Salad Days (Are Here Again).

I have a fantastic memory.  This isn’t a grandiose statement, not in the least.  It’s plain fact.  I can describe what I wore to the first day of class for all four years of high school, I can recall conversations from months ago in great detail, I can remember not only passages from my favorite books but also where those words lie on a page, I can tell you about the various culinary tasks assigned to me as a child by my mother in order to keep me occupied and out of trouble.  Popping canned chick peas out of their individual translucent skins, for example, or picking parsley leaves off of their stems, or tearing the legs and shells off of shrimp.

That was a particular favorite of mine, denuding shrimp.  I believe the first time I was made to do this, strip shrimp from their shells, was when I was in the first or second grade. My mother emptied a bag of oyster-colored shrimp into the colander she had placed inside the stainless steel basin of the sink, then set our gray-and-black plastic footstool at my feet.  I’ve always been short, and the footstool’s added few inches allowed me to almost tower over the small mound of shellfish.  My mother showed me how to remove the slippery spindly legs and the smooth sectioned skeletons, and how to make sure each shrimp’s tail remained intact without its husk.  I made a game of this, giving myself points for each entire tail I shucked, though I quickly lost count; I’ve never had a head for numbers.

Ripping the legs from the pleasantly slimy and surprisingly firm shrimp bodies was highly satisfying, even to my grade school self.  There was something simply rewarding about grasping the five sets of legs in my stubby child’s fingers and giving them a sharp pull.  I was also kind of blown away by the fact that my mother had given me permission to basically destroy something, to literally tear something apart.

When I found the following recipe in the pages of Cooking Light, the first thing I thought was about how similar-yet-different it sounded to the avocado salad from Bon Appétit that Keith and I so often enjoy.  The second thing was I want to tear the legs off of some shrimp, and my mind simultaneously conjured up a physical memory: the feeling of those miniscule legs, gently bent like the willowy branches of a tiny tree, between my finger and thumb.

I felt the need to shell shrimp as keenly as a craving, and so I set about gathering the ingredients for this salad.   I can’t tell you what pleased me more: the end result — which was quite spectacular — or learning that breaking down a pile of shrimp still makes me ridiculously happy.

Don’t bother making this salad if you can’t find fresh tarragon at your local market.  Its licorice-y flavor is integral to the dish, and you’ll be doing everything involved — the rest of the ingredients, your taste buds — a great disservice by trying to substitute dry for fresh.  And if you have the good fortune of living with a dog, consider giving him or her the tarragon stem to nibble at.  This does two things: freshens his or her breath, and gives you something cute to look at while you segment your citrus fruit.

Shrimp, Avocado + Grapefruit Salad, from Cooking Light
Makes four courses

2 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
12 ounces peeled and deveined medium shrimp
½ teaspoon salt, divided
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 grapefruit (I used two navel oranges, since Keith doesn’t like grapefruit)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon chopped shallots
6 cups chopped romaine lettuce
1 peeled avocado, cut into 12 wedges (I used two, and chopped them into a rough dice)

  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 ½ teaspoons oil to pan; swirl to coat. Sprinkle shrimp with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add shrimp to pan; cook 3 minutes or until shrimp are done, stirring frequently. Remove from pan; keep warm.
  2. Peel and section grapefruit over a bowl, reserving 3 tablespoons juice. Combine grapefruit juice, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper, tarragon, brown sugar, and shallots in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Add lettuce; toss. Arrange 2 cups lettuce mixture on each of 4 plates. Top each serving with 3 avocado wedges; divide shrimp and grapefruit sections evenly among servings.
Salad Days (Are Here Again)” by Procol Harum.

Everything Has Changed.

Yesterday Keith and I drove to New York, where we are now and where we picked up our new puppy.  He’s a whippet, born April eighth. We’ve named him Fergus Henderson, after the chef at St. John in London, but we’re just calling him Fergus. (Whippets are English, the name Fergus is English…) Fergus Henderson is just too much of a mouthful, especially if you want to be smart and stick both Keith and my last names in there too.  That’s a lot to fit on an ID tag.

