Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On Lunch, Skybound and with Wheat Berries

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Greetings from an eastbound CTA train, dear reader! I’m aboard the Blue Line, enjoying a dusky Chicago skyline and looking forward to a night of sleeping in my own bed. I have completed my interview circuit and now I have a week to decide between two job offers.

I am of course grateful to have two awesome positions on the table, but more than that, I’m grateful I won’t be traveling anywhere for at least a month (hopefully longer, but I’ll try not to be greedy here). Traveling is exhausting; traveling for job interviews is strange sort of exhaustion. I’ve found that as long as I am “on,” I don’t feel the exhaustion at all. But as soon as I’m left alone, I collapse in a heap on the hotel bed, utterly spent by the sheer effort it takes to be pleasant, enthusiastic, and brilliant. My postdoc interviews have had this lovely break between late afternoon and dinner during which I get dropped off at a hotel and I can crawl into bed for a nice nap. Right before that, I strip off all my fancy interview clothes: high heels(!), stockings, skirt, conservative little sweater. My whole body breathes a sigh of relief and for a few blissful hours, we forget about science and trying to impress people. I wake up later, drunk with sleep, but refreshed and ready to rock and roll.

In science, we have a saying from Louis Pasteur that comes in handy: Chance favors the prepared mind. I think it’s also applicable to traveling. It’s important to plan wisely when trying to catch a plane. One never knows when she’ll be stranded in the Eastern Iowa Airport for three hours with nary a homemade crumb to eat, forced to suffer bad cheese quesadillas at a bar where not even a single salad is vegetarian. (I’m not bitter, really!) Traveling is hard on us control freaks because we give up so much of the thing that makes us tick: predictability. Who knows if the plane will be on time, if the weather will be favorable for airborne cruising, if the person sitting next to us on the plane will have a few cracks in his windshield? If I were a praying sort of person, I would pray that my god work these things out for me ahead of time, but instead, I just pack a lunch and know that even if everything else goes wrong, at least my noontime meal will be good.

As misfortune would have it though, an airborne lunch presents its own difficulties. My entire repertoire of soups is off-limits, unless I measure out an itty-bitty three-ounce portion to conform to TSA regulations on liquids. Anything else worth considering must taste good at room temperature; otherwise lunch will be disappointing. Lunch must not require refrigeration or else I can count on a rather unpleasant visit to the emergency room later that day. No meal is worth that.

So what’s left? In a word: salad. When I travel, salad is my friend. It doesn’t mind if it has to sit in my bag for a few hours. It won’t complain if it gets tossed around a bit on the journey. The flavors wait patiently for me to dig my fork into them. It easily passes TSA inspection, unlike my laptop computer which was swabbed for chemicals on my way to North Carolina last week. I don’t even know what I would have done if they’d confiscated that! But my salad didn’t even get a second glance, which made my belly happy. It would have been a much less pleasant trip if they’d taken my salad away, especially since my super-early morning made my belly grumble by about 11 AM.

Right before a trip, I am usually running around like a maniac, trying to get ten thousand things done before I leave. A salad that can be prepped well ahead of time is my traveling dream. How about a salad that keeps so well in the fridge that it can be dinner one night and—almost without thinking—a skybound-lunch the next day? Dear reader, I give you the recipe for an almost-magical wheat berry salad, courtesy of Vegetarian Times. It was featured in an article on make-ahead foods that keep and travel well. My heart pounds in excitement just thinking about this recipe! It features a jumble of unusual ingredients: chewy wheat berries, herbally crunchy fennel, salty olives, plump sweet raisins, creamy cheese, and the almost Cheez-It®-like flavor of roasted pistashios. (Surely I’m not the only one who thinks pistashios taste like Cheez-Its®?) If you’re fancy, you can serve the salad over a bed of crisp greens, but I have found that this salad is great even without the greens or the cheese. It’s a salad that tries to cover all its flavor bases, and it could have been a horrible clash of tastes, but somehow, it works. Magically, it works.

