Posts Tagged ‘salad’

All Spread Out


A friend was boasting about what a splendid cook her son is.  She bent toward me and said, in a hushed voice, “He plates.” 

Plating is something family cooks seldom do, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a winning technique for composed salads.

“Composed” salad just means a salad with other stuff than green leaves in it.  It may have other stuff plus greens, or it may have other stuff instead of greens.  (You will sometimes see a composed salad defined as the antonym of a tossed salad, which sounds logical but does not happen to be the case.  You can toss a composed salad, and you can lay a green salad out neatly.  If enough people stay confused long enough, a composed salad may come to mean one that’s laid out neatly, and then what will we call a salad with other stuff than greens?  A piebald salad, perhaps.)

But back to plating.  Last night I made a composed salad from Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington’s Heirloom Beans (Chronicle, 2008).  Cooked white beans, red bell pepper, onion, parsley, escarole, salt, pepper.  All good.  Then I whizzed the dressing up in the blender: hard-boiled egg, garlic, anchovies, wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper.  Then I mixed everything up and plopped it in a serving dish.

Hmm.  I believe the expression is “dog’s dinner.”  Tasty as all get-out, but not inviting to look at.

Tonight, learning from my mistakes, I made a composed salad from Peter Gordon’s Salads (Clarkson Potter, 2006).  Here are the layers I plated, top to bottom:

1) caramelized onions and wilted spinach dressed with balsamic vinegar
2) green beans dressed with lemon zest, lemon juice, and olive oil
3) potatoes and onions dressed with the same lemon dressing as the green beans
4) raw, undressed baby spinach

If I had mixed that all up in a serving bowl, it would have been even less appealing than last night’s mixture.  The dark caramelized onions would have stained everything else, and the nice crisp texture of the raw spinach would have disappeared.

Plating.  It’s not just for smart alecks.


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The Stephen Project



Yet another project!  My dear friend Stephen has decided to learn to cook, we’ve settled on a cookbook for him to use, and we’ve had our first evening of cooking together.

First the cookbook. 

Everyday Food:
Great Food Fast

Martha Stewart Living
Clarkson Potter, 2007

It’s a good fit, but not perfect.

On the plus side, the food in Great Food Fast is normal American food, which is what Stephen wants to cook and eat.  The recipes are reasonably well written.  Together they make a good introduction to a wide variety of culinary skills.  Every main course recipe, along with recipes for recommended sides, fits on a single page, with a full-page photo on the opposite page.

On the minus side, the methods are not explained for an absolute beginner, and the book assumes the reader has equipment that Stephen doesn’t have and may not want to acquire.  The book is divided by season, but the seasons don’t correspond to where we live.  The authors exhibit a tiresome low-fat bias.  And every recipe makes at least four servings; at this moment, Stephen lives alone.  (Selfishly, since I am working on chapter 2, how to make a recipe bigger or smaller, I’m happy to have a guinea pig.)

For our first recipe to do together, Stephen chose buttermilk baked chicken.  I made a potato salad from the book and a lemon cake for dessert.

I was nervous half to death.  It’s one thing to write about how I bang haphazardly around the kitchen, another thing to have somebody there beside me.  But we soldiered on bravely; by the time we sat down to eat I felt relaxed and happy, and the supper was delicious.

Here are some general principles I should have enunciated, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t say them all out loud.

Think or buy your way out of missing equipment and ingredients.  Stephen doesn’t have a food processor, so instead of whizzing bread into breadcrumbs we used mashed-up herbal stuffing mix.

Translate measurements into actions.  Instead of a teaspoon of ground pepper, think of it as six grindings of the pepper mill.

Use one book and explore it thoroughly.  One of the worst things a new cook can do is get a mountain of conflicting ideas from various cookbooks or, worse yet, the Web.  Ideally, the book would be by a single author, but a book from a single periodical with a strong editorial personality — like Everyday Food — is second best.

