Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.

 

Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve

 

  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.
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“Rumpled Donuts”

2016 Food Blog January-0343Some of the blog search terms I’ll be using for this year’s project are straightforward, and some made proto-recipes fly immediately into my head. This one did not. Part of the reason I chose to do it first was simply because I wasn’t sure what “rumpled donuts” should be, and wanted to figure it out before I was too deep into the spring semester.

2016 Food Blog January-0316Though I can think of what many “rumpled” baked goods might look like – particularly rumpled pancakes, which might be crepes, or maybe that lovely giant Dutch baby or German pancake that rises up past the edges in the pan – I couldn’t fathom what a rumpled donut might be. If you’re still out there, searcher, what were you after? When I think “rumpled,” I think unmade bed sheets. It’s uneven. It’s piled and layered, and that meant my dough, whatever I opted for, would also have to be uneven. Clearly this is a problem for regular dough – in almost all baked goods you want your dough or batter to be rolled or spread or patted out to the same thickness all the way across, for even cooking. It would need, then, to be a non-traditional dough.

2016 Food Blog January-0319I’m not sure what eventually led me to phyllo. Certainly I thought of my favorite donut, the perfectly delicious but sometimes overlooked apple fritter, and somewhere in the contemplation of apple and cinnamon and unmade beds, I thought of a crumpled layer of phyllo dough, and I knew exactly what I would do. Phyllo would get twisted and wrapped around a ring of apple, then fried until crisp and dredged in a healthy layer of cinnamon sugar. Bingo. Rumpled donut. The apple slices would have to be cooked for a while first, though, since the phyllo would fry so quickly.

2016 Food Blog January-0312Next to making caramel, frying is the cooking project that puts me most on edge. The oil takes a long time to come up to temperature, it seems like so much, and there’s always the fear that, well, you have a vat of boiling oil on your stove right next to your hands, and arms, and legs, and all those body parts you’d prefer remained un-fried. In this case, there was also the complication of working with phyllo, which needs to be treated quickly and delicately to avoid tearing or drying out. For that reason, even after deciding exactly what I would do, I put off making these for three weeks. Surely, I thought, they would be more trouble than the end product was worth.

2016 Food Blog January-0330Untrue. I’m not in a rush to make them again, but for a pure experiment they were amazing. The apple rings are meltingly tender after a sauté in butter and brown sugar spiked with a cinnamon stick. The loose buttery caramel they leave behind is the perfect slick to brush between phyllo layers to help them cook through and to sweeten the tasteless, papery dough. Once fried, which only takes about a minute on each side, the phyllo is impossibly crisp, not particularly greasy, and deeply golden. It’s like a croissant and an apple fritter had a beautiful affair. I made six of these, since that’s how many rings I divided my apple into, and since each one consisted only of one slice of apple and one sheet of phyllo, N. and I felt no compunction whatsoever about eating three each over the course of the afternoon and evening.

2016 Food Blog January-03392016 Food Blog January-0337Here’s the thing, though. Most of the recipes I post here, I want you to cook. I try to make them precise, and organized, and exact, so you can replicate them successfully, with your own touches, if you wish. This one is different. Unless you’re really into what you’re seeing here, don’t make these. They were outstandingly delicious, yes, but they were also a giant pain to execute. The apples tore, the phyllo tore, there was sugar everywhere, and as you’ll see below, the process of folding and twisting and wrapping is tricky to describe and to do (and impossible to take pictures of – I gave up). What I’d advise instead, and what I will likely do when a craving for fried phyllo arises, is to forget about the donut ring shape. Just make packets – twist or roll or wrap up a sautéed slice or plank of apple in phyllo layers and drop it into the oil that way. It will still produce sweet, tender apples in flaky, crispy layers of dough that shatter everywhere upon impact, but you’ll save yourself a lot of irritation in the construction phase. And if apples aren’t your jam, I’d imagine you could use almost anything: a smear of pesto, a dollop of nutella, a slice of brie spread with fig or apricot preserves and wrapped in prosciutto inside that papery crispy envelope.

2016 Food Blog January-0309Just in case, though, what follows is my procedure, as clearly as I can describe it, for my attempt to invent the “rumpled donut.” Enjoy!

