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.
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Dinner and Dessert with Book Club.

Here is how book club normally works: we meet once a month, we talk books for about an hour, we stuff our faces, we chat about our lives and finish up with a series of inappropriate jokes. Honestly, they’re not fit for print. And we’re generally such nice girls…

Last night we met at Melissa’s to discuss An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clark; before we could get to that, we had to get down to the serious business of eating. Normally the host provides the obscene amount of food that book group requires, but since Melissa broke a metatarsal we decided to bring the food to her. We each took a course or item: Amanda = salad, me = dessert, Darlington = beverages, and Heather would pick up the pizzas from Za, since we all were coming from work.

Heather chose four pizzas — portabello mushroom, roasted red pepper, onion, roasted garlic and goat cheese; mac n’ cheese (elbow macaroni, caramelized onion, cream sauce, four cheeses and toasted breadcrumbs); broccoli, onion, garlic, diced tomato and four cheeses; and pear, sweet onion and Gorgonzola with toasted walnuts, dried cranberries, thyme and scallion. I was absolutely terrified of the mac n’ cheese pizza (pizza and pasta and breadcrumbs?!) but eventually I made my peace with it, though ultimately I decided that it was lacking depth of flavor. Something was missing from it, but I couldn’t determine what. (Nutmeg? More cheese? Salt?) Of the four, the pizza best-loved by the group ended up being the pear. Sweet and crunchy, it surpassed the others easily. I did really enjoy the roasted garlic on the mushroom/pepper combo, and the onion was nice on the broccoli and four cheese, but they couldn’t compete with the pear and Gorgonzola.

(I just found out that Za and EVOO share both an owner and a chef; I went to EVOO for the first time earlier this year and am now interested to actually dine at Za and then compare the two. I’ll give you an update once there’s anything worth updating on.)

While I was quite happy with the pear pizza, my favorite part of the meal was Amanda’s salad of greens, avocado, pecans, blood orange and Parmesan. She also made a sharp and tangy dressing that went amazingly with the salad. Though it may not be obvious, especially considering that I seem to write mostly about rich and decadent and cheese-filled foods, I truly am trying to eat as healthily as possible, so I’ve been very focused on salads lately. Even if I were less salad-centric, I know I would have loved Amanda’s salad.

I had volunteered for dessert duty out of sheer laziness — I knew that, if I baked cookies, they would be the lightest item to carry on public transit. I decided to try a new cookie recipe and not rely on the few I know I can bang out. (Now, I want to make something absolutely clear: I am not much of a baker. I mostly have only made cookies that are easy, like chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, etc. Anything that requires rolling pins or cutters is too complicated, and have more of a chance of me fouling it all up. That said, I love cookies. I love cake. I love sweets. I just can’t make them.) I ended up making cinnamon peanut butter chocolate chip, and was thoroughly unhappy with the result because they were crunchy. I was expecting a soft and puffy pillow of a cookie, but these were the exact opposite. The girls said they liked them, but I don’t know…

arsonists5.jpgOnto the book portion of the evening…

Arsonist’s is the story of Sam Pulsifer, a self-proclaimed “bumbler,” who had been arrested, tried and incarcerated for accidentally torching the Emily Dickinson house in his hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Not only had he destroyed a landmark, in doing so he killed two of the museum’s tour guides — a married couple who were using chaste Miss Dickinson’s bed for an after-hours liaison — and effectively gets himself and his parents ostracized from the community. Sam is released from prison ten years later at the age of twenty-eight, completely determined to leave bumblehood behind. He marries, starts a family, moves to a posh tract-home neighborhood, and never once tells his wife of his past, going so far as to say that his parents died in a fire. In all likelihood, Sam would have happily remained on this course had he not been paid a visit by the son of the couple he unintentionally killed. After this, everything goes pear-shaped.

So. I really hated this book, so much so that I put it down at the halfway point and started reading a different novel; I disliked that book as well, but I was more interested in finishing it than returning to Arsonist’s. There was nothing that I considered enthralling about this novel — not the writing, not the plot, not the characters. Normally I can pull something of interest out of what I read (or what I eat or what I watch) but I couldn’t even do that here. The writing was boring, the plot was truly idiotic and the characters… Well, let’s just say that if Sam Pulsifer were real, I would want to deck him. Then I would move on to everyone else.

What is interesting to me is the fact that Melissa — who in spite of her foot, baked a ridiculously rich chocolate pudding cake — compared Sam in Arsonist’s to Christopher in Mark Haddon‘s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Sure, both characters tend to ramble and do make a bumble out of most things, but Christopher is autistic. Sam is just stupid. All right, perhaps that is a bit harsh. In spite of that, we did find ourselves wondering if there was something similar afflicting Sam. My verdict is no, but I’m open to hearing other readers’ opinions.

Za
138 Massachusetts Avenue
Arlington, Massachusetts 02474
781.316.2334
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Eggs (and Meatballs).

eggs.jpg Last night I hard-boiled some eggs, which I planned to chop up and add to the salad I packed for lunch today. Along with the greens I’ve got some feta cheese, grape tomatoes and cut up turkey meatballs, which is what we had for dinner yesterday evening.

(Quickly, about meatballs: I didn’t grow up in a meatball-eating household, and therefore have never been much of a meatball-maker. In the past year or so, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself doing exactly that. I’ve tried three recipes thus far — beef, bacon and Parmesan; lamb, mint and feta; and turkey, parsley and scallion — all with what I think is a great deal of success. Last night’s meatballs needed breadcrumbs, as most meatballs seem to. I had some left over from a previous meal (I had toasted them with a little butter, black pepper and lemon juice and sprinkled them over cauliflower and broccoli) so I used those along with the regular whole wheat crumbs. Honestly, I couldn’t really taste the difference. Then again, I had cut up the meatballs to eat in a salad quite similar to what I’ll have for lunch today, except instead of feta, I melted some Leonora cheese (Spanish, goat) in the toaster oven and mixed it into the salad before adding a really basic dressing of lemon juice, lemon zest, rice vinegar and olive oil. Most likely the lemon from the vinaigrette masked the lemon from the breadcrumbs. Regardless… back to the eggs.)

My mother has the ideal vessels for hard-boiling eggs: the little metal ewers she uses to make Armenian coffee. She has them in multiple sizes, so she can make as much or as little coffee as she needs. The one she uses the most frequently (coffee for two) is perfect for boiling exactly one jumbo egg, which is the only size egg my very picky father likes to see in his fridge. I don’t have any ewers of any size, so I just used a boring old pot. I think I’ll see if I can swipe one of the lesser-used ewers this weekend, when I go to New York. There’s an especially pretty blue-and-white enameled one that I’ve always liked…

Here’s my favorite part of boiling eggs — fishing them out of the water, putting them into a bowl, and watching the water evaporate off of their shells. I can’t explain why I like it so much, but I will say that sometimes I splash more water onto them just to have a repeat viewing. It makes me think of being in the darkroom and of developer, seeing the tones in a photograph slowly emerge before grabbing the tongs and plunging the paper into the stop bath.

Anyway, I thought my eggs were particularly pretty this morning when I took them out of the fridge, and since I have no idea whatsoever as to the whereabouts of my camera, I caved and used my phone to photograph them. Hopefully this will not become a habit.