Even though I don’t plan to board any more planes for a while, I plan to make this salad all summer long. Maybe when I make my next bowlful, I’ll use that time to contemplate which lab I should join. If the salad helps me make that decision, I’ll declare it magical indeed.

Summertime Wheat Berry Salad
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
Makes 4-6 main-dish servings

1 1/2 cups cooked wheat berries, cool or at room temperature (start with 1/2 cup dried wheat berries)
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small bulb fennel, sliced as thinly as you can manage
1/4 cup raisins
1-2 shallots, finely chopped
8 olives, any kind (pick your favorite; I like Kalamata olives), pits removed and coarsely chopped

For serving:
Several cups of chopped greens, such as spinach or Romaine lettuce
4-6 oz. cheese (pick your favorite), chopped into large dice (I use ~1 oz. per serving)
1/4 cup roasted pistashios, or more to taste, coarsely chopped
4 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
4 tbsp. honey

1) In a large bowl, toss together the wheat berries, chickpeas, fennel, raisins, shallots, and olives. Refrigerate this mixture if you aren’t serving the salad at this time. Otherwise…
2) When you’re ready to serve the salad, plate the greens. Pile a large spoonful or two of the wheat berry mix on top of the greens. Scatter some diced cheese and pistashios over that.
3) Whisk together the balsamic vinegar and honey. Drizzle some of this sweet-and-tangy dressing over the salad and serve.

*Travel version: Prepare a single serving as directed above but place the ingredients in a travel-ready container. This mixture will keep well at room temperature for a few hours, but I’m sure it’s better if “room temperature” isn’t disgustingly hot.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

One Snazzy Batch

I didn’t mean to throw a party the day before my first job interview this month, but that’s what happened. And it turned out to be just what I needed.

The truth is that I just wanted a friend to listen to my job talk because it felt like it wasn’t ready for the big time. It was hard to find any time to work on it! I needed a way of delivering it that would convey the enthusiasm I felt when this story was still fresh and exciting. Even if I felt stressed and ragged, I wanted my story to be beautiful. Hoping to find just a single person to listen to my talk, I e-mailed a bunch of my friends and much to my surprise, they all said they were willing and able to help. So I invited them all over to my place and baked a batch of cookies. We made tea and gossipped for a while, then we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. I talked, they listened. When my tongue tripped over its own words, they waited patiently while I untangled the mess. If something didn’t make sense, we dissected the problem until it did make sense. A friendly argument broke out, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. For a scientist, there’s nothing better than listening to other people become passionately engaged in your work. Conflict never sounded so good.

Best of all, my friends took my talk and my ideas and they made them better. Clearer. Simpler. More precise. They saw where I stood and pointed out the path toward my destination. It was remarkable. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more impressed with my friends than I was that afternoon. Their criticism was an act of kindness and generosity—it was one of the nicest things anyone has ever given me. I’ve never felt so supported, so buoyed by other people’s cheerful advice. Such love! Such warm fuzziness! If I thought before that leaving Chicago was going to be hard, I think now it might be one of the toughest moves I’ve made yet.

Because they are fabulous, my friends probably would have cheered me on even without cookies, but I like to think the cookies helped. These cookies were particularly fabulous, if I may be so immodest about my baking. The recipe is one I’d bookmarked long ago from the February 2008 issue of Bon Appétit. It appeared in an article about whole-grain baking (oh yes!), and I swear every time I looked at it I’d see these words appear: “Rose-Anne, you must bake these cookies immediately. Get thee to the kitchen!” Of course I did what I always do with new recipes: I waited a year and then jotted down the ingredients on my shopping list. An eager beaver I am not, but I do have a sharp memory for cookie recipes.

