Monthly Archives: February 2014

Chopped salad with preserved lemon vinaigrette

I’m not really much of a restaurant foodie. I have no particular interest in finding the hottest or most out-of-the-way restaurant in a city, or in reviewing every aspect of a restaurant experience. I try not to spend a lot of time singing the praises of this or that high-priced restaurant dish. With one exception: the chopped salad at Chaya Brasserie in San Francisco.

I cannot shut up about this salad. I’ve been to Chaya for a few business lunches, and I order it every time. At a restaurant renowned for its exquisite sushi and pitch-perfect entrees, it’s the salad that gets me. It’s basically a Niçoise salad on steroids, with chicken and smoked salmon and olives and green beans and eggs and cheese and bell peppers and nuts and croutons and probably other stuff too, all diced into perfect miniature cubes and dressed with a gauzy lemon vinaigrette. It’s hefty and satisfying, yet light enough that I don’t have to roll down the sidewalk afterward. The mingling of textures–creamy and crunchy and fluffy and prickly–is exactly what a salad should be. It’s beautifully composed and perfectly seasoned. I dream about this salad.

But I can’t afford to eat it all the time. So I have to do the next best thing: try to make it myself. My version of this salad is rougher and less manicured than the Chaya version, like a younger cousin without quite so much jewelry. But you know what? It’s still just as delicious.

For my chopped salad, I blanch a handful of haricots verts and hard-boil a couple of eggs, chop up a pepper and flake some lox with a fork. Then it all gets piled on greens, maybe with a few herbs mixed in, and some olives and goat cheese to bump up the salty-rich factor. Then I make a quick dressing with some of my beloved preserved lemons, and mush everything all together with my fork. It’s a real riot on the plate, nubbly and colorful and full of powerful flavors. Even my boyfriend agrees that it’s one of the best salads he’s ever had.

This salad is easily a meal in itself. It’ll fill you up without knocking you out. Add a glass of wine, and maybe a nibble of something sweet, and I seriously cannot think of a better self-pampering lunch.

chaya-esque chopped salad

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Kumquat cinnamon marmalade

Confession time: I made this marmalade in July. And then I sat on the recipe for months, waiting for it to be citrus season. And then I forgot about it. Until now. Which is a shame, because this is a delightful batch of jam.

This was actually the thing that kick-started my canning streak last summer. I was over at a friend’s parents’ house, and discovered that they had a kumquat tree. I’d never eaten a kumquat before, but suddenly here was an enormous tree speckled with ripe orange nuggets. They were ripening and falling faster than the family could eat them, so they just stayed on the tree till the squirrels got to them. That seemed like an awful shame to me, so I grabbed a bag and plucked as many as I could reach.

It wasn’t until later, when I got them all home, that I realized I had no idea what to do with them. I consulted the internet, and got one resounding answer: marmalade. And when the internet gods call, I answer. It was a labor-intensive process, slicing and seeding several dozen kumquats, gathering the seeds into a cheesecloth bundle to add pectin to the jam, and simmering the whole business until it was thick and glossy.

But I’m glad I stuck with it, because the end result was gorgeous. Some of the kumquat slices stayed whole, like tiny pinwheels, while some unfurled into long, slightly chewy strands. The flavor itself was unmistakably orangey, very honeylike, with just a touch of bitterness. I threw in a cinnamon stick, which was an unexpectedly brilliant decision. The kicky warmth of the cinnamon played perfectly against the honeyed sweetness and slight sharpness of the kumquats. You could flavor this marmalade with a lot of other things: vanilla bean, sliced ginger, whole spices, even booze.

Oh, and as far as what to do with this marmalade, it’s an amazing partner with all sorts of dairy. I ate most of my first jar swirled into Greek yogurt, and I can’t even describe how delightful it was: cool, creamy, sweet, and tangy, with little bits of rind interrupting here and there. My next jar is definitely destined for a cheese board–I can’t wait to try it with blue cheese.

kumquat cinnamon marmalade

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Parsley and cucumber salad

One of the most memorable classes I took in college was with Professor B. He was one of the old guard, and beloved at our school: a white-bearded, broad-shouldered fellow, deep-voiced and slyly charismatic. He took great delight in winding his students up over thorny issues and then letting them go. It was a rambling and highly opinionated circus of a class, and at the end of the semester we decided to celebrate by taking Professor B out to dinner as a group. The twenty or so of us packed into a local restaurant and crowded the table with wine and beer and sake (and food, of course). It didn’t take long for the conversation to loosen.

Professor B shared a lot of wisdom and opinions with us that night, about geography and traffic patterns and the state of public education. But the thing that stuck with me most was his advice about dinner on a date. “This is very important. If you’re going to eat garlic on a date, make sure you’re both eating it,” he exhorted us. “But if you can’t get your date to eat garlic, all you have to do is eat parsley. Just eat some parsley. It cancels it out.”

I haven’t been able to eat parsley since without thinking of Professor B. I have no idea if it’s actually the remedy he claimed it was–I haven’t done a controlled experiment, shall we say. But the idea of parsley as a romance-enabler stuck with me. Every time I nibble a parsley spring from a garnish on a restaurant plate, I imagine I’m doing my date a favor. And when I found myself with most of a bunch left after cooking mussels, I decided to try a full-on Valentine’s Day parsley blast, and turn it into a salad.

