Saturday, April 16, 2011

So there's this salad ...

So there’s this salad. It’s a simple salad, but it tastes like a stroke of genius. I’m a little obsessed with it. It’s the perfect combination of crispy and crunchy, salty and sweet, acid and fat, with just a touch of bitter.
As with most recipes, there is more than one way to make it. The original idea came from the Montreal restaurant, Macaroni Bar. I’ve never been there, but two of my husband’s aunts (my aunts-in-law?) have, and after eating this salad there, they made sure they got the recipe. I have to say, I am very glad they did, because I think my life would be just that much darker without it. Yes, it’s really that good. Have I mentioned how lucky I think I am to have family members who love to cook as much as I do? The original has a base of arugula and pears, but I like to do it with arugula and cherry tomatoes as well.
This salad, as with most salads, really is all about the dressing. It’s about the right ingredients, the best quality ingredients, and the perfect proportions of each. So, remember these three—yes, only three—ingredients: white balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and honey.
Of course, there is salt and pepper as well, and parmesan. You can’t leave out the parmesan. It’s all about the parmesan … OK, it’s all about the dressing and the parmesan.
To make the dressing, combine two parts olive oil to one part balsamic, and a teaspoon or a little less of honey. Whisk, taste, adjust, and season with salt and pepper. You know the drill.

After tossing everything together, season with some more salt and pepper. It’s best to use coarse salt, like kosher or sea salt, because getting a bit of salty crunch in there just puts this salad over the edge. If you have a fancy salt that you never know what to do with, here would be a great place to feature it.
Finally, serve it alongside a delicious meal. Or, have it as its own meal. Trust me, a bite or two of this, and you won’t want to eat anything else.

Arugula Salad
Adapted from Macaroni Bar, Montreal
Makes about 4 side salads

1 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
½-1 tsp. honey
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 oz. arugula (preferably baby arugula)
1 Bosc pear, thinly sliced OR 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup (or more) freshly grated parmesan

Combine the white balsamic and the honey. Whisk in the olive oil, taste, and season with salt and pepper. If necessary, add more vinegar, honey, or olive oil, as needed.

Toss together the arugula and pear or tomatoes. Toss in the vinaigrette and parmesan. Sprinkle on some additional salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Competition, an Internship, and a Graduation

I’ve left you sitting on the edges of your seats, I know. Tales of my pre-competition preparations and jitters were a promise to reveal what became of it all, a promise that you might think I have broken. I haven’t, though: I have lots to tell. The past two months have been eventful for me.

First, the competition: great success, or embarrassing failure? Neither, really. I would describe the experience as a great personal success, although I did not place in the competition. To be honest, I was just happy I finished. Those three hours of cooking were more challenging than I had imagined, mainly because of what the mystery boxes contained. As you know, I practiced for this competition, but I wasn’t prepared for this:

-A live Dungeness crab
-A whole, bone-in lamb shoulder
-Two quail
-1 lb. sweetbreads
-A fennel bulb
-1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes

As you can see, there is no chicken on that list. You also might notice that there are not four or five ingredients: there are six … and four of them are proteins. Keep in mind that we were only to make three courses using these ingredients, and one of those courses was dessert. They’re not simple proteins, either. Two of them, some would argue, take more than three hours of cooking to prepare properly (the lamb shoulder and the sweetbreads), but I suppose that was just part of the challenge. I had never worked with sweetbreads before, and only had a vague idea of how to prepare them. It turned out, I wasn’t the only one—the competitor who came in first was the only one who really knew what to do with them. The black box was full of curve balls, to say the least, but we each made the most of it. I made a composed salad of crab, quail, and tomato for my appetizer, seared lamb au jus, with fennel and Yukon gold purée and braised sweetbreads for my main, and individual berry tarts with a berry reduction for dessert.
Curve balls or no, I am glad that I competed. I am proud of myself for finishing, and for having three complete courses to present on time at the end of the three hours. If I had to do the competition again, I would do some things differently, but that was the point of taking the plunge and doing this: to learn. I learned about time-management, sweetbreads and butchering lamb shoulder. I also learned more about what judges are looking for in culinary competitions, and what is important to them, and what is not.

In other news, I completed my culinary school internship. I was lucky enough to get to work at one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle, Chef Holly Smith’s Café Juanita. The restaurant features Northern Italian cuisine and uses almost entirely local, organic, and seasonal product. Interning there was my first venture into being in a fine dining restaurant’s kitchen, and it was an eye-opening experience. Holly is obsessively committed to quality; each item that leaves her kitchen must meet her high standards. Thanks to this, she has an excellent, award-winning, nationally recognized restaurant.

As an intern, I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I worked four days a week, ten or more hours a day, doing basic prep: stemming thyme, dicing turnips, cleaning greens, shelling crab, and so on. I got to do a few more interesting things, like making some of the basic sauces and curing guanciale and pancetta, but the highlight of the stage was from observing and talking to people. I learned a lot just from watching the line during service, asking questions, and trying to soak in as much information as possible. I was only there for about a month, but it was a month I won’t soon forget.
And, oh, yeah, I finished culinary school. I am now finally, officially, a culinary school graduate, ready to venture out into the big, scary world. Yay! It’s a good feeling to be done. What I will do next is still up for debate, but I hope good things are to come. The future looks delicious.