The recipe in question is for Whole Wheat S’More Cookies, but my version was a little more like Whole Wheat Less-Is-More Cookies because I left out the marshmallows. Those fluffy campfire companions are usually not vegetarian because they’re made with gelatin, so I feel a bit funny about eating them. I try to be consistent in my vegetarianism, but quite frankly, if I’m going to break my own rules, I’d rather do it for Cajun food or the best chicken dinner I’ve ever had (Brick Roasted Chicken with Roasted Baby Carrots, Broccolini, Mashed Potatoes, and Preserved Lemon Pan Sauce, Villa Creek, Paso Robles, California, eaten with my favorite carnivore). I don’t feel deprived not eating marshmallows. I prefer setting them on fire to eating them anyway. Besides, aren’t the chocolate and the graham cracker the best parts of a s’more?

The best part about leaving out the marshmallows is that the ratio of cookie to tidbits is perfect. In this case, the tidbits are milk chocolate chips and walnuts, an underused combination, in my opinion. Dark chocolate gets all the love and all the praise, but I love a good milk chocolate—sweet and friendly, tasty alone or in a whole-grain cookie.

The cookies were very popular with my friends: between six of us, we ate more than a dozen. And these aren’t dainty little cookies, either. While they aren’t the behemoths I told you about last week, they’re hearty and a little rustic, which is just the way I like them. Ammie loved them so much that she jotted down the recipe and started making plans with herself to bake a batch that same night. (That Ammie—she’s such an ambitious cook.) These cookies have an unusually cakelike texture—due, I think, to the fact that the dough is made more like that of a muffin than a cookie. Rather than creaming butter into sugar, you melt the butter and stir it into a mixture of eggs, buttermilk(!), molasses, and vanilla. This buttery blend is then combined with the dry ingredients, in go the chocolate chips and walnuts, and you’re ready to drop and bake. That small amount of work gives you one snazzy batch of cookies, perfect for bribing friends or calming yourself down before stepping out of your comfort zone and onto the job market.

Whole Wheat Less-Is-More Cookies or Whole Wheat Cookies with Walnuts and Milk Chocolate Chips
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes a lot of cookies—more than three dozen

Like I said above, these cookies have a delicious cakelike texture. They’re soft with just a hint of crunch on the bottoms. And the flavor is fabulous: rich but subtle, vanilla sugar sweetness combined with sassy chocolate and wholesome walnuts. I really like them. To seal the deal, I’ll just tell you that they travel well too. I packed two in my lunch to be eaten while on a plane to North Carolina, but I ended up eating them as a pre-dinner snack in my hotel room. They were so good that I thought to myself, I should eat cookies before dinner every day. Doesn’t that sound nice?

3 c. whole wheat flour or white whole wheat flour (I used the latter, but I’m curious about using hearty whole wheat flour. If anyone does, report back with your results!)
1 1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 tbsp. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. (one stick) salted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 1/2 c. milk chocolate chips (about 9 ounces says Bon Appétit. I like Ghirardelli brand here)
3/4 c. coarsely chopped walnuts

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a few cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2) In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, molasses, and vanilla extract. Whisk in the melted butter.
3) Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir to combine. Stir in the chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.
4) Use a tablespoon to drop rounded spoonfuls of dough onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving about 3 inches between cookies. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for about 15 minutes or until cookies are golden brown around the edges and dry to the touch but still slightly soft. Place the cookie sheet on a wire rack and let the cookies cool on their sheet for about 10 minutes. Transfer the cookies directly to racks to continue cooling. Eat, preferably with a mug of tea and a gaggle of friends.

PS For those of you who love vegan cookies, Ammie made a vegan version of this cookie. In fact, she beat me to the punch, telling all her readers about it yesterday! Her enthusiasm about this recipe makes me happy. I hope you'll hop on over to her site to check out her version, made with a banana and almond milk. (And I hope she saved me a cookie...)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Happy List

On days when I’m feeling particularly misanthropic, like today, I find it useful to make a happy list. Except for gelato, the happy list is the most effective known cure for misanthropy. And if writing this happy list doesn’t help, you can find me at the gelato place down the street.

* Two pounds of Bing cherries: fresh, red, perfect.

