Welcome to the Department of Salad #16
Steak salad! Steak salad! Steak salad! Steak Saaaaaaaaaaalaaad!
CHEF SALAD: Matt Crawford
LATELY PEOPLE HAVE BEGUN sending me photos of bad salads, as if I were somehow in charge of policing the entire landscape. (I’d be great at it, but I just don’t have time.) The latest incident was on social media, where I was tagged in a photo of something from Germany called Big Mac “salats”—essentially Big Macs stuffed into parfait glasses and trifle bowls. I’m still not sure how that was supposed to make me feel.
The constant pressure of being responsible for people’s salad anxieties and expectations is exhausting (In truth, I enjoy it). But every now and then an alluring salad arrives that I can’t stop thinking about until I’ve tested and eaten it. And it makes my burdensome position in life worth it all.
The Crawford Family Steak Salad is one such salad.
It arrived in my Twitter inbox, after I wondered if anyone had grown up eating Dad Salads, a nebulous category I made up, which has begun to bleed a bit into another category, the Man Salad. More on these topics later.
This steak salad recipe had an anachronistic quality I loved the moment I laid eyes on it—like something you’d see at a dinner party on “Mad Men.” A perfect light supper after cocktails, the star of the block party.
And I was intrigued by the man who sent it to me, too. Matt Crawford was wearing a Viking helmet and a bushy red beard in his Twitter photo, so I felt sure he’d be as colorful and interesting as his salad. I was also worried he might be, you know, crazy.
And it turned out that he was, in the very best way: absolutely crazy about cooking and entertaining and sharing food. I didn’t understand the depth of his great madness until we had a Zoom conversation on Super Bowl Sunday, after his 11-year-old son William’s pinewood derby in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Rebeca, who joined our call, which also featured a guest appearance by his adorable 7-year-old daughter, Abigail.
Let’s begin with his family cookbook, “The Family Jewels,” which was created when Crawford was 7, as a memorial to his bon-vivant grandfather. It’s the source of the steak salad I’d admired, but after he sent me a few pages from the enormous, photocopied volume he explained that his family, all of whom love to cook and entertain, are actually “known for our appetizers.” He recalled how jarring it was to attend his first non-family dinner party, where hot crab triangles and clam puffs or a nice antipasto platter were glaringly absent. “I was like: wait, you’re not eating before you eat?”
Matt grew up to be exactly the kind of guy you’d want to be in charge of a big dinner. Which is why, at the Unitarian Universalist church in Framingham, the annual benefit auction dinner for 100 that he stages has become an event attendees talk about years later —despite the fact that Crawford has no culinary training. (He’s the technical product support manager at Pear Therapeutics.)
“It’s about 70 hours of work when it’s all said and done, but I tend to do things I’m comfortable with,” he told me. “Like Ina Garten’s tenderloin.”
His discomfort threshold in the kitchen is extremely high, though. One of the early auction dinners he staged was a circus-theme extravaganza that employed hand-rolled sheets of multicolor-striped lasagna to replicate the Big Top. The menu included Sword Swallower Asparagus Spears, Juggler’s Salad (mozzarella balls, tomato, basil), Contortionist Breadbasket (pretzels, knotted rolls, twisted breadsticks). Dessert was cotton candy and root beer floats. And: he offered gluten-free and vegetarian options.
They also had circus acts. So, after that one a crowd that had been used to spaghetti suppers began to expect the same inventive cuisine and flashy production values.
Crawford sent me some of the planning documents and menus for these events. They were insane! The thought of trying to pull them off made my palms sweat—and I’ve worked in large professional kitchens, as a small cog, and helped stage giant culinary events. But he has a collaborator and event expediter, his wife Rebecca (she’s the director of advancement at Summit Montessori School), who organizes the event-night kitchen schedule, with flip charts and incredibly detailed minute by minute instructions.
(The couple met while they were both in college singing for their respective glee clubs, she at Smith and he at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Before they got married his family tested her to make sure she’d fit in by serving her dishes that might throw lesser eaters off: an entire lobster, steamed artichoke, a whole salmon en croute. ‘I’m from Costa Rica,” she told me. “I know what to do with a lobster.”)
In 2019, the church auction dinner had a Star Wars theme, and featured such dishes as A Salad from Naboo (bok choy, lotus root, bamboo shoots, and baby corn in a sesame, ginger, orange, soy sauce, and rice wine vinaigrette) and a Hothberry dessert. At the hoedown/cowboy themed event—complete with hay bales, lassoes, and swinging saloon doors—they served smoked chicken, cornbread muffins, baked beans, a green bean salad with toasted pepitas, warm potato salad, and individual strawberry shortcakes for dessert.
