The organizer of the group I went to Senior Prom with booked us seats at Splashes, a restaurant in a Laguna Beach hotel. When we arrived, all dressed up and feeling ever so fancy, four of our party of six were surprised and distressed to discover that a restaurant called Splashes primarily served seafood. I was delighted. Lobster ravioli? Yes, please!
While the majority of our party waited for their chicken and steak dishes to be prepared, my date received the first course he’d ordered: a caprese salad with balsamic dressing. It arrived – beautifully arranged slices of bright tomato, quivering mozzarella, crisp basil leaves – and he squinted at it with confusion. “This is not a salad,” he said. “There’s no lettuce!” He ate it – we all did – and thought it was good, but maintained his stance. To be a salad, a collection of ingredients must include lettuce. No room for experimentation there.
We were in high school, and it was only the very beginning of the new millennium. What did we know about creative vegetable assemblages like caprese or tabbouleh or panzanella? We were babies. But I will say: though I recognize these popular, now fairly well known varieties of salad as such, in this project Bittman has taught me so much about what a salad can be and how widely the boundaries of its definition can be stretched. Not a single entry, in fact, on the Salads portion of the project list, includes lettuce. How pedestrian – how expected – that would be.
“76. Grate apples (red are nice; leave skin on), radish and celery. Roast pistachios and chop. Dress all with olive oil, shallots, grainy mustard, red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar.”
This sounded like an interesting and delicious combination, but like the tomatillo and jicama combination a few weeks ago, it didn’t sound like something you could dig into a big bowl of. I decided, therefore, to make it more like a condiment, which gave me an excellent excuse to roast a chicken. Imagine: a steaming, crisp skinned chicken thigh topped with cool, crisp shreds of apple and peppery radish. Like the lobster ravioli of yore, yes please!
Here’s what I used:
1 large apple (I had a honeycrisp – one of my favorite kinds)
2 stalks celery
4 small radishes
½ cup pistachios, roasted and chopped
2 TB olive oil
1 TB red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp sugar (depends on your taste, the sweetness of your apple, and the sharpness of your radishes)
½ TB whole grain mustard
I eliminated the shallots because, despite their lauded mildness, neither N. nor I find the flavor of raw onions particularly appealing.
During the last twenty minutes or so of the chicken’s stay in the oven, I clattered the pistachios into a small cake pan and put them on the bottom rack so they could toast. They needed about ten minutes at 350F, and emerged browned and nutty smelling (isn’t that a silly way of describing the aroma of a nut? Of course it was nutty smelling! What else could it be?). I set them aside so they could cool before being chopped and deposited into the salad mixture.
While things were roasting and toasting, I grated up the stars of the salad. The apple became little ribbons, the radishes paper-thin shreds, and the celery turned into a pile of almost-mush. But I decided that was okay – celery is such an assertive texture that less of its fibrous aggressiveness would actually be a benefit.
Were I making this again, at this point I would deposit the grated vegetation into a sieve for a few minutes to let the juice drip away, giving the dressing a better opportunity to cling and permeate. My decision to plop everything right into the serving bowl resulted in slight soupiness – the apple and celery in particular gave off copious amounts of juice.
At this point, you should also chop and add your pistachios to the salad. After all, you paid money for them and babysat them carefully to prevent burning them in the oven. But I didn’t. I forgot about them completely as I whisked up the dressing, tossed it with the salad, then stowed the serving dish on the table so I could have room on my kitchen counter to carve the chicken.
Piled atop carefully carved and portioned pieces of chicken, the little condiment salad warmed and released a delicious sweet-tart aroma that completely belied the bland appearance of our plates. Though up close you could see flecks of red and green and pink in the salad from the skins of the various ingredients, from any distance it looked like pale meat with pale apple shreds on top, next to a pale pile of barley, which I’d cooked pilaf style as a starchy accompaniment.
The flavor was more like the smell than the appearance. It was sharp and bracing – just sweet enough, but assertively vinegary. This worked very well with our chicken because the sweet-sour crunch cut through the fatty moistness of the meat. Halfway through dinner I sprinkled mine with a palm-full of the forgotten pistachios, and I must admit I liked it better nut free. N., not a pistachio fan, agreed.