* German butterball potatoes, fresh from the farmer’s market, sliced, tossed in garlic oil, 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 450 degrees F for 25 minutes. Oh baby. It’s like Germany meets Spain, and these potatoes are their love child. Delicious.

* My new yoga mat! So squishy, so comfortable. It lets me perform perfect warrior poses with nary a slip of the feet. I’ve never been so sore after doing yoga as I am with this mat. I can’t believe I did yoga for seven years without a mat. Now that I have one, it’s a brand-new day.

* Addictive Peanut Butter Granola, in my belly or delivered to Shannon’s doorstep. Please note that when making edible gifts for other people, it’s important to make a batch for yourself so that you don’t eat the gift.

* My treehouse apartment with its tree all sexy and greened up with spring rain and sunshine. I’m going to miss this place when I leave in the fall.

* A delicious new cookbook borrowed from the library, Olives & Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, & Beyond by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. I want to eat everything in this book. Where’s my personal chef when I need him?

* Mango, fresh and sweet as candy. I’ve finally figured out how to tell if a mango is ripe! My life is infinitely better because of it.

* My 2-year-old niece, who wants to plant mango trees in her garden…in Michigan.

* Finally, two job interviews this month. Finally. I can’t believe this is really happening.

So what's on your happy list today?

* * *

Dear readers, I have an announcement to make. Due to my interview schedule this month, I won’t be able to meet you here on Mondays like I usually do. Instead, I’m thinking Wednesday is a good day for us to chat. So I’ll see you back here in a week, hopefully with something delicious to share. Until then, take care of yourselves and each other!

Monday, June 8, 2009

"I Vote Yes!"

Today’s post has an alternative title: “Defiantly, I Go All the Way.” It could have been the primary title, but I worried about what sort of scandal that might cause. I like a little scandal, but even I have my limits. Do you have any idea what sort of crazy stuff people ask Google to find for them? Yeesh.

But indeed, defiantly, I do go all the way, and I’m mighty proud of it. Whole grain is the way to go, and I like to go all the way. Don’t you?

My love affair with whole grains started long ago. I vaguely remember discovering “wheat” bread (as opposed to “white bread” which is also wheat bread but has that odd, squishy texture). It was like taking a peak into a room in my grandparents’ house, a room filled with history and magic which beckoned to me, Come inside. Wheat bread had a lovely tan color, actual wheaty flavor—wheat bread had personality while white bread had none. It felt like comparing two kids from high school, one a pretty but dull cheerleader and the other a nerdy guy with glasses who wore vintage-style shirts and asked the most interesting questions in class. Actually, that latter person is Matt. Yes, wheat bread is like Matt: quirky, delicious, and good for me. I love them both.

Now I realize that the wheat bread that started it all was hardly a whole-grain bread. Maybe it had a little more whole-grain wheat in it than its squeaky white counterpart, but it wouldn’t be my first choice today. It got me started on this path, like another childhood favorite, the oatmeal cookie. My goodness, how I adore the oatmeal cookie. I could go either way on raisins versus chocolate chips in my oatmeal cookies, as long as there was plenty of cinnamon. I don’t quite understand the spell that oatmeal cookies cast over me. Was it their chewiness? Was it the aroma that wafted out of the oven, an aroma that convinced me the kitchen really is the best room in the house? Or was it the tactile pleasure of the dough, so sturdy and flecked with oats, rich and sweet, an absolute delight to make and then eat straight out of the bowl? Oatmeal cookies enchanted me. They still do.

These whole-grain revelations occurred before I knew anything about whole grains. I didn’t know they were packed with nutrients or less processed. I didn’t know they bring satiety to a meal or that they help keep your blood sugar on an even keel. All I knew is that they were different, and I liked them.