And the Crawfords, who are in their early 40s and have a tight group of friends, also throw themed parties at home: a literary dinner included oysters from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”; crab and avocado salad from “The Bell Jar”; mint juleps from “The Great Gatsby”; and for dessert, Turkish Delight from “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The Clue Dinner: Mrs. White’s Vichyssoise, Miss Scarlet’s Watermelon, Beet, & Feta Salad, Mr. Green’s Leafy greens with Garlic, and Professor Plums Clafoutis, among other dishes. Naturally.
Here is the invitation to the Around the World church auction.
There was a moment during this zoom at which I thought Crawford was going to lose me: “This is my big confession,” he said. “I don't really like salads.”
A long uncomfortable silence settled between us, until he informed me that it was only because he doesn’t like making them. (He also told me this steak salad is “probably my favorite salad of all time.” ) Phew. This is the problem a lot of people have with salads, and the very reason I continue to do the thankless work I do.
But it wouldn’t have mattered much if he had been anti-salad because I now had what I wanted: that recipe he’d sent. I had high hopes for it, because steak salads are always fine but never very memorable. They often seem like something somebody dreamed up when they got tired of eating their steak and vegetables separately—so they decided to throw it all together in a bowl.
But this salad was different. It has that whiff of an old-school dinner party dish (Crawford says it was probably added to the family cookbook in the 50s) and a most harmonious balance of exciting flavors and textures—peppery watercress, crunchy green beans, the indescribable, murky aura of hearts of palm, and the salty char of steak—all tied together with a bright, almost intoxicating caper dressing. And the fresh herbs send it into the stratosphere.
I hope you like it as much as I do. And I hope Matt and Rebecca get their guest room prepared for my visit, after the pandemic. I’m crazy about them, and I’m coming whether they like it or not.
*RECIPE: Crawford Family Cold Beef Salad with Caper Vinaigrette
Serves 4 if everyone isn’t starving
1 ½ pounds sirloin steak, 1-inch thick, cooked to desired doneness
¾ pound blanched green beans (you want them still snappy and bright green)
½ red onion, thinly sliced and blanched for 20 seconds (drain them on paper towels after straining)
½ pound fresh mushrooms sliced (Crawford leaves these out; he finds them distracting, plus he’s allergic)
3 tomatoes, peeled (Crawford doesn’t do this; I didn’t either, but I understand the appeal) and cut into wedges
¾ cups drained, thinly sliced canned hearts of palm
1 bunch of watercress, stems removed
1 tablespoon each of fresh oregano and thyme (I chopped them a bit; do NOT omit)
Prepare the vinaigrette.
Cut steak into thin strips (against the grain).
Place steak in a container with a lid, pour 1/3 of the vinaigrette over it, and marinate for at least 3 hours. (I did this overnight then brought the steak back to room temperature before making the salad.)
Remove meat from the marinade before assembling the salad in a very large bowl, in any fashion you wish. I like to compose salads prettily, show them off, then toss at the table. Add more dressing as needed and serve a little pitcher of it on the side.
For the Vinaigrette:
4 teaspoons capers (or more!)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup red wine vinegar
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 cup vegetable oil
½ cup olive oil
¾ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper (or to taste)
Combine ingredients in a jar and shake well.
Since we’re on the topic of meaty salads, I’ll explain how I came to believe that there was such a thing as a “Man Salad” and a “Dad Salad.” First: a lot of heterosexual men continue, in the year 2021, to act like you’ve suggested they carry a purse or put on a bra, as if there’s anything wrong with that, if you mention making or going to get a salad. They need to just grow up. And second: I feel like every time anyone mentions the Caesar salad, they inevitably tell you about their father’s Caesar, and how particular he always was in his preparation.
For a long time, I even tended to dismiss the Caesar as a Dad Salad—convinced it was something made by men who don’t cook much, those men from The Olden Days.
My own father never made anything, aside from a lot of coffee, but he occasionally talked about the right way to make dishes he’d surely never prepared, since he’d never turned on the stove. (“You don’t make real chili with beans!)” And when I went home with friends from college, their dads would grill out or do a London Broil.
But I finally realized that my Dad Salad was really an Uncle Salad, planted in my head by my late Uncle John, a well-loved man who loved food and cooking and who went through phases of studying and preparing different international cuisines—I distinctly recall his Japanese era, but no one else does. My Aunt Mariah recalls how he destroyed her kitchen.
In his later years (he died in 2017; I miss him all the time), the only dish I recall him making was what my cousins Toni, Susan, and Kathy referred to as the “Italian Salad.” It was absolutely delicious, but any true Italian would surely laugh at it. They might like it, but they’d still laugh at it. A lot of dishes people once made that had very little to do with the culture they were supposed to represent were pretty dang good. This one was full of salami and cheese and red onion and any ingredient you might find in an American cartoon about an Italian restaurant. What could be bad?
We always clamored for it. And according to Toni and Susan: Uncle John never actually made it, per se. He Tom Sawyered it. He’d pour a glass of wine, call his girls into the kitchen, roll up his sleeves, and instruct them to get ingredients out of the fridge and chop them up while he supervised. He’d wander in and out of the kitchen, until called. Maybe he’d make a dressing? And then we’d sit down at the table, John would toss the salad, and everyone would tell him how much they loved it.
