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The art of the salad

I eat a lot of salad, and think no dinner party is really complete without a salad course. I’m indifferent as to whether the salad comes before or after the main course, though I prefer after if there’s a soup course as well.

Unfortunately, restaurant salads generally disappoint me. Someone somewhere along the way decided that by piling dozens of ingredients together, it creates the perception of value. And at what point in culinary history did chicken become a mandatory addition to restaurant salads?

But for a salad to be really satisfying, simplicity is key. Salad is architectural; it has structure. It needs balance in flavor and texture yet must allow each ingredient to express itself fully. This is exemplified, I think, by the Very Nice Salad Indeed recipe I posted a little while ago, and which I’ll deconstruct now. A salad should have, in ascending order:

Greens. This is the foundation, the very ground upon which a salad is built. I used to be heavily into spring and mesclun greens, and still enjoy them, but like them best on their own. If I’m going to continue layering flavors and ingredients, butter (aka Boston), romaine, green or red leaf or even iceberg do the trick.

Crunch. Radishes are my favorite, but carrot, jicama or cabbage work as well, as do nuts. This gives substance and texture.

Chew. I love olives for their toothy texture. Cheese or meat does the trick too. This creates contrast in texture.

Sweet and/or tart. Yes, I’ve been on a grapefruit kick lately, which satisfies both requirements. Fruit generally makes for a great contribution and can sometimes, as with Asian pears, do double-duty for the crunch category.

Herb. Nothing brightens up the flavor of a salad like fresh herbs. I prefer bright, pungent flavors like tarragon or basil. Parsley of course plays very well with lettuce, but sometimes gets lost in the mix.

Lubrication. Yes, dressing is low on the list, not because it is not important but because it should be added in such small quantity. For my money, a simple vinaigrette achieves the greates effect for lubrication and flavor enhancement without overpowering or drowning out the other players. Our house standard recipe to follow after the jump.

Salt and pepper. A sprinkle of coarse salt enhances flavors and adds extra crunch. A final crack of black pepper lends bouquet and brings out the herbs.

That’s it! This simple equation delivers simple, elegant and satisfying salads every time. Maybe not super innovative, but always delicious.

That is not to say there is not room in the world for other salads, but they are different creatures. I love composed salads (ni├žoise, cobb), bread salads (panzanella), chopped salads (of the Italian paradigm) and fruit salads — not to mention more exotic concoctions like the Salad of Pain. Each of them has its own equation and composition, and perhaps I’ll do some deconstruction of them at a later date.

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Stuffed artichokes

Artichokes8Despite my astonishingly WASPy name, I am in fact half Italian-American. It’s the side of the family that I grew up with more, and culturally how I identify myself. The various branches of my mother’s family hail from three places in southern Italy: Salle a hamlet in Abruzzo; Benevento, a medium-sized city not far from Napoli; and Reggio di Calabria, the very tip of the toe of the boot. Our family recipes are a hybrid of the influences of these three regions.

If most people eat to live, Italians live to eat. Every holiday has its obligatory dishes, and every person (well, woman) in the family has her requisite dish(es) to produce. My mother is responsible for stuffed artichokes, to be made at Easter and also at Thanksgiving. She inherited this recipe from her mother, who no doubt got it from hers and so on.

Here in California, where the artichokes come from, most people just steam them and dunk the leaves in mayonnaise, aioli or drawn butter. In my family, artichokes are stuffed with a breadcrumb mixture and then braised until tender. The outer leaves get packed with a savory, bready bite, giving way to the soft inner leaves and finally the creamy heart. They’re good warm, but best served at room temperature and are even not bad cold. Somewhat unusually, they are always served as part of dessert. The full recipe with plenty more pics (featuring my mother, the hand model) after the jump.

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Mango salsa and guacamole

Just back from several days in Palm Springs, whence the radio silence on the blog. We shared a house with a few friends up in the north side of town. A good time — and good food and drink — were had by all, including delicious chicken and asparagus on the grill (ah, to cook out!), rockin’ pulled pork (we’ve got this down to a 24-hour cycle now) and copious amounts of grapefruit fresh off the trees in the backyard. Greyhound, anyone?

But you gotta have snack food to fill in the gaps between the big meals, so we whipped up big batches of mango salsa and guacamole. They didn’t last long. Recipes after the jump.

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