2016 Food Blog January-0344

Rumpled Donuts
Makes 6
45-60 minutes, roughly, depending on how many donuts you fry at a time
1 large green apple
4-5 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of salt
6 sheets phyllo dough (or however many apple rings you end up with)
1-2 quarts vegetable oil
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon

 

  • Begin to heat the oil to 350F in a deep pot. I use one with straight sides, but a wok would probably also work nicely. Oil should be at least three inches deep.
  • While the oil heats, prep your ingredients. Skin the apple and core it, leaving a hole down the center at least 1 ½ inches in diameter. Cut the cored apple into ¼ inch thick rings – for me, this made 6 even slices.
  • Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, the cinnamon stick, and the pinch of salt and stir or whisk together the sugar is fully dissolved into the butter. Add the apples in a single layer and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes per side. When apple slices are tender but not mushy, turn off the heat, remove apple slices from the pan, and set them aside to cool until room temperature, or just barely warm.
  • While the apples are cooling, combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small dish, and prepare a work station for the phyllo dough. You will need a large board and two slightly damp kitchen towels. Lay one towel down on a countertop, place the 6 sheets of phyllo on it, then cover the phyllo with the other towel. Phyllo dries out fast, and when it dries it becomes brittle and even more difficult to work with. Set out a wire rack with paper towels, or a cookie sheet, or a large plate underneath – this is where you will set your finished rumpled donuts.
  • Carefully separate one sheet of phyllo from its companions and spread it out on the large board. Cut it in half width-wise so you end up with two fatter rectangles (as opposed to two thinner ones, as you would if you cut it lengthwise). Use the leftover butter and sugar mixture in your pan to brush lightly over each rectangle (if this has solidified and seems unbrushable, add the additional tablespoon of butter, put it over low heat, and stir or whisk together until melted and spreadable again). Fold each phyllo rectangle in half lengthwise for two longer, thinner strips. Repeat, brushing and folding again, for each piece so you have two thin strips of phyllo.
  • Now comes the pesky part. Take one of your apple rings and carefully insert one of the phyllo strips through the hole in the center. Pull the apple through about ¼ of the length of the phyllo, and wrap that ¼ back around the apple ring. Draw the remaining phyllo strip around the apple ring and back through the hole. This is easiest if you draw the end of the phyllo through as though you were threading a needle, rather than pushing from the middle of the phyllo strip, which can encourage tearing. Continue to draw the phyllo through and carefully wrap it around the apple ring in a spiral, and repeat with the second strip. You will need both to form a full spiral of dough around the apple, completely encircling it. Tuck the ends of phyllo into the central hole of the apple to secure.
  • Repeat with the remaining apple rings and sheets of phyllo.
  • When you have wrapped your apples and your oil has reached a temperature somewhere in the window of 350-365F, you are ready to fry. Use a skimmer or a kitchen spider to carefully lower the “donuts” into the oil one at a time. If your pot is wide, you can fry more than one at once. I just did one at a time.
  • Fry the “donuts” until deeply golden, then flip and repeat. For me, this took about 1 minute per side. Carefully remove with the skimmer and let it drain over the pot of oil for a few seconds, then sprinkle liberally with the cinnamon sugar mixture (be sure to get both sides!), and set gently on the wire rack to cool for at least 5-10 minutes. This will ensure that all surfaces stay crispy. Keep an eye on your oil temperature, ensuring that it remains in the 350-365F range.
  • Repeat with remaining donuts, and eat as soon as they are cool enough to handle, with plenty of napkins at the ready. We did not save any, so I don’t know how they store, but my guess is the phyllo will not retain its perfect crunch overnight.

Apple Cheddar Waffles

2015 Blog September-0463Although I object to the idea of swapping all of your usual décor with pumpkins and corncobs the moment calendars proclaim it’s the first day of fall, by the time mid-October rolls around I’m both cool with the harvest theme and starting to crave richer, belly-warming food. I have such ideas about bread, and stews, and short-ribs, and roasted everything…

2015 Blog September-04502015 Blog September-04522015 Blog September-0455Los Angeles is making this hard lately. With temperatures in the 90s during two of the past three weekends, it’s difficult to convince myself to cook anything, much less wax poetic about its warming spices and satisfying heartiness. My bedroom feels like the inside of a dryer. I might have fleeting dreams about fluffy, toasty, steaming biscuits mounded with chili, but all I can truly imagine consuming is a series of popsicles and frozen grapes.

2015 Blog September-04562015 Blog September-0457But I will say, if it’s cool enough where you are that the thought of using heating implements in your kitchen doesn’t throw you into depression, you should make these waffles immediately. I first made them a month or so ago when it didn’t feel like Dante might mistake our kitchen for one of the circles of Hell. They were so good – fluffy and light from their yeasted batter, crisp and burnished with crackling edges of melted cheese – that it was only a week or two before we had to make them again. Like the grilled cheese sandwiches I pushed on you last year, they pull from the classic combination of cheddar cheese and apple pie. A wedge of salivation-inducing cheese against the sweet tartness of apple desserts is a worthy experiment in many cases, and here, soft, tender apple bits and pockets of melted cheese folded into a crisp waffle drowning in maple syrup is a combination you’re going to want to make all season, if the seasons would ever straighten themselves out. And if you simply aren’t enthused by a recipe that advertises itself with a pile of apples and sharp-as-you-can-get cheddar cheese, I’m not sure we can stay friends.