My dad won’t admit it, but he’s pretty enamored with Fergus. I don’t blame him, because this dog is pretty damn cute.  I’ll be posting a photo of him every day on a separate site called Fergus, At Your Service, though I’m sure I’ll be mentioning him on a fairly regular basis — we’ve now got a four-legged reason to stay in.  So get used to more writing about home-cooked meals rather than restaurant food.

You’ve been warned.

Everything Has Changed” by Lucinda Williams.

Dinner at St John.

(Firstly, let me say this: the interior of St John is so brightly lit that I decided not to use a flash, which is oftentimes intrusive to other diners and waitstaff.  Secondly: I’m an idiot.)

st-johnThe reservation I was most looking forward to during our trip to England was the dinner we had booked at St John.  I’m a huge fan of offal, having grown up fighting over marrow-filled bones, so the thought of eating at a restaurant most famous for adhering to a “nose to tail” menu was absolutely exciting.  I purposely stopped reading anything that referred to St John, Fergus Henderson or offal, so I was completely entranced by the restaurant’s all white utterly utilitarian interior, which has been well-documented.  What was interesting to me was that the sight of such dazzling white wasn’t the slightest bit austere; in fact, it only enhanced the fantastic aroma radiating from the kitchen in the most teasing fashion.  It was as if the whiteness of the place, the total lack of visual stimulus focused the senses more on what was about to be consumed.

Unfortunately, I was suffering at dinner — I had flown over the Atlantic with the teensiest sprout of a cold, which of course blossomed into the most beautiful flower a few days into the trip.  For that reason and that reason alone I briefly considered ordering the cauliflower soup as my starter.  Keith looked at me with a raised eyebrow when I mentioned my choice of appetizer, then calmly listed why I was making a mistake.

“Besides,” he said, “I need you to get the marrow so I can taste it.”

st-john-1It doesn’t take more than the mention of marrow to twist my arm in its favor, so I agreed.  I sincerely doubt I can clearly express how glad I am that I listened.  Sure, I’m biased when it comes to marrow, but this marrow (£6.70) is what all the other bone marrows in the world dream of becoming when they grow up.  Even if I hadn’t smeared pieces of crunchy grilled toast with the impossibly soft and stunningly supple marrow, even if I hadn’t then sprinkled it with coarse granules of salt, crisp leaves of parsley,  and beads of capers, seeing versions of this plate float around to the other tables in the dining room would have been enough.  I’m not exaggerating when I say each looked like a veritable mini Stonehenge.  I’m exaggerating even less when I add that my mouth is watering even now, many meals later.

st-john-2It would have been hopeless to chose an entrée that could possibly compare to the lusciousness that was the marrow, but I tried my hardest with the lamb tongues, butter beans and anchovy (£16.00), which was also served with curly leaves of kale.  The tongue, which I haven’t had in years, was intensely flavored, meaty and dense, and its sauce added just the right amount of salty energy.  Something I realized while eating, though, is that I apparently really hate the butter bean.  Could there be anything more boring and more tepid-flavored than this legume?  I don’t know if Keith noticed, but I kept on offering him bites of bean or placing them, uninvited, on his plate.

st-john-3At first, we thought we weren’t going to get dessert but when our server suggested the treacle tart, we realized that fighting the urge for sweets was a silly battle.  The thing is, our server all but abandoned us soon after mentioning the kitchen only had one tart left; all of our attempts to catch her eye or get her attention seemed to be categorically ignored.  By the time we did manage to put our order in, the treacle, of course, was gone.  We ended up instead with a lovely clementine trifle (£6.70), but no amount of custard, sponge cake and fruit can make up for the loss of a pastry filled with sugary syrup, butter and cream.

I think my love and consumption of meat has been well-documented thus far, but it should be noted that St John, remarkably, has a very nice selection of vegetarian dishes.  Even more remarkably, the restaurant’s menu changes daily; while there is some overlap and while some starters, mains and desserts remain the same (read: marrow), there’s no guarantee that diners will be able to replicate a previous day’s entire meal.  Nor should a diner attempt to.  Where’s the fun in that?

And, for no reason other than I just plain would like to, I’ll end with Chef Henderson’s famous quote explaining his cooking mentality:

If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.

St John
26, St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
+44 20 72510848

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