Disorientation, re-orientation; or, Welcome back Asian chicken salad (& Mary Gauthier)

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This is where I was.

 

Travelling poses some of the brightest pleasures and keenest difficulties there is in this life. Whether it’s a short trip, longer vacation, or complete uprooting, the act of moving often brings us to moments of insight about the nature of our present selves, and what habits, routines, foods, comforts, and stillnesses we love, rely on, or dread. Where it can be felt the most, perhaps unsurprisingly, is upon returning home: the reinhabitation of city streets; opening the door and smelling one’s place anew; the relief of dropping bags and yet slow creep of tension as one faces the prospect of resuming work the next day. It’s looking in the fridge and noting you still have eggs (good) and a few wilted scallions (okay) but not much else worth noting. It’s sitting down at your kitchen table, feeling a bit lost as to how exactly you’re going to feed yourself for the next week.

Then it picks up. Your stomach starts to settle on what it wants to eat: something crunchy and bright, but also savory and full of flavor. It hasn’t come into shape quite yet. The eggs are still good; perhaps a sweet potato bacon hash in the morning will vault me back into the thick of things. As for tonight, I want to make something with my hands but not invest too much. Something mindless and welcoming, something that will keep for a few days. Oh, remember that Asian (insert groan here) chicken salad with the cabbage, peanuts, and cilantro from Dinner: A Love Story? That was really good. Plus rotisserie chicken sounds dreamy. This is exactly what I want.

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Salad, plain and small

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Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing, cuccu! 

Tomorrow is the summer solstice. I don’t know about you, but I always think of Sarah, Plain and Tall when this time rolls around, as a literary reference for “Sumer Is Icumin In”: like Maria in Sound of Music, Sarah seals the love of her new family through teaching them this song.

Summer is a-comin’ in, Loudly sing, cuckoo!

We read the book in elementary school and I’ll always remember it as quietly unsettling compared to other children’s literature. It was something about the style, which was simple yet lyrical; or its setting out West and the routines of farm life; or the character Sarah who, as the title promised, was notably plai  and tall and warm. Running through the book was a small yet live current of tension as the family adjusted to their replacement mother, their second wife: making daily, significance-laden adjustments that were at once unthinkable and yet instinctive for a young reader. It was a book that asked you to notice loneliness, grief, and love in things like missing the sea, smiling at sheep, transplanting one’s losses with echoes and translations. It puzzled me. I liked it.

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Rage for Order, or, Substantial Salads

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

(from Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West")

I love origin stories.  This poem, along with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog, is part of mine.  The former introduced me to The Experience of Literature, and moreover, that experience is worth writing down; the latter taught me that sharing is caring; and the Wallace Stevens — well, the Stevens taught me to love both the sounds of words and ideas of order.  All of this was in high school, where I had a fiercely ambivalent relationship to formal English classes; it took me quite a bit longer to decide that the study of literature was worth a lifetime’s work, and more specifically, mine.  But we love what we love, we are that we are, and whether the fixing (arranging, deepening, enchanting) was or was not of my own making, I ended up going to the things I loved, anyway — that which I am, will be, and in some sense, always already was.  A blessed and troubling rage for order, indeed, one that might make us long for the counterfactual with all its ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

I was thinking a few days ago about the origin of “A Kitchen of One’s Own,” the food life I began to inhabit a few years ago and that continues to structure my day-to-day.  And I realized that despite my curious and almost pathological love for narrative, I had never really thought about my culinary trajectory, never saw a plot to it beyond the cyclical influence of seasonality.  Indeed, that’s partly why I love food life — it’s so whimsical and contingent, growing rhizomatically as it refuses emplotment and my tyrannous rage for order (despite my penchant for baking.)  But now, looking back across time, I realize there were and are local patterns and lines of order to what I (perhaps over-enthusiastically) previously imagined was delightful culinary anarchy.  I started wildly, passionately, baking cake after cake, puddings and pots de crème; roasted chickens; attacked parsnips; refused to shy away from butter and insisted upon fresh herbs, spent most to all of my paycheck on foodstuff.  That first winter I made thick, rich stews and sauces and roasted pan after pan of vegetables, while the summer brought three glorious months of grilling and charcoalated giddiness (a summer, too, of the heirloom tomato).  Then another academic year, another turn of the seasons, and I found myself a little more frugal, a little less decadent, and above all, soup-hungry.  So there was soup every weekend, supplemented by a strange and bewildering obsession with braised cabbage and admirable (read: tenacious) foray into bread-making.  Indeed, I never stopped baking: the first year of grad school brought many a therapeutic cake into the world, though they were often simpler, unfrosted, full of spices and fruit.   Then I was single (i.e., culinary idiosyncracy); and then I was in Korea (i.e., kimchi, begrudgingly); and then I was back, and “then” became “now.”

And now?  Now I’m rather obsessed with substantial salads, ones that start with a hearty base of beans, rice, or grains like wheatberries and a colorful vegetable (often roasted), mixed with fresh herbs and oftentimes flavorful cheese, and then finished with a sparkling vinaigrette (with aromatics like shallots, onions, garlic) that binds it all together, making each part positively jewel-like.  Case in point:

Here we have a roasted beet salad with wheat berries and feta, tossed in an oregano vinaigrette.  These salads are often very nice served atop greens, whether that’s lettuce, arugula, or even heartier greens like chard or kale.  They are good warm or cold, keep forever, and make lovely brainfood lunches on the go.  Today I’m going to share with you two of my absolute favorites, this one with the beets (from Lottie + Doof) and one with carrots, dill, and white beans found on 101 Cookbooks, where you can find many substantial salads along the lines presented here.  I’d encourage you to experiment with what you have on hand and what you have in mind, as the formula is quite intuitive, easy, and effective.

