Salad Daze

Salads are versatile. They can be anything from a few bites to whet the appetite or finish a plating to a complete meal. For real salad courses, there are a few regulars that always seem to be on restaurant menus. Caesar salads always find a place, but few are made in the traditional style. Call me retro, but there is something about table service that makes fine dining an experience.

Watching a Caesar being prepared from scratch is not only fun, but is an education in balance—how disparate elements like garlic, anchovy, egg yolk and parmesan combine to create salty-creamy-tangy flavors and the croutons and lettuce contribute crunch. The dressing has nothing in it that you wouldn’t find in your pantry, and the classic technique of preparing the whole thing in a big wooden bowl invites some showmanship. Most Caesars suffer from an overdose of garlic, which shouldn’t ever happen when you consider the classic “made-in-the-bowl” recipe instructs that the garlic merely be rubbed into the wood and then discarded. And our ridiculous fear of raw egg makes preparing the salad an exercise in crisis management.

Another salad that has become ubiquitous is a beet salad with baby greens, goat cheese and walnuts or pecans. It surprises me that people who normally wrinkle their noses at roasted beets nevertheless relish this. But it supports the theory that a great salad combo is way more than the sum of simple parts.

Here is what I think makes a satisfying salad. Not too many ingredients, not too many varied greens, a mix of salty-sweet-pungeant, and a balance between enjoying all the elements together and yet allowing individual ingredients to keep their own flavors.

We’ve posted a salad that fits that bill nicely. The Grapefruit Avocado Shrimp Salad places its titular elements on a simple bed of butter lettuce, and the dressing is a hybrid catalina-thousand island recipe that is both sweet and vinegary.  Ripe avocado, barely-cooked shrimp and grapefruit supremes make the salad as good to look at as it is to eat. Add a few more shrimp and the salad can be a small main meal.

The whole segments of grapefruit are an elegant part of the salad. These grapefruit “supremes” are easy to extract from the fruit, even though it seems like it’s a lot of tedious peeling. Watch the accompanying video to see how Sharri Wolfgang does it, and you may never cut a grapefruit in half again.

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Magic Mushrooms

There is something almost mystical about mushrooms. On a clear morning after a storm in warmer months, a walk around my neighborhood isn’t complete without the sighting of large mushrooms that have popped out overnight. It’s like walking past a rose bush with no flowers on it one day, and discovering it covered with blooms the next.

Of course, I am too uninformed about foraging to even attempt to harvest one of these crops, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for fungi in cooking. As a source of umami, that savory meatiness that the Japanese identify as a fifth taste, mushrooms are a quick hit for sauces and stews. Dried mushrooms restore amazingly in a little hot water, and the resulting broth becomes another element used for enhancing braising liquid or a sauce. Oyster, shiitake and morels are all available and can be stored in the pantry for months. Even standard grocery chains carry a variety of fresh mushrooms these days, so finding a fresh shiitake is almost as easy as finding white mushrooms, crimini, or portabellas.

An early revelatory experience for me centered around mushrooms. Having gone to The Inn at Little Washington back when it first opened, I was blown away by an appetizer, Marinated Shiitake Mushrooms with Chilled Vermicelli, and chef Patrick O’Connell was nice enough to give me the recipe. You can download the recipe here. Preparing the dish involves making a tomato sauce, sautéing the mushrooms in olive oil, and preparing the vermicelli, all separately. Only at the plating does it all come together.

As I was making the dish, none of the preparatory steps smelled or tasted anything like the dish I remembered from the restaurant. I assumed that the recipe was missing a transformative ingredient held back by the chef. And then, when all of the parts had been assembled as directed, there was the dish—a reasonably accurate version of the restaurant serving. The transformative effect of technique, training and intuition resulted in something amazing. I realized two things that day: creating a recipe and preparing one are really two separate things, and just how much designing a recipe is like designing anything else.

Making a good mushroom dish is all about creating a meaty texture with the mushrooms, a combination of extracting the water from the fungi, searing the exteriors, and adding flavor with spices and stock. The Baby Bella Sauté that we’ve added to our New Recipes section is a great all-purpose dish that, with some fine-tuning of spices and liquids, can accompany almost any kind of main dish, and can be pretty awesome as the major ingredient in anything from a quiche to a crepe to an enchilada.

The Spice of Life

This image came in the other day from Florence Sumaray—one of the lucky people who attended the Launch Party and received a bottle of AURAS Spice Mix. Here’s one of the many uses for this versatile blend—sprinkled on popcorn, it adds a kick. The AURAS Spice mix came about as an attempt to create a less-salty and more sophisticated alternative to McCormick’s Season-All, and to balance the flavors of salty, peppery, floral and spicy. It’s a mix of salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder, paprika, chili powder and lemon peel, along with a bit of cumin, allspice and cayenne pepper. The AURAS Spice Mix is great on meats and fish, and adds a zing to vegetable sautés. It mates really well with brown sugar to create salty-sweet rubs for chicken or pork.

People have found lots of other uses for the Mix. Add a 1/4 cup to a bottle of ketchup and create a new flavor sensation. Use it as a topping for deviled eggs, or mix it with sour cream to have with latkes. What other good ideas will you discover using the Mix? We would love to hear about all of them.

It’s pretty easy to make the AURAS Spice Mix yourself (as well as the Savory Spice Blend featured on the same page) but we were wondering if it might be good enough to sell as a product all by itself. Sure, there’s no mystery to the recipe, but it is nice to have it ready-to-go. Is this a product that’s good enough for Prime Time? I know it’s great with Prime beef.

The Perfect Recipe for Christmas (or any other) Morning

What is the perfect dish for a cozy holiday morning? It would be something rich, flavorful and—let’s be honest—easy to prepare. One of my favorite brunch dishes is French toast, but just like pancakes, it requires a lot of last-minute stovetop attention. So, here is all the yumminess of French toast in a version that puffs up in the oven and makes an incredible centerpiece to your festivities. The French Toast Soufflé—the latest DxD Extra recipe—is sweet, chewy and a little bit salty. Paired with some sausage from Edwards (http://virginiatraditions.com/Smoked-Sausage-Links.aspx) and a fresh citrus salad of grapefruit, and orange segments, it’s a perfect way to enjoy your Christmas or New Year’s morning, not to mention a Hanukkah Brunch. You can have fun trying your own additions to the basic recipe. I’ve suggested a few, but use your imagination. And since the recipe multiplies well, you can serve a big crowd.

This Might Be the Best Recipe in DxD

Flat-Roast ChickenOur newest featured recipe has been such a tester’s treat that we almost didn’t want to give it away, but making the Flat Roast Chicken is so easy and so delicious that we can’t help ourselves. This roast chicken is enhanced by smearing a herbs de provence butter under the skin and coating with AURAS spice mixture. A quick dry brine makes the skin crisp and the meat juicy.

But the real game-changer from an ordinary oven-roasted bird is the way it’s prepared. This chicken is easily flattened using a technique that only takes a minute to do, but produces superior results to the much more complicated butterflying or spatchcocking methods. Cutting through the rib bones is ridiculously easy and the entire breast section opens like a car hood on a hinge so the bird is flattened with all the bones on one side and the meat on the other, protected by its skin. It might seem complicated, but look at the video,and you’ll see it’s really easy to do.

The complete recipe is also available on YouTube here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_G5Drard2Y