Despite how good a sport he has been during the years (years!) I’ve been working to accomplish this project, N. doesn’t like all foods. I recognize that there is a time for experimentation and excited guesswork, but there is also a time to exclude him from the proceedings. This understanding led to my original decision to make only the items from Bittman’s list that seemed reasonable. I haven’t set out to cook all 101 sides; there were a few that just didn’t fit our palates. However, out of my curiosity and tastes, a few items remained on the list that are just not N.’s cup of tea. The second salad I made this week was one such dish.
“79. Cook chopped pears in a covered saucepan with a tiny bit of water until soft. Puree, but not too fine. In your smallest pan, boil a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with a little brown sugar; lower heat and reduce by half. Spoon the pear sauce over endive leaves and finish with toasted sliced almonds and the balsamic reduction.”
To me, this sounded delightful. To N., it sounded weird. So on Thursday, when he had to go back to school for an evening engagement, it became my dinner. It consisted of:
2 TB sliced almonds
2 ripe pears, peeled and chopped into small chunks
1 TB water
3 spears endive
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 TB brown sugar
I must admit: I cheated on the balsamic reduction. The quantities I listed above are falsified. But they are estimates you might use. I happened to have a small container of already reduced, already sweetened balsamic vinegar in my refrigerator from a previous night, and this was the perfect excuse to use it up. I just microwaved it for a few seconds and it loosened right up from a tar to a pourable, molasses-like syrup.
I toasted the almonds in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing them frequently. You can’t take your eyes off of these slices for very long. In the space of twenty seconds, they go from perfectly golden to burnt. How do I know? How do you think?
I set aside my overly tanned almonds and added the pear chunks and water to my pan. Bittman didn’t specify whether the pears should be peeled or not, but pears already have that dubious, potentially grainy texture, and I decided the rough and sometimes gritty skin shouldn’t have a part in this salad. As the pears – naked, cored, and chopped – simmered and softened, I considered the pureeing instruction and rejected it. If indeed they were still supposed to be chunky, there were other methods than dirtying my food processor or immersion blender. I had at them with the potato masher. This broke them into a chunky puree – some texture remained but they were definitely on the road to sauce-hood. I turned off the heat and set them aside to cool.
All that remained was to cut and arrange the endive and drape these various accoutrements across it. I spooned, I drizzled, I scattered, and I served.
This was good, and a nice homage to fall, but it almost read like a dessert salad. Endive has – to my palate at least – little to no discernible taste. It is crisp and fun to eat because it has such a capable, interesting shape, but it crunches into water in your mouth and tastes like whatever you pair it with. In this case, it tasted of earthy mild pears and glossy sweet balsamic reduction. The crunch of the almonds and the crunch of the endive were pleasantly different: one dry, one juicy. I ended up scooping dressing, pear puree, and almonds into each leaf and eating them out of hand rather than messing around with all that utensil business. After all, I was seated at a table for one, and Ted Allen on the TV wasn’t going to judge me. Besides, I was pairing this salad with shrimp (so delicious: toast mustard seeds and red pepper flakes, sear shrimp, deglaze with dry white wine, sprinkle with parsley, serve), and it’s so much easier to just pick them up by the tails. No fuss. Only a little mess. Easily remedied. Followed up, just to make it extra indulgent, with a little cup of coconut whipped cream, dried blueberries, and the rest of the toasted almonds.
N. wouldn’t have liked this dinner. But that’s okay. Our coupledom doesn’t require identical food preferences as I once thought it might, and I’m happy to take on all the shrimp and coconut in the world on his behalf, paired with pears and endive or not. Call it a gift. And in return, he lets me play with my food: not just eating with my fingers, but trusting me in my experimentation because I know what he likes. That means when I present him with one of my Frankensteinian creations, he might raise his eyebrows, but he’s willing – and usually happy – to give it a try. A salad doesn’t need lettuce. What it needs, I think, are the flavors you like and the contrasting textures that make it an adventure to eat.