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Archive for the ‘Salads’ Category

A brief heat wave earlier this month made me think about a picnic. Normally, I can take picnic fixings up onto my building’s roof garden, but this spring a very aggressive mockingbird who has a nest somewhere up there has taken to dive-bombing anyone he regards as encroaching on his territory. His beak is sharp and his aim is good.

Oh, well. A picnic in the dining room can be pleasant too, and there we have air conditioning, comfortable chairs, and a good CD player. And no avian attackers.

One of Tom’s and my favorite dishes for hot-weather fare is a big salade niçoise. But it’s still too early in the season for the fully ripe field-grown tomatoes and freshly dug potatoes that the dish wants, so I looked for other cold-platter combinations.

It so happened that I had many new choices just then. My friend Betty, who was downsizing her book collection, had dropped off a pile of cookbooks for me to look at, in case I might want any of them. A 1986 volume called A Taste of Italy, by Antonio Carluccio, a British restaurateur, had a number of interesting looking recipes, including three new-to-me antipasto items that I made for my picnic platter.

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What you see here are raw-beef meatballs, eggs stuffed with tuna, eggplant rolls, an heirloom tomato (hothouse, but best I could find), and a wedge of sheep-milk ricotta. The green wisps around the edge of the plate are bits of cilantro that I managed to snip from a plant in my rooftop herb collection before the militant mockingbird chased me away.

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Uova Ripiene di Tonno

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Deviled eggs are a time-honored summer treat. I usually mash their yolks with whatever condiments I feel like pulling out of the refrigerator that day – mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, soy, Worcestershire, Cholula, pimentòn, capers, cornichons? This recipe, more restrained, calls for a lot of canned tuna and only a little mayonnaise, parsley, capers, and black pepper. That way, the balls of filling are the main component of the dish, the whites merely a casing. Especially if made with the rich Italian belly tuna called ventresca, it’s a tasty little dish. (The parsley was also from my roof, snuck out under the baleful eye of that bird.)

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Insalata di Carne Cruda

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While steak tartare is always eaten immediately after its preparation, the raw beef here is minced together with parsley and garlic; dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper; and held in the refrigerator for a whole day before being eaten. That made the lemon juice “cook” my beef like seviche, turning its bright red color to grayish pink and somehow flattening all its rich meatiness. The headnote calls this a popular Piedmontese recipe, but the versions of carne cruda that I know are made with veal, not beef; and lemon juice is added only at the last minute. For me, this was a terrible way to treat excellent sirloin.

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Involtini di Melanzane

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These eggplant rolls tasted better than they looked. My eggplant (store-bought; too early for local ones) had excessively well-developed seeds. Sliced thin, the flesh around its seeds had very little substance. Browned in olive oil, drained, and spread with a chopping of parsley, pine nuts, capers, and garlic, the slices were too fragile to roll properly. Folded over and baked for 20 minutes, they darkened too much at the ends and partially burst open at the middle. Annoying! But this treatment has promise. I’ll try it again, with a fresher, less mature eggplant that I’ll cut in somewhat thicker slices.

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All in all, though, that platterful made a nice first-of-the-year indoor picnic. So far, I’d call the score for this cookbook a hit, a miss, and a maybe. I’ve marked a dozen of its other recipes for trying someday, so we’ll see how that score changes over time. Good thing it doesn’t have a recipe for spit-roasted mockingbird!
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With the annual overeating season finally behind us, I’ve been longing for the gastronomic relief of some fresh, lighter fare. Not too easy at this time of year, but possible. For example, here’s a pleasant little winter salad of celery, dates, and almonds that I make from time to time as a family dinner appetizer – and occasionally even for guests.
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The three main ingredients have a surprising affinity for each other. There are many recipes for salads of them online, with variations in ingredient proportions and dressings. I don’t remember where mine – a years-old typewritten slip pasted in my big recipe binder – originated, but I haven’t seen this exact version anywhere else. Here are the ingredients for two servings.
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Starting with an ounce of almonds in their skins, I blanch them. That is, drop them into boiling water for 20 seconds, drain them, and squeeze off the skins.
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Then I put them in a little skillet with salt, pepper, and a bit of olive oil, and toast them.

