use these components to your own taste and liking.

It starts with one of my favorite ingredients, beans. You can simply open a can and drain, but for my own personal taste, I usually reserve canned beans for spreads or stews, as the softer texture of canned beans aren’t as appetizing when used in salads. One of my favorite bean purveyors is Rancho Gordo, based in Napa County. They sell heirloom beans, which have a better flavor than the supermarket variety and at $6.25 to $7.50 per pound, they don’t break the bank. I simply cook the dried beans — no soaking required — in my trusty Fagor pressure cooker. Most beans require anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes in the pressure cooker, and I’m sure everyone now has an Instant Pot in their kitchen. Once the beans are drained and cooled, they can be tossed with substantial veggies like broccoli, broccolini or cauliflower and your favorite vinaigrette for a hearty salad. Or with cubed animal proteins like chicken breasts or tuna and perhaps other flavor agents like roasted red peppers or chopped kalamata or Nicoise olives, again in your favorite vinaigrette. Or even cooked with bitter greens like broccoli rabe (rapini), escarole or frisée flavored with a judicious use of prosciutto or turkey pepperoni. And any leftover beans at the end of the week can be tossed into a food processor for a hummus-type of spread.

Barley and Wheat Aren’t Just for Beer
When I first started cooking whole grains like barley, wheat berries and farro, the only drawback was actually cooking the grain, as it takes 25 to 45 minutes of simmering depending on whether they are pearled or hulled. Pearled grains have the outer bran layer removed and have a shorter cook time, versus hulled, which leaves the bran layer intact and increases the cook time, but also adds dietary fiber.

It’s not the time it takes to cook the grain, but what happens when the liquid starts boiling. Whole grains release a lot of foam as they cook and if you don’t watch it carefully and lower the temperature, you’ll end up with a viscous mess that boils over into your burner drain pan. That is until I found the Tiger or Thermos vacuum cookers, which contain an outer vacuum insulated holding vessel and an inner cooking vessel that’s “sealed” in the outer vessel to maintain the hot temperature almost like keeping your food on a low simmer. Therefore, I simply bring the liquid and grains to a boil but remove it from the heat source before it boils over, then place it in the vacuum insulated outer vessel and let it sit “quietly” for the 45-minute cook time. And if you use the hulled grains, the bran layer keeps the shape of the grain perchance you overcook it.

Once cooked and drained, these whole grains can be used exactly like your cooked beans (you already cooked a batch of beans, right?), added to salads, soups or stews, fortifying your dish with whole grain starches and additional dietary fiber. And while leftover whole grains may seem a little strange added to a hummus type of spread (like your leftover cooked beans), they are perfect to blitz in your food processor with nuts, seeds and legumes to create vegan burgers. Just add some cooked beets to the mixture to give your vegan burgers a meat-like appearance.

Easy Prep for the Workweek
After cooking your beans and grains, they can be stored separately then easily packed before the next workday. Just add your vinaigrette or sauce on the bottom of your lunch container, add the heartier items like root vegetables on top of the vinaigrette, then your beans, grains and proteins, finally topping everything with your leafy greens. Simply remove your lunch container from the refrigerator, shake everything then enjoy your healthy workday lunch. Since I had my own office while working, I had a small refrigerator to store my lunchtime meals, fruits and drinks. If you don’t have the luxury of your own office, simply purchase those double-walled, vacuum sealed lunch containers (Ms. S carted her lunch in those containers) and you won’t even need a workplace refrigerator as those types of lunch containers keep your food cool for several hours.

So, as we enter the Year of the Dragon (which is the tatsu kanji in Tatsumoto), I wish you health, happiness and peace of mind in 2024. Something tells me we’ll also need a lot of luck in November…

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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