Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Summer Salad

Inspiration is a funny thing. I think whether you’re a painter, a writer, an architect, a musician, or any of those creative types, you recognize that when inspiration strikes, you’ve got to grab a hold of it.

Cooking is no different. Without question, those chefs you see on Chef’s Table, or Mind of a Chef, or even something as bougie as MasterChef (don’t tell Gordon Ramsey I called MasterChef “bougie”), are artists. You can’t get one Michelin, let alone three Michelin stars, without being a creative genius. But I think that sometimes, as home chefs, we don’t take advantage of inspiration when it strikes because we think, “Well, I’m not Ferran Adrià. I’m not David Chang, or René Redzepi. I’ll just stick to this recipe, because who am I to improve on it?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, because I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Yes, yes, cue the eye rolls. Kelly (also known as Sister) had plenty of them when she saw I had taken it out of the library. (Public libraries are an institution. Support yours as much as you can.) But honestly, I enjoyed the read. It wasn’t great literature by any means, Bridget Jones’ Diary probably has more to offer in terms of prose, but it did give me a few great ideas, and it definitely made me feel more confident in trying, and failing, at creative ventures.

Foodie-ism, while an exciting cultural movement I’m proud to be a part of, has placed an inordinate amount of pressure on all of us to produce gourmet food on the regular. This is not a food culture that embraces experimentation, and by extension, failure. Have you been to a potluck lately? Jesus. It’s full of Thai mussels, and roasted figs with burrata, and scallops with whiskey. Long gone are the days of Jell-O salad and tuna casserole. You can’t even have mac and cheese anymore without lobster and béchamel. And honestly, I’m not complaining. If you want to spend $88.00 on scallops for your kid’s soccer barbecue, you do you. YOLO, right? Fuck sustainability. Fuck staying in the black on your bank account. Those other parents always bring gluten-free, ethically-raised, organic, local lamb sausage with homemade kefir yogurt tzatziki. Fuck those Joneses, am I right? You gotta keep up.

So, okay, don’t experiment on kid soccer potluck barbecue day if you’re going to spend half the rent on scallops.

But do experiment.

The kitchen is not meant to be nearly as much pressure as it is for so many people. It bums me out so hard when people say, “I hate cooking.” Food is a blessing! Enjoy it. Making food is meditative. It’s time of your day that you dedicate entirely to the nourishment of your body, and if you’re a particularly lucky person, to the nourishment of your family’s bodies. That’s worth enjoying every minute of, even if chopping garlic is the most annoying thing you can think of. 

In that vein, if you try, if you make things up, you are bound to fail. Failure, in the kitchen, is disappointing, no doubt. I’ve had epic failures in the kitchen before. I’ve had vague failures in the kitchen before- once, when I had the goods to make a cheese sauce, but no pasta beside lasagne bars, I attempted a lime pickle cheese lasagne roll up. They were truly awful. Lime pickle is not meant to be spread amongst pasta and doused with cheese sauce. This is not what lime pickle was made for, and it was not an exciting fusion discovery. It was a failure and it was truly disgusting and I ate as much as I could. I ate the majority of it, because: 1. I do not waste food, and cheese in particular is expensive and 2. Perhaps most importantly, I needed to understand where I failed. What went so wrong? I learned a few lessons by choking down that dinner. These include:
·      When using ingredients you’ve never used before, taste them first
·      Sometimes, tradition works
·      Cheese doesn’t actually make EVERYTHING better
·      Chunks of pickled lime rind are harder to chew than you might imagine

There you have it. A lesson on failure. You can probably find some great Instagram or Pinterest graphics to back up these lessons of failure. You know, something along the lines of, “Your comfort zone ends where discovery begins,” or some such drivel.

On the flipside (and we are getting to the recipe now friends, it’s coming, there is one that goes with this post), sometimes you try something different and it totally fucking works and you convince yourself you belong on some bougie cooking competition show like MasterChef and you are quite certain you are the Queen of your own domain and the next time you go to a potluck you are going to outshine the fuck out of those Joneses. That would be like when I made this delicious summer salad last week.

The inspiration to cook (see, I’m tying this all together, albeit in long form journalism type of way) struck me as I was driving home from the cottage. I’d spent a weekend in various levels of Canadian debauchery, and I was ready to resume a semi-healthy lifestyle when I arrived home. Not until I in fact, ARRIVED home, though. On the way home I stopped at a chip wagon and had a poutine and Pogo. One step at a time, after all.

I was struck by the desire to cook something awesome, but nothing came to mind. As Elizabeth Gilbert insists, however, this is no time to give up. At this point, the answer is to seek inspiration. Nothing inspires me quite like the LCBO Food & Drink magazine, so I started flipping through that. Some of their recipes are pure silliness, like lavender cheesecake and roasted figs with burrata (ha! Okay, totally kidding, obviously I’m making that as soon as the burrata goes on sale around the way) but sometimes they list something that I can make. And I especially love it when I have most of the things they list.

The recipe I was most inspired by was the “Arugula Salad with Lentils, Squash, and Smoked Almonds.” I had most of the things already, so I just needed to fill in a few blanks. This was the best part; I could add my own spin to this delicious salad.

When I first started cooking, I would panic if I didn’t have every ingredient exactly as the recipe called for. But now I take that as an opportunity to make the recipe my own. Same as when I love the idea of a recipe, but I’m not crazy about some of the ingredients (I really hate ham. And ham is ALWAYS in things.) So now if I’m not keen on a flavour, or if I know something will be hard to find, I replace it. You can go two ways when you experiment. You can pick a flavour that’s very close, or you can try something totally different.

At the end of the day, it probably won’t be AWFUL. And more than likely, it will be successful.

So the recipe now:

1 cup (250 mL) French green lentils (Du Puy)
2 tbsp (30 mL) olive oil
3 cups (750 mL) sliced peeled squash pieces, about ¼ inch (5 mm) thick
Curried Yogurt Dressing (recipe follows)
1 cup (250 mL) chopped radicchio
1 cup (250 mL) hickory smoked salted almonds, coarsely chopped
­⅓ cup (80 mL) dried cherries
4 cups (1 L) baby arugula

Heat 2 tbsp (30 mL) canola oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add 2 tsp (10 mL) grated ginger and 1 tbsp (15 mL) Madras curry paste; sauté for 1 minute or until spices are fragrant. Remove from heat. Let cool. Whisk in 1 tbsp (15 mL) fresh lemon juice and ⅓ cup (80 mL) plain yogurt (ideally 4% MF); season with salt to taste.

1 cup (250 mL) green lentils (Du Puy No Name)
2 tbsp (30 mL) olive oil
3 cups (750 mL) sliced peeled squash pieces, about ¼ inch (5 mm) thick
Curried Yogurt Dressing
1 cup (250 mL) chopped radicchio
1 cup  toasted walnuts
4 cups (1 L) baby arugula
3 tbsp goat cheese (sliced)
Chopped mint (garnish)

Heat 2 tbsp (30 mL) canola oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add 2 tsp (10 mL) grated ginger and 1 tbsp (15 mL) Madras curry paste any curry paste/curry spice/ curry blend of your own making after searching three stores for Madras paste; sauté for 1 minute or until spices are fragrant. Remove from heat. Let cool. Whisk in 1 tbsp (15 mL) fresh lemon lime juice and ⅓ cup (80 mL) plain coconut milk yogurt; season with salt to taste.

The Madras curry paste was a slight disappointment. But I moved on after a second store and decided I could make those flavours up myself. Guess what? It was still delicious. And majorly pretty. And frankly, inspired, if I do say so myself!

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