Wednesday, January 20, 2010

a winter dinner salad

With the new year, a food-loving mother's thoughts turn to Nigel Slater. At least that's true in my house, apparently. This time a few years ago I was enjoying the British food writer's memoir, Toast, which I had received as a Christmas present. Last year, I was reading his Kitchen Diaries and making his lentil soup. This year, on a trip to the library with Monkey, I couldn't help perusing the cookbook section (even though I need more recipes like I need a hole in my head) and plucked his book Real Fast Food off the shelf.

I really just love Slater's sensibility--he's opinionated but unpretentious, taking pleasure in both first-quality fresh produce and the comforts of takeout. He's tongue-in-cheek without ever quite tipping over into twee (though his nationality probably helps him there--the Brits can just get away with more in the almost-twee department, don't you think?).

Real Fast Food might just be my favorite of his books that I've read. His focus here is on "fast home cooking, the sort of food you throw together when you come home tired and hungry." Simple omelets, cheese-and-bread in its various forms, a steak salad. So good with such little effort--there's almost a luxuriousness to this kind of food. And a romance to it. It makes me think of the movie Amelie--the emblematic food moment in that movie is supposed to be the title character cracking the crust on a creme brulee with the delicate tip of her spoon, but to me it's her, alone in her gabled apartment, tipping a pot of macaroni into a colander. Beautiful--strange as that may sound.

There are many, many recipes in Real Fast Food that I'd like to try, but for a first foray I picked a substantial dinner salad of spinach with bacon and poached egg. In summertime, we eat a lot of Nicoise salads, and I thought this recipe might be a good winter alternative. I don't usually go in for fake meat, but lately we've been enjoying veggie sausages (and anyway, sausage isn't really meat so much as a spice-and-umami delivery system), so I thought one of those could substitute for the bacon. And I'd just been to the farmers market and bought a bag of bright-green mache, unsure of how I would use it--so when this recipe bubbled to the top it seemed meant to be.

I'm sorry I held out so long because mache is pretty fantastic--sturdy, springy even, tasting of chlorophyll. However, despite its sturdiness on the plate, mache does not keep well--a day or two at best before you'll have to go sorting out slimy leaves. So consider this a recipe for dinner on farmers market day.

And one more warning--I recommend preparing all of the ingredients for this salad before you start cooking:

The dish comes together quite quickly and once things get going you won't have time even to slice up a sausage, let alone whisk up a quick dressing. You'll also leave an unholy mess in the kitchen when you are done. Well, okay, it's not that bad, really--but don't think you're going to clean as you go. This is truly lickety-split.

After polishing off his salad, my husband asked if I could make him another one. Not because it didn't satisfy his hunger, but because it was just that good. Beautiful--and I don't think that sounds strange at all.

Winter Salad with Poached Egg and Sausage
Adapted from Real Fast Food, by Nigel Slater

For the salad:
6 oz. or so mache (or baby spinach)

2 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs white vinegar

1 tsp olive oil
1 large vegetarian sausage (we like Tofurkey Italian sausage flavor. or, of course you could use actual sausage, or bacon)
2 slices bread

For the dressing:
4 Tbs olive oil
4 tsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
black pepper

First, prepare your ingredients. Wash the mache very carefully--it can be quite gritty. A good trick is to put it in the basket of a salad spinner, put the basket inside the bowl of the spinner, and then fill with water. Let sit for a couple minutes to loosen the dirt, swish it around some, and then lift the basket out to drain off the water. Pour the dirty water out of the bowl and repeat. Spin the greens dry and divide onto two large plates.

Slice the sausage up into 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut the bread into large dice. Crack each egg into a small bowl--the size you use to serve food to a very young baby would be good. Whisk together the dressing ingredients.

For the poached eggs, fill a large, shallow skillet almost full of water. Add 1/2 tsp salt and the white vinegar (the latter lowers the pH of the water and helps the egg whites hold together a little better). Cover the skillet and turn the heat on high to bring the water to a boil.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp olive oil in a small skillet, and saute the sausage until the slices are brown on both sides. With a slotted spoon or pancake turner, remove the sausage from the skillet and scatter it on top of the greens. Add the bread to the skillet and stir occasionally until toasted on all sides.

When the water for the eggs starts boiling, quickly slip the eggs from the bowls into the boiling water, immediately cover the pan, and remove from the heat. The residual heat from the water will cook the eggs. After 3 minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove each eggs from the water, let it drip-drain for a moment or two, and then place one egg in the center of each plate, on top of the greens.

Now it will be time to turn off the heat under the small skillet and take the croutons out of the pan, scattering them over the greens. Quickly whisk the dressing again and pour it into the hot pan. (It will hiss and spit quite a bit--if you have an extra few seconds it might be worth tying on an apron.) Then pour the dressing over the salads. Serve at once.

Serves 2.

No comments: