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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/15/2010

Chat Leftovers: Picking sides

By Jane Touzalin

Once again, Wednesday rolls around, and with it the Free Range chat, at noon sharp. Joining us will be David Hagedorn, whose Real Entertaining column today dissects the mechanics of throwing a holiday party. In fact, it made me wish I were giving one. Maybe next year.

If you've thumbed through today's Food section, you also got party advice from Spirits columnist Jason Wilson and gift-giving advice from wine columnist Dave McIntyre. And if you're a faithful reader, you've already tried some of our 27 holiday cookie recipes for 2010 and stocked up on our perfect-gift cookbooks. So, folks, if you're not ready for the holidays yet, it's certainly not our fault.

See you at noon, and don't forget to bring your culinary questions. Like this one, which we didn't have time to answer in last week's chat:

I am planning a meal around an herb-crusted rack of lamb, which includes fresh basil, pecorino romano, herbs and mustard. Specifically, can you recommend a salad to complement the meal (the romaine salad I made in the trial run was blah)? And generally, how do you assemble a meal where all the components enhance each other?

Some people just have the knack of knowing what tastes great with what. Others have to work at it. Fortunately, working at it isn't a chore. You can learn a lot simply by paying attention to what you're eating, either in your own home or at good restaurants.

Cookbooks are a fine place to start. If you cook, you know that recipes frequently will suggest side dishes for pairing. At restaurants, study what foods are served together and see if you can tell why. Sooner or later you begin to understand how to match foods so their flavors, textures and even appearance complement each other, and you figure out why certain foods often appear together -- poultry and fruit, for example, or seafood and citrus.

Before I get to your salad question, let me recommend two books by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg: "Culinary Artistry" and "The Flavor Bible." The first one offers advice on menu planning plus many pages of food pairings. The latter includes exhaustive listings of individual foods, breaking down their characteristics and giving their flavor affinities. I'm looking at the entry on lamb, for instance, and among the dozens of matchmaking suggestions are dried black figs, leeks, nutmeg, wine, root vegetables, tomatoes, thyme.The entry is several pages long.

In general, there are a few basic guidelines I can think of. You don't want too many strong flavors in the same meal. You want a variety of textures and colors. You also want a variety of flavors; you wouldn't want to serve rosemary chicken with sides of rosemary sweet potatoes and a rosemary-scented fruit compote. (But two dishes with the same flavor will work if you keep at least one of them low-key.)

For your very flavorful, herb-y rack of lamb, consider this Caesar salad recipe from Gastronomer columnist Andreas Viestad. Lamb's flavor is assertive, and the salad stands up to it with hits of garlic, lemon and anchovy -- all of which, by the way, are on "The Flavor Bible" lamb list. (No, do NOT skip the anchovy fillets. Please. They will add a great flavor that will not seem fishy.) Here's the recipe.

-- Jane Touzalin

Caesar Salad

A classic Caesar is a wonderful thing; a poor copy can be as sad as a baby with a really bad cold. It needs three key ingredients: crunchy romaine, a good dressing and freshly made croutons.

This recipe calls for raw egg yolks. If you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, buy pasteurized eggs, available in select supermarkets.

4 to 6 first-course servings

1 large head romaine lettuce or 2 smaller ones (about 7 1/2 ounces total), leaves washed and spin-dried
2 to 3 slices day-old bread, preferably white
1 to 3 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter
2 to 4 large anchovy fillets
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon medium-strong Dijon mustard, such as Maille brand
8 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon (1 tablespoon), or more to taste
1 medium clove garlic, crushed
1/3 cup olive oil
3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
Salt (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper

(Mette Randem for The Washington Post)

Place the greens in ice water to crisp up while you prepare the dressing. If the water is not cold, toss in some ice cubes, but do that before adding the greens, or rinse the ice cubes in water first. (Used straight from the freezer, they might slightly burn the greens.)

Line a plate with several layers of paper towels. Cut the bread into 1/4- to 1/3-inch pieces (with or without the crust).

Melt the butter (to taste) in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the bread pieces and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until crunchy. Be careful not to crowd the skillet; you might have to do this in 2 batches. Transfer to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Use a spoon to crush the anchovy fillets (to taste) in the bottom of a salad bowl. Add the egg yolks, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and garlic; mix well. Stir in the oil, then add two-thirds of the grated cheese; mix well to form a thickened dressing. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, if desired, the pepper to taste or lemon juice as needed.

Dry the greens well, either using a salad spinner or patting the leaves with a clean dish towel. Transfer them to the salad bowl. Toss to coat evenly with the dressing, then divide among individual plates. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and the croutons.

Serve immediately

By Jane Touzalin  | December 15, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags:  Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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