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10/09/20: Important Memo

IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION that some of you are wondering why we, the duly designated officials at the Department of Salad (DOS), have decided that issuing an official salad bulletin is necessary in a landscape of newspaper food sections, magazines, and cookbooks. We could go into how we feel that Salad has lived a lifetime as an afterthought (in restaurants), been given appalling short shrift by many of you (“Oh, I’ll just have a salad”), and been avoided at home for reasons we cannot begin to fathom. We plan to explicate all these important topics in future issues. We have so much so much to say. But for now, here’s the Who, What, When, Where and Why.

Who: Emily Nunn, Salad CEO, and her crew of guests and salad lab technicians—meaning chefs, home cooks, writers, and other people we admire—who make good salad. Some will be your basic food characters, and some will not. Because not all good food writers are employed as food writers. (And not all food writers are interesting, some can’t cook, and some of them are annoying.)

What: A weekly missive that will not just inform you about the glories of salad—past, present, and possibly future—but also supply you with recipes and dressings to keep you in salad year-round. And know this: you don’t necessarily have to like lettuce. You don’t have to be a vegetarian, but it’s fine if you are, because we’ll be exploring the salad spectrum: chicken, beef, fish, bean, grain, fruit, and straight up vegetable salads, as well as hot and cold concoctions. Also: We at the DOS do not by any means consider salad a “diet” food, so get that out of your head this instant. At this point, our hopeful lineup of regular features will include CHEF SALAD (coercing people we admire to chat with us and give us their salad recipes), BOOKS, and TEST KITCHEN (an inconsistent mix of product and gadget recommendations, extra recipes, and ideas for smoother and more delicious weekly salad making). 

When? Once a week, with a couple of weeks off for vacation, because we’ll probably take time off to eat pizza and hamburgers. We’ll try to get it out on Friday, but if there are salad emergencies it could come a day earlier or later. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Where? Your inbox, of course; with salad notes coming from all over this fragile, beautiful, tragic, wonderful, stinking planet. 

Why? We’ll ask our CEO and only full-time employee, Emily Nunn—who wrote all the stuff above and is pretending she has a fully staffed laboratory when in fact she works alone in a kitchen smaller than the back of a mini-van—to explain that now and to lay off this ridiculous ruse. (Photo by Dorothy Griffith)

I SPENT A LONG TIME as a magazine and newspaper journalist, often covering restaurants and food, first at the New Yorker magazine as the editor of Tables for Two and later at the Chicago Tribune. I eventually wrote a book called “The Comfort Food Diaries,” which was allegedly about comfort food, a thing I’m not sure I’ve ever believed in. 

At least, not until this terrible, hellish, lonely summer, which I somehow got through intact by making gorgeous salads. I won’t lie to you. I have been using salad as a drug. And it works. Since I live in North Carolina, where the tomatoes and peaches and berries and other produce are luxurious and inexpensive and glorious, so were my salads. It was easy. It seemed that no matter how I arranged them, they were dazzling and delicious, like bouquets of flowers that you could eat. Back then, I barely gave the ingredients a thought. I layered fruits and vegetables and cheeses and herbs—and rather than making dressings I just sprinkled them with salt and olive oil and citrus juice. And these salads always made me happy. 

But as the blackberries began to disappear and the man in town with the peach truck told me he wouldn’t be returning after the first of October, I remembered how immobilized I’d been by everything our country and our world is going through.  I was afraid I was going to get sad again if I did not put some concentrated thought into making sure I always have good salad, even during the seasons when it’s not as easy as cutting up some peaches and tomatoes and nestling them in local leaf lettuce. 

So, I decided to start this newsletter as a way of continuing to do something positive, in earnest, something that makes me happy. I hope it can help you do that, too.

CHEF SALAD

IF YOU’RE OLDER THAN 40, you probably remember a time before arugula ascended. Back then, we ate iceberg with chunks of tomato and white onion—all drowned in oil and vinegar or creamy dressings from bottles, which were more like party dip. We had powdered garlic in lieu of fresh. We ate spinach from a can. And we liked it! We didn’t know better. 

Eventually, all over the country, restaurants got modern salad bars—and all hell broke loose. Ours was at the Pizza Hut. We ran up to the trough after ordering our pie then wobbled back to our seats in our bell bottoms, balancing giant pyramids of unnaturally crisp iceberg that never went bad, which we’d covered in Thousand Island and blue cheese and piled with more shredded cheese and rock-hard croutons and Bac-Os and canned black olive slices and red kidney beans and green pepper strips and sliced beets and cottage cheese and mung bean sprouts and on and on. We got our money’s worth! 

