Archive for June, 2006

Salad Composition 101

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

(originally published on lime.com)
Many sad salads lurk in refrigerators at restaurants, or languish in the bins of the nearest Salad Toss counter at the deli, or cower inside taco shells or the latest fast food delivery contraption, waiting to depress the nearest eater. Leathery lettuce, alien tomatoes, and canned garnishes can create the impression that a salad is a poor substitute for food. As a powerful antidote to this dispiriting category, creating your own salad is a great way to connect with fresh ingredients. Along with a bit of bread and a glass of wine, it’s a delicious, light, and healthy supper.

The key is to use the most inspired selection of ingredients you can find, with the barest of seasonings. Shopping for a salad can be a great experience of foraging locally for things that are seasonal and fresh. I like to think of an unconventional salade Niçoise or a vegetable antipasto: an artfully curated selection of flavors, textures and colors displayed on individual plates or a large serving dish. Temperature is a key component of getting the best flavor from your salad. A cold tomato is a thing from hell, whereas one that has been warmed by the sun for a few hours just prior to being picked and eaten is a Proustian experience. Not everything you include has to come straight from the garden, but bringing all produce to room temperature is crucial. I rarely refrigerate produce I plan to use within 24 hours, except for onions (colder onions make for fewer tears.)

A salad as it should be is so personal to the taste of the cook and so dependant upon what is in season that it is difficult to give a recipe, but here are some ideas for combinations, along with my favorite salad dressing recipe. As far as that goes, you can do just as well and sometimes better with just a drizzle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice and a sprinkle of salt.

Don’t feel as though you have to throw in the kitchen sink. Think of five or six things that might taste good together, treat them well, and assemble them in an appealing way.

Lettuce and other greens: Mesclun mixes of various varieties, baby spinach, sorrel, dandelion greens, and lettuces are in season around the country for the next several months. If you have a farmer’s market, look there first, but many stores now carry a good selection of bulk mesclun or bagged, washed greens. Look carefully for wilted bits, dive to the back of the shelf for the bagged lettuce with the farthest expiration date, and be generally picky. Sub-par greens can become more inspired with a brief cold water bath, and all greens should have one in any case to remove any dirt, sand, or bugs. Dry very carefully in a salad spinner or between paper towels (or both) as wet greens prevent dressing from adhering.

Fresh herbs : Cilantro, tarragon, chervil, basil, mint and parsley are some of my favorites to use in salads. Stick to milder herbs without an overly fibrous texture. Rosemary and sage are better in cooked foods, for example.

Other Vegetables: Some vegetables need a bit of blanching or steaming, including peas, green beans, and fava beans. Beets and potatoes should be boiled until just tender, while tomatoes, avocados, radishes, fennel, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, scallions, sweet onions, celery and sprouts can just be sliced or chopped or included whole.

Fruits: Apples, pears, plums, peaches, watermelon cubes, grapes, mango, berries, grapefruit or orange sections, and thin slices of lemon with the peel still on all have their place in a salad. Raw is always great, but apples, pears, and peaches can also be halved and baked first. Be sure to buy organic when it counts.

Toasted Nuts: Toasting, either in a toaster or on top of the stove in a small skillet, really develops the flavor of nuts. I like to use pine nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and in a salad with Southeast Asian-inspired flavors, peanuts.

Cheeses: A salad is one of the tastiest ways to set off the flavors of good cheese. Try blue cheeses like Cabrales or sweet Gorgonzola, rich Brie and soft and tangy goats’ milk cheeses, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano, delicate Mozzarella Bufala or dry, salty Feta and Ricotta Salata.

Legumes: High-quality canned cannellini beans or chickpeas, or beluga lentils or lentils du puy cooked in vegetable stock, can work very well in salads. If using canned legumes, wake them up by washing them very well in cold water and marinating in a quick dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.

Others: High-quality canned tuna fish (try the Italian versions packed in olive oil), olives, hard boiled eggs, poached eggs, poached or grilled shrimp, croutons made from stale wholegrain bread, cubed salami, and slab bacon cubed, fried, and drained are all great additions to a salad. I’m told that anchovies are delicious, but they’re too strange for me.

Salad Dressing

I make this in my blender. You can make it without one, but you will need to chop the shallot very finely and whisk the olive oil into the other ingredients by droplets.

1 small shallot, roughly chopped

1/4 cup rice vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon (pick out the seeds)

1/4 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

In the bottom of a blender, macerate the shallot in the vinegar and lemon juice for about 15 minutes while you assemble the salad. Add mustard, and blend on high for about 30 seconds. While the blender is running, open the middle of the lid. In a slow, steady stream, add the olive oil. Stop the blender, taste, and correct seasonings. To dress the salad, just barely moisten and toss as close to serving as possible. I like to assemble the salad and then dress and toss it at the table.