2015 Blog September-0467These start from my basic yeasted beer batter waffles recipe, which is adapted from King Arthur Flour. You can use milk instead of beer if you must, but between the yeast and the heat most of the alcohol is processed out, and the slightly bitter flavor of dark beer is such a welcome addition, balancing the rich cheese and tart apples. The first time I made these I was concerned about the apple pieces cooking all the way through in the short time they are enfolded in the waffle iron, but I needn’t have worried. They are in small enough pieces that they will cook. I like to leave the skins on for extra tartness, but you can peel them first if you prefer. Apples and cheese play well in both sweet and savory directions, so while I think a glug of maple syrup – we like to warm it up with a pinch of red pepper flakes for a little kick – makes these a complete meal, I could also see them providing a perfect raft for a moist thigh of roasted or fried chicken, or even piled with a fresh kale salad studded with walnuts and dried cherries. 2015 Blog September-0464

Apple Cheddar Waffles
Loosely adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes about six 7-inch waffles
2-2½ hours (45 minutes active time)
1½ cups (12 ounces) lukewarm dark beer, such as a stout or a porter
1½ teaspoons active dry yeast
3 tablespoons maple syrup
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) melted butter, cooled
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 green apple, diced into ¼ inch-½ inch chunks (1⅓ – 1½ cups, approximately)
1 generous cup grated sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese

 

  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, or a small microwave safe bowl, heat the beer until just warm to the touch. Add yeast and let them mingle for 5-10 minutes. The yeast will foam up considerably, thanks to the extra sugars and yeast already in the beer.
  • While the yeast proofs, whisk together the cooled melted butter, the maple syrup, the salt, and the eggs in a large bowl. Be sure there’s room for the batter to expand.
  • Add the beer and yeast mixture and whisk to combine, then add the flour 1 cup at a time, whisking to combine thoroughly. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apple chunks and the cheese. Stir well, as the cheese may want to stick together; we want it evenly incorporated.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it on the counter for 1½-2 hours (how fast it rises and bubbles will depend on how warm your kitchen is, but longer rise = deeper flavor).  The mixture will develop lethargic and then more energetic bubbles, and begin to smell quite bready.
  • Once it has had a chance to rise and is covered with a near-consistent layer of bubbles, either stow in the refrigerator overnight, or preheat your waffle iron!
  • Drop the batter in generous ⅔ cup batches onto a preheated, greased waffle iron (or whatever capacity your iron can handle). Close the lid and cook for the recommended amount of time, or until the waffle is crisp on the outside and deeply golden, with dark crisp cheese lace protruding. Ours took about 7 minutes per waffle. (If you refrigerated your batter for a few hours or overnight, be sure to bring it back up to room temperature before cooking)
  • Serve hot with your choice of sweet pourable topping. We like maple syrup warmed with a pinch of red chili flakes in it, for a little kick. If you need to keep the waffles warm, stow them on a wire rack over a baking sheet in a 250F oven until you are ready to eat.

 

Apple Onion Breakfast Meatballs

I have to admit, this meatball is a bit of a cheat. I mean, when it comes right down to it, this is a breakfast sausage patty, spiked with small chunks of apple and onion sautéed in butter, slivers of sage, and a generous glug or two of maple syrup. And plenty of black pepper, of course. I know, what’s to complain about there? But essentially, it’s just that, rolled into a meatball form instead of flattened into a patty. I’ve made this a number of times already as a sausage patty, and the simple change feels a bit dishonest – a bit like a masquerade. But the thing is, it allows me to tell you about an event for which I feel a great deal of fondness. So consider this a cheat with good intentions. An excuse, let’s say, to tell you about a time of warmth which, as the winter rolls on, might be something you need.

(Additionally, as I’ve recently noticed, sorry about the lousy photo quality on the in-post photos. I’m thinking this is largely due to artificial lighting, which makes maybe one good thing about that whole Daylight Saving Time curse that has fallen upon us, but also might be a WordPress thing, because if you click on the image for a larger version, it looks clearer and higher quality – more like the original shot.)

Food Blog March 2015-0431The apple and onion in these meatballs (or patties) play very well with the sage and the fatty pork, and the maple syrup results in stellar caramelization, while giving a nod to the “breakfast” idea. This combination was so successful at home in some trial runs and at a summer gathering last July that I broke it out again this January. One of my dearest family friends, a young woman I’ve known so long it feels strange to acknowledge that she is, in fact, a young woman rather than a kid, got married in November, in Chile. She and her now-husband’s Southern Hemisphere nuptials meant that only a small handful of her American friends and family were able to attend. In January, then, while many of us were still off work for the holiday, they had a “stateside celebration” in northern California, which N. and I thankfully were able to attend.

