I could eat salad every day. Something about the combination of different textures and flavors, all dressed with a good, homemade dressing just grabs my palate.
But you can fall into a rut, and we do. It’s so easy to use tender green leaf lettuce and cut up an apple and crumble some blue cheese and throw on toasted almonds. Not that it isn’t good because it is, especially when there’s a tiny touch of Dijon mustard int he dressing, and maybe we pick up a fennel and slice a little of that in there, you know, if we’re feeling flush.
Sometimes I have to break out of the box and make myself go find another salad. Explore new green avenues. The spinach salad in the prevoius posting, for instance. And this little paradigm-shifting fried cheese salad.
We ate a lot of halloumi cheese in England. Vegetarians like it because you can grill and fry it, and there are a lot of vegetarians in England. The low milk fat, high protein profile causes haloumi to cook rather than melt. Fry it like a patty, serve it on a bun. Stuff it into portobellos. Top a salad with it. We were so sorry that we couldn’t find it here. Big Fella was told that’s because one company controlled the distribution for this part of the country and they preferred to sell halloumi in industrial amounts rather than consumer-size packages.
Lately, we’ve been spotting it in a Middle Eastern market on Nolensville Road. Two very similar recipes on recipezaar.com pointed in the same general direction: a warm caper vinaigrette. The recipe is from Delia Smith, who is sort of the Julia Child of England. Or maybe more the Marian Cunningham. Solid, dependable, unflashy but innovative. I like that in a recipe as much as in a person.
Fried Halloumi with Caper Vinaigrette Over Salad
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tabelspoon balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons capers
1 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 block halloumi (it’s usually around 8 to 10 ounces)
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
Oil for frying (just a little)
Whisk or shake the dressing ingredients to blend. Pat the cheese dry and slice into 8 slices. Coat the slices with a little flour and fry in just little oil until go
When I think of Spinach Salad with mushrooms and bacon, I think of the 1970s and patchwork granny skirts, and those really short tennis dresses women wore. I think of Harvey Wallbanger cake and fondue and Mark Spitz.
Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing was at every potluck or dinner gathering my family attended. Sometimes it had hard-boiled eggs in it, and sometimes not, but that’s about all the variation I remember. It always had a warm dressing made with bacon grease, sugar and ketchup and vinegar. If it was freshly made, the vinegary fumes would get in your nose, which was not entirely unpleasant.
In the early 1980s, I began noticing that people were using Russian dressing, and thereby depriving the salad of the very important temperature contrast between cold crisp greens and warm oily dressing, not to mention the whole bacon-sugar-vinegar combination.
I found myself with bacon, mushrooms, and spinach a few years back and was inspired to make it from an old Southern Living recipe using balsamic vinegar in place of white vinegar but retaining the ketchup. I gave it a topping of toasted sesame seeds. Divine. It was like tasting it all over again.
This time around I tried a few innovations. I wanted it to be a main dish, so I doubled the mushrooms and used really good center-cut bacon. I don’t love raw mushrooms, so they got a turn in the hot bacon grease with the lid on so they began cooking but retained some firmness. I caramelized shallots and red onions then added a little blueberry-pomegranate syrup, and a spoonful of sugar, then the vinegar. I topped it with two generous handfuls of deeply toasted almonds.
“Sometimes I think you should open a restaurant,” said Big Fella. “But then I think it’d be too risky.”
I’ll say. The salad only works if the onions are caramelized just right, the dressing cooked down to a syrup. That’s the kind of work that’s hard to replicate in big batches, in a busy kitchen. And even if you could find people to do it right, every time, breaking a wonderful dish into a process might somehow take the magic out of it. And when the magic is gone, the food falls flat.
Because the real joy of cooking is that extraordinary moment when you put that first bite in your mouth, and it’s even better than you expected and you aren’t sure why, but whatever you did must have worked.
Seventies Spinach Salad with Bacon Dressing
10 ounces good quality bacon
2 8-ounce packages fresh button mushrooms
1 red onion, sliced into rings
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup, fruit syrup or jelly
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 to 8 ounces fresh spinach (depending on how many you’re feeding)
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Cook the bacon in a skillet until it reaches your preferred doneness. Drain and chop. Cook the mushrooms in the bacon grease, covered, until they release some liquid. Remove them with a slotted spoon.
Cook the onions in the mushroom liquid and about 2 tablespoons of the vegetable the oil until they are tender. Add the fruit syrup and sugar and cook, covered, until the onions and shallots are fully caramelized, tender all the way though, and a deep color. Add the vinegar and cook, stirring, until well blended. Add the remaining vegetable oil and mix well.
Pile the spinach in the bowl. Top with the almonds, then the mushrooms. Pour (or spoon — it may be too thick to pour) the dressing and onions over the salad. Toss
I caught a squirrel climbing down my plum tree last week, munching a plum. I charged toward him, he dropped it, and bolted up a maple tree. I like to think he crapped in fear as he scurried up his tree. But that doesn’t get my plum back.
My suburban backyard is either dreadfully or delightfully full of creatures, take your pick. I found a baby box turtle meandering through last week — a baby box turtle! — and my neighbor claims to have seen deer sauntering through the lawns. These sitings expand the long list of residents, including birds, squirrels, possums, snakes, mice, moles and rabbits. Something is eating the chard. Cabbage loopers skeletonized a plant.
And while a certain gray furry “natural predator” is taking a nap so profound it qualifies as a coma, the chipmunks are leaping through the air, performing flying high-fives on their way to my cucumbers. It looks like a scene from frakin’ Willard back there in the mornings.
So I hunted up the garden journal I kept back in my post-hippie, professional garden days to find the exact proportions for The Lethal Brew. It’s simple, but it used to work.
The Lethal Brew
Grate a couple of tablespoons of Ivory soap into 1 to 2 cups of water. Gotta be Ivory — the other bars on the market are detergent. Detergent harms plant foliage. Ivory is the last real soap, except for the handmade artisan types.
Throw in a couple of inches of a cheap cigar or a plug of chewing tobacco the size of a half-dollar
Add a hot pepper pod at least 2 inches long, or a spoonful of red pepper flakes
Let the brew soak for at l east 12 hours. Strain it and add enough water to give it a sprayable consistency. Spray it on plant leaves, tomatoes, apples every couple of days.
It still works — on some things. It stopped the cabbage worms and tarnished plant bugs (which suck the green out of bean leaves until the leaves look bronze). It isn’t vile enough to keep the squirrels from eating the apples. Or rather, taking one bite of an unripe apple and then dropping it. And then doing the same thing the next day — how stupid are squirrels? And it doesn’t keep the rabbits (or some creature) from eating the chard. If you have a solution — besides a fence — I’m game to try anything.