A Showboat Salad Dazzles You

But simple can be sublime, too

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WHEN I TALKED ABOUT SALAD WITH JOE GRAY, he recommended we all try what you might call a Showboat Salad, the Sonora Salad from the famous 1989 Coyote Café Cookbook, by Chef Mark Charles Miller.

Gray was the longtime Food & Dining editor at the Chicago Tribune (we worked together there), so I wasn’t surprised that he was keen on a salad created by a famous restaurant chef; being exposed to and recognizing exciting food is part of the job. 

And I happen to love the Showboat Salad category. In this case, it is surprising in its deliciousness and thrilling in its daring combination of roasted Anaheim (mildly spicy) and poblano (mild) chile peppers, blood oranges, anise seeds, tomatoes, and goat cheese. And it’s also one of those recipes that is as easy to prepare as it is dazzling—the kind that inspires us to stretch ourselves! To become larger than our everyday salad selves! I can’t wait to make it for a small dinner party, which is usually when Gray makes it. 

Gray and his husband, Chris Layton, have a salad almost every night (such splendid people!). But rather than a razzmatazz one, Gray usually constructs a salad that is probably part his genetics. (Bear with me here.)

Despite the razzmatazz career, Gray grew up in one of America’s humble small towns, Jewett, Ohio (pop. 819). He had a big family with an Italian mom, who cooked both midwestern American dishes and Italian dishes. So: Salisbury steak, mac and cheese, and big pots of vegetable soup, as well as fantastic pasta sauces. Mrs. Gray didn’t make homemade pasta, but she did make . . .cannelloni!

Some people make it with the pasta sheets, and some make it with what is basically a thin pancake—she made the pancake, just for special, because it was a lot of work for 4 kids,” he said.

However, when Gray was 12, his mom took the kids to Rome to visit her mother. The thing Gray remembers: watching his Nonna and his mother make homemade pasta together in the tiny Roman kitchen, an experience that was culinarily life altering. 

 “I eventually taught myself how to make homemade pasta,” Gray said. “It became my main hobby.”

Another transformative culinary life passage: both of his parents cooked, and they taught all four of their kids to cook, too, “so we would know the basics when it came time to go out on our own. I have two brothers and a sister—and all of us are the cooks in our families,” Gray said (although his own husband is a baker known for his advanced skills at Halloween desserts).

Plus, Gray’s paternal grandparents had a 40-acre farm nearby, with a huge kitchen garden on it, and the idea was that it was for the whole extended family. “If the green beans were ready, my grandma would call us to come pick them.”

So, while Italian flavors naturally became a major part of his vocabulary, so did the midwestern kitchen garden. 

Gray’s grandfather would throw corn roasts, sometimes for family reunions and sometimes just for the heck of it. “He was retired from the mines and he had a lot of sweet corn planted on the property to keep him busy. We would help him sell it in town. I’d put it my little wagon—50 cents a dozen.”

For the corn roasts, “Grandpa dug a pit, probably 12, 15 feet long and four feet deep. I know it was wide enough that you could jump across it when you were a kid (but not when there was a fire in it). He’d put a log in it the day before, and it would burn down to coals. The day of the corn roast, he’d rake back the coals, push a wheelbarrow full of corn in with the husks still on so it didn't burn up, and then rake the coals back over it. Then he’d go up to farmhouse and have a beer. He’d know when it was ready just by the feel. 

“At a typical corn roast there would probably include a three-bean salad, hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. There was a mess of kids, so you didn’t have steak. But we always had grandma’s barbecue chicken, which was really not barbecue and more like braised fall-off-the bone chicken in a tomatoey barbecue sauce,” he explained.

“You know,” he added. “Like what you get in those big vats at a church basement doin’. 

He paused. “Oh, I’m talking more country. It just comes out more when I talk about this!”

I could have listened to Gray talk about corn roasts until the cows came home. The beautiful simplicity! The elemental allure! It didn’t have a thing to do with salads, but I didn’t care, and I did write a somewhat mercenary note to myself: ASK JOE TO DO A ROASTED CORN SALAD FOR ANOTHER TIME. 

I moved us back toward salads and toward Joe’s obvious appreciation of vegetables—which also happens to be very Italian personality trait. In fact, the more Gray and I talked about salads—how he loves bitter greens; mixing them with soft lettuces, pickled fennel, pickled onion, garlic, maybe some creamy avocado but only  if he has one; how we both get requests for our impromptu sherry or red wine vinaigrettes but everyone tells us it’s not the same when they make it—the more it became clear that we hadn’t really been talking about Gray’s favorite kind of salad, which is not chock-full of vegetables at all, or the least bit flashy. 

“I don't want it to open up a whole other avenue here, but I find it interesting that we all make our own vinaigrette, right? But my Italian mom would just dress the salad with oil and red wine vinegar, supermarket quality, right in the bowl, then toss it and it would always be perfect.

“And if you go to most restaurants in Italy, like the neighborhood place that’s going to be so good, they’ll bring you the olive oil and vinegar to your table and you do it yourself. And it’s always so delicious!”

He was started getting excited. 

“And do Italians even make a dressing?  I’m embarrassed that I haven’t officially looked this up, but it has always been a question of mine, for years. In Italy, it’s perfect, but they would never do what I do— mix it in a little measuring cup and write it down.”

He was silent for a moment. 

“There IS no Italian dressing with Italian herbs,” he cried. “There is no Italian seasoning!”