Start with 2-3 recipes you like and work on them till you’re satisfied or bored.  Then move on to another 2-3.

Develop strategies for dealing with too many servings.  (Here’s where chapter 2 comes in.)

Make a plan and write it down.  Mark and Stephen will be confused about the spinach salad pictured on the plate beside the chicken and the potato salad.  I forgot the spinach until the next morning, eating leftovers for breakfast.

Relax, it’s only supper.

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first Chinese night

bean sprout salad
red-cooked tofu w/celery
stir-fried green peppers

pears w/caramel sauce

Those of you who have been following along know that my birthday present to Mark was the promise of one Chinese meal a week.  Mark loves Chinese food and cooks it well, mostly from Ellen & John Schrecker’s Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook (Harper & Row, 1976), a book that I gave him.  I cook Chinese once in a blue moon and dislike cooking it, although I like eating it very much.  So my once-a-week task for myself this coming year is to figure out why I don’t like cooking Chinese and get over it.  I would scoff at somebody who said they didn’t like cooking Middle Eastern food or Southern U.S. food or Irish food.  Why should I permit myself that attitude about Chinese food, one of the (many) great cuisines of the world?

To start with I need to learn how to plan a Chinese menu in a way that can work for me.  I hate doing things at the last minute, which means that stir-frying is always going to be a bugaboo, but if I limit myself to one stir-fry per meal I should be able to swing it.

bean sprout salad

The salad comes from Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese Cooking (Viking Studio, 2007), one of the most calming cookbooks I’ve ever encountered.  It’s tall and wide (11.5″ high x almost 10″ wide), but its size is used to provide a huge color photograph of every dish and on the facing page to surround every recipe with a reposeful, still lake of white space.  No recipe takes up more than a page, and most take only a quarter or a third.  If it had a detailed table of contents it would be close to my ideal beginners’ book.

But — pay attention, Mary-Claire — you have to read the recipes all the way through, even though they are very short.  I neglected this elementary precaution and so failed to notice that I was supposed to do something at the last minute.

Here’s the idea of the recipe: blanched and shocked bean sprouts, small amount of sauce.  (Blanching in this context means dipping something for a minute or a minute and a half in boiling water, and shocking in this context means then immediately running cold water over it to stop the cooking.)

Blanching and shocking are easily done in advance, but the sauce is not just a mixture of ingredients (light soy sauce, white sugar, scallions, sesame oil, peanut oil).  No, this is a Chinese dish, and Chinese food is so, so much about fragrance.  Grace Young talks about “wok hay,” in the book she and Alan Richardson did about fragrant Chinese cooking, The Breath of a Wok (Simon & Schuster, 2004), “breath of the wok” being the translation for “wok hay.”  (I don’t like cooking Chinese food, but I love reading about it.)

So instead of mixing all the sauce ingredients together, Kylie tells me to hold back the peanut oil.  When I’m ready to serve the bean sprouts, I’m supposed to heat up the peanut oil, pour it over the other sauce ingredients to release their aroma, then mix in the sprouts and serve.

Well, you know, I’m not an idiot.  I could tell when I read this instruction that the dish as she intends it was going to be way better than the one I thought I was making.  (The concept of opening out the smells is similar to an Indian tadka.)  I heated up the peanut oil, failed to notice that I was overheating it, put out the fire, heated more peanut oil in another pan, watching it closely, poured it over the sauce ingredients, stirred in the sprouts, put them in a beautiful serving bowl, and the dish was great.  Mark particularly praised it.  I’d eagerly make it again, but on condition that I wasn’t making anything else last-minute.

red-cooked tofu w/celery

Red-cooking is simmering in a broth that I believe must contain soy sauce and something anise-flavored, whether anise seeds, fennel seeds, or star anise (various cookbooks suggest one or another) and may contain many other good things (for instance, chiles, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom pods, Chinese wine).  Red-cooking is easy, and it must be done in advance, so I love it.  This particular recipe came from Nina Simonds’s China Express (William Morrow, 1993).

