I’m sitting in the kitchen right now, feet propped up on a chair, laptop on my thighs, with a tomato soup bubbling behind me. The room smells like an Italian trattoria. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate. On Friday, this little blog turned two. Who knew we’d make it this far?
Indeed, life is good. I have so much to celebrate these days, so much for which to be grateful. I’m graduating in August! Soon you can call me doctor! More importantly, I’m feeling healthier and happier than I have felt in a long time. Part of it is the impending graduation, I know, but a larger part is that I’ve been enjoying the benefits of therapy, the chance to really delve deep into who I am and what makes me tick. The experience has been eye-opening and a little tearful, but every week I take a few baby steps toward becoming my next self. I feel like a cocooned caterpillar, taking my sweet time to change my outfit and emerge, fully winged and ready to fly.
But it’s not just me who has good news. Many of my loved ones have something of their own to celebrate. My sister Theresa will be graduating in December; after that she’ll start a new job and make more money than I will ever make in my life. One of my best friends landed a fancy new job, another one got a fancy promotion. My friend Aaron had a baby girl AND finished his PhD this year; another set of friends is pregnant with twins. (Twins!) As you can see, we’ve been busy.
And every week, I stop by this wordy blog of mine and deposit a new set of thoughts, preferably with a recipe included. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that we’re still going strong, two years later! To be honest, I live on the brink of having nothing to say. I think I like it that way because it keeps me open to new ideas, new recipes, new opportunities. I like the spontaneity that goes into the writing I do in this space. I surprise myself! I like a mixture of planning and not planning in my life; this blog lets me do both.
Recently Matt (my muse) and I were talking about our perspectives on time. A simple model for us is that we are opposites: he luxuriates in the moment, here and now; I’m always brooding about the past or anticipating the future. It might sound like a recipe for disaster, with me always looking at my watch and Matt sitting by the pool, oblivious to the passage of time until the sun goes down, but we get along really well. He is able to pull me into the present like few other people have been able to do. It’s one of his magic tricks (he’s got lots of ‘em—I can’t say anything more or I’ll get myself in trouble). As we were talking, Matt described to me how he welcomes the unknown of the future, how he looks forward to the surprises that he’ll encounter. I, on the other hand, carry around with me a jumble of emotions about the future—anxiety, dread, excitement, wonder. But what’s odd about me is that I hardly ever plan things out into the distant future. I like to know what I’m doing tomorrow, what I’m having for dinner later today, maybe what I’m doing this weekend. But what I’ll be doing five years from now? Who knows? I’ll figure it out.
I tell you this story because I think it illustrates how I think about my blog. I have an idea that I’m going to keep writing here because I have something to say. But what that something is won’t be the same each week. It changes as I change. I hope you like the surprises around here; I know I do.
Two years is a long time to spend together, dear reader, and I know many of you have been around for most of that time. I would still write even if I were a virtual hermit with no visitors, but it’s much more exciting to have a couple readers. You keep me on my toes. You make me want to make it worth your time to read whatever it is I have written. But I confess that it is a blessing to have a small readership. I feel more freedom to be my weird, quirky self, knowing that I am not writing for the masses. Nothing is off-limits except what I deem to be off-limits. In the “About” page, I say that this is a writing blog. To me, there is a huge difference between defining your site as a food blog versus a writing blog. If I wrote the former, the title would feel constricting to me, like I should just stick to the cooking and eating and call it a day. A writing blog, however, can meander wherever it wants. It’s up to you if you feel like jumping into that river with me.
But the current of that river always flows toward food. The food gives me a starting place and an ending place. It provides structure and focus, two things that I sometimes sorely lack. In my real life, meals provide the same type of structure—my day is planned around when and what I’m eating. It is not an exaggeration to say that I am obsessed with food—in the best way possible, I think.
Lately I’ve been obsessed with a main-course salad that emerged directly out of the efforts that create this blog. I just love it! That, and I’ve been preoccupied with the big things going on in another area of my life. Making this salad has become a comforting ritual for me, a time when I can turn off my brain and just putter around the kitchen, assembling the ingredients while I take a deep breath of relief. It’s no wonder I’ve fallen so hard for this salad, as it contains lots of my favorite ingredients: minimally dressed greens, toasted walnuts, and my favorite cheese, Organic Valley’s Wisconsin Raw Milk Cheese Jack Style. To make a heartier main-course dish, I’ve added another layer of vegetables and freshly-made croutons. When plated with a fork for a sidekick, the end result makes me positively beam with pleasure. Then I dig in and eat every last scrap.
Happy birthday, little blog. I didn't make you a cake. I made you a salad. I hope you don't mind.
Rose-Anne’s Chicago Salad (or Main-Dish Salad with Homemade Croutons, Toasted Walnuts, and Shredded Cheese)
Astute readers will note that this salad is an expanded version of another salad I like, Romaine Lettuce with Toasted Walnuts and Vintage Cheddar or Green Apples. I’m not going to apologize for repeating myself because these two salads speak for themselves. And eating salads is good for you!
Why call it a Chicago Salad? Because some of the most important ingredients in the salad (the bread and the cheese) are regional products: I like to use Breadsmith’s bread for the croutons; my loaves are made by a franchise in nearby Skokie. The cheese is made in Wisconsin (of course it is! This IS the Midwest, after all!).
As with all salads, the most important part in making this salad is freshness. The fresher your ingredients, the tastier your salad will be. This rule applies to everything: the croutons, the walnuts, the cheese. I learned this lesson the hard way: for a while, I used to try to make extras when I would make homemade croutons, but they were never as good as those that were freshly made. So I’ve stopped that nonsense.
If you’re the type who has multiple bottles of olive oil, this salad is a nice opportunity to use the really good stuff.
2 tbsp. chopped walnuts
1 slice of craggy, rustic bread, such as that from Breadsmith (I get mine at my neighborhood Whole Foods)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and chopped in half.
A few drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil (to taste)
2-3 large and very fresh leaves of green leaf lettuce
Several drops of fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1/2 to 1 cup of another vegetable you like, such as finely chopped broccoli or thinly sliced carrots
A generous handful of freshly shredded cheese, such as Organic Valley’s Wisconsin Raw Milk Cheese Jack Style
1) Prepare the walnuts and the croutons. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place the chopped walnuts on a small cookie sheet. Rub the bread with a cut clove of garlic and then drizzle with some olive oil. Cut into bite-sized cubes and place on the baking sheet alongside the walnuts. Bake them for about 5 minutes until the walnuts are fragrant and lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
2) While the walnuts are toasting, wash and dry the lettuce thoroughly. Tear it into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Pour in a scant drizzle of olive oil and use your bare hands to toss the leaves with the oil. As Nigella says, “Toss it far longer than you’d believe possible.” If you think the leaves need more oil, add a smidgen more and toss again. The goal is to give each leaf just the barest sheen of oil. Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the leaves and toss again. Taste a leaf and decide if it needs more oil or lemon juice; adjust as needed.
3) Once the leaves are prepped and perky, tumble them onto a plate. Next scatter your other vegetable on top. Now finish with the croutons, toasted walnuts, and shredded cheese. Dig in!