The DOS loves a good salad bar; we’ll be talking about them more extensively in a future newsletter.

But for now, as the DOS CEO, I’m interested in how far we’ve come since then, and where we may be headed. Which brings me to our first CHEF SALAD guest, Mollie Katzen, the somewhat mysterious and absolutely iconic cookbook author responsible for the original “Moosewood Cookbook” (among many others, including one for children, called “Salad People”). Moosewood, one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2007. It’s named for the famous vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca NY, founded in 1973 by Katzen and her brother Josh and a group of friends. Katzen is also a musician and an artist—a renaissance woman if ever there was one. Her papers have been collected by the Smithsonian Institution and are now part of The National Museum of American History. You can get a look at her art here, on her Instagram page. 

In spite of all of this, Katzen was surprised to hear that she’s the reason I learned to cook beyond what I learned from my mother (my copy of Moosewood is held together with a big rubber band). And she is definitely responsible for my mad ability to make an excellent green salad—layering in the olive oil and acid and the snippets, shavings, and slices of goodies in a specific order, building the salad and the dressing directly in the bowl as you go. The salad section in Moosewood was ahead of its time and opened my mind to the ideas of warm salads and “grain bowls” long before those types of things were in fashion. 

Katzen is from Rochester NY, where she and her brothers grew up in a Kosher home, eating frozen fruits and vegetables through winter. By the time she’d moved away and learned to cook out in San Francisco then returned East to join her brother in the Moosewood venture, certain ingredients we take for granted today were still extremely limited. And yet she gave us great salad. (Prayer Hands Emoji)

“You couldn’t find olive oil in any of the grocery stores!” she said.  “And not because they’d run out but because they didn’t carry it in the first place.”  I tried to imagine this world, and could not, even though I think my mother bought her olive oil in a tiny bottle, like precious perfume. 

Katzen is charming and fascinating, and we ended up talking for a long time, about things that had nothing to do with food, much less salad. While we were fretting about politics, and I was starting to feel afraid that I was falling back into smothering darkness, she mentioned that she was going out to her garden, in Berkeley, to pick some frisee, which they sure as hell didn’t have  back at the Pizza Hut salad trough, or any of the wide array of fresh greens and herbs and vegetables we get to eat today. 

Katzen’s frisee made me feel happy and advanced, despite the regressive, backward era we’re living through. 

But one of the things that impacted salad most in this country, Katzen pointed out, was the end of seasonality— thanks (if that’s the word) to free trade.  “There was no such thing as asparagus out of season. You couldn’t get peaches and grapes. You had to wait for tomatoes. Strawberries were around only in season. Everything was special because you had wait to get it. And it was all local—local wasn’t this thing, and neither was seasonal eating. You didn’t even have food on the east coast that was grown in the middle of the country.”

While I was writing this piece, I noticed that the Moosewood section titled “Leafy Green Salads”—the one that changed my salad life forever—does not include fresh herbs as part of the regular mix. It seemed impossible to imagine not having basil at my fingertips. But it’s also natural. 

Salad has moved forward and backward and forward again in many ways since Moosewood was born—and so have we. It can be both exhilarating and distressing. 

But one thing that hasn’t budged is that Katzen—who changed the way America eats— is still extremely particular about her salads, especially when it comes to the leaves, which must be perfectly dry. “I pay attention to detail. I wash my greens then spin them and spin some more. If I’m having guests, I start spinning the day before!” she said, laughing. “want my greens dry so I can relax and enjoy.

“I like a tossed salad that has really nice leaf lettuce. I want them to stay crisp—so the cup-shaped leaves, the little gems, Belgian endive, and I love radicchio. I don’t use just any lettuce. And for me, a leaf salad is much more fun if I sprinkle in grains. Like popped quinoa—you can pop quinoa. Or you can cook it with less water than it says. I do 1 to 1 liquid. But you can also pop it in a pan. Heat a good heavy pan, sprinkle in quinoa. It’s so much fun to do.”

A couple of Katzen’s favorite salads have become mine, too, starting with one that quelled my worries about the coming cold months around here. I made it immediately; it was gorgeous and delicious.  

“It’s a lot of really stern and somewhat bitter chicories—which I love; they’re a good winter solution because I think they’re easier for you to find in winter. I’ll do a chicory, sometimes with no lettuce, and a bosc pear chopped up in there, and some blue cheese, maybe walnut.”

Like people on Twitter, I responded with: Recipe please?

“So: you coat radicchio with olive oil, sprinkle in some salt and let it sit there until you serve it. You add the acid at the end, because that’s what wilts everything,” she instructed. “Lot of olive oil, a tiny bit of salt, and a little bit of lemon juice, and finally the cheese and nuts—and everything, always, has to be absolutely fresh!”  

