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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Culinary School - Spinach Salad and A Basis on Vinaigrettes

Welcome to Culinary School, lesson 1!

Today, we'll be talking about your food and where it comes from, specifically vegetables. Even if you don't have a big yard,  you can grow a decent garden using containers. I used an old dresser that was just too bulky for my home use and re-purposed it to be a series of planter boxes. If you only have a balcony, or even just a window space, you can garden.

In the corner closest to us, you can see where the leafy greens are growing, and those lovely little leafy greens just happened to be spinach! (Oh, and the two larger, more silvery ones in the front are broccoli.) The best part about growing spinach is that you can pick it as soon as it's big enough to eat.

Note: When harvesting spinach, only harvest the outer leaves, which will allow the center leaves to continue growing. You can use your hands, if you like, but I use scissors. It's a more precision cut, and I feel like it doesn't hurt the plant as much. If you like schedules, know that most varieties can be harvested within 37 to 45 days of planting, so about a month and a half.

 This is about how big my spinach plants are at the moment. You can wait until yours are bigger, but take note that if it's an especially warm spring, your plants can get bitter if you leave them in the ground for too long.

I went out and just used a pair of scissors from the kitchen to pick only the outer leaves. Spinach is a wonderful, tender green that goes great in salads, pastas, quiches...pretty much anything, now that I think about it. But, today, we'll be making a simple salad with a vinaigrette that anyone can make.

Here are some notes on salad dressings that came straight from my notebooks in culinary school:

Salad Dressing
A sauce for your lettuce
·         Basic vinaigrette
o   Can be as simple as the 3(4):1 ratio - Thinnest
o   Olive oil is nice and strong àred wine
o   Nut oils à champagne/sherry vinegar
o   Canola/Soybean/Veg oils à flavored vinegars(balsamic, raspberry, etc)
·         Emulsified vinaigrette
o   Richness, mouth feel…adds thickness! àEgg, Dijon, shallots, almonds/nuts are a VERY nice emulsifier, ketchup, agar agar…etc.
o   Mid-range thickness
o   Add oil in slow-slow-SLOW steady stream!!!
·         Mayonnaise-based dressings
o   The thickest dimension of…thickness
o   Bleu cheese
o   Ranch
o   Thousand island
o   Creamy Caesar
Basic types of Green Salad
1.       Tossed Salad
a.       Greens àbite-sized pieces
b.       Garnishes àblanched
c.       Dressing àDO NOT OVERDRESS
2.       Composed Salad – artistically arranged
a.       Base àusually lettuce(flat, chopped, whatever)
b.       BodyàMain ingredient(maybe a chicken salad)
c.       DressingàMeant to compliment, NOT overpower
d.       GarnishàCheese, nuts, croutons, tuilles, fruits, veggies, etc.
3.       Bound Salad – Cohesively bound in a mass held together by dressing
a.       Egg, tuna, chicken, potato salads are examples
b.       Can sometimes be the body of the composed salad
4.       Fruit Salad

a.       Maybe use something light with yogurt and honey, maybe some OJ

I made this spinach salad with an Emulsified Vinaigrette, using spicy brown mustard, rice vinegar, brown sugar, salt, dried parsley, and canola oil. You can use white sugar, if that's what you have, as well as Dijon mustard for the spicy brown! You can also try using the Heinz yellow mustard, if that's all you have, but I've never made it like that before, so I couldn't tell you how it turns out.

 Make sure that you wash your greens before you put them in your salad, even if you pick it yourself or if it's in a sealed plastic bag. Pat dry using paper towels; just lay them flat on the towels, and roll them up. That simple! Plus, this saves space while you work.

I'm only making a salad for myself, but I always make a fair amount of dressing, just in case I want to go back for more...or if the dressing is really good and I want to save it! You can save salad dressings for quite some time(at least a month) in your fridge, in a mason jar or tupperware container.

If you're making it for yourself, or for family dinner, choose a wide, round bowl to build your vinaigrette in.  Yes, that's right, you're making it in the serving bowl and saving yourself some dishes!

Spicy Brown Mustard Vinaigrette:

  • 1 1/2 Tbsp spicy brown mustard
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp dried parsley
  • 1 tsp sugar(brown or white)
  • Scant 1/2 cup canola oil
Combine everything but the oil in your serving dish. Break out a whisk and stir everything together. The tricky part of making this vinaigrette is to add in the oil in a very thin stream, because if you glob it all in, it won't emulsify. 

Whisking with one hand and dripping in the oil with the other hand, you'll begin to see the mixture thicken. Don't go too fast, or the emulsion will break, and it won't be so thick and glossy and sexy anymore. 

Tried to get an action shot, but this was the closest I got...
Note: If your emulsion breaks, fear not! Simply add a few drops of water to a clean bowl and add your broken vinaigrette in a thin stream as you whisk the bejeezus out of it. You can also add a little more mustard, to make it easier, or use an egg yolk. If you have an aversion to using raw egg products in your dressings, just go back to the water trick.

Taste your vinaigrette for seasoning. Is it too tart? Add a little sugar. Too sweet? A little salt or more vinegar will do the trick. The biggest mistake you can make is not tasting your food as you cook it. Honestly, what are you afraid of? That it won't be good if you taste it halfway through? That is the whole reason you taste it halfway through, to make sure it will taste good. Mine was a little too tart, so I added some more sugar.

The cool thing about building salads like this is that you not only save yourself on dishes, but you can add whatever you want at this point. I like my salads to have elements of soft, of crunch, of snap...lots of fun textures! You can add things like nuts or croutons, even crushed potato chips to give it a crunch. Carrots, sliced thin, are great in salads, as are asparagus. Any salad I eat, though, has to have cheese in it. I could have used the brie in the fridge, but that colby-jack looked too darn good to pass up. 

Load your washed greens atop your vinaigrette, and then pile on your toppings, with a pinch of salt. Yes, kids, always season your salads! You can use tomatoes, chopped bacon, pecans...whatever you like. I opted for just a simple spinach salad with a little cheese.

Excellent lunch, if I do say so myself...
Don't have a cheese grater? Simply take a peeler and grate thin sheets onto the top. Toss your salad by stirring it up gently with a pair of forks, which will coat your greens in with a gorgeous sheen. 

Want a fun fact about spinach? 

It represents wealth and prosperity, according to folklore! It makes sense, though, doesn't it? All green and leafy, like a crisp $20 bill... So make a magickal meal by growing your own spinach and envisioning yourself becoming filthy stinking rich as you ingest it, savoring its flavor, feeling it scrape out your insides with its delicious fiber...yum.

Happy Cooking and happy eating! Please comment if you have questions or concerns with this recipe! And make sure to look for any blog posts titled "Culinary School - " to see what's in store for next lesson.

Class dismissed!

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