Food Blog March 2015-0420The bride’s mother, whose capacity for party planning is unparalleled, rented a house for the weekend for the “kids” to stay in, and as the oldest members of that no-longer-accurate category, N. and I somehow got in under the age wire and hung out with the “young people” at the party house. This allowed for opportunities like feeding (fat, greedy, possibly possessed) miniature ponies who happen to live on the grounds, wandering an impressive, decked-out-for-Christmas back garden, exclaiming over the proliferation of strange decor choices in the house (lots of religious imagery, a fully decorated Christmas tree in every room of the house, a large rocking horse at the foot of our bed, Victorian and Rococo linens and bathroom paintings, modern art pieces contributed by grateful former guests, a fur stole my sister briefly considered wearing to the party), and riding to and from the event itself in an aesthetically impressive but poorly stocked limousine, my first limo ride ever. (Really, this house was amazing. A Secret Garden/Windsor Mystery House of a place, and we were so lucky to get to experience it).

Food Blog March 2015-0423To offer my thanks, of course I turned to food, offering to cook breakfast for all of the “kids” on the morning of the marriage blessing ceremony. This offer was met with enthusiastic approval, and so my sister and I got up early(ish) and set about finding the least battered tools in the kitchen (it contained an astounding variety of dishes and utensils, but as you might expect of a rental property, many were not well maintained) to make breakfast-for-eight. Among the offerings were these same sausage patties, which were met with considerable acclaim. There were no leftovers.

Food Blog March 2015-0425I realize this is not much about meatballs, but for me, food is so tied to the people I’m feeding and the events surrounding its production that they become part of the taste. These people we were celebrating are so dear to me, and became so with such haste, that I can’t remember a time I didn’t think of them as an extension of my family. She was my bridesmaid when I married, and now at the celebration of her own marriage, it felt so tied to my own declarations of love and familial belonging. As I said when I offered my toast at their reception – while remarking on the tendency my eyes suddenly had at trying, on their own, to alleviate California’s massive drought – there has never been a time when I was not so, so happy to see them. This has been true from the very first time we met (it was raining then, too, relieving this poor parched state once again, as the now-bride’s father welcomed us in with the shout “We’re having a rain party!”), till that evening, surrounded by others they love, who love them.

Food Blog March 2015-0430This is all a bit tumbling and confessional and warm, but I know you’re really here for the meatballs, so let’s get to it. All I’ve done is taken the same ingredients from my sausage patties and rolled them into a meatball, rather than flattening them for the pan. But really, they are perfect either way. They are one of those offerings that, even if they get a little dark on the bottoms from the sugars in the maple syrup (and they may, so don’t despair), they are gobbled up willingly. And even if they stay in the pan a bit too long because you are taking the time to catch up with family who re friends who are family, they stay moist thanks to the apple and onion threaded through them. They are a standby indulgence. I hope they become that for you as well.

Serving suggestions: as you can see, we had ours alongside a fluffy pile of scrambled eggs and some well toasted crumpets. They would also be perfect stuffed inside a pillowy buttermilk biscuit as a fancy little breakfast sandwich bite, and I certainly wouldn’t say no to a pyramid of them gracing a belgian waffle or two. In short, pick your breakfast favorite, and add these.

 

Apple Onion Breakfast Meatballs
Serves 2-3 (but is easily doubled or even tripled)
2 tablespoons butter
⅔ cup diced green apple (about half a medium apple)
⅔ cup diced red onion (about half a small onion)
⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons sage (sage is strong!)
8 ounces pork sausage
2 tablespoons maple syrup

 

  • Heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When melted, add apples and onions, season with ⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper, and cook over medium or medium-low heat until tender: 5-8 minutes.
  • In the last 30 seconds or so of cooking, add the sage and stir to integrate. Then remove from heat and let cool until room temperature or barely warm.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the sausage, maple syrup, and cooled apple and onion mixture. This is already seasoned, thanks to the salty sausage, the sweet syrup, and the salt and pepper added to the cooked apples and onions. If you like a heavy hand with the seasonings, though, feel free to add an additional ⅛ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
  • Using moistened fingertips, mix well until apple and onion pieces are evenly distributed. Moisten the palms of your hands as well, then gently roll mixture into 10-12 equal sized balls – it will be soft.
  • Heat the same skillet you used for the apple and onion over medium heat and gently add the meatballs evenly spaced, not touching each other. Cook over medium heat until browned on all sides – about 3 minutes per side – then cover the skillet with a lid and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let sizzle until meatballs are cooked all the way through – another 8-10 minutes. If the bottoms of the meatballs begin to look a bit on the dark side, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan.
  • Serve hot or warm with breakfast foods of your fancy.

With or Without You

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

Dressing:

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.