Grain + vegetable + herb + cheese + dressing.  Sometimes a rage for order isn’t so bad after all.

Roasted Beet Salad with Wheat Berries and Feta, from Lottie + Doof

Oregano Vinaigrette:
1 Shallot, finely minced (while you can use onion, shallots are particularly nice here)
3 tbsp. White Wine Vinegar (you can also use sherry or rice wine vinegar, but the acidity of the white wine vinegar is a good match for the sweet wheat berries)
½ tsp. Honey
1 tbsp. Finely Chopped Fresh Oregano
½ tsp. Dried Oregano
Kosher Salt And Freshly Ground Black Pepper
¼ cup Good Quality Olive Oil (or a bit less)

Salad
Arugula, preferably baby or wild arugula (optional)
2-3 medium Beets, roasted, peeled and chopped*** (you can also use Trader Joe’s wrapped precooked beets, but I find they seem rather anemic in comparison)
2 cups Cooked Wheat Berries***
½ lb. Feta
Fresh Oregano

Make vinaigrette: In a small bowl combine the shallot, vinegar, oregano, honey, salt and pepper. Let sit for 15 minutes. slowly add olive oil, whisking to combine.

Assemble salad: Place arugula leaves in a medium bowl and toss with a couple of tablespoons of vinaigrette. Divide dressed arugula among 4 plates. Top with ¼ of wheat berries and ¼ of the beets and ¼ of the feta. Drizzle remaining dressing on top. Sprinkle with some additional oregano, salt and pepper. Serve.

*** To roast beets: Preheat oven to 400° F. Wash beets and wrap individually in aluminum foil. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until a small knife easily glides into beet. Let cool a bit before peeling and chopping.

*** To cook wheat berries: Combine 1 ½ cups wheat berries, 6 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium pot. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, until tender. This will take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes. Add additional boiling water as needed to keep grain covered.

Carrot, Dill, and White Bean Salad, from 101 Cookbooks

Dressing:
¼ cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
3 tbsp. Fresh Lemon Juice
¼ tsp. Fine Grain Salt
½ cup Thinly Sliced Shallots

Salad:More Olive Oil (Or Ghee) For Cooking
2 cups Sliced Carrots, cut ¼-inch thick on deep bias
3 cups Cooked White Beans
Scant ¼ Cup Chopped Fresh Dill
2 tbsp. Brown Sugar (Or Honey)
⅓ cup Sliced Almonds, toasted (I skip this; and lo, the world does not end)

Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and shallots in a small bowl. Stir and set aside.

In your largest skillet over medium high heat, toss the carrots with a splash of olive oil or a spoonful of ghee (I love ghee with carrots). Let them cook in a single layer – they’ll give off a bit of water at first. Keep cooking, tossing gently every three or four minutes until the carrots are deeply browned. All told, about twelve minutes.

Add the beans and dill to the skillet and cook for another five minutes, or until the beans as well heated through. If you are using beans that weren’t canned you can allow them to brown a bit as well (just cook a bit longer, and stir less frequently) – they can handle this in a way that most canned beans can’t. If you need to add a bit more olive oil to the pan – do so.

Place the contents of the skillet in a large mixing bowl, sprinkle with the brown sugar and pour the ¾ of the lemon-olive oil mixture over the top. Toss gently. Let sit for ten minutes. Toss gently once again, taste and adjust with more salt or sugar or lemon juice if needed to balance the flavors. Serve warm or at room temperature and finish by sprinkling with the almonds just before serving.

Balela in the Nabokovian Style

Balela, light of my life, fire of my belly.  My obsession, my thriftiest recipe.  Ba-lay-lah: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps across the curves of chickpeas and beans to tap, at two and three, on softness of a tomato and the crispness of an onion.  Ba.  Lay.  Lah.

It can be plain, just plain in the morning, standing fresh and greenly adorned only by parsley.  It’s delightful with mint, and better with both.  It’s even still good with cilantro.  But in my kitchen it is always Balela.

Did it have a precursor?  It did, indeed it did.  In point of fact, there might have been no Balela at all had I not stumbled, one weekend, on a certain plastic container.  In a Trader Joe’s in the city.  Oh when?  About as a third as many weeks before I discovered it as my age is this year.  You can always count on a food blogger for borrowed prose style and literary in-jokes.

Ladies and gentlemen of the food-blogging scene, exhibit number one is what the people, the strapped-for-cash, earnest, nobly-tasteful people, search for.  Look at this exquisite tangle of of a salad.

Balela

1 15 oz can chickpeas

1/2 15 oz can black beans (you can do a whole can of beans, or even two cans of chickpeas; I tend to like my Balela more chickpea-heavy)

1 large tomato, chopped (or less, or more)

1/2 onion, chopped (I like Vidalia, but red would work as well)

1/4 cup fresh parsley, mint, parsley and mint, or cilantro

healthy glug of olive oil (don’t be shy!)

healthy glug of balsamic vinegar (no really, don’t be shy)

1 clove garlic, minced

sprinkling of red pepper flakes

salt and pepper to taste