An Admission: Free-Form Mediterranean Summer Salad
May 31, 2016
I am not very good at recipes, a fact which may surprise you, given that I write this blog presenting recipes that, ostensibly, I have written, and that are accurate representations of the photos I post.
Be that as it may, I am not good at recipes, either reading them or writing them. My memory leaves something to be desired, so when I cook from a recipe, I spend most of the active cook time re-reading the instructions. Was that 1 tsp. or 1 tbsp.? Was it fry-then-batter or batter-then-fry? It doesn’t matter if the answer is absolutely logical, i.e., obviously you batter the fish before you fry it – I always have to check. And check. And check again.
This is sometimes hard to reconcile with the way that I cook, which is to throw things together based on the pinch-of-this-dash-of-that philosophy. It’s a dreadfully exciting and, on the whole, rather unpredictable method of putting food on the table.
But I love reading recipes and cooking new things. Recipes inspire me. I especially love the complicated ones, with many steps and complex techniques. I love being surprised by new flavor combinations, love getting lost in the process.
Perhaps this all sounds rather contradictory: I’m bad at following recipes, but I love cooking from them? What this generally means in practice is that I read the instructions, read and re-read them as I cook, and then willfully decide to ignore them. I decide some step or other isn’t important, that an ingredient can be modified or left out entirely. I’ve cooked enough to trust my instincts, to know that everything will most likely be just fine.
This way of cooking can make it hard to write recipes, however. If there’s a recipe I’d like to share on EMDM, I have to approach it differently. I measure spices and weigh flour, I time how long the onions really do spend in the skillet. I’ve learned that when writing recipes, you can’t just make it up as you go along, because what intuitively feels like the right amount of curry paste at the stove, can turn into a disastrous avalanche in your mind as you sit in front of the computer, trying to remember just how much you used. While trying to recreate one of my own early recipe posts, it became clear to me that, having never previously owned a set of measuring spoons, I had no idea how big a tablespoon actually was.
I have since purchased measuring spoons, and I have become much more careful in my recipe writing. I’ve taught myself to measure and time, to write instructions as if I’m seeing them for the first time. And yet, there are some dishes that defy measurement; this summer salad is one of them. I’d ordered something like it at a café, and was instantly enamored with its combination of salty and sweet, cold and warm. It was incredibly refreshing, and I wanted to eat it every day for the rest of the summer.
It’s a salad that lends itself to being recreated – there are memorable flavor components like raisins in the quinoa and fresh mint, but many elements that can be adapted or changed. I added almonds and fresh parsley, substituted mixed salad greens for baby spinach, and roasted tomatoes and zucchini along with the eggplant. But measuring how much of what? It seemed too clinical for this sprightly dish.
I guess it’s fitting that I’m writing this post with the same kind of free-form flow as the recipe that follows. I have some time between one thing and the next, so I’m walking across the city, through shady, established neighborhoods that rarely intersect my daily rounds. The sun is shining, and I’m breaking in a brand-new pair of sandals schlepping over sidewalk cracks. I’m thinking of that delicious summer salad, and pausing every few steps to jot down a line of text. I’ll have to write the recipe from memory, the way I recreated it from memory. And when you make it, you’ll make your own memory out of it.
Free-Form Mediterranean Summer Salad
So, here it is. A recipe without real quantities, a recipe that would love to be modified. The measurements are guidelines, as are the ingredients. Use these flavors as your starting point, but feel free to build from there. This salad is an excellent light, easy lunch. I made more quinoa and roast vegetables than I needed for one salad, so I could eat a second round the next day. This recipe reflects that.
For the quinoa:
Ca. ½ cup quinoa
2 tbsp. whole almonds
1 tbsp. golden raisins
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. cumin
Salt, to taste
For the roast vegetables:
Handful cherry tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, skin on
Salt & pepper, to taste
For the salad:
Handful mixed salad greens
1 green onion, chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt & pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 430º F (220º C).
Prepare the quinoa according to package instructions, but add almonds, raisins, cinnamon, cumin, and salt so that everything cooks together. When the quinoa is done, fluff it with a fork and set aside.
Roast vegetables: Thinly slice the zucchini and eggplant and place on a baking sheet. Add cherry tomatoes and garlic cloves. Generously drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast until vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes, turning every 5-10 minutes to prevent sticking. Remove the garlic and save for another use (like mashed into butter with sea salt and spread on hot toast – yum!).
Wash and dry mixed salad greens and place in a large bowl. Add green onion, parsley, and mint. Add the herbs entirely to your taste. I probably used about 3 tbsp. chopped parsley and 2 tbsp. chopped mint. Squeeze lemon over the salad, drizzle with olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Gently mix the greens with your hands, making sure the dressing is well-dispersed.
Assemble the salad: Start with a heaping handful of greens, then make a slight indent in the center. Add a large spoonful or so of quinoa, a large serving of the roast veggies, and a large spoonful of hummus. Top with crumbled feta cheese and maybe an extra squeeze of lemon.