Sunday, March 11, 2018

Moroccan Carrot Salad with Labneh Toast...and a short discussion of how to make perfect "toast"

Today’s post is one hundred percent inspired by my favorite local bakery.  If you live in the Kansas City Metropolitan area and you have never been to Ibis, you need to make a point to visit soon.  Their breads are some of the best I have ever had…if not the best.  Likewise, their pastries, sweets and laminated doughs are fantastic.  I don’t know why I was so surprised that the items on their limited little breakfast and lunch menus would be so delicious too…but they are. 

I mentioned the avocado toast that my friends ordered at my first outing to the new Ibis location in my grain bowl post.  What I didn’t say in that post was how perfect the toast itself was…which may seem like a strange thing to make note of.  “Toast”—meaning a knife and fork little plate with a slice of toast topped with something (hopefully) delicious—has become a thing.  You can get them everywhere…and they are easy to make yourself since basically decent artisanal-style bread is widely available.  The thing is, delicious as these “toasts” can be, often eating them is a bit of a wrestling match.  The toasting process hardens the crust (which usually has the “chew” desirable in artisanal-style breads) into something that is quite difficult to cut through and eat with any semblance of the grace appropriate for polite dining.  We put up with this, I suppose, because the toppings are delicious…and the bread is delicious…but it is at the very least an inconvenience.  I’ll be honest…I really don’t like to fight with my food.  And I don’t like to worry that it might fly off the plate during the battle.

Anyway, the toast portion of that avocado toast was, as I said, perfect:  It had substance…but was easy to cut.  You may recall from my earlier post that I didn’t order the avocado toast, but one of my friends who did drew my attention to the perfection of the toast (that is, the bread portion).  So, the next time I ate there, I ordered a “toast” (with house made pastrami…which was truly excellent as well).  And the toasted bread was, as my friend had pointed out, extraordinary:  flavorful, with a beautiful golden browned and crisped surface (it’s toast, after all)—and substantial enough to absorb the flavors of the toppings without disintegrating.  The whole thing did require the use of a knife and fork…but it was yielding enough that it wasn’t a fight.  Perfect. 

I began to wonder how they achieved this balance.  Did they have a better toaster than I did?  Had they aged the bread a bit…then soaked it in something?  I really don’t know.  What was obvious to me though, was that in the process of toasting the bread, they still managed to conserve the moisture of the bread.  So, I set about figuring out how I could do the same thing in my own kitchen.

The first thing I did was ditch the toaster.  It occurred to me that well buttered bread, fried in a skillet, was more likely to be uniformly crisped and golden while still maintaining a bit of interior softness than bread that was subjected to the dry heat of the toaster.  (If you have ever made croutons by sautéing them in a skillet as opposed to tossing them in oil and toasting them in an oven, you know exactly what I mean.)  But even this isn’t enough to keep those wonderful artisanal crusts from becoming unmanageably hard.  I decided that a little bit of steam might do the trick…so I tried covering the skillet while I toasted the bread, thinking the moisture still inherent in the bread would be captured by a lid.  I’m happy to report that this did the trick.    

As I said…I have no idea how they are doing it at Ibis, but thanks to the inspiration of their perfect toasts, I am now much happier with the toasts that come out of my kitchen and appear on my table.  And I have been putting my new found skill to work…

in an avocado toast (of course)…

and recently for a toast smeared with labneh, topped with a sautéed mushrooms and squash, finished with fontina and then run under the broiler… 

Obviously the possibilities are without limit. 

I don’t know if it was the fact that I associate toast with Ibis.  Or the fact that I brought home a loaf of their wonderful bread on the same day I sampled a Moroccan carrot salad in their café that I just had to recreate at home (it was that good).  But ultimately I ended up turning my take on their Moroccan salad into a “toast”. 

The original Moroccan carrot salad at Ibis was a delicious green salad with little baby carrots scattered throughout (which surprised me…when I think of Moroccan carrot salads, I think of a salad of mostly carrots).  The greens were a mix of finely cut arugula, claytonia and baby red veined sorrel.  I didn’t have the sorrel in my pantry, but I did have the arugula and—surprisingly—the claytonia.  I had purchased some at the farmers’ market and had been wondering how I was going to use it.  This…along with the fact that I had also picked up some sweet little baby carrots at the market…played into my desire to recreate Ibis’s wonderful salad.

In addition to the fine little greens and baby carrots, their salad included golden raisins and candied sunflower seeds.  Everything was tossed in a lemony, harissa-spiced vinaigrette.  The whole effect was vibrant and delicious.

I recreated the salad for dinner with my arugula and claytonia and baby carrots.  I have been in the habit of keeping harissa on hand, so I dressed the cooked baby carrots with some of that (if you have never dressed cooked carrots with nothing but a little olive oil and harissa, you should definitely give it a try…it makes a wonderful little side dish…served hot or cold).  Instead of golden raisins and sunflower seeds, I added strips of Medjool dates and toasted pistachios.  I tossed the whole thing with a simple sherry vinaigrette.  And since I wanted to make my salad slightly more substantial, I added some blobs of labneh and served it with a slice of Ibis bread.  It was fantastic.

