In between other projects, I’m researching background for a culinary mystery, and I find myself reading a lot about James Beard. In fact, I’m browsing through one of his memoirs, Delights and Prejudices. For all his broad-ranging knowledge of international food and his snobbishness, Beard was a proponent of traditional American cooking. He despised French fries, calling them soggy, greasy, and tasteless—but he relished a good pan of cottage fries, those potatoes sliced thin and fried until crisp. To read Beard is to rediscover some old favorites—and the right way to fix them.
I’m also a devotee of Sam Sifton’s New York Times cooking column, but reading it—what? five times a week? —I sometimes feel bombarded by recipes calling for ingredients I’ve never heard of and probably can’t get easily and dishes I’ve never imagined—maqluba, Baharat, gojuchang, pad kee mao. And recipes that sound outrageous to me, like charred strawberry ice cream—do you char the berries on the grill before making the ice cream? (I think that one is not Sifton’s fault but came from a “cutting edge” food magazine). Or Oaxacan hibiscus foam—I’m not sure yet if that’s a topping for a margarita or a flower (the web offers pictures of both). Sometimes I long for good old-fashioned meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
But it is spring and, as I said before, time to think about salads. Buried in the research material I inherited for the Alamo book was a folder of vintage recipes. For now, I’ll spare you the ones dealing with liver and tongue sandwiches and offer instead the advice on spring salads.
“The greatest possible discrimination must be exercised in the selection of the salad at this season of the year. For a luncheon salad, the fancy may be permitted to move at will [you can include nuts, berries, and other fruit] … but for a dinner salad, simplicity itself must be the rule. It may be composed of lettuce or endive or romaine or cress, and it must be dressed in the only perfect way such a salad can be dressed, with the mixture of oil and acid of the ancient Latins and Greeks. To be absolutely without fault, the dressing should be mixed at the table, just as it is to be served.”
The article recommends placing ¼ tsp. each pepper, salt, and paprika in the bowl, followed by a Tbsp. olive oil. Then, impale an ice cube on a fork, stir the ingredients until well blended. Add a tsp. of vinegar, and then alternate oil and vinegar, always stirring, until you have added three Tbsp. of oil and one of vinegar. Taste and add salt and paprika as needed. Apparently, the moisture from the melting ice aids in the vinegar/oil emulsion. That ice cube would make a showy presentation, but it reminds me of a family favorite recipe.
Rub a salad bowl thoroughly with the split sides of a garlic clove. Discard garlic and rub bowl with salt, dry mustard, and a bit of pepper. Crumble blue cheese in the bottom of the bowl and add vinegar. Mash blue cheese into vinegar, with a fork, until it dissolves in the vinegar. Add olive oil. These days the ratio is considered two parts oil to one of vinegar (it always used to be three-to-one). The amount of vinegar you put in determines how much dressing you make. (I frequently end up with way too much dressing, so I simply save it in the fridge for another day; I believe salads should be lightly dressed.) Add torn greens, toss and serve.
And on the subject of dressings, I just made a batch of Chuy’s creamy jalopeño dip and dressing. There are several versions on the web, and I believe any of them will do—except that I used pickled jalopeño slices and a bit of the juice. And do use cilantro and lime juice.
Happy spring salads everyone.