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Next comes the knife work, usually performed by my obliging husband. A cup of thinly sliced celery, the almonds coarsely chopped, and the two Medjool dates slivered. The last is the most exasperating task of the lot because of the stickiness of the dates, but he always perseveres, cursing steadily under his breath.
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I toss those ingredients together in a bowl with a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and a few drops of wine vinegar . . .
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. . . then distribute the mixture onto plates and shower on shavings of pecorino romano. (All the other recipes I’ve seen call for parmigiano, but we like the sharper sheep cheese here.)
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The result is quite delightful: moist, light, zesty, vegetal, nutty, cheesy, sweet, and crunchy. What more could one ask?

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Salade Lyonnaise

The deadly heat wave that scorched most of the US last weekend was my fault, I fear: The weather gods noticed that I’d just published a post saying summer in New York hadn’t been too hot yet. I’ll never learn!

So I’ve been back on the hunt for interesting new summer recipes. Today’s good salad dish came about by happenstance. For another kind of salad I needed frisée, which isn’t always available locally. Tom, doing the shopping, brought home the only head of it there was in any of our stores. The thing was gigantic: Even after using as much as I needed for that first dish, what remained was a great green wig more than 18 inches across.

 

Frisée is delicate, so I’d have to use it soon. Salade lyonnaise came to mind, since I’d enjoyed one recently during my cruise on the Rhône. It’s a dish of bitter greens and crisp bacon, an atypical vinaigrette, and the crowning touch of a poached egg.

Surprisingly, none of my cookbooks had a recipe for the dish, but the internet had many of them. One by Mark Bittman of the New York Times seemed like a classic so I took it as a model. For two portions I tore up enough of the palest friseé to fill two cups, tightly packed, and set it aside. Then I slowly crisped four slices of bacon in a skillet with a little olive oil.

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That was an error, as it happened. I was supposed to cut up the bacon raw, and I hadn’t paid attention. Not a problem, though: I took out the cooked slices, chopped them, and returned them to the pan, leaving in all the rendered bacon fat. Next I added a tablespoon of chopped red onion. That was twice as much onion as the recipe called for, but still a very modest amount.
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After a minute’s sauteeing, I stirred in two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and half a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to complete the dressing for the greens.

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For poaching the eggs, I used my regular technique (learned long ago from From Julia Child’s Kitchen.) A little fussier than Bittman’s, it turns out perfectly cooked fresh jumbo eggs in exactly 3½ minutes. Unfortunately, as can be seen below, this day one of my two eggs wasn’t fresh enough: the white spread out and partially slid away from the yolk, spoiling the oval shape.
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I slipped the eggs into cool water to halt the cooking and, since this was not for a company dinner, didn’t bother trimming off the unsightly bits. My bad. But they taste just as good as aesthetically pleasing eggs.
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I spread the frisée on two plates, tossed it with the rewarmed bacon dressing, and topped each with an egg. Here’s the portion with the nicer shaped egg:
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At table, after the usual family squabble over who should have the better-looking plate (This time Tom won; I got it), we each broke open our egg so the liquid yolk could mingle with the greens, and added salt and pepper to taste.
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Simply fabulous! I’d been worried that there might not be enough dressing to coat all the frisée, but it turned out to be a perfect amount. A vinaigrette with rendered bacon fat taking the place of olive oil is just wickedly good. A little more onion in the dish wouldn’t have hurt, and we both could happily have eaten a second poached egg on it. Even so, all the flavors came together in a luscious harmony, for a salade lyonnaise even better than the one our cruise ship had served.

Before the rest of my frisée wilts, I think I’ll be doing this dish again.

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Summer hasn’t so far smothered New York City with the kind of punishing heat wave that has afflicted other parts of the country this July, but our temperatures and humidity have been high enough, for long enough, to make the prospect of cooking – especially oven cooking – less attractive than it normally is for me.