Anyway, neither Toni nor Susan could stop joking around about this salad long enough to give me an actual recipe, so I put one together myself. I recall a very basic 3-to-1 vinaigrette with red wine vinegar and dried herbs. But use fresh oregano if you have it. And you can also use my mustard vinaigrette. This dish is a good example of how salads are an inexact science. Just toss it all in a bowl and dress it. If you want more of something, throw it in.
*IDEA (It’s not really a recipe): Uncle John’s Salad
A couple of small heads of romaine, or other sturdy lettuce, sliced into shreds
Salami, sliced into thin strips
Some cheese (I used provolone), sliced into thin strips. You could also shave a pile of Parmesan with a potato peeler at the end before tossing a final time
Red onion, very thinly sliced
Small handful of decent black or green olives, chopped or sliced
Cup of chickpeas, roughly chopped
Big handful of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
A few hot peppers, chopped—if you feel like it
Some Italian herbs (fresh is best; if you don’t have them, put dried herbs in the dressing)
Toss everything together and dress with a simple red wine vinaigrette (3-to-1, oil to vinegar), or with my best mustard vinaigrette, below. The dressing from the Crawford Family Steak Salad would also be excellent.
*RECIPE: Emily’s Perfect Mustard Vinaigrette
1⁄2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (I really like Trader Joe’s brand)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon of sea salt (or more to taste)
Freshly ground pepper
Place the ingredients in a jar and shake the hell out of it until it is completely emulsified. If you like garlic on your salad (I often do) start the recipe by mashing together a clove of garlic and the salt in a mortar and pestle (or with the back of a spoon, in a bowl), then whisk in the remaining ingredients. You can also leave out the garlic and add about a tablespoon of finely chopped red onion.
*RECIPE: Red Cat Restaurant’s Zucchini with Toasted Almonds and Pecorino
This is a recipe I’ve been meaning to share in the DOS since our very beginning, back in October. I wrote about restaurants in NYC in the 90s, and one of my favorite spots was The Red Cat, in Chelsea, which has since closed. I went there a lot, and almost always ordered this fantastic, simple, unforgettable dish, which I considered a salad even though the restaurant did not. It was a starter.
I’ll be honest with you: it took me a couple of tries to get this right. I followed a video I found of Chef Bradley making it in his kitchen. Chefs often overestimate our kitchen savvy. If you do it my way, the civilian way, you should be able to pull this off perfectly. If you don’t get it right the first time, I absolutely promise you that the work you put into a giving it a couple more tries will be more than worth it.
The very most important thing you need to know: you are not cooking the zucchini; you’re warming it. If you cook it, it releases liquid and gets limp and forlorn. You want the zucchini to still be crispy and just hot enough to warm the cheese that tops it.
I’ve adapted the recipe very slightly from The Red Cat Cookbook by Jimmy Bradley and Andrew Friedman.
(NOTE: This recipe lists enough ingredients for four servings, cooked in two separate hot pans. No way I’m doing that. Cook one batch at a time, or just cut the ingredients in half. Don’t burn down your house.)
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1⁄4 cup sliced almonds
3 to 4 small zucchinis, sliced lengthwise into 1⁄8-inch-thick slices, then crosswise into matchsticks (I cut them into rounds on my mandoline, then stacked the rounds and sliced into matchsticks)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces Pecorino Romano, thinly sliced into 12 triangular sheets with an old-fashioned cheese slicer or very sharp knife, or shaved into shards with a vegetable peeler
FOR TWO SERVINGS. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil over high heat, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
When the oil is hot but not smoking, add half of the almonds. Cook, tossing or stirring, until the almonds are golden brown, approximately 30 seconds.
Add half the zucchini to the pan and stir very quickly to coat the zucchini with the hot oil, just a few seconds. Count to ten. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, season with salt and pepper. Divide the zucchini and almonds between 2 warm salad plates, drizzle with a bit of the olive oil, arrange the Pecorino sheets in a pyramid over each serving, and serve immediately. You want the bit of heat from the zucchini to warm the cheese a bit.
THE DEPARTMENT OF SALAD PRODUCT CORNER
I’ve mentioned this before, about a thousand times: rather than a laboratory with a staff, I have myself and a kitchen the size of the back of a minivan. So I am loath to bring more equipment in here. I make myself rich by making my wants few.
But I did recently upgrade my citrus-juicing situation slightly, by buying one of these, and I want you to know that my quality of life has skyrocketed. You should get one. It makes juicing fun. I actually look forward to it! Five Stars. Recommend! It was $12.
That’s it! That’s the newsletter.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll be talking to Kay Plunkett-Hogge, author of the fantastic book Baan: Recipes and Stories from My Thai Home. See you then. And don’t forget to tell your friends (who deserve it) about the Department of Salad.