I started eating it with my hands, rolled up like spring rolls, before I’d finished making it. It was amazing.

After we talked about the arc of the salad, I wondered aloud about the very idea of what a salad is. We both agreed that 1.) it’s a hard topic and 2.) a salad can be absolutely anything. Except maybe this “salad.” You must draw a line. But the point is, in order to keep your salad life vigorous, you have to be willing to ignore the instinct to think of a salad as just a bunch of leaves. 

For example: the March Hare, from Moosewood. It was inspired by a pre-made chivey cucumber and cottage cheese concoction in a carton called Spring Garden Salad, purchased from Hank, the Katzens’ Rochester milkman (who had a crush on Katzen’s mother), back in the day when each house had a special compartment near the door for dropping off their dairy purchases. She created the March Hare— “It’s cottage cheese filled with even more chopped vegetables”—out of nostalgia. The gang at Moosewood thought she was off her rocker. 

“We put it on the menu, and it was immediately very popular,” she said. “It would be a lunch special, on lettuce leaves with a couple of garnishes. The White Rabbit version was with fruit and toasted nuts.  I always used to add toasted sunflower seeds and nuts to everything. Nobody did that back then.” 

Katzen did me the favor of making March Hare Salad more au courant for the year 2020, by adding lemon zest, and fresh herbs and a few other flourishes. (“86 the alfalfa sprouts; bitch, please”). Rather than serving it on a lettuce leaf, though, I made my batch and put it in a Tupperware container on ice to take along on a trip I really did not want to go on. It was so delicious and so lovely that after spooning up a bite at a stoplight I had to pull over and continue eating on the side of the road, saying Mmmmmmm to myself in an otherwise empty car. My trip got better almost instantly. 

RECIPE: March Hare Salad 2020

NOTE: The amount and kind of fresh herbs you use here are completely optional. The directions are a good starting point. 

  • 3 cups of cottage cheese (both Mollie and I prefer a dryer curd; I especially love Good Culture brand)

  • 2 Tbs toasted sesame seeds (I left these out)

  • ¼ cup toasted salted sunflower seeds (pepitas would be good, too)

  • 1 medium carrot, grated

  • 1 medium ripe tomato, only in season, diced (I used a cup of halved grape tomatoes, which was nice for the texture) 

  • 5-6 large radishes, diced

  • Red onion, diced finely, about ¼ cup (about a quarter of a small one)

  • 1 small red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, diced

  • 1 stalk celery, diced

  • 1 small cucumber, diced (I used an English one)

  • ½ packed cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • ¼ cup chopped fresh dill

  • ¼ cup chopped fresh mint

  • (choose herbs that you like best, but no rosemary or sage or wintery herbs)

  • 1 Tbs lemon zest (optional, but highly recommended)

  • 2-3 Tbs lemon juice, to taste

  • Pepper

  • Salt (optional)

Combine all ingredients--except tomato--and chill well. Add tomatoes before serving. I drizzled mine with some good olive oil before serving, too. Because this is 2020, and I can. So so so freaking good. 

BOOKS

BOOK: The DOS has a long list of cookbooks old and new that we plan to talk about in future issues. But we’re going to start with one that is quite new, not a classic cookbook per se, and possibly not even the kind of book we’d have been drawn to during gentler times. However: we’re very very very glad to know about it now.

It arrived in our mailbox this summer, the midpoint of a horrible, extremely bruising year for just about everyone on the planet. 

 “Thinking & Eating: Recipes to Nourish & Inspire” felt like a gift from another planet, or from heaven. According to the press release that accompanied the pretty volume, it’s a product of the School of Life Press (overseen by the Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton), the publishing arm of a London-based, global organization dedicated to a message that “speaks with one voice:  calm, reassuring, and balanced.” Perfect timing, and just what we needed. Here’s the organization’s website, which is lovely. 

We dip into this book often, to refresh the ideas it puts forth: that mint is a “Symbol of Intelligence,” rhubarb one of appreciation, honey of kindness, lemon of hope. Just opening it up, to reread such chapters as “Looking After Ourselves,” “With Friends,” and “Food for Thinking,” makes us breathe more easily than we did, back before it arrived. One chapter, Good Enough, touches on the ideas that takeout is lovely, leftovers are wonderful, and that it’s fine to eat your children’s food. 

All of this may seem extremely virtuous, but it’s not preachy. It’s soothing. And we liked the book even more once we made one of the salads, a warm quinoa and shiitake mushroom number, which has been ideal for fall. 