My notes don’t go back far enough to indicate when I last made this dish, but as soon as I had assembled the broth I could remember that I had made it without the celery.  The ingredient that triggered my memory was the orange peel Simonds had me put in the broth — delicious.

Again, simple concept: blanched and shocked sliced celery topped with firm red-cooked tofu cubes, cooked-down red-cooking liquid trickled over all, served at room temp.  What’s hard for me is cutting the tofu cubes all the same size — I strongly dislike the idea that I can’t make delicious food until I learn how big half an inch is.  Be that as it may, I followed the recipe to the letter except for halving it.

Mark and I agreed it was good but incoherent — the celery and the tofu made a good texture contrast, but the two flavors didn’t speak to each other.  Next time I make it I’ll blanch all the celery but shock only half of it, putting the other half into the broth.  And at serving time I’ll put the shocked celery on top, as a garnish, rather than underneath, as a bed.

For me, figuring this out (with Mark’s help) is a breakthrough.  If I understand a dish well enough to improve it, I’m on my way.  Today tofu and celery, tomorrow the whole vast ocean of Chinese food.

stir-fried green peppers

Mark gets to choose one recipe for me to make, and this is the one he chose, Stir-Fried Green Peppers with Ground Pork and Preserved Greens, from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (W. W. Norton, 2007).  Kylie’s and Nina’s books are baby books; Fuchsia’s is not.

(It is also one of those maddening books translated from metric to American measures by multiplication and division rather than by rethinking the recipe in an American context.  In this recipe, for instance, she calls for 9 ounces of green peppers; American grocery stores use fractions of a pound, rather than ounces, as weight measures.  Oh please, Mr. Grocery Man, may I have .5625 pounds of green peppers?)

Since I’m learning, I tried to follow the recipe exactly, not even scaling it back.  When Fuchsia’s recipe called for 1 teaspoon of fine-chopped garlic, I used 1 teaspoon.  I doubt I’ve ever used that little garlic in anything I’ve ever cooked.  If a recipe calls for three cloves of garlic, I use ten.  Similarly, when Fuchsia’s recipe called for 1/2 teaspoon of chile flakes, I used 1/2 teaspoon, again setting a new record for tiny amounts of a favorite flavoring.  Was I even going to be able to detect 1 teaspoon of garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of chile flakes?

But you know, I could.  I could taste them just fine, and I could see that my ham-handed attitude toward flavorings might not always be a good strategy.  It felt good to produce something so subtle, something so adult.

I also forced myself to cut the peppers into same-sized pieces (or same-sized within reason) by cutting off the shoulders, even though it just about killed me to do it.  What do Chinese people do with rejected pepper shoulders?  Save them for another dish and sliver them, I suppose.  I’m cutting mine into matchsticks and calling them munching vegetables, i.e. vegetables that anybody’s allowed to take from the refrigerator and eat without compromising some future meal.  I can do this.  I can learn.

pears w/caramel sauce

Chinese people typically end a meal with soup, I’ve heard, to fill in the cracks.  We don’t follow their example in everything.


Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the meal is that the three Chinese dishes were too much food, way too much.  I breakfasted off them this morning, and Mark has Chinese food for two days’ lunches.  This is encouraging because so much of Chinese cooking is prep work.  If I need to cut only one pepper into little identical pieces, that’s one-third the time of cutting three.  If I need to julienne only two scallions, that’s half the time of doing four.  Cooking time doesn’t vary (much).  So I have to get calibrated on how much to make for the two of us.  (No way I’m making Chinese for company until the year is at least half over.)

MB:  I am OVERWHELMED by this task you’ve set for yourself, and I’m not even the one who has to do any of the cooking!  This is a birthday present of gargantuan proportions.

I myself cook Chinese food all the time.  Yeah, sure … I cut up some veggies and tofu and chicken and fry it all together in a frying pan with some sesame oil and hoisin sauce and black bean sauce, and then serve it all over rice.  If that’s not Chinese food, I don’t know what is.