Today whole grains make me very, very happy. For the home baker, there are so many options for incorporating whole grains into treats; the sheer amount of choice is dazzling. The two basic flavors of choice are the grain and the type of flour. Whole wheat flour can be rustic, unapologetic WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR. Or it can be pastry flour or my personal favorite, white whole wheat flour, a softer, gentler version of whole wheat flour, just perfect for baked goods. Oatmeal can be rolled oats, quick-cook oats, or even oat flour. I like to play around with the texture of the oatmeal: with rolled oats, oatmeal’s presence is bold and sure-footed. Quick-cook rolled oats are a little more shy, and oat flour makes a barely discernable, nubbly crunch. These days, whenever a recipe calls for oat bran, I use oat flour and I’m quite happy with the results.

All this whole-grain goodness can make a girl feel downright virtuous at mealtime. I think virtue is overrated, so to keep myself from having a religious experience, I take my whole grains with a side of butter, sugar, and chocolate in the form of a seriously delicious, entirely whole-grain chocolate chip cookie. Oh yes. These cookies are intense: this isn’t a cookie you eat when you want a sweet little something after dinner. This is a cookie you eat when you want a DESSERT. Thick and dense, these cookies ride the line between chewy and crunchy. They are almost over the top, but I never have any problem finishing one in a single sitting. Because they are so rich, they make wonderful impromptu gifts. I gave away half of dozen of them last week. Consider the following conversation:

I approach the desk of my friend Daine. I wait patiently for him to notice me. He looks over at me, smiles, and says, “Hey, what’s up?”

“Hello, sir,” I say. “How do you feel about chocolate chip cookies?”

“Uh, I’m in favor of them!” Daine laughs.

“I vote yes!” I say, laughing at this silly exchange. “I’m going to bring you some cookies later this week.”

“Excellent,” says Daine. And then we both go back to work.

A few days later, after the cookies have changed hands, Daine asks me for the recipe, which is kind of an amazing thing because Daine uses recipes in the loosest possible way. You see I had no choice but to oblige. So now I’m shooing you off to the kitchen, recipe in hand. See for yourself if this recipe doesn’t make you want to go all the way too.

Whole-Grain Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from this recipe
Makes ~20 cookies

One more plug for these amazing cookies: they are good, sturdy travelers, perfect for picnics or cross-country flights. I trotted them out for both last summer and was mighty pleased with their performance. They could become my top cookie choice for picnics—I rather like the idea of having a go-to picnic cookie recipe.

1 1/2 c. white whole-wheat flour, such as that from King Arthur
1/2 c. oat flour
1/2 c. quick-cook rolled oats
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 c. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. molasses
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
3/4 c. bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli here)
Cooking spray (optional)

1) In a medium bowl, stir together the flours, oats, salt, and baking soda. In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter, sugar, and molasses until well blended. Stir in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk until well combined.
2) Pour the flour mixture into the butter mixture and stir them together, working just until everything is combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
3) Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. The dough keeps well in the fridge for at least a week, and it can be frozen for longer periods of time. I find it helps to let the dough warm up a bit on the counter if it’s been in the fridge for over an hour.
4) When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F and prepare a baking sheet by either spraying it with cooking spray or using a Silpat. (I’ve tried both and they yield similar results.)
5) Pack the dough into a 1/4-cup measuring cup and then use a table knife to plonk it down onto the baking sheet. Space cookies ~3 inches apart.
6) Bake cookies for 15-20 minutes. A shorter baking time will give you chewier, softer cookies, while a longer baking time will give crunchier, harder cookies. I tend to go for the former, but it’s up to you. Note that since we’re working with whole-grain flours here, these cookies won’t pick up much color while they’re baking—they’re brown at the start, and unless you burn them, they’ll be brown at the finish. So be sure to time the baking because color is not a useful indicator here.

7) Allow the cookies to cool on their baking tray on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes. Then place the cookies directly on wire racks to continue cooling. I find it essential to taste-test a cookie during this cooling period--you know, for quality control. When the cookies are completely cool, store them in airtight zippered bags.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Still Rockin’, Choppin’, Tearin’: Two Years of Life, Love, and Food

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)
Serves 1

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!