It's New Year's, so it must be time for resolutions ... except that I never like setting myself up for failure. So I rarely bother with resolutions; instead, I carry on a long, one-sided conversation with God about what I'll need his help with yet again.
I do, though, have a few changes in mind for cooking in 2003. As my doctor recently, and none too gently, reminded me, I'm getting older. Although he wasn't talking about how I eat, I know it's time to face up to some of my not-so-stellar eating habits before he does.
Thus, be it resolved that this year, I will try to follow my doctor's preferred diet: fish that can fit in my palm, fruits, and vegetables.
Except that I find that sort of cooking terribly boring. I like fish and seafood, and berries, and I'm especially fond of roasted vegetables. And I go through periods of salad obsessions. But when I do, they're pretty basic salads.
Creating main-course salads has been a challenge for me ever since my husband asked for them for supper most nights. I've found myself uninspired, easily falling into a rut, and I haven't found much inspiration in the salad cookbooks I've bought. Too often those recipes work overtime to be interesting, requiring many ingredients I don't keep on hand, or making strange-bedfellow flavor combinations.
What I'm searching for, as I realized recently, is comfort food in a salad. Don't give me yet another scoop of dry, flavorless couscous on top of some mixed greens: Give me the taste equivalent of my mom's creamy, rich beef stroganoff on those greens instead.
That might prove challenging, but in my case it will start with the vinegar. Vinegar might not sound comforting, but for me, making a good salad dressing brings great comfort. I start out each night nowadays looking through my vinegar shelf, restocked after a summer trip to Atlanta.
That, unfortunately, is the home of one of my favorite places to shop, the International Farmers Market--how I wish we had its equivalent here. It opened when we lived there in the early '90s, just a few miles from our house. When we moved away, I was still driving a Miata, and I had to drive out of town with the top up just to contain all the bags of food I'd stuffed into it in a last hurrah. Now I drive a van, and boy, is that a dangerous combination when we head south.
On my last visit, I came back with some balsamic vinegars that have started to bring back inspiration. Fig balsamic and apple balsamic vinegars have found their way into all sorts of salads, with fruit and nuts and a touch of meat.
I have to admit, to my great shame, to being culinarily incorrect. I like a little pasta with my sauce, a little salad with my dressing. My heart longs for sophistication, at least according to the cooking sages, but my taste buds say no way.
That's why I use a heavy hand with the dressing on one of my favorite salads, which I would make nightly if no one cared. It starts with mixed greens--preferably one of those bagged "baby spring" mixes. Then, rather bizarrely, it gets tossed with just a touch of ranch dressing (that is, it's just a touch when I make it for other people), and then a balsamic dressing made of just balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. I top the salad with dried cranberries and lightly candied almond slices (melt a little butter in a skillet, add lots of almonds and stir until lightly toasted. Add a little sugar, stir until melted, and spread on a baking sheet or parchment to cool and crisp.). The idea comes from a close friend who makes great salads--although this one might not sound so lovely before you taste it.
I'm especially fond of mixing a little sweet in with salads to play off the salty against the sour against the sweet. The goat cheese salad below is another such pairing; it's tasty with just the pancetta and goat cheese, but the figs make it sing. Add a warm dressing, and you have a comfort salad that feels just right, even on these icy nights.
Cook's notes: When I make a vinaigrette, I use a larger proportion of vinegar than most recipes call for. Although I like dressings made with white wine vinegars, my favorites are those made from balsamic, sherry, or Chianti vinegar. Sometimes I use mustard, which helps in emulsifying the dressing, but I find with the red wine vinegars that it's not necessary, and often introduces an extra flavor I don't want. I especially dislike the scent of raw garlic and onions on my hands; with me it seems to stick around for days. So I use one of those gadgets that looks like a waste of money--a rubbery tube used just for peeling garlic--that is actually quite useful, then put the cloves through a garlic press. A press works with unpeeled garlic, but I prefer the texture I get when they're peeled first. For this salad, if you don't have fresh thyme, just leave it out--don't substitute dried. I always use dried figs with this because I find that fresh store-bought figs are often tasteless, and I don't grow my own. Finally, I like lots of goat cheese in this, but just 4 ounces will still be tasty, if you prefer.
Goat Cheese and Fig Salad
1/2 pound pancetta, diced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced thyme leaves
3/4 cup sherry vinegar or fig balsamic vinegar
4 to 8 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
10 cups (lightly packed) mixed greens
12 fresh or dried figs, stemmed, cut in half
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cook pancetta in a large skillet over medium heat until browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Add olive oil to skillet; when hot but not smoking add garlic and thyme and saute about 1 minute, until garlic is softened, stirring constantly. Add vinegar and cook until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add pancetta back to skillet with goat cheese; cook until cheese starts to weep. Toss in greens; immediately remove from heat. Add figs, salt and pepper, and serve immediately.