Foodie Tuesday: Don’t Mess with Success

I do enjoy my meals. I like ‘meeting’ new treats to eat. I love the companionship of people, at table and around the virtual kitchen, who bring new savor to any food I get to eat.

And I will likely never tire of those particularly delicious favorites, comfort food and classics that are too good to fail. A cold seafood salad like the Louis (or Louie) need not be fiddled with in any way to thrill the palate. Lettuce, when it’s topped with the traditional olives, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg, is in need of nothing further than sweet shrimp or crab or both, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice, to be one of the most refreshing and filling and tasty luncheons imaginable.Photo: Crab & Shrimp Louie

I may tweak the old familiars to extremes from time to time, like a couple of diner cooks did with the nice variant versions of mac and cheese I’ve enjoyed a couple of times lately with Dungeness crab, one of them adorned with bacon, leeks and basil (and served with a nice crispy tuile of parmesan on top), or I may prefer to keep them magnificently purist-friendly and old-fashioned to the nth degree.Photo: Dungeness Mac

The beloved BLT is another of those that can take on any number of changes and added ingredients and offbeat preparations with panache, but is so gloriously perfect in its simple original form that when the tomato is absolute perfection in its ripe fruity brightness, the lettuce as crisp and clean as a green leaf newly sprouted, the bacon crisp, smoky and salty and piled almost too high for a monster’s jaws, and the mayonnaise spread just-so on the delicately crunchy toast, there can be no need for any other version. Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato are friendly with ever so many good add-ons, from avocado to mint or cilantro, cheese, boiled egg slices to grilled peppers (sweet or hot or both), and—avert your eyes, tender purist souls—grilled pineapple. But sometimes, when the stars and the aforementioned traditional ingredients of B, L, and T are in perfect form and proportion, it’s de trop beyond the crassest imaginings to monkey with proven perfection.Photo: BLT Perfection in Ponder

Either way, I’m kind of hungry right now, even though the household cooks served us fantastic grilled cheese followed by a fine berry pie a while ago. Did I mention classics? Delicious magnificence? Guess it’s time to stop dreaming and head for the kitchen again.

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

All Gardens should be Herb Gardens

photoI am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?photo

Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful whole.photo

My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.

For the moment, though, I’m focused mainly on herbs and a few similar animal (human or otherwise) friendly options.photo montage

Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:

Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom.
Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s.
Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too.
Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken.
Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!photo montage

Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:

Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on epicurious.com that is sheer HEAVEN.
Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.

&    Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
&    Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
&    Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.

Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:

&    Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
&    Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!photo montage

Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:

&    Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
&    Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
&    Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
&    Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.

Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:

&    Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
&    Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
&    Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
&    Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.photoClearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.

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If It’s Wednesday, This Must be Foodie Tuesday Deja Vu

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Why, yes, if you are a fresh berry. Those sweet little nuggets of juicy goodness are the very epitome of summertime’s joys, and the longer we can extend the berry adventure by means of preserved, frozen or baked goods, the merrier. I’ve already rhapsodized about my mother’s justly famed raspberry pie (the mystic quality of her ethereal pie crusts a deservedly notable part of the equation, in the interest of full disclosure), and she made many a jar of equally brilliant raspberry jam over her wildly productive years of canning and preserving. I will never be her equal in either of these arts.photo

I do, however, have enough fondness for some berries that I will gladly binge on them while their season lasts, and far beyond, in whatever forms are available, because I can practically feel the vitamins rushing into my cells when I do, and more importantly, because they taste so fabulous and are such great utility players on Team Food. On their own, they are magnificent and refreshing. In salads, a divine break from any leanings toward excess of greens. Think, for example, of a marvelous mix of butter lettuce, Romaine, toasted sliced almonds, shavings of fine Reggiano cheese and a generous handful of raspberries all happily commingling with a light creamy fresh thyme dressing. Transcendent! Fruit salad melanges practically insist on having a handful of berries gracing them when the season is right. And I’m told by those who eat blueberries that no berry surpasses them for muffin or pancake making. Me, I’ll gladly stick with Swedish pancakes piled up with whipped cream and fresh strawberries when it comes to the breakfast berry-ations. And of course there are endless possibilities in the universe of fruit smoothies when it comes to berries, whether you’re in the camp that must strain out the seeds or among those who appreciate the fiber therein.

