Chef Salad: Kevin Conley
WHAT CAN I TELL YOU ABOUT KEVIN CONLEY: a wonderful, wide-ranging writer and editor, husband, father of four—and my friend forever. We met at a travel magazine in the 90s (I was an associate editor, Kevin was a foreign language fact-checker), but soon both ended up at the New Yorker as arts editors, where we shared the largest portion of our daily lives until I left for Chicago almost a decade later. Our desks were side by side practically the entire time.
Publishing in the 90s was like this every single day
Kevin is a son of Detroit, and the son of a private school professor who was surveilled by the FBI back in the days when his radical politics were considered an Un-American activity. I loved hearing his stories about growing up in Detroit and about Mr. Conley, who, before he died in 2004, wrote Kevin a postcard every single day. Such impressive familial love, which seemed to carry over into Kevin’s capacity for friendship.
Aside from being one of my favorite, funniest, and most charming friends, Kevin is also a terrific, confident cook. I recall being at a party at his apartment in Brooklyn, during which he got out his pizza stone and began making pizzas, as if it were nothing, in a kitchen clogged with young, drunk, floppy-haired publishing types who’d apparently seemed peckish to him. (He topped one pizza with a giant tangle of arugula, and this felt revelatory to me.) At another party, I looked across the crowd and Kevin was walking on his hands, which didn’t surprise me. I knew him that well.
One morning, I arrived to find him standing at the printer, head down, watching his document. “Hey, guess what, Kevin,” I said. “I got engaged!” He didn’t bother to look up but replied: “Oh, right, ha-ha-ha.” I had gotten engaged. But it wasn’t the first time nor would it be the last. He knew me that well.
Anyway, as I was Zooming with Kevin (Kevvy, Special K) recently, salad naturally came up, and he told me a story about his wooden salad bowl. I didn’t own one at the time, but I’ve ordered one hoping it will reveal something valuable to me the way his eventually did.
ABOUT A BOWL, by Kevin Conley
My mother was not a cook. Her signature dish was mashed potatoes with canned tuna and peas, and she’d serve it in a big blob on a plate. Sometimes it was good. And sometimes it was a blob on a plate.
So my introduction to the sensuality of eating came from my brother-in-law, who lived with my sister down the street. He was one of those swaggery guys, the first person to have a wine rack big as his basement wall, an Army vet with a butterfly tattoo on his stomach, a gun rack in the TV room, and a row of cabins way Up North, on Manitoulin Island. I learned how to fillet fish from him, on a big bloody butcher block he dragged down to the beach.
He was self-taught about everything. As I grew up, his menus went from fish fries to lobster quenelles, and he transformed along with his food, from hunter-gatherer to Bourbon King. He taught me how to cook—how to treat an egg, how to make an omelet. I was fifteen years younger than my sister and when they had to babysit me, he’d make elaborate dinners and teach me the difference between Beaujolais and Bordeaux. He’d bring out some limoncello for dessert. I was still in middle school.
When I graduated from high school, he gave me a beautiful wooden salad bowl. It was so nice— dark, wide as my shoulders, carved out of a single piece of wood. I took it to college and turned vegetarian and made all my salads in it.
One of the dishes he taught me was a Caesar salad. He had these big German thumbs like blood sausages, and he could take a garlic—I can still see him pressing it down into the bowl until the only thing left of it was the luster in the wood from the garlic oil. That’s the first step to making a Caesar.
I took that bowl with me everywhere I went. I moved back to Detroit after college, it was there. When I moved around New York, there it was.
In Detroit, I had a ten-year relationship, during which I baked my own bread from the Tassajara Bread Book and turned the leftovers into croutons for Bob’s Caesar. I oiled my bowl by hand every week like the faithful man I was. When I moved to New York, I was single again and Bob’s Caesar became part of my seduction menu.
Then I got into a stupid relationship with a woman I thought was super cool. All the signs were: Don’t hang out with this woman. For instance, I was supposed to fly to Paris to see her, and when I got to the airport I’d forgot my passport. She took me home to meet her parents and she’d start her sentences over the family dinner table with “As a queer woman...”