Consequently, I’ve been looking into recipes for dishes that can be either cooked in advance and served cool, or made all of raw ingredients, not cooked at all. I found a really nice one of the latter type in Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain.

It’s her Ensalada de Champiñon, a mushroom and cured ham salad. I wouldn’t consider it a side salad – that is, something to be served along with a meal’s main course – because it’s so substantial in itself. But it would make an excellent component of a tapas spread, as Casas suggests, and for me it was a delightful appetizer.

For the two main ingredients I sliced fresh white mushrooms and cut julienne strips of Spanish Serrano ham. Though I was halving the recipe, I used the full quantity of ham because I wanted to give it more prominence in the dish. The dressing, from a separate recipe called El Aliño (which my dictionary says simply means “dressing”), is the most elaborate salad dressing I’ve ever made. Here are all the components:

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In addition to the mushrooms and ham, above, there are olive oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, prepared horseradish, Parmesan cheese, garlic, basil, thyme, marjoram, parsley, salt, and pepper. To make the dressing I just dumped its dozen ingredients into my mini food processor and ran it until they combined into a cream.  Now, that’s summer cooking!

At serving time I sprinkled a little lemon juice on the mushroom slices, added the ham strips, and gently tossed everything with some of the dressing. The extra dressing I served in a little bowl for each of us to add more to our portion if we wished.

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Easy as it was to prepare, the salad was surprisingly complex in its flavors. There’s a real affinity between Serrano ham and mushrooms. Casas allows the use of Italian prosciutto in all her cured ham recipes, but the stronger, firmer Spanish ham was perfect here. I’m glad I raised the quantity of it. The dressing drew the dish together in a subtle way, with all the dressing ingredients making their small contributions to the blend. Tom, normally no great fan of salads, only regretted we couldn’t have gotten wild ovoli mushrooms instead of cultivated white ones, which would have raised the dish to even greater heights of enjoyment.

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During the holiday season just past, I served two excellent French-style dinner-party appetizers that I look forward to making again in the coming year. As an aid to memory, I thought I’d start my 2019 blog with an appreciation of the two dishes.

One, asparagus croûtes, was quick, easy, and even tastier than I’d thought it would be from reading the recipe. The other, salade de geziers, was also quick and easy in the assembly and thoroughly delicious in the eating, but the chief component has to be prepared far in advance.

 

Asparagus Croûtes
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This is a plain looking dish, but its simple flavors come together in one of those magical French ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Hint: Think butter.) The recipe comes from esteemed chef Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, which gives it a distinguished culinary pedigree.

For each serving you need one slice of homemade-style white bread, crust cut off and the slice cut in half; and enough spears of asparagus – thick or thin, as you prefer – to top the bread completely. In my version, on each half slice I used the tip ends of four thinnish spears, cut in lengths the size of the bread.

The asparagus gets cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, then sauteed gently in butter for two minutes. The bread is fried in butter and olive oil until golden. In a baking dish you place the bread slices, arrange the asparagus on them, and sprinkle generously with grated Swiss cheese and fine dry breadcrumbs.

Then, you either run the dish under a broiler or else bake it in a 450° oven until the croûtes are golden and bubbly. Doesn’t look like a lot on the plate, but it’s quite filling. Of course, if you’re feeding very hearty eaters, you can always increase the number of croûtes per person.

 

Salade de Geziers
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Geziers are gizzards, an ingredient many Americans consign to cat food – a big mistake. Gizzards can be delicious. While one of them should be included in every bag of giblets tucked inside a purchased chicken, it takes a long time to collect and freeze enough gizzards to do anything significant with, so I buy them separately. And what I do is confit them. Making confit is a time-consuming process, but once it’s done you have the wherewithal for this splendid salad.

Essentially, to confit gizzards you toss them with salt and refrigerate them for a day. Scrape off the salt, put the gizzards in a heavy casserole with melted duck fat to cover, bring it to a simmer, and cook covered in a very low oven for several hours, until they are tender. Drain, cool, and transfer them to a large jar; and pour over enough of the cooled cooking fat to cover them completely. They keep in the refrigerator for months.