But to do what you’re doing, to become intimately acquainted with all the subtleties and nuances, to really learn to cook Chinese food.  That is absolutely incredible and I am in awe of your commitment and love for my father.  Most impressive.

I very much look forward to reading about your efforts as the year goes by.  And I hope that I get to visit for a week at some point so that I can get some of your sure-to-be fabulous Chinese food as well!

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roast carrot & avocado salad
crispy-fried red snapper

Cuban banana

roast carrot & avocado salad

From Jamie at Home, pp. 370-371.  Now and then a recipe comes along in Jamie at Home that makes me remember Jamie is a restaurant chef, and therefore at risk for TMI (Too Many Ingredients) Syndrome.  This recipe seems like an example.  You have carrots roasted and then flavored with cumin, chiles, salt, black pepper, garlic, thyme, olive oil, and vinegar.  You have your avocado.  You have a dressing made from oil and vinegar plus the juice from an orange and a lemon roasted with the carrots.  You have bread toasted and torn into pieces.  You have your interesting greens — mine were frisée, radicchio, and dandelion greens — plus some watercress.  You stir in toasted nuts and seeds — mine were pepitas and sesame seeds.  And then on top of all that you’re supposed to add a good dollop of sour cream on top?  I rebelled.  No sour cream for me.

The salad was tasty and nice, but not memorable.

Luckily, I had some left over, and when I ate it this morning for breakfast, reluctantly I added a big dollop of sour cream.  And suddenly the mixture came alive.  The texture got a note of creaminess to add to the yielding avocado and roasted carrot.  And the flavors blended and harmonized as they just hadn’t last night.

How does he do that?

crispy-fried red snapper

You wash the fish, you dry the fish, you salt the fish and let it sit for a little rest, you pat flour on the first side, you pat flour on the second side, you put your fish in a cold pan slicked with olive oil, you heat the pan to a sizzle, you peek to see whether the first side is gilded, you flip the fish over, you peek again, you sit down and eat the fish right away.  That’s all there is to it.

Cuban banana

When Mark’s home, dessert has to be fruit plus a bribe, but when it’s just me I sometimes don’t bother with the bribe.  Other times I have only the bribe, no fruit.

Cuban bananas are those short red ones.  I’ve also heard them called custard bananas and, of course, red bananas.

MB:  I’m utterly intrigued by the crispy-fried red snapper.  So this is a whole fish, huh?  I’ve never cooked a whole fish and the prospect of attempting to do so terrifies me.

Recently a friend of mine pan-fried me some salmon and I finally figured out how it’s supposed to be done.  Always before when I’ve done so my skin has ended up being soggy and totally unappealing.  He simply used enough olive oil that the fish had no worries about getting stuck, cooked the salmon skin side down until the skin was basically entirely crispy, and then flipped it over to finish off the meat on the other side.  It’s brilliant, and delicious, and yields the most beautifully crispy skin imaginable.  I’ve been cooking it a lot recently.

Oh no, sorry if I gave the wrong impression — it was a red snapper fillet.  Wikipedia says of red snappers: “They are commonly caught up to 10 lb (4.5 kg) and 20 inches (50 cm) in length, however there have been fish taken over 40 lb (18 kg).”  I have it on my eternal to-do list to learn to cook whole fish, but it’s one of those things like learning to use an outdoor grill that I never seem to get around to.  On the other hand, I have at last learned how to use a pressure cooker.  That was on the list for decades, so there’s still hope for the fishies.