And don’t get me started about desserts! The natural affinity fruit has for sweet foods is showcased wonderfully in so many after-dinner or coffee-time treats that a mere post could hardly suffice to even skim the list. But some goodies do come immediately to mind: strawberries dipped in chocolate; cloudberry cream, as I learned to love it when prepared in the seconds-long fresh season by my brother-in-law’s late mother; blackberry tapioca pudding. Pies, tarts, and crumbles, oh my. A heap of berries and a gentle sluicing of vanilla custard atop a slice of toasted pound cake. Honestly, few ways to go awry.

Still, the berry, with its pristine, bright, zingy flavor, and the hints of sweetness underlying it, makes a superb foil for savory dishes too, not least of all meats and seafoods. One of those ways to slip berry-liciousness into the main dish is to pool any of the multitude of possible berry-enhanced sauces and purees under, over or alongside a portion of entrée. I’m fond of Beurres Rouges ou Blancs made with wine, butter and berries cooked down to dense, flavorful stupendousness. Hard to argue with, say, a blackberry-Cabernet sauce served with lamb or duck, and I can only imagine that a dry, red-fruity Rosé would pair gracefully in such a sauce with raspberries or, dare I say it, salmonberries, to accompany a roasted filet of salmon or breast of pheasant or grilled chicken. Champagne Beurre Blanc is hard to resist with shellfish; why not top that with roasted strawberries and a quick grind of black pepper?

As you can see, what happens when I get the mere image of a berry into my tiny brain is that it plants the seeds for extensive food fantasizing. And that is hardly a bad thing, my friends. Bury me in berries. I could do much worse.

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Don’t Cry, Honey, the End of One Party is Only the Beginning of the Next

photoWhile I’m on the subject of eating, and when am I not, and delving into the marvelous mysteries of leftovers and rehashed Hash (or, as I often call my versions, casseroles), let us contemplate yet more intimately The Day After. Or, the day after the day after, if you need me to be more precise. For the party two nights ago made happy provision of both work and comestibles to follow.

The broth put on to cook ‘way back when is now strained and the stewing beef I made into pot roast within it put up for later with a soupçon of broth soaking right back into it. The chocolates* I’d set aside to chill while making the tapas for the party are now broken out of the pan into nice variable-sized hunks for dessert treats to come. The cleanup after the party was incredibly simple–a couple of goodly batches of dish-washing, a quick sweep-up and tossing a few tea towels into the wash for today, and snip-snap, that was all it needed. The leftovers of various nosh-ables went into the fridge for later sorting and rearrangement into new meals.

So lunch today capitalized on all of that. Chorizo, Manchego, marinated mushrooms, Papas Bravas; I took the last quarter-cup full each of these various tapas leftover bits and chopped them into a smaller cut, mixing them and tossing them on top of some of my refrigerator stash of cooked broth rice. A sprinkling of smoked paprika, a drizzle each of cream and my freshly brewed beef broth, and into the oven for a thorough heating. Done.

With that, the accompanying salad was made somewhat in the style of Vietnamese (lettuce wrapped) salad rolls, with greenery fresh-plucked from my own garden borders. Next time I make them I’ll eliminate the layer of red cabbage leaves, which despite their glaucous beauty, snappy crunch and fine flavor are just too dense and tough for the otherwise tender rolls, so the rolls had to be sliced up into bites and eaten with a fork rather than the possible eating out-of-hand I could otherwise have managed. So without the cabbage, here’s the rest of the concatenation, and it was a tasty collation at that.photo

Spring Salad Rolls

On a piece of wax paper or parchment, lay out a few whole green leaves in a solid ‘sheet’–a pattern that will allow them to be rolled up as a whole into a green sausage once the other ingredients are layered on top of them–sushi style, if you will. I started with three nice big tender chard (silverbeet) leaves to create an outer layer of roughly 8″x10″. And then I piled on, in fairly even layers one over the other, the remaining greens. I used:

Chard leaves, borage leaves, basil leaves, mint leaves, a little parsley, and tiny baby beet (ordinary red beetroot) greens.