For the salad, you want a leafy green that’s at least a little bitter, to contrast with the unctuous gizzards. Frisée is my first choice, but if it’s not available, tender leaves from the heart of escarole do very well. I dress them with a vinaigrette made with walnut oil and my homemade red wine vinegar, then top them with warmed gizzards. It’s an intriguing combination on the palate: crisp and soft, sharp and mellow, bracing and soothing.

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Both these dishes are truly – literally – appetizers. That is, they stimulate your appetite for what will be coming next. Nice.

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Local corn is finally in at my Greenmarket! Corn season started late this year, and then there were flood washouts from heavy rain in parts of New Jersey that grow the best corn. It’s still not exactly abundant, but I’m doing my best to make up for lost time – as is, I hope, the corn.

After my first joyous indulgences in plain, sweet corn on the cob, I was ready to think about corn recipes. I remembered one I hadn’t gotten around to last year: a salad of roasted fingerling potatoes and corn, dressed with a lively set of flavorings, in Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors. I’ve written here about several of that book’s recipes, and while some came out very well, I’ve learned to approach them with caution. There’s some bad copyediting: For instance, an item on an ingredient list may never show up in the instructions; and quantities given for various ingredients seem disproportionate both to each other and to the stated number of servings.

This potato and corn salad was a case in point. For two of us, I was making half of a recipe said to serve six (I expected some leftovers). It would have wanted a whole pound of fingerling potatoes to a single ear of corn. I bought the pound of potatoes, but when I set them out next to the corn, they looked like far too many.
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I made an executive decision to use just half a pound. That was partly based on my sense of proportion and partly out of awareness of our age-diminished capacities (sigh).

My unpeeled potatoes and the whole cob of corn were to be “tossed” on a rimmed baking sheet with 1½ teaspoons of olive oil – quite a stingy amount, even for my fewer potatoes. Interpreting the tossing metaphorically, I rolled the vegetables around in the oil. Then the corn was to come out, the potatoes to be salted, and the pan to go in a 425° oven.
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After 20 minutes of roasting the potatoes and turning them occasionally, I added the ear of corn to the pan, and kept roasting and turning everything until the vegetables were tender, about 20 minutes more.
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When everything had cooled, I cut the kernels off the corncob, put them in a bowl along with the still-unpeeled potatoes, and dressed them with a tablespoon each of lime juice, minced jalapeño pepper, and chopped parsley, plus about 2½ tablespoons of mayonnaise. When first tasted for salt and pepper, the mixture was entirely dominated by the jalapeño. However, after the bowl sat in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, the seasonings had blended very well, the jalapeno retreating to a pervasive, genial warmth.

In the evening I took the salad out, transferred it to a serving plate, and let it stand at room temperature for half an hour, before serving it alongside grilled sirloin burgers, lettuce, tomatoes, and red onion – classic summer casual dining.
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It was pleasant enough. The flavors were good, though the lime juice was indiscernible. The jalapeño gave the dish a light spicy lift. We would have preferred olive oil instead of mayonnaise, which in this case became slightly gummy, and we would have liked twice as much corn as there was. The potatoes hadn’t taken up many of the seasonings, and their skins were a little tough and not pleasing. (I can’t blame the recipe for that: These were a supermarket’s commercial fingerlings, not local or freshly dug ones, because my Greenmarket didn’t have any this week.) I was very glad I’d cut the potato quantity as I did – it made the right amount for two.

Bottom line: Some time later in the summer I might try adapting the concept of this recipe for a cold dish in a picnic-style meal, but it’s not likely to become a regular in my repertoire.  Just adding roasted corn to a basic potato salad sounds attractive, and I’ve noticed in recent years that in France and Italy, where eating corn on the cob is all but unknown, corn kernels have been turning up in all sorts of dishes, so there’s a lot to explore.

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Goan Avocado Salad

Avocados are an extraordinary fruit. Highly caloric – an average-sized Hass avocado runs about 250 calories, 80% of which are from fat – but also chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and the fat is mostly unsaturated. I love avocados, but I’d never made them a regular part of my diet: The only way I prepare them is as guacamole, for Mexican-style meals.