The very next day, I turned it into a “toast” for lunch.   Instead of dolloping the labneh all over the salad and serving it with bread, I made toast (using my covered skillet method) and smeared it with a generous quantity of labneh and piled the salad on top.  I no longer had any baby carrots, but plain old, full-grown carrots, peeled, cut into fat quills and roasted (using my favorite method) were a perfect stand in…and also something I always have on hand.  And this is a good thing, because I will be making this particular “toast” again and again.


Moroccan Carrot Salad Toast

The Carrots:
Trim and peel the carrots.  Cut the carrots on a diagonal about 1/3-inch thick.  Cut the slices in two or three pieces length-wise.  Your carrots pieces should look about like a piece of penne pasta.  

Toss the carrots with olive oil to coat and season with salt and pepper.  Place the carrots in a baking dish that is just large enough to hold them in a snug single layer. Add a splash of water (just enough to barely film the bottom of the pan).  Cover the pan tightly with foil and place in a 375° to 400° oven.  After 20 minutes, uncover the pan and give the carrots a stir.  Return the pan (uncovered) to the oven and continue to cook until the carrots are tender to the tip of a knife—10 to 20 minutes more.  Add a bit of harissa and toss to coat.  

Serve hot or room temperature.  You can add as much or as little harissa as you like.  I find that about a tablespoon per pound (pre-trim weight) of carrots is about right.  A pound of carrots will make enough carrots for 4 or 5 servings of Moroccan Carrot Salad Toast.

The Toast:
For each toast, you’ll need a thick (about 3/4-inch) slice of a hearty artisanal-style bread.  Something wide is best.  If your loaf is narrow, maybe cut a slice on a diagonal.  Put a cast iron pan over a moderately high heat.  Spread both sides of the bread generously with soft butter.  

Place the bread in the skillet.  You should hear a quiet sizzle.  Cover the pan with a lid.  (The lid for my cast iron skillet does not fit tightly, so you may find that you may need to put a tight fitting lid on so that it is slightly ajar.  Or perhaps not.  It’s hard to say.  If you find your bread is too soft when covered tightly—leave the lid ajar…if it is too crunchy when the lid is ajar—cover it tightly.  You should make it work for you.)  After about a minute, check the bread—if it looks dry, add a bit of butter to the pan…if it’s cooking too quickly (burning in spots) lower the heat.  Adjust the position of the bread if you pan/burner has hot/cold spots.  After about 2 minutes, the bread should be golden and crisp.  Flip it over and cook it the same way (covered) on the second side.

Labneh is yogurt cheese.  You can purchase it…or make your own.  I like to make my own with homemade whole milk yogurt (you can make it with purchased yogurt too).  Whisk 3/4 t. kosher salt into a quart of yogurt.  Line a strainer suspended over a bowl with some cheesecloth.  Scrape the yogurt into the cheesecloth and let drain (in the refrigerator).  The longer it drains, the thicker it will be.  I usually let it drain for 48 hours (and since I don’t want my strainer out of commission for that long, I gather the ends of the cheesecloth together and tie them in a knot and then slide a wooden spoon through the loop and suspend the bundle over a bowl and let it drain that way.)  But labneh comes in all kinds of textures.  It can be fairly soft (the texture of Greek yogurt)…or very thick (the texture of firm fresh goat cheese).  The longer it drains, the thicker it will be.  If you only let it drain for 6 hours or so, it will be soft.  Sometimes, I will make just a small “quick” amount (not even bothering to salt it and letting it drain for only an hour or two) if I want something soft and tangy to dollop on a grain salad.  For the toasts, I like the really thick stuff (48 hours)…and I have been in the habit of keeping a jar of it in my fridge.  It will keep for about a month.  You can also use the whey that drains off…for baking, cooking, etc.   A quick internet search will yield a multitude of uses.  A quart of yogurt will make about a cup and a half of thick labneh. 

The Vinaigrette:
Place 2 T. finely diced shallots in a small bowl and cover with 2 T. Sherry vinegar. Add a good pinch of salt and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes (or longer) so the shallots can soften.  Add 6 T. olive oil in a thin stream while whisking constantly.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper.  Add more vinegar or olive oil to balance.  The dressing should be tangy.

The Salad (one serving):
1 slice of skillet fried bread
3 to 4 T. (or more, to taste) thick labneh
1 handful fine baby lettuces (arugula and claytonia, arugula alone, baby lettuces, etc—whatever you can find that is flavorful and perky), washed and spun dry
1 serving harissa-spiced carrots (see above)
2 large Medjool dates, halved, pitted and each half cut into four lengthwise strips
2 T. lightly toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
A spoonful or two of sherry vinaigrette
Salt & pepper

While the toast cooks, place the greens in a bowl with the carrots, dates, and pistachios. 

Smear a generous quantity of labneh on the toast and place on a plate. 

Season the salad with salt and pepper and drizzle sparingly with the vinaigrette.  Toss carefully and gently to coat the greens.  Add more vinaigrette if the salad seems dry…but don’t add too much, the small tender greens can become soggy very quickly. 

Mound the salad on top of the toast, allowing some of the cheese covered toast to show and allowing the salad to spill over onto the plate.  Drizzle everything with more vinaigrette and serve with a knife and fork.

Serves 1

The salad is great with a quesadilla too!

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