But I was in love. And when we broke up, I kept trying. She’d do that thing that 23-year-olds do: sleep with you and disappear. And I did that thing that 33-year-olds do: let it drive me crazy for a whole summer. She borrowed my wooden bowl and then ghosted me. I walked by her apartment, where I could see the lights on and knew she was entertaining
I finally said, “You know what M—, just give me the wooden bowl. It’s mine, whatever with us, just give me the wooden bowl.”
She brought it back to me and it was broken. It had a huge crack in it. She’d made a soup, maybe a cold summer soup, and served it in my bowl and after the party she just shoved it all in the refrigerator. And so overnight some minor imperfection in the wood turned into this giant crack and split the bowl. She brought me the pieces.
I was doubly heartbroken.
I didn’t give my parents every detail of my dating life. But it was a big heartbreak that hit me hard, so I talked to them about it. They listened to the whole story, which ended like this: “So on top of everything I lost my wooden bowl.”
And mom said, “Some things are worth a wooden bowl.”
There was a lot of living in that line—some things are worth a wooden bowl. When she said that to me, she’d been happily married for more than 50 years, but I can’t think of any better heartbreak advice I’ve ever got.
It was worth losing my beautiful bowl to learn that I was going to have to be much more careful if I was going to fall in love this hard. And also: no more 23-year-olds.
Anyway, they were never big gesture people, and definitely not now that dad was retired. (They both grew up in the Depression and had always lived carefully on a teacher’s salary. Whenever we went out to dinner, dad would always order the cheapest thing on the menu, tuna melt and ginger ale or grilled cheese and ginger ale.) But about a week later I came home and there was a giant box in my apartment doorway, which contained the beautiful big brand-new wooden bowl I’ve had ever since.
And my mom was right. Nine months after that wooden bowl arrived, I met the woman who became my wife. We’ve put 23 years of salads in that bowl.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I was with Kevin the day he met his beautiful, funny wife, Amy, at the birthday picnic of a mutual friend in Riverside Park. I knew they were going to be a permanent thing right away, and not just because I caught him peeping down her sundress.]
*RECIPE: Bob’s Caesar Salad
Bob’s Caesar is a theatrical salad, precise but fast, with everything tossed together, salt and grated Parmesan and the fresh pepper and lemon going on liberally, right up to the point of serving, so you can practically smell the zest in the air. You can do it all at the last minute, tableside, if you’re aiming to impress.
The croutons are optional. Bob didn’t even mention them when I got on the phone with him to check on the recipe. Like mayo, they’re a staple of the grab-and-go ersatz Caesars you get at airport delis. I usually eat around them or drag them over to make a crouton midden on the side of the plate. If you want to do croutons, pour some oil on a roasting pan, chop some fresh rosemary and thyme, toss in small cubes of day-old or week-old sourdough on the pan, and sprinkle with parmesan. Roast at 350 until brown, tossing occasionally with a spatula for evenness. But this step is entirely unnecessary. The cheese and egg make a Caesar substantial and sufficient.
Some people like anchovies. I do. But I don’t often have them handy and a Caesar doesn’t need them. You can finely chop a few and incorporate them into the olive oil/ mustard mixture so they meld and disappear, and no one will even notice, or you can, if they’re good enough, lay them judiciously on top of a serving. Or you can skip them altogether.
Romaine lettuce, fresh, cold, and clean.
Maldon salt, about a teaspoon, to taste (less if it’s Kosher salt)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 cup olive oil — the lower limit
A dash of Worcestershire Sauce
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed under a knife blade, to make them easier to grind under your thumb
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup of coarsely grated Parmesan. More can’t hurt. Probably more.
Juice of 1 to 2 lemons, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Croutons, if you must.
Wash and dry the romaine leaves. De-stem the big weedy spines. You can leave a few stems on the smaller tender leaves, purely for variation in the crunch. Rip them into bite sizes. You must do this by hand. The disdain Bob has for people who use scissors is lacerating.
In a mixing bowl, combine the salt and the dry mustard. Whisk in the olive oil. You can add the Worcestershire here, for a more steakhouse flavor, or you can skip if your palate inclines to the spa menu. Set aside.