We both started laughing, a bit maniacally, as if we’d just found the Ark of the Covenant, and it was a wooden salad bowl. I told him about a ridiculous mile-long recipe I found for “Italian Vinaigrette” (dried oregano, two kinds of oil, garlic salt, paprika blah blah blah). And I recalled that my favorite vintage Italian cookbook, Great Italian Cooking (1965), by Luigi Carnacina, is over 800 pages long, has a kind of international salad section, and just one (1) salad dressing, which does not mention “Italian herbs” or “Italian seasoning.” All of it reminded me of the conversation I had with Domenica Marchetti, in Issue #4, about the fact that Italians don’t really “do” razzmatazz salads per se.

So Gray also agreed to give me a guide to making his favorite simple salad, influenced by his Italian mother. But I urge you to make the Showboat Salad, too, because it is: ooh-lah-lah. Live a life that lets you embrace conflicting tastes and ideas!

Joe Gray’s Elements of Salad

1.   A mix of greens, usually leaf lettuce and a bitter one, such as escarole or more rarely radicchio, if I have that. Better still, leaf, escarole AND radicchio. When its farmers market season, definitely would include arugula instead of escarole. Again, when in season, the mix of baby kales or baby Asian-style greens from Green Acres farm (sadly for us fans, the owners are retiring and selling the farm this year) would star.

2.   The greens/lettuces are the stars. Then whatever I have on hand or take a fancy to at the store/farmers market might go in to bolster that base. Tangerine sections with shaved parmigiano. Or cherry tomatoes with quartered olives. Sliced fennel with orange segments. Crumbled blue cheese. Lately, pickled onion and pickled fennel (shaved impossibly thin) from a local salumeria/sandwich shop (Tempesta) have been going in. 

3.   Then a simple dressing, which is usually waiting in the fridge. I like a 2-to-1 ratio of extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar. Usually, a mix of vinegars. I always have a red wine vinegar, maybe sherry vinegar or an Italian brand, then usually a locally made apple cider vinegar from Co-op, which is an elixir and which I send regularly to my buddy Olivia in Texas, it’s so good. Maybe a clove of garlic, sliced, has been hanging out in that dressing in the fridge. That’s it! Well, kosher salt!

*Recipe: Sonora Salad, from Coyote Cafe: Foods from the Great Southwest

Serves 4

This salad Joe Gray passed along dazzled me; I think I’ve made that pretty clear. The only thing you might consider a pain is roasting the chile peppers, but it’s probably really the easiest thing. And I’ll give instructions on how to do that, too. I put this together in a layered manner, and when I served it I tossed it. It’s so pretty to do that way: show it off, then toss. I like the combination of the mellow poblanos and slightly spicy Anaheims. The goat cheese tempers and brightens this salad—and bedazzles it!—as does the orange-juice dressing, which is just magnificent. Definitely a dinner party salad.

  • 1 teaspoon minced serrano chile

  • 1/2 cup orange juice (I used juice from an extra blood orange that I also zested; very pretty!)

  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (you could use raspberry, too, you madwoman!); this is optional, depending on how tart your oranges are. I used it

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest

  • 1 teaspoon anise seed, toasted (I toasted my seeds in a nonstick pan over medium high heat until they became very fragrant. Move them around in the pan to prevent burning.)

  • flaky sea salt

  • 1 head romaine, inner leaves only (I left the small leaves whole and sliced the large ones)

  • 1/2 head iceberg, chiffonade (aka sliced into thin shreds)

  • 4 poblanos, roasted, peeled, seeded; cut into pretty chunks

  • 4 Anaheims, roasted, peeled, seeded; cut into pretty chunks

  • 6 radishes, thinly sliced

  • 1 small red onion, very thinly sliced

  • 1 to 2 blood oranges (or another tart orange), neatly peeled, sliced into rounds (cut the rounds in half if you like)

  • 6 red cherry tomatoes, halved

  • 6 yellow cherry tomatoes, halved

  • 1/2 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese (more if desired, but don’t lose your damn mind)

For the Dressing: In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the chopped Serrano, orange juice, oil, orange zest, and just 1/2 teaspoon of the toasted anise seeds, chopped roughly (don’t stress over this. It helps release the flavor). Season with salt; I started with 1/2 teaspoon. If it’s too mellow for you, add the optional tablespoon of red wine vinegar here. It depends on how tart your oranges were. Shake the dressing until emulsified and let stand for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust again according to your own tart/mellow/salty meter. (Does it need squeeze of lemon, more vinegar, a little more salt? The original recipe doesn’t call for the tablespoon of vinegar, but I added one.)

  1. Arrange salad in layers: greens on bottom, then chiles, then radishes, onions, oranges and tomatoes. Top with cheese and other half teaspoon of whole toasted anise seeds.

  2. Shake the dressing well, then drizzle as much as desired over the salad and sprinkle it all with a bit of flaky sea salt. Let people serve themselves and pass a bit of extra dressing. Or put it all in a big bowl and toss gently before serving. Up to you.

How to roast peppers:

Preheat oven to 500°F / 260°C

  1. Lay your chile peppers out on a cookie sheet lined with foil. You can spray or rub them with some olive oil. I did. Give them some room. Roast for 10-15 minutes, depending on size, or until the skin browns and blisters all over. You may want to turn them over midway.

  2. Remove them to a large plate or cutting board to cool. Once they’re cool enough to handle, gently remove the skin. It comes off easily. Do this as soon as possible. If you leave them cooling too long, the skin becomes one with the pepper again and you have a mushy mess. Remove the stem, slice lengthwise, and gently scrape out the seeds.

THAT’S IT! We’re done here. This Wednesday, for paid subscribers, I’ll probably be doing a simple salad that focuses on fresh herbs. Plus I’m going to tell you how to make pickled fennel that you can add to a simple green salad, the way Joe Gray does. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with anyone who you believe truly deserves it!

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