It all started with a bunch of cilantro.
I needed some for guacamole, and stores hereabouts sell it only in large ($2) amounts. Cilantro doesn’t keep well, so I’m always looking for ways to finish the herb while it’s still fresh. This time I tried a recipe from the Web for Warm Potato Salad with Cilantro and Toasted Cumin.
The recipe as written annoyed me a little, because it called for “1 bunch cilantro,” as if that were an absolute quantity. This happens often: a recipe will say “one onion,” as if onions didn’t come in a broad range of sizes. I wish recipe writers would give at least approximate measurements – here, something like “¾ cup chopped cilantro leaves.” It’s not that I can’t choose what I think is a good amount for any dish, but as a starting point I like to know what the writer thinks is good. Maybe the dish is supposed to be awash with cilantro, but simply indicating “a bunch” doesn’t tell me that.
Undeterred by imprecision, I chunked up a pound of red potatoes and put them on to boil, meanwhile thinly slicing a shallot and chopping a defiantly unmeasured heap of cilantro that looked right to my eye. When the potatoes were done I drained them, returned them to the pot, and mixed in the cilantro and shallot. In a little skillet I heated olive oil, toasted cumin seeds in it, and added that to the potatoes, along with a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
The recipe said the dish could be served warm, room temperature, or cold. We ate it warm. The cumin flavor was very strong – which was okay if you like cumin, and we do – but there was hardly any taste of the cilantro. I have a feeling it should have been held back and sprinkled fresh over the dish at serving time. Or maybe the contriver of this recipe really wanted much more cilantro than I used – in which case, s/he should have said so clearly, thus averting my dudgeon.
What we didn’t finish I tasted cold the next day. Still very cuminy, and now also showing a harsh shallot presence, but still barely a ghost of cilantro. Oh, well; not a big winner. You’ll find the recipe here if you’d care to try it.
Coincidentally, a few days later my friend Aileen emailed me a link to a Web article about salads without lettuce, noting that she thought we’d like it since Tom can’t abide lettuce. (Only a tiny exaggeration: He likes it on sandwiches, and wrapped around minced squab in Chinese restaurants.)
I was struck by a recipe for Celery, Blue Cheese, Date, and Hazelnut Salad. Not only do we like all those things, but I happened to have on hand crunchy fresh celery, a good farmhouse Stilton, dried cherries (a permitted substitute for dates), roasted Italian hazelnuts, and a Meyer lemon. I immediately decided to make it.
But it wasn’t long before I was arguing with this recipe too. First, it was billed as serving 4-8. That’s a mighty big range! Second, it called for 2-3 “bunches” of celery. In my grocery stores, a head of celery contains eight or nine big stalks, plus heart, and weighs around two pounds. I don’t know any eight people who would consume six pounds of celery at a sitting, let along any four who could!
Some of the other ingredient proportions looked iffy to me too, but I was sure there was a good concept there, so I just gathered my components and put them together in a size to suit myself. Here’s what I did for two portions:
- Spread 1 cup of sliced celery (1½ stalks) on a plate
- Strewed on ¼ cup of dried cherries
- Topped with 1½ ounces of crumbled Stilton
- Then ⅓ cup of the hazelnuts, which I’d lightly toasted in butter with a speck of cayenne
- Finally, drizzled on a vinaigrette made with 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons of Meyer lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon of zest.
This salad was a standout – quite delicious! I must admit I’d gone a bit too heavy on the hazelnuts; ¼ cup would have been fine. But they were very tasty, especially since I’d saved them from a dreadful fate: After toasting, the recipe wanted them also glazed with maple syrup. Ugh! If you like that idea, you’ll find the technique in the original recipe, here.
One last little quibble. The recipe writer says this salad goes well with roast beef or steak. That didn’t appeal to us – especially not with the maple syrup sweetness. We had my version as an appetizer, and the mélange of flavors was completely satisfying on its own. Indeed, that seems to me the rightful place for elaborate non-leafy salads like this, where they work very well as palate cleansers and appetite sharpeners.