With guacamole vaguely in mind, I picked up a big avocado recently. It sat in my fruit bowl for several days until it fully ripened, and when it was ready I realized I actually wasn’t in the mood for anything Mexican. It was time to try something else with the avocado, and I soon decided what it was to be. In my big recipe binder was an item I’d cut out of a magazine years earlier – a recipe for Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad.

Cardoz was then the owner-chef of Tabla, one of the early restaurants in the Danny Meyer group. Probably thousands of people, including myself, still regret the loss of Tabla and its Bread Bar, which introduced New York to a style of Indian cooking that it had never seen before. The aromas that met you when you entered Tabla were a revelation in themselves.  One of the best loved dishes there was this avocado salad.

The recipe’s preparation is very easy. The avocado, cut in half-inch pieces, is dressed – from left to right in the photo below – with olive oil, onion, tomato, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and sugar.
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You gently mix everything together in a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep the avocado from discoloring, and put the bowl in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
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The recipe calls for serving the salad with chips made from naan, the Indian flatbread. I substituted the pitas I had on hand, cut into triangles and toasted lightly, which could be used either to scoop up the salad or to nibble on the side.
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The salad was excellent. After all this time I can’t recall if it resembled the version served at Tabla, but it was fine in its own right. Though it shares many ingredients with guacamole – avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro – the proportions are different, and the cumin and cayenne spicing, rather than fresh hot chile, give it a whole different character. Also, since the avocado is chunked rather than mashed, the mouthfeel of the dish is quite different from guacamole. It’s pleasant to eat with a fork or spoon, not just as a dip for chips. The toasted pita, by the way, went perfectly well with it.

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Beloved Spouse was in Italy this past week for a wine writers’ event, so I was making dinners for one. For these occasions I tend to feed myself things that I like much better than he does – which helps keep both sides of the family happy.

This time I had a new recipe that would be perfect for such a meal: Lentil Salad fabrizia-lanzawith Mint and Orange Zest, from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which I remembered as a dish my friend Hope served at a dinner some months ago, and which I liked very much. However, since Beloved Spouse regards most salads with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I hadn’t yet found an opportunity to make it at home. But now, for myself alone, I had my double–0 designation!

For six servings, the recipe calls for two cups of green – but not Le Puy – lentils. I had to do some online research to be certain of the kind I needed here. That was a variety known as Laired green lentils – which, as you can see here, are not very green at all.

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But they were the right kind, and apparently their color can vary quite a bit. For the half recipe I intended to make, I picked over one cup’s worth of them.
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laired-lentils

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I rinsed them, put them in a pot with two cups of water, and simmered them covered until they were tender. When they had cooled, I found they had quadrupled in volume, yielding far more than my lone self wanted to deal with. So I put half of the half recipe’s worth of lentils in the refrigerator for another use and dressed the rest with a quarter of the recipe’s condiment quantities.

The first one of those was fresh mint. For the whole recipe, that was to be the leaves from “a large bunch” of the herb. I had no idea what a Sicilian cook would consider a large bunch. I do wish recipe writers would give measured amounts of their ingredients! I bought the 25-gram package that was what my local market offered.

mint

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I chopped up about 3 tablespoons of leaves and mixed them into the 2 cups of lentils. The quantity looked about right in comparison to the book’s photo of the dish. (I should know by now not to trust food photography!) I also added a teaspoon of grated orange zest, ½ teaspoon of dried oregano, 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of sea salt.
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lentil-salad

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I’d dressed the salad in mid-afternoon, so the flavors would have time to blend, leaving it at room temperature. Come dinnertime, I served myself a meal that, while it looked appealing to me, would have brought no cheer to the man who normally sits across from me at the dinner table: broiled chicken thighs, plain broccoli rape (neither of which he likes much), and the lentil salad.
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dinner-plate

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Quickly I became glad he wasn’t sitting across from me that evening, because the salad was a big disappointment. The mint presence was much too strong, and I couldn’t detect the orange peel and oregano at all. I tried fishing out the visible bits of leaf, but the flavor had permeated the lentils. I don’t know what kind of mint this was; the package label didn’t say. But it was extremely sweet and pungent, as if the lentils had been dressed with melted peppermint candies.