Smash a clove or two of garlic under a knife then grind the garlic under your thumb into the sides of your salad bowl to make the wood shine with garlic oil. The garlic constantly slides away from your thumb, but keep after it. Chase the garlic up the sides till you’ve slicked a good portion of the bowl. Pick out the smashed garlic bits from the bowl, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Toss the leaves into the salad bowl, then add the yolk. (You will see some recipes that promise an “eggless Caesar,” which sounds to me like “joyless marriage.” The yolk is the heart of the Caesar.) Just throw it on top of the leaves, and toss again and again, till uniformly coated. I’d gently press the leaves into the wood in passing, to pick up the garlic oils, too.
Dump in about half of the parmesan and toss some more, till the cheese sticks to the yolky leaves and not the bowl.
Drizzle some of the mustard-olive oil mixture (re-whisk it a bit first) over the leaves slowly, tossing and adding until the leaves are lightly coated.
Alternate adding the remaining oil mixture with the lemon juice and more of the parmesan until you reach your desired consistency. Everybody has a different sense of what the right thickness should be. It’s possible to make this very light, almost like a lemony vinaigrette, or you can make it quite thick, like a blue cheese dressing, depending on how much cheese you add. It will thicken a little on its own—that’s the magic of egg and lemon and oil. Just keep tossing.
Pepper it before serving, adding in the croutons if that’s your thing.
NOTE/WARNING: Never, ever, ever use mayo. Just because this recipe calls for oil, lemon, and egg yolk, the three key ingredients of fresh mayonnaise, that does not mean you can get away with substituting mayo. Just no.
A TALE OF TWO SALADS: PRISSY AND POMPOUS
I BELIEVED FOR A LONG TIME that the way I’d been making chicken salad was perfect: I first bake skin-on bone-in breasts coated in a layer of salt—a method based on the way I make perfect roast chicken, which employs a method I stole from someone else.
The salt acts as a crust that keeps the meat insanely moist and also seasons the chicken perfectly. Lovely and easy.
Then I add all the sparky prizes I love in a chicken salad: fresh herbs, toasted nuts, celery, dried cranberries or other fruit, a combo of lemon spiked mayo, a little yogurt, something a bit oniony.
It has always been a good chicken salad life. Whenever I make it, I feel supremely safe. Don’t worry: we have chicken salad in the house! And I also somehow feel bold and victorious, as if my chicken salad above all others shall rule the planet for an eternity and I shall destroy anyone who thinks otherwise. Like this:
But recently, as I have begun to bray ever more publicly about my chicken salad and have mentioned this roasting method, some home cooks have expressed surprise, with a hint of judginess, that I didn’t poach.
I’ve poached! It’s not like I’m some kind of animal! But it has always seemed a little prissy to me, and honestly: how tender can chicken really be? It’s a big dumb bird.
I recalled that the charming novelist Laurie Colwin—who had a cozy column in Gourmet magazine many years ago, later collected in two books that everyone who has ever written a word about food has read and will claim they read 20 times before you even knew about them—talks about chicken salad in her book “Home Cooking.”
I looked it up and she’s a poacher. In fact, she says you should poach chicken breasts “slowly and tenderly. The water must not boil but smile, as the French say.” I have absolutely no fucking idea what that means. Plus, her recipe was perversely vague, with no measurements or any real instructions, and it seemed way too simple to be good, like the sandwiches of those people who put nothing but onion and mayo in their tuna salad.
But her recipe had tarragon in it, so I gave it a go.
When I tasted it, it was absolutely delicious. I felt like Lucille Ball, in The Lucy Show episode about Bailey’s Baked Beans. Was it better than mine? Maybe not, but it definitely made life on this Chicken Salad Throne I’d built for myself much less lonely.
Both are truly delicious.
*RECIPE: Laurie Colwin’s Ambrosial Chicken Salad
As noted earlier, Colwin had the luxury of not having to be too specific about her recipes, and her chicken salad has no measurements at all. It’s like an idea or a dream rather than a recipe. So I made actual real-world instructions for you; as with all salads, we are all at liberty to mess around as we see fit.
