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Sunday, March 24

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Summer, if you're doing it right, means invitations to barbeques, romantic lakeside picnics and potluck porch parties. I must not be doing it right, since I'm still waiting for the invites to start rolling in. Nevertheless, I've spent some serious time in the kitchen working up two fabulous cold salads for summer. Both recipes started out as something rather standard: tabouli and potato salad. Both good, but both boring. I experimented with some different and exotic ingredients and swapped out the standard mayonnaise-based potato salad dressing for a zesty vinaigrette, and just like that, two new barbeque stars were born.

Quinoa Tabouli
In the Middle East, the tabouli you find at most restaurants and roadside falafel stands is made of cracked wheat, also called bulgur, mixed with snippets of mint, cucumber and tomato in a light lemony dressing. This recipe swaps out boring bulgur for quirky quinoa. Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah"), has been a staple in South American diets since the Aztecs, but has only recently started to catch on in the U.S. It looks and tastes something like rice, but quinoa is actually a seed of a green leafy plant, similar to spinach. It can be substituted for rice, bulgur or couscous in most recipes, and unlike its starchier equivalents, quinoa is a complete protein and packs a serious nutritional punch.

1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp dried mint (or 1 tbsp fresh mint)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tomatoes, diced
4 scallions, chopped
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup cooked garbanzo beans (optional)

Rinse the quinoa thoroughly until the rinse water runs clear. Place the quinoa into a medium saucepan and toast it over medium heat for two minutes, or until you can smell a toasted, nutty aroma. Add 1 cup of water to the pan, slap on a tight cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, until each grain of quinoa has popped open like a teeny tiny piece of popcorn.

While the quinoa cooks, whisk together the salt, lemon juice, garlic, mint and olive oil. Chop up the veggies. When the quinoa is ready, mix it together with the dressing in a medium bowl. Let it cool off a bit, then mix in the vegetables and the optional garbanzos. This salad tastes the best after it has had a chance to marinate in its own juices for at least an hour in the refrigerator.

Toasted Cumin Potato Salad
The potato salad I grew up on in Minnesota — the same kind you can find in the deli case at any grocery store — consists of small chunks of cooked potatoes and hard-boiled eggs drenched in a thick yellow dressing of a lot of mayonnaise with a little mustard mixed in for flavor. Bright yellow potato salad will always have a place in my heart (and my childhood scrapbooks) but now that I'm a little older I like my salads with lighter, more flavorful dressings, not to mention actual vegetables in them. This recipe packs serious flavor, and since it's made without mayo, you can rest easy that you're less likely to infect any of your beloved picnic partners with botulism. Omit the hard-boiled eggs and this recipe is even vegan.

1 tablespoon cumin seeds (ground cumin won't work here)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
2 lbs small red new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into two-inch pieces
1 tbsp salt
4 large eggs, hard-boiled and chopped (optional)
2 scallions, sliced
3 tbsp red onion, chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro (substitute parsley if you're averse to cilantro)
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeds removed and chopped (use more if you're brave)

Toast the cumin in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly. It takes about a minute to get perfectly toasted, and less than a minute more to char it beyond redemption, so watch it carefully. Transfer the toasted cumin into your grinding implement of choice (I like to use a mortar and pestle, but a spice grinder, blender or food processor would all work just as well.) Coarsely crush the cumin and transfer it to a medium bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil to create the dressing.

Next, place the chopped potatoes into a medium saucepan with the salt and enough water to keep all the taters submerged. Bring it to a boil and simmer gently for about eight minutes. Keep a close eye on the potatoes and don't let them boil too long — if they get really soft you'll have toasted-cumin mashed potatoes instead of potato salad. When the potatoes are just done, drain them quickly, transfer them to a large bowl, and toss them gently with the cumin vinaigrette. Stir in the eggs, scallions, onion, cilantro and jalapeños when the potatoes have cooled down some.

Try to hold off on tasting (or serving) this salad until it's had at least six hours to chill out in the refrigerator. This salad goes well with anything and everything grilled. Pair it up with grilled marinated eggplant, a big juicy burger or both.

Punchy Punch
As a bonus, I'll let you in on my top-secret recipe for delicious, sweet, fruity effervescent picnic punch. Just pick up a jumbo bottle of white or pink wine (Carlo Rossi really gets his chance to shine, here.) the next time you're at the liquor store. Grab a two-liter bottle of ginger ale and a frozen can of raspberry lemonade concentrate from the regular grocery store. If you happen to have a punch bowl in your china cabinet, by all means, get it out. Otherwise, fetch your biggest pitcher. Fill up the bowl or pitcher about halfway with wine. Stir in half the can of frozen juice concentrate slush. Fill the pitcher or bowl the rest of the way up with ginger ale and stir gently. Serve over ice in wine glasses with a sprig of mint from the garden, or (who are we kidding?) pour it into giant red Dixie cups from Walgreens and pass ‘em around. Happy summer!

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