Puzzled by why my dish turned so much less pleasing than Hope’s, I asked her what kind of mint she’d used. Lo and behold, her salad had not been from Lanza’s recipe! Yes, we’d discussed the book that evening, but her lentil salad came from Made in Spain by José Andrés. At the time I hadn’t asked what recipe she’d used, so when I much later found the one in Lanza’s book, I just made the assumption.

Subsequently, I looked up the Andrés recipe on the Web. Aside from the lentils themselves, there isn’t a single ingredient in common between the two recipes. The Spanish one contains shallots, chives, garlic, bay leaves, green and red peppers, and sherry vinegar – all things I like a lot more than I like mint. I may have found my use for those other two cups of cooked lentils.

So we live and learn. Or not.

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Last month the food pages of the Times had an article called “Potato Salad Done Right.” I fully endorse that concept, but for me all four of the recipes given were firmly in the category Done Wrong. I’m an old-fashioned-potato-salad purist, but it’s not just the trendy ingredients (kimchi, sriracha, and lime juice?) that I object to. It’s that they all call for the potatoes to be cut in big chunks. De gustibus and all that, but I do not want a salad of halved golf balls. Potatoes for salad should be sliced.

My ideal potato salad is a simple one my mother made all through my childhood, and I’ve made ever since. Tom agrees with me in the main points of potato-salad principle, but the version he makes has some differences. In 46 years of married life, neither of us has managed to convert the other. This week we decided to do a test: each of us to make a bowlful, taste both together, and see how they compare.

For salad you need waxy, not mealy, potatoes: boilers rather than bakers. I used to use plain white “all-purpose” ones, as my mother did, but as most of those have been rendered virtually tasteless by modern agribusiness, I incline to Yukon Gold, which usually just about hold together when sliced hot. Tom likes to use red Bliss, but he lets them cool before slicing, making them less prone to crumbling.

potatoes

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So we each took a pound of our preferred potatoes and boiled them in their skins in salted water. When they were tender, Tom let his cool for a while, but I peeled and peelingsliced mine immediately. That is not the fun part, but I minimize burning fingers by impaling each one on a three-pronged fork to peel. I’ve always understood that hot potatoes will absorb oil, vinegar, and condiments better than cool ones. Tom doesn’t think the temperature matters: He doesn’t believe that anyone in the old German delis that provided his model for potato salad ever went to that kind of trouble.

This time some of my potatoes did crumble in the slicing, but I carefully moved them to a bowl, adding some thin slivers of Spanish onion. I dressed the veg with olive oil, salt, and pepper, tossing very gently with a wooden spoon; finally a sprinkle of wine vinegar and a good coating of mayonnaise. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left my potato salad to cool on the kitchen counter.

Tom, meanwhile, had prepared a dressing in the bowl for his potatoes, making a slurry of olive oil, Dijon mustard, and vinegar. When the potatoes were cool he peeled and sliced them into the bowl, tossed them with the dressing and some chopped spring red onions, salt, and pepper, and finished the dish with mayonnaise. Some of his spuds also crumbled instead of staying in neat slices.

When our two salads were ready for the contest, we dug in.

both salads

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Well, it wasn’t much of a duel. There was almost nothing to differentiate them. Both kinds of potatoes and both techniques made decent, tasty salads. My potatoes were slightly yellower, Tom’s slightly whiter. His had a faint flavor of the mustard. Both seemed to have absorbed about the same amount of the flavorings. But both were also much mealier than they should have been – not properly al dente. It’s harder and harder to find a reliably waxy potato these days, I fear. Too bad!

And too bad for all those years when I burned my fingers peeling and slicing potatoes hot off the boil! I won’t do it any more, I guess. There is at least that much to be said for the experimental method.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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