Over the top of this ‘lasagna’ of fresh greens I drizzled a couple of tablespoons full of my lately-signature jam mixture (equal parts strawberry, plum and ginger preserves, to use up the tail-ends of several favorites), warmed to thin it enough for drizzling since the leafy stuff was so loosely stacked. The last layer was a set of red cabbage leaves, which next time I’ll replace with more chard or lettuce substitutes for tenderness, slathered with cream cheese, goat cheese or mascarpone and laid face-down on top of the stack. This ‘glue’ helped hold everything in place as (one could lift an end of the paper underneath if necessary to get started) I rolled the greens up gently into a reasonably tightly packed solid cylinder. Once rolled, it’s best chilled for a bit to help it hold its shape, and can easily be sliced across into a couple of shorter hand rolls or a number of pretty pinwheels. I think this will prove almost infinitely variable with whatever greens I have on hand or am in the mood to include, not to mention any tender and thinly sliced addition that’s neither too brittle nor too juicy to ‘play well’ with the others. Sounds fussy, but it’s really incredibly quick and  simple, and it’s plenty refreshing. To serve it today, I drizzled a tiny bit of crema and honey mixed together on top, but that’s just icing on this particular cake.

With the salad roll and the casserole, nothing else but some of the sherried olives made for the other night’s gathering, and sparkling water. Oh, and some of the chocolate* pieces I’d made back then, too, from nothing more than a mixture of melted Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate, a little melted butter to emulsify, and pure black cherry juice. The finished chilled pieces are solider than fudge but a little softer than the pure chocolate, and also subtly fruity, just a teeny bit mysterious, and pretty swell, as a sweet bite at the end of the meal.photo

Foodie Tuesday: My Salad Days are Not Behind Me

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Is it salad or crudites when it's deconstructed? Do I care, or am I just *really* hungry? Is salad so hard to eat unabashedly that it must be disguised as something else to pass muster? Is Vilma secretly seeing Ernesto at his nightclub El Gallo Llorón while she thinks Juan Maria is away on vineyard business?

Sometimes I think that Salad has a little bit of a stigma in the popular mind, even though ‘some of my best friends eat salads’. There’s just a hint that if one is too obviously fond of salads one must be (a) stuck in the 1970s–don’t get me started on alfalfa sprouts–(2) trying to lose weight and hopelessly clueless about all of the better miracle diets out there, or (lastly) some sort of chlorophyll-blooded alien. Despite the widespread knowledge that there are endless kinds and combinations of foods that can be classified as salads and that the vast majority of them are both rather tasty and potentially nutritious, there’s always some naysayer out there who thinks that there’s something just a tiny bit off about people who embrace frequent salad-eating.

I would find it seriously boring to eat salad often, too, if all salads were born alike, but that is far from the case. There are all sorts of recipes and inspirations available from every quarter, and definitions galore of what constitutes a salad. The origin of the salad construct is arguably that of a simple collation of a dish or meal, in antique times, consisting simply of raw, fresh vegetal matter seasoned with salt (the ‘sal‘ of salad), and occasionally, with vinegar and oil. The idea has expanded over the centuries gradually to include cheeses, meats, fish, eggs and nuts, and at some point probably around the latter nineteenth to regularly include mixtures of warm ingredients and often grains, legumes, and their offspring of breads and pastas as well. If you can’t figure out how to keep a salad interesting then you are as sadly unimaginative as the average politician and probably deserve to go hungry for a while to contemplate your sins.

All the same, I have no objection to a rather staid and standard sort of salad, a plain bit of greens or greens with a few ‘classic’ add-ins–juicy sweet tomato; a bit of diced avocado, perhaps–and maybe a splash of good dressing, either as a light meal or a side dish. The much-maligned ordinariness of even a wedge of supposedly flavorless iceberg lettuce can sometimes add an exceedingly welcome and refreshing bit of mild crunch and hydration to offset an otherwise heavy or over-the-top sort of meal. There’s a perfectly good reason the ‘Wedge Salad’ has remained wedged onto the menu of virtually every standard American steakhouse for so very long, in between the slabs of highly seasoned beef and the creamed This and butter-slathered That and deep-fried Other, all quite delicious indeed but occasionally in want of one coy kiss of contrast or brightness in some fashion.

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In our hearts, we're all kind of plain, but is being ordinary a *bad* thing? Or is it mostly just comforting? Is a salad comprising only common uncooked vegetables and dressed abstemiously with a squeeze of lemon juice and a slurp of olive oil anathema, or can it be loved for its pure, taste-able simplicity? Honey, do deer eat salad in the woods? (Or just salal?)

