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I was reading Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home yesterday – in bed, I might add.  At five pounds of large-format hardcover, this is not the perfect book to cuddle up with.  I had put down this book for too long though, and glimpsing it on the shelf, I grabbed it on the way upstairs.

I like this cookbook for the back-and-forth bantering exchange between two such amazing chefs.  First, Julia will say “Well, when making such-and such, I like to…”, then on the opposite page, Jacques will say “Julia likes to do it this way, but I prefer…” and come up with a completely different method.  It reminds me that there is always more than one way to do something and do it well. 

My scrambled egg technique (from Jacques) is flawless.  They were, in fact, the first thing I ever cooked for my boyfriend (intimidatingly at the time, a professional cook).

This go around, the book threatening to suffocate me if I fell asleep and the snow falling outside, I was looking for recipes to use some of the beautiful savory bacon I had cured.  Flipping through, I came across a recipe for potato salad that included bacon and had the added advantage of tossing the hot potatoes with cider vinegar, a technique I’d never considered. 

So this morning when I woke up, I wasn’t too suprised that I had a serious jones for some potato salad, even if it wasn’t picnic weather.   It’s one of the first things I can ever remember making, probably in first grade, with some precooked potatoes and illustrated recipe cards.  I might have added too much vinegar then, because ever since, I have been a fan of tart potato salad.  This one completely fits the bill.

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Classic American Potato Salad

     adapted from Julia Child in Jacques and Julia Cooking At Home, serves 2 or 3

  • 1 pound Yukon Gold, or other waxy variety, potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt

peel potatoes and slice into 1/2 inch chunks.  put in a saucepan and just cover with water.  add salt.  bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer for 6 to 7 minutes.  check potatoes to make sure they are tender and cooked through.  drain and toss with

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

let sit 10 minutes, tossing occasionally, to absorb the vinegar.

  • 1/3 cup red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 slices bacon, crisped and chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons cornichons (or dill pickles), finely chopped
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped, including some of the greens

combine and toss gently with potatoes. 

  • 1/3 cup mayonaise
  • 1-2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

fold into potato mixture, tasting and correcting for balance.  refrigerate at least an hour to chill and retaste for seasoning and acidity.

Avocado on the Half-Shell

February 13, 2008

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 I’m not sure if this qualifies as a recipe, more a technique really, but it is my new favorite.  And it is beyond simple.  The only real requirement is an avocado in its perfect state, which isn’t hard to find right now.  I had almost given up on avocados through the fall; the ones we were finding were stringy and spotted.  But then I spotted some on sale last week and bought one.  It was everything an avocado should be: creamy and smooth, rich and still somehow green tasting – in a word, perfect.

 Since that find, I have eaten at least six avocados I can account for.  A couple in guacamole, true, but most eaten out of hand with a spoon, a drizzle of fresh lime juice, and a sprinkling of kosher salt.  I find them most pleasing when the flesh has been scored with a knife, allowing me to scoop a couple of chunks out at a time. 

 I have no problem polishing off a whole avocado by myself this way, but if you are feeling aesetic, or merely want to extend the joy to another session of standing in front of the kitchen sink, savoring each spoonful, you can wrap the half with the seed still in it tightly in plastic wrap, and it will keep for a short bit. 

 Eaten this way, an avocado is a secret pleasure, one that creates no dishes or mess.  Unsullied by competing flavors, one can comtemplate an avocado at its peak, spoonful by each perfect spoonful.  Consider it a love letter to oneself.

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 Looking for a way to highlight some of the bacon I just finished making, but not feeling in the mood for anything too heavy, my thoughts turned to a southern classic – wilted spinach salad.  I always love the premise – bright green spinach, softened slightly with the heat of the warm dressing, contrasting with the snap of crisp bacon and creaminess of a perfectly hard-boiled egg. 

 I think the key is in getting the spinach to wilt and gloss over with the warm bacon grease in the dressing, rather than just coat the leaves and clump up.  Cooled bacon grease = bad mouthfeel. 

 Leafing through an old Cook’s Illustrated, I found a solution.  By tossing the aromatics in the dressing recipe into the hot pan with the drippings from the bacon and building the dressing around them, the dressing is able to retain enough heat when tossed with the cool greens to successfully wilt the spinach.  Think of each bit of onion and garlic as a tiny hot water bottle warming up the greens.

 The results were fabulous.  The bacon was crisp and perfectly salty, ensconced in greens wilted just enough for contrast. 

Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

     adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, serves 2

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • couple of grinds of black pepper
  • pinch of salt

 mix vinegar with sugar, salt & pepper. set aside.

  •  4 slices thick-cut bacon

slice into 1/2 inch lardons.  fry in medium skillet over medium-high heat until crisp ~ 10 minutes.  remove bacon from skillet with slotted spoon.  pour bacon fat into a heatproof bowl. measure 2 tablespoons of the fat back into the pan. 

  • 1/4 of a medium red onion, chopped (~1/4 cup)
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced

add onion to pan & saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened ~ 3 minutes.  toss in the garlic, stir 15 seconds.  add cider vinegar mixture & remove pan from heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to get all the good, browned bits.  swirl and quickly toss with  

  • half a bag of baby spinach (~3 oz)

until spinach is slightly wilted.  garnish with bacon and

  • 2 hardboiled eggs, quartered or diced, if desired

 serve before the bacon grease can cool.