Even if you think you don’t like quinoa, please give this a try. We’ve jazzed it up with slightly more lemon juice, more mushrooms, and more garlic.  As indicated, we felt nourished and satisfied and calm, as if we’d eaten at a day spa rather than the same goddam table almost every single day since mid-March. 

To make sure your quinoa is not bitter (which happens), we’ve ignored their instructions on cooking it and employed Martha Rose Shulman’s instructions, from the New York Times.

RECIPE: Warm Quinoa, Spinach, and Shiitake Salad, from “Thinking & Eating”

Serves 4

  • 1 ½ cups quinoa, soaked for five minutes then rinsed thoroughly in a fine strainer

  • 4 1/2 cups chicken stock

  • 6 cups baby spinach, washed

  • 2 Tsp olive oil

  • 9 ounces/3 cups shiitake mushrooms roughly chopped (we added more)

  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (we used a garlic crusher)

  • Juice of 1 lemon, plus zest from one half lemon

  • Sea salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper 

  1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, bring stock to boil. Add the quinoa, ½ tsp of sea salt.  Bring back to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 15 minutes, or until the quinoa is tender and translucent, and each grain displays a little thread. Drain, if necessary (you want separate grains, not a wet mush, so get the water out) and return to the pan. Place the spinach on top of the cooked quinoa, cover with a clean dish towel (we used several layers of paper towels and it worked fine), replace the lid and allow to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. 

  2. In the meantime, heat the oil in a large frying/sauté pan over moderate heat. Add the mushrooms, garlic, a pinch of salt, and sauté until they’re golden brown, about 8 minutes.

  3. Fold the wilted spinach into the quinoa, fluffing it as you go to separate the grains. Fold in the shiitakes, then season with the lemon juice, zest, salt, and pepper, to taste. We like a lot of lemon. Serve warm. 

  4. Note: this is fine at room temperature, but the leftovers were served well by a couple of minutes in the microwave. You could also reheat it slowly in a saucepan with just a splash of water. 

TEST KITCHEN 

SINCE THE GOAL here is to inspire us all to eat more salad and good salad, in future issues we’re going to be offering scrappy opinions on all sorts of salad related products, including salad kits, spinners, ingredients, bottled dressings, and, most dangerously, our new mandoline. We’ll also throw in a few bonus recipes as they strike us, including smaller ones for things to punch up your salads on any given day, like our frizzled onions, in issue #2.

FAVORITE THING!

We can tell you right now that if you like our salads and want to make them you’re probably going to want our inaugural Favorite thing: a citrus reamer! We use a lot of lemon juice around here, and this baby is indispensable, especially if you have limited storage space, like we do, but not if you’re one of those freaks who bought a giant electric juicer so you could have fresh squeezed orange juice every day—which you now never use. I had a wooden one, like some kind of early American pilgrim, but it split in two because I used it so much. These are very efficient, and they get every bit of juice. Plus, they cost, like, 6 bucks. You can order one at Sur La Tabla. 

EXTRAS!

*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 A Super-Delicious Eggplant Thing I Made a Few Nights Ago, inspired by Ottolenghi

Serves 2-ish

4-6-or even 8 fairytale eggplant, depending on the size and on how hungry you and your dining partner are, trimmed and split lengthwise. Or use a few small regular eggplants. It’s up to you. 

  • 8-10 or so cherry tomatoes, cut in half or quartered depending on size (a couple of small handfuls). Or, obviously, dice 1 big juicy tomato. 

  • 1 medium cucumber, chopped

  • Juice of one lemon, and maybe some zest if you feel like it

  • A cup or so of plain yogurt

  • A couple of cloves of garlic, crushed

  • Olive oil

  • A handful of fresh mint, sliced

  • Salt and pepper

Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large heavy pan, over medium high heat; when it is glistening place the eggplant cut side down, trying not to worry that you’re burning them, and cook until tender. You may have to move them a bit but try not to until they’re cooked through. This happens fast. Turn them over and cook the skin side briefly, just for good measure. I like mine pretty dark.

Place them attractively, cut side up, on a plate then top with the tomatoes and cucumbers, a good spoonful of yogurt, and the garlic. Sprinkle the lemon juice all over, and some of the zest. Strew the mint all around, the more the better if you like mint. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil and serve. 

NEXT WEEK: Our CHEF SALAD will be by Mary Norris, bestselling author of “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” and “Greek to Me,” who’ll be tackling the topic of the GREEK SALAD, that unpredictable vixen. We also need to have to talk about. . . mayonnaise.  And: why can’t a baked potato be a salad?