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boiled beef w/horseradish
wine-braised carrots + fried sage leaves
almond-turmeric potatoes
use-it-up salad

blood orange, vanilla, + gin sorbet

The theme for last night was Use It Up — we’re off on a trip to New York and Boston, and we don’t have room for leftovers in our luggage.

boiled beef w/horseradish

Not really boiled, this is meat that came from making broth in the slow cooker.  If you leave it in for about three hours on low, it will have given enough flavor to get the broth started but still retained enough to make it enjoyable on its own.

wine-braised carrots + fried sage leaves

Straight from How To Eat Supper, p. 264.  The carrots were good last night, sweet and true with the crispy sage leaves, but this morning!  They had deepened and mellowed, and they were so tasty it was a real sacrifice to let Mark take some for lunch.  We wondered whether restaurants take advantage of this kind of overnight change, deliberately making something yesterday to serve today.  That might be impractical for most restaurants, but for a home cook it’s a good strategy.

almond-turmeric potatoes

Also from HTES, pp. 288-290.  This is the dish whose photograph serves as the cover art for the book, and sure enough, it’s as beautiful in real life as on the page.  Every since last February, when Ruta Kahate’s marvelous 5 Spices, 50 Dishes was our cookbook of the month on alteRecipes.com, I’ve been using fresh turmeric instead of dried and ground.  (I couldn’t figure out how to improve on Kahate’s recipes without going to some lengths.)  I’m not sure I can taste the difference in an Indian recipe, even one that uses only five spices, but in this dish, where it’s a one-man show, fresh grated has to be better than from a spice jar.

use-it-up salad

I’ve just learned a charming name for my kind of cooking: poubelle cuisine, which sounds a lot classier than dustbin cuisine.  Unfortunately, some dishes made entirely of leftovers and scraps are dustbin cuisine, and some are just dustbin.

MB:  Do you know that there are some people who don’t eat leftovers?  Can you imagine?  How could you go through life without the joy of a day-old stew, where everything is perfectly blended and in total harmony?  Some things are not better the next day, that is true.  I, myself, am not a fan of fish leftovers.  They kind of wig me out.  But there are so many foods that are drastically improved by sitting in their own juices overnight, it’s just amazing.  Somehow the flavors both mellow and intensify at the same time, and what you have left is a beautiful dish that’s almost exactly the same as what you had the night before and yet just different enough to make it its own dish.  I am so happy that I actually am the kind of person who likes leftovers.  My life would have a lot less flavor without them.

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roast salmon and potatoes
cauliflower salad w/mustard-tarragon dressing

pineapple + cream

roast salmon and potatoes

We’ll be talking about this recipe later in the week.

cauliflower salad w/mustard-tarragon dressing

The How To Eat Supper salad dressing collection (pp. 20-21) wins again — 10 dressings, each one different from all the others.  For the ones that don’t need to be blenderized or processed, I’ve taken to making them in the bottom of the bowl, as Kasper & Swift recommend (Dressing-in-a-Bowl, p. 9).  You put the dressing ingredients in the bottom of a bowl, add the salad veggies, and toss.  With a bumpy-lumpy vegetable like cauliflower, the dressing doesn’t get completely mixed, so each bite has a different character from the next.  With this dressing, some bites are more mustardy, some more tarragonian, some more unctuous with olive oil, some more oniony.  I was watching Molto Mario one day, and he said this kind of dish, combined but not uniform, is a highlight of Italian grandmothers’ cuisine; count me in.  I am, after all, in reality an actual grandmother.

How to make the cauliflower really cauli-ish?  Zap it in the microwave at medium for 60-90 seconds, not enough to soften it, just enough to press the brassica flavor forward.  Friday night we ate out, as usual, and the highlight of the meal was a raw red cabbage salad with potatoes, toasted walnuts, and goat cheese.  Yummy, but I wanted more cabbage flavor from the red cabbage.  They should try zapping it just a whisker before they plate it up.

MB:  I prefer my cauliflower entirely raw.  Maybe that’s because its taste is too strong for me when it’s cooked, but I doubt it.  I think it’s more that I am simply obsessed with crunchy foods and want everything to be as crunchy as possible.  Raw cauliflower is at the top of the list of really good crunchy foods.

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