Monthly Archives: February 2011

On following recipes and a wintry salad

Last week, I took a peek back at the last few recipes I posted, and—oh my!—was totally surprised that they were all of the sweet and sugary variety. Where were all the dinners I enjoy cooking or savory appetizers? I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I am innately magnetized to anything involving chocolate and I’ve been known to dive into almost any fresh-out-of-the-oven baked good with reckless abandon, (even the most mundane chocolate chip cookie perks up when it’s warm!), but really, I’m more of a savory kind of eater. The problem, I think, is that I’m not much of a recipe follower when it comes to the savory stuff. I grew up watching my family cook by memory, by intuition, and most importantly, by taste. My Nana taught me, by example, that the most important tool in the kitchen, by far, is a wooden spoon—for tasting, for perfecting the art of whatever lies simmering or sautéing in the pan below.

When I’m not cooking on my own, and am instead, preparing a specific recipe, I’ll read through it a few times, and then run out and buy every. single. ingredient on the list. Even when it’s an obscure spice that costs more than all other items in my basket combined and will most likely grow sad and stale in the back of my cabinet before I have the opportunity to use it again. Why? Because the recipe said so. But strangely, my by-the-cookbook mentality ends there. When that pesky part back home pops up—measuring—I’d say I’m an estimator at best. I taste and tinker, maybe add an ingredient or two not listed, leave out something I morally object to—like dried oregano—and before I know it, am I even eating what the recipe writer intended? How much of what did I use? Most likely I wouldn’t be able to answer those questions after a day or two. And it feels like cheating to endorse a recipe that I didn’t really follow or make up arbitrary measurements for the sake of a blog post.

Baking on the other hand, with texture and structure and flavor being delicately intertwined with hard chemistry is not as easy to mess around with. Perhaps some day I’ll accrue enough pastry-arts knowledge, the luxury of infallibility that would enable me to experiment whole-heartedly with known baking proportions. But for now, I leave it to the masters. While it is easy to default to following an exact pastry recipe, I will try my very best to be more aware and deliberate when I’m cooking on the stovetop. Isn’t that one of the challenges I set out for myself after all? This being the last day of January, *oh I really had meant to get this post up that day!*, I think I’m allowed to add this one last resolution to the list. And so I solemnly promise to keep a notebook by the stove and try to properly document the goings-on of my kitchen for mutual benefit.

To properly challenge myself and truly measure and follow a recipe, I thought I would start with a definite challenge: a salad. A salad is the easiest thing to not follow a recipe for. I mean it’s greens and stuff, right? Challenge accepted. Lora Zarubin, chef, and author of one of my very favorite cookbooks, I’m Almost Always Hungry, has never steered me wrong, before, so I put my foodie faith completely in her hands, down to the measure of salt, something I am very particular about.

It felt strange to measure out olive oil instead of whisking in a steady stream straight from the bottle until the vinaigrette looked viscous and smooth. It felt stranger still to measure salt with a spoon instead of the palm of my hand. But for the sake of this post, and my point to myself, I did it. And the salad was delicious. Perfect in its simplicity. With toasted hazelnuts and Pecorino cheese, I ate two large helping for a hearty lunch while I watched the snow fly out my window, and finished off what was left once it was too dark to see, measuring each time, I promise.

Arugula with Toasted Hazelnuts and Pecorino Cheese
From Lora Zarubin in I’m Almost Always Hungry

Ingredients
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black peppercorns to taste
¼ pound arugula leaves, washed and dried
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 ounces Pecorino cheese, thinly shaved

In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, salt and pepper together. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly until incorporated.
In a large bowl, toss the arugula with the dressing. Divide among for plates and top each plate with ¼ off the hazelnut pieces and cheese.

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