You may prefer a lower or higher ratio of vinegar to oil, so experiment. This makes almost a cup of dressing, which will be way more than enough unless you are making a very large salad. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week, but be sure to bring to room temperature before using.

Inspired Combinations

  • Mache or mesclun, parsley, tuna, olives, red potatoes, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, anchovy (if you must.) This is the classic Niçoise salad.
  • Arugula, sliced fennel, slivered pecorino romano, toasted pine nuts. Dress with just a splash of olive oil and a small drizzle of red wine vinegar, with sea salt and pepper.
  • Grilled radicchio, parsley, celery, chickpeas, cubed ricotta salata, cubed salami.
  • Frisee, tarragon, cubed fried bacon (lardoons), toasted baguette, poached egg.
  • Baby romaine, cilantro, mint, grilled shrimp, watermelon cubes, scallions, toasted chopped peanuts. Dress with lime juice mixed with a tiny bit of fish sauce, a dab of honey, and salt.
  • Mesclun, baked Seckel pears, Cabrales, toasted pecans.
  • Arugula, cannellini, tuna, fennel slices, lemon slices, chopped fennel fronds.

Image courtesy of Chocolate and Zucchini

An International Perspective on Buying Produce

Thursday, June 1st, 2006
(originally published on lime.com)

Being susceptible to the appeal of adventure eating, I’ve embraced the consumption of oddities of brows both high and low in places across the globe. I’ve had foie gras in some of New York’s finest restaurants, calf fries in Fort Worth, and street food in Hanoi, and never has my cast-iron stomach failed me. So as I shivered through gut-wrenching pain under a heavy blanket in a sweltering apartment in Hong Kong, my sense of betrayal was plaintive and vast. Even worse, I suffered at my own hands: I knew there was something amiss with the Chinese scallions I sliced into my tuna salad, but my better instincts abandoned me. Fortunately, like most sufferers of food poisoning, I was back in the saddle in a day or two, but I did have some lingering questions: would I have gotten sick if I’d spent another HKD $10 (about USD $1.30) for Japanese or Australian scallions? How does one go about trying to buy healthy and sustainably-produced fruits and vegetables in an unfamiliar landscape?

The Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong has negligible agriculture, and it imports the vast majority of its food supply. Produce in Hong Kong supermarkets has clear labels of origin, and many people have very particular ideas about what is safe to consume. After Greenpeace raised the alarm in April about off-the-charts levels of pesticides found in Chinese produce in popular supermarket chains, many swore off these cheap and widely available imports. Rumors about Chinese imports on ex-pat forums, likely apocryphal, tell of vegetables and fish contaminated with human waste and other vile substances. US imports are suspect for some, as a large percentage of them may contain GMOs (Hong Kong residents, like those of many Western countries outside the US, are suspicious of genetically modified food, and the government is in the process of implementing The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.)

The other primary sources of produce for consumers are the so-called “wet markets.” These open-air markets operate in neighborhoods all over Hong Kong, selling fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, seafood, and flowers, mostly from China. My first instinct upon arrival was to head straight for the wet markets, as I am a regular at my Brooklyn farmer’s market and I’m a big fan of locally-grown, but after my food poisoning experience and learning about pesticide contamination, I’ve steered clear.

Organic produce is popular with locals and expats alike, though standards can be uneven with so much international variety. In fact, “organic” is one of the more recently popular Engrish superlatives to appear on shops and flyers purveying items like books or clothing, along with “yoga” (my personal favorite is the “C.E.O. Flow Organic Bookshop.”) However, if you seek it out, it’s fairly easy to find organic produce. Several delivery services will bring organics to your door from a variety of different origins, and if you are willing to put in a day, you can even pick your own, although unless you live on Lamma, one of the outlying islands, you’ll need to take two ferry trips and a short walk to do so.

In recent years, the Hong Kong government has encouraged organic farming across the SAR, and the number of farms participating in their organic program has increased to over sixty farms. Organic produce is a niche for which local growers can charge a premium, and can be competitive with produce grown more cheaply in the mainland. However, the 2-3 metric tons of food produced by these farms each day can feed only a tiny portion of the SAR’s nearly 7 million residents.

As consumers world-wide become more aware of how their families and their environment can be affected by unsustainable or toxic food production methods, they are putting pressure on their governments to legislate on their behalves, which in turn puts pressure on countries that produce large quantities of the global food supply to improve their methods. Hong Kong has begun to implement stricter monitoring procedures to control pesticides in the food supply from China, and pressures continue to mount on China and the US from countries around the world to curb the use of pesticides and GMOs and to improve food safety practices.

Did that scallion make me sick? I still think so, although even if it was unrelated, my illness had the upside of making me look closely at where my food comes from , which is always a good thing to know.