I suppose I could be said to be more fond of or partial to salads that take the trouble to stand out from the crowd just a little bit, or at least less likely to become jaded by them since they vary the input on the palate. Why not jazz up the greens with a bit of roasted vegetable or bright fruit, with some shredded or crumbled cheese, some toasted nuts? Give the dressing a little boost of unexpected flavor. Make it a meal by putting some handsome protein in that invitingly verdant nest. But let’s not get crazy here! At some point, a concoction too complicated ceases to be a salad and becomes either a circus sideshow not very enticing as actual sustenance or more about ideas than about taste, and I find that tiresome in any part of a meal. If food is entertaining, great, but if entertainment is inedible, don’t try to tell me it’s dinner.

For that’s what it all means to me, finally: does what I’m serving genuinely satisfy hunger? Does it actually taste good? Does it express hospitality by being sensitive to the tastes and health of guests at the table? If it doesn’t meet those criteria, all of the artful towers of constructivist salad art and all of the impressive molecular gastronomist foams and gels and powders, the foodie-swooning truffles and caviar and smoked duck ravioli and balsamic-martini dressings in the world won’t save it from death-by-silliness. Let’s hear it instead for a thoughtful, pleasurable combination of flavor, texture, color, scent and sensibility that balances the needs of the diners and plays nicely with whatever else is brought to the feast.

Lately, my salads have been fairly basic again, combining the wonderfully homely base of romaine lettuce leaves or shredded cabbage with whatever array of old-fashioned but still tasty partners I happen to have on hand and be hungry to devour and topped with a lick of some complementary dressing for the big, if unsurprising, finish. I’ll be hungry soon enough for a hit of pizzazz in some part of the salad equation, whether it’s a whole new salad or just a garnish I’ve not enjoyed in a while. Because I’d hate for the old-familiar to become dull and unappealing. That is the very definition of being too far gone to recapture one’s salad days.

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A salad certainly needn't be fussy, only friendly, to enhance the dining experience; it's more important to balance the other characteristics of the meal than to show off what wild and weird tricks a salad can be made to perform. Unless you happen to know how to, say, make yellow tomatoes turn into red tomatoes when you put the dressing on the salad or how to make origami swans out of butter lettuce leaves.

Being beautiful, after all, is more about attitude than pedigree, so I’m more concerned that my salads be composed of flavorful fresh ingredients, play a proper supporting role to the stars of the meal (the people, first, and then the entrée), and in true Coco Chanel style, always be appropriately dressed. Even Coco, I feel certain, would admit that certain occasions require tasteful nudity, but she would know better than anyone that most events are best served by a well-designed and appropriate ensemble and careful accessorizing. With that, I scratch out here a couple of my thoughts about salad dressings, which like salads themselves seldom require an actual recipe–if they need one, they may have gotten too complicated for their own good.

I think of salad dressing as a marvelous way to distinguish the beauties of a particular salad. Something astringent works better with salad than with nearly any other course of the typical meal, so if the meal needs a little flash, that’s a great place to create it. For milder needs, despite my love affair with heavy cream, I know that creaminess in salad dressings is rarely best accomplished by incorporating actual dairy cream. A better partner with salads is an emulsion, generally two liquids that want to hate each other being brought into détente by mechanical means. Typical examples would be an acid ingredient like vinegar or citrus juice and a fat-centric goodie like oil or egg yolk, the two ingredients being beaten into submission by gradually incorporating the fat into the acid with a vigorous, airy, steady whisking. Sort of like a cranky teacher putting the harsh reality of thoughts into my fat head by forceful means. Not that any of my own teachers was ever like that. (Cough! Mrs. Finley!) Once I have (or a persnickety teacher-like person has) made the dressing’s basic parts behave properly together, there are endless sorts of herbal, spicy or other flavors that can be invited to play along with them for individuation and to better suit all of the dinner’s other ingredients.

Here’s a little combination to try: 1 part ginger juice (freshly grated ginger root will do, if you don’t have bottled juice), 1 part soy sauce, 2 parts maple syrup or raw honey, 2-3 parts lime juice, 2-4 parts macadamia or coconut oil (or any mild flavored oil you like). Put them all together in a tightly lidded jar or bottle and shake vigorously. Adjust to taste. Dress the salad just before serving or let guests dress their own salads. Fitting add-ins or add-ons for this sort of dressing are toasted or black sesame seeds, ground black pepper, toasted sliced almonds or pine nuts. Well suited to mixed green salads with sweet orange segments, diced dried apricot, ripe avocado, grated myzithra cheese, kale, thinly sliced jicama or daikon or sweet radish, or . . .

What? You can’t hear me over the crunching? Well, then, grab your salad fork and join me. I won’t tell anyone you’re one of those, you know, salad eaters.