Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Simple Salad...inspired by a trip to a favorite restaurant

At the end of my last cooking class someone asked me to name my favorite restaurants in the Kansas City area.  It was a straightforward question, but one that is not really very easy for me to answer.  I just don't eat out that often—I really do love to cook at home.  But, after some thought,  I was able to come up with a couple of names.  I had a nagging feeling as I answered the question that I was forgetting a place.  Since I'm always tired at the end of a class, I just let it go, thinking it was probably not a significant omission.  As I drove home that night I remembered the one I left off the list:  Michael Smith's casual, tapas-style, Mediterranean restaurant Extra Virgin.   It was kind of strange that I had forgotten this one because I had a date with friends to have dinner there the very next night.  Furthermore, it is probably my favorite restaurant in Kansas City.  Certainly it is always one of the places I think of when someone says: "Let's go out for a bite."

I should admit up front that I am biased about Michael's restaurants (he has another...his fine dining and name's sake restaurant: Michael Smith—also excellent, but out of my price range most of the time).  Michael Smith and his then wife Debbie Gold were the executive chefs at The American Restaurant for most of the six years that I worked there.  These were formative years in my career and it would be impossible for me to measure their influence on my cooking.  The multitude of things I learned while in their kitchen pervade the way I cook and the way I think about food.  So when I go to eat at Extra Virgin, I know I will be served food that I can understand and appreciate in its style, flavors and origins.  Beyond that, I know that the dishes we are served will be well-executed and delicious. 

On the night my friends and I gathered there, we were not disappointed.   We had six different plates...all very good.  (I can't always say this...every restaurant has its misses...but we enjoyed a fine array of dishes on this particular misses in the bunch.)  The salad we had was particularly fine.  I have always tended towards simplicity in my cooking, so it should come as no surprise that it was the stream-lined and deceptively simple...the things others might pass up as ordinary...that really impressed me.  When there are only two or three ingredients in a dish, they all have to be individually beautiful and then they have to be handled properly...and this is no mean feat.  The simple salad we shared—a fluff of perky arugula and frisée lettuce, a few thinly shaved white mushrooms and an amazing, lightly crisp, fried(!) poached egg—really hit the mark.  

There were so many things to like about this salad...but I'll limit myself to talking about the egg.  I love a good poached a soup or stew, on a salad, grain pilaf, serving of pasta, or pile of vegetables...or on a piece of buttered toast.  The liquid gold center of a properly poached egg is nature's perfect sauce.   So it was with our salad...the warm yolk mingled with the almost imperceptible vinaigrette and gave just the right, rich touch to the light elements of the salad. 

But I eat poached eggs on a salad all the time (one of my very first blog posts was on how to poach an egg)....what made this poached egg extra special was the lovely crunch of the light, fried breading that enveloped it.  Food like this is the reason I go out to eat.  It is unlikely that I would ever go to the trouble to bread and fry a poached egg at home.  But in a restaurant setting, doing something like this is not only special, it's a smart and interesting way to reheat eggs that have been poached prior to the start of service.  Typically, eggs that have been poached ahead are held in cool water.  They are then simply reheated in hot water to order.  Since the egg has to be reheated anyway, breading it and frying it to accomplish the reheat adds an unexpected and delicious touch to the final dish.  The simplicity of the salad allowed this unusual poached egg to shine.   Too many ingredients would have detracted.  I came away inspired to create a salad with similar flavors and textures at home. 

The trick of course is to recreate the fine, light, just discernible crunch of the breading...without breading and frying the egg.  Finishing the salad with a judicious shower of homemade, olive oil-dressed, toasted breadcrumbs did the trick.  And although it doesn't have the Wow! factor of the Extra Virgin's version, it is beautiful...and delicious....and totally doable in a home kitchen.    

To make toasted breadcrumbs you will need some slightly stale ("day old") bread.  Something like a baguette or ciabatta will do nicely.  Cut off the crusts and tear/cut the interior into large chunks.  Place in the food processor and process until the desired fineness is achieved.  I like mine to be a bit uneven...ranging in size from larger pea-sized pieces to some bits that are as fine as kosher salt.  Spread the crumbs out on a rimmed sheet (or in a pie tin for a small quantity) 

Bread crumbs...tossed with olive oil...and ready for the oven.

and toast in a 350° oven until golden.  The length of time they take will depend on how stale the bread is.  Very stale bread will toast quickly while fresher bread will take longer.  Take a peek at five minutes and then stir every 5 minutes until done.  I go back and forth on whether to toss the crumbs with olive oil before or after toasting.  It doesn't seem to matter too much which way you choose, just drizzle the oil over and toss until the crumbs are well-dressed.  Taste and season with salt, if necessary.

Freshly toasted breadcrumbs are delicious and make a wonderful garnish for vegetable sautés, pastas and salads.  Whatever you do, please don't garnish your delicious salad with nasty, store-bought, seasoned breadcrumbs.  It would be better to leave them off altogether.  If you don't want to make toasted breadcrumbs, serve your salad with a crisp slice of toasted artisanal bread, drizzled with olive oil, instead. 

I should mention that if you don't have access to frisée...or you don't like may use all arugula—or any fluffy mix of soft and tender baby lettuces that you prefer.  I love frisée and I just happened to see some small heads at Whole Foods a few days after I sampled this salad at Extra Virgin.  But the fact that they had it was pretty unusual.  I don't think the turnover of frisée is very high...consequently they don't stock it on a regular basis.  If you can get it, it is very nice in this salad.

Frisée & arugula

I don't really have a recipe, per se, to share for this salad.  It's so simple there isn't really a need for one.  What follows is an outline of what I did at home.   

For each person, place a handful of arugula (about an ounce) and a fluff of frisée (maybe half an ounce) in a bowl.  Using a mandoline slicer, thinly shave one large white mushroom into the bowl.  

Using a microplane zester, grate a fine shower of a nice, salty Pecorino Romano over the greens and mushrooms.  

Next, give the contents of the bowl a generous grinding of pepper.  Set the bowl aside while you poach your egg.  When the egg is almost done, dress the greens very lightly with some good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and some salt.  Mound the greens on a plate, creating a slight divot in the center to hold the egg.  Lift the egg out of the poaching liquid, gently blot with paper towels and place on the salad.  Season the egg with salt and pepper.  Scatter some warm, toasted breadcrumbs over all.  Eat right away.


Katrina said...

Looks and sounds so good. Now I want to get to that restaurant. We're probably coming out there in June again this year.
And....what were the restaurants you did name in that class as some of your favorites?

Paige said...

Hi Katrina, So nice to hear that you are coming back for a visit in June! Maybe you can make it to a class :) ?

And while you're here, if you have time to eat out, I think either Extra Virgin or Michael Smith would be a great choice (depending on whether you want casual or fine dining).