I would never have guessed that parsley leaves make great salad greens, but they really do. They’re fluffy and flavorful, but without the bitterness that most lettuces and greens have. And unlike delicate and fancy salad greens, parsley doesn’t wilt when dressed; the leaves keep their shape for a long time, even overnight, with no detectable difference in texture. I shaved the parsley leaves off the stems, added some seeded and drained cucumber, and drizzled the whole thing with lemon vinaigrette, for a salad that was bright, crunchy, and feather-light. I could easily imagine this as a palate-cleanser (and garlic-cleanser) alongside any number of rich and romantic main courses.

Forget chocolate. Thanks to Professor B, this is my ultimate Valentine’s Day food.

parsley cucumber salad

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Steamed mussels in white wine tomato broth

Remember how I said my boyfriend hated mussels? Well, New Zealand changed his mind.

New Zealand green-lipped mussels are a rare restaurant treat here in California. Traveling to their native land was a golden opportunity to eat as many as possible. We were traveling with a critical mass of mussel-lovers–myself included–so someone would always order a big pile of them every time we saw them on a menu. They were always steamed in some flavorful winey liquid, served in towering white bowls. The mussels themselves were enormous, with glossy black shells edged in gemstone green, as if they’d been dipped in dye. The meat was tender and pale orange, with the faintly musky ocean flavor that makes good mussels so intriguing. Four or five of us would always end up squabbling over the last shell or two in the bowl.

When Sam said he wanted to try a mussel, I was surprised. He’d been so stubbornly opposed to anything with two shells, and wrinkled his nose whenever I suggested he give them a try. And here he was asking to taste New Zealand mussels, the largest, squishiest, freakiest-looking mussels I’d ever seen. He ate his first mussel hesitantly, chewing slowly, as if expecting to find something in it that would put him off. But it didn’t, and he reached for another one. And another one. And another one. At the end of our last restaurant meal on the trip, he looked me square in the eye and said, “I think I like mussels now.”

I can’t even express how excited this makes me. Mussels are one of my favorite foods, and to be able to share that love with the person I love is thrilling. They’re incredibly quick and simple to make–just put them in a pot with a small amount of flavorful liquid, then cover and steam them until they open. And they’re also one of the most economical seafood choices around. Farmed mussels are sustainable, plentiful, and available year-round, and even good-quality mussels from a fancy store–which are the only ones you should buy–won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

To celebrate Sam’s newfound love of mussels, and as an early Valentine’s Day treat, I steamed some mussels in a broth of leeks, garlic, white wine, and tomato paste. It was a lovely romantic meal for two, light yet indulgent. We had a great time pulling nuggets of mussel meat from the shells with our fingers. And then at the bottom of the bowl, a treat: the broth from the mussel pot, rich and salty from the juices the mussels gave off as they steamed, with a low spicy thrum of tomato in the background. We dunked bread in the broth until the bread was gone, then picked up our bowls and drank what was left. (Another reason to cook mussels at home–try that at a restaurant, and you’ll get stared at.)

mussels with white wine and tomato

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I know, I know, I haven’t posted in a while. But I have a really good excuse: New Zealand.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you have a friend like Audrey, who gets it into her mind to gather a bunch of people together and jet off to New Zealand for two weeks. Why? Because we’re young, we’re unattached, we’re working good jobs with vacation time and enough money for plane tickets, and really, because why the hell not. So she marshaled an unruly group of nine of us, and masterminded an elaborate trip.

For two weeks we traveled most of the length of New Zealand’s north island, hopping from hostel to hostel on our way from Auckland to Wellington. And it was a fantasy. There were dense jungle-ish forests, and startling volcanic mountainsides, and psychedelic glowworm caves, and thermal hot springs in crayon colors, and beaches with jewel-green water, and all the glorious green rolling hills we’d hoped for, freckled with thousands of grazing sheep. We hiked and caved and walked and biked and Zorbed, and gorged ourselves on lamb and quiche and pastries and excellent white wine. I still haven’t fully processed it all–it was a fourteen-day sensory overload.

It was also rich kitchen fodder. I’ve got pocketfuls and pocketfuls of ideas for new recipes to try, inspired by the food we ate and the wine we drank. But to start off, here’s something I made before we even left: a kiwi pavlova.

kiwi pavlova

This was my birthday cake of sorts, for a party the day before our flight to Auckland. I made it to be shamelessly thematic, since pavlovas were supposedly invented in New Zealand (or Australia, depending on whose side you take). It was named after the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, and created as a way of embodying her delicacy and airiness in culinary form. It’s not especially popular in America–in fact, I’d never even heard of it until I decided to make one for myself. And now that I have, I’m totally confused, because pavlova is utterly divine.

So what is it, exactly? Think of it as a sort of meringue cake: a big crackly disc of meringue, slathered with whipped cream and studded with fresh fruit. The meringue for a pavlova is fortified with cornstarch and vinegar, which gives it a texture that I can only describe as “dreamy.” The outside is shatteringly thin and crisp, while the inside is spongy and light–like a marshmallow, only softer and more delicate. I take a tip from Nigella Lawson and flip my meringue upside down, so that the softer side that was next to the baking sheet is on top. That way, the bottom and sides keep all their crackly texture, and the whipped cream melds with the top of the meringue to produce the perfect creamy-chewy bite. It also hides a multitude of sins, since pavlovas have a tendency to crack and shatter all over the moment you touch them.

When it comes to topping a pavlova, the tradition is whipped cream and passionfruit pulp. But since passionfruits are impossible to come by in Northern California, I topped my pavlova with sliced kiwis instead. (I am nothing if not committed to a theme.) Any number of sliced fresh fruits or berries would work here, as would a healthy dollop of citrus curd swirled into the whipped cream. Really, the only important thing is that you choose a fruit that has some tartness to it, to balance the sugary meringue and the fatty cream.

kiwi pavlova sliced

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