Once I poached my chicken and it had cooled, I followed Colwin’s instructions to remove the skin, take the meat off the bone, and place it in a bowl with some of the stock poured over it. You refrigerate this overnight, then scrape off the jelly and chop it up and reserve.
Makes about 4 cups
2 bone-in, skin-on poached chicken breasts, chopped (method below*)
½ cup homemade Slightly Garlic Mayo (recipe below*), more to taste
Fresh lemon juice to taste
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon fresh tarragon leaves, sliced then lightly chopped right before adding
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 scallions, including some of the green part, split lengthwise then chopped
Lemon zest, just a scrape or two
Salt and pepper to taste
To assemble the salad
In a small bowl, thin the mayo a bit with a squeeze of lemon juice, then stir in the tarragon, thyme, and scallions. Taste and adjust seasoning. You may want salt and pepper. I didn’t. But I did add a small bit of lemon zest.
Place the chicken in a large bowl and pour the dressing over it. Stir. The result, as Colwin says, is “ambrosial.”
*Method: To poach bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
Since Colwin bagged on us regarding the poaching, too, I consulted the excellent Serious Eats. The method they devised is for a delicious looking watercress-miso chicken. You can look at that here, but this is exactly what I did:
In a large pot or dutch oven, place two breasts in room temperature salted water (I used a tablespoon of salt) to cover by an inch, skin facing down.
Bring the water to a gentle simmer over medium high heat until it reaches between 150 and 160°F on an instant-read thermometer; adjust heat to maintain water temperature in the 150–160°F range and cook until the thickest part of the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees. This took exactly 55 minutes for me, with an occasional bubble or two at the edge and a bit of steam rising from the water.
*RECIPE: Emily’s Pompous Chicken Salad
Makes four cups
2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
½ cup Slightly Garlic Mayonnaise (recipe below*)
¼ cup sour cream
Juice of lemon (or less; taste as you go)
Zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons honey
Dash of cayenne pepper
Splash of red wine vinegar
½-1 teaspoon of salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (or none at all; I don’t use much)
2 celery stalks, chopped
¾ cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped toasted nuts (I love pecans and walnuts, almonds are good, too)
1 tablespoon tarragon leaves, sliced then lightly chopped right before adding
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
Preheat oven to 350
Place breasts skin side up in a roasting pan and completely cover with Kosher salt, pressing it in a bit so it doesn’t slide off. Roast until cooked through, about 40 minutes. (I stab it with a knife to make sure the juice runs clear.) As soon as it is cool enough to handle, remove the salty skin and brush off all the remaining salt completely. Remove meat from bone and refrigerate. I usually do this in the morning and refrigerate the meat all day.
Chop the chilled chicken into small cubes (or shred then chop).
In a small bowl, mix together the mayo, sour cream, lemon juice, honey, cayenne, vinegar, salt and pepper (if using).
In a larger bowl, place the remaining ingredients and the chopped chicken.
Pour the first mixture over the chicken and its friends. Mix well. I tend to bash around the chicken so that it’s not in perfect cubes, slightly shredded. I’d shred all of it then chop, but that takes longer.
Adjust seasonings then let the flavors meld for about 10-15 minutes on the counter before refrigerating. I don’t eat my chicken salad right away: I let it sit in the fridge overnight and then correct the seasonings and lemon.
*RECIPE: Slightly Garlic Mayo
1 very small clove peeled and mashed garlic
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup of corn or canola oil
Break egg in blender and add salt, mustard, vinegar, and 1/4 cup of oil. Cover and turn blender on low speed. Immediately uncover, with blender on, and pour remaining oil in slow steady stream. Turn off motor and stir. Turn on blender again, briefly.
Be sure blender is dry when you start. Make sure the eggs are super-fresh. You can add garlic to make aioli, or soft herbs. Don't keep it longer than a few days in the fridge.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll have Yukari Sakamoto, of Food Sake Tokyo, in the Chef Salad position. Plus, a failed salad that no amount of tinkering can ever fix.