A primer

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wasn’t quite finished with this salad. I had it in mind, just at the end, to toast and crumble some laver, that marvelous, briny dried seaweed, over the top. I could have added a few more tiny leaves of opal basil, another scattering of chopped chives. I would have thrown in cilantro by the fistfuls if I’d had any. Not that it needed any of those things.

Flourish and brevity are in constant tension in my kitchen, even though, really, I think they can coexist happily, in a way. Simplicity in cooking is one of those most splendid things, when you get it right on the nose. You can’t hide anything behind simplicity, though, not second-rate ingredients, not wobbly  technique, and definitely not uncertainty. Simplicity, at the least, asks for confidence.

Confidence eludes me more than I would like, so I am, in my ceaseless search for simplistic perfection, enthusiastic about fuss. How many distractions can I add to this salad to hide the fact that the dressing wasn’t perfect? It doesn’t even matter that the dressing was lovely, something I’d make again for company. A generous hand with garnish (not necessarily the opposite of simplicity, but certainly at odds with it) is like an extra insurance policy. As long as it’s not overpowering (too much tarragon, ew), it’s a little bit of a cheat, like salted capers, or oil-cured olives, or toasted pistachios (I should note that I rely heavily on all of these), or wearing a really smart linen cardigan when all you have on is the same pair of jeans and scrubby shirt you’ve been throwing on for a week without laundering. I think it’s sort of like that, some.

Besides that, garnish is pretty and it makes me feel good, even when there’s not really anything to hide. It’s a little self-indulgent. But since this blog is really just culinary navel-gazing, I think that’s fitting.

This salad came together because I’d been completely obsessing over some amazingly tender, sweet celery that’s been hanging around at my market at the same time summer’s wicked-sweet sungolds started coming in. My initial inclination was to pair both of them with the last of spring’s garlic scapes, salt-cured capers, spring onions, plenty of herbs, and pasta or farro, which is exactly what I did, oh, for maybe 4 or 5 meals. Then one day at lunch I felt like sesame oil was a better thing for the day, but I still couldn’t get the celery and tomatoes out of my head, and I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to shift my seasonings east a little. I used a dressing of ume vinegar and toasted sesame oil instead of the capers and olive oil, and am quite glad I did.

Soba noodles with celery, tomatoes, herbs, and an ume vinaigrette

2 ounces 100% buckwheat soba noodles, cooked, drained, and rinsed

1 stalk cutting celery, split and cut on the diagonal, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, then drained and flushed with cool water

few handfuls of sungold or other cherry tomatoes, cut into halves or quarters, plus one or two nice, small heirlooms, diced

1-2 garlic scapes, if you have some, cut on the diagonal and blanched with the celery

1/4 small spring onion, minced

1 tsp. brown rice vinegar

2 tsp. ume vinegar

1/2 tsp. honey

4 tsp. toasted sesame oil

1/2 T. sesame seeds (preferably unhulled), toasted

tiny leaves of opal basil, any green basil, and minced chives, to taste

1 large or 2 small eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and halved

Combine noodles, tomatoes, celery and scapes, if you’re using them, in a large bowl. Whisk together vinegars, oil, honey, and salt to taste in a small bowl. Toss with noodles. If you’re funny about eating out of a bowl with clean sides, transfer to a clean bowl, then garnish with herbs and sesame seeds. Or you could take a napkin and dab away rogue dressing streaks, but that just seems silly.

Serves 1

*I intended to used cubed tofu in this dish, but it was spoiled (one month before the expiration date!), hence the eggs. I ate one half before assembling.

*A note on ingredients: Use only very good ones. Everything is disappointing if you don’t.

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