Hugh Acheson’s Watermelon and Feta Salad with Serrano Chile Vinaigrette

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by way of In Style magazine, June 2009, p. 222.

Just as I learned in Italy to eat pizza with a fork, so, too, I learned to eat watermelon with a fork in Greece. Years ago, one of the highlights of visiting in-laws in northern Greece was the sweet, thirst-quenching karpouzi, or watermelon, that we found in the markets. Eating it with a fork makes it even more enjoyable. In the same period, I learned to pair watermelon with a slab of feta cheese. The sweeter the watermelon, the sharper and brinier the feta. I get nostalgic just remembering the hot weather and a white ceramic plate with a piece of red melon and white cheese.

In a recent issue of In Style, which I encountered at the hair salon, I came across this recipe, concocted, so the one-page feature indicated, by Hugh Acheson of the Five & Ten in Athens, Ga. How appropriate. Never been there, but the chef came up with an interesting combination of flavors. Now that I’ve made this once, I’m convinced that it’s a good combination — provided you know your ingredients well. For instance, next time I won’t use the creamy French feta I buy at the co-op. I’ll try another, sharper tasting one. And the watermelon really has to be sweet and the arugula young and not bitter. I would increase the amount of lime, although I approve of the bright blast supplied by the champagne vinegar. The thyme — I might leave it out.

Here’s how it appears in the magazine:

Serves 6

1 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons champagne vinegar

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1 small shallot, minced

1 serrano chile, stemmed and sliced into small half rounds

salt to taste

1 small seedless watermelon

1/3 lb wedge feta cheese, sliced 1/8″ thick (about 12 slices)

1 bunch arugula

Sliced serrano chile for garnish

1. In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, thyme, shallot and serrano chile. Shake well. Season with salt to taste; chill in refrigerator.

2. Remove rind from watermelon and slice flesh into 3″ squares.

3. To assemble salad, layer one piece of watermelon on one piece feta. Repeat. Drizzle with vinaigrette and garnish with arugula and sliced serrano chile.

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Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’s Rigatoni, Cabbage, Fontina

dsc04096from Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe, p. 83.

This recipe I just don’t get. The combination of ingredients engaged me immediately, but it didn’t work — for me. I don’t know if the problem lies in the character of the recipe or in my execution of it. Admittedly, when I cut down recipes to proportions for one person, the balance is thrown off, but not usually this much. I would really like help here. Someone else should take on this job and see if he or she can make this delectable-sounding recipe sing. It’s worth the try. I certainly didn’t have a bad dinner. But I’m not sure what the point was of bringing these particular ingredients together.

Gray and Rogers enticed me thusly:

Rigatoni 16 oz

Savoy cabbage 1/2

Fontina 5 oz

Potatoes 7 oz

Garlic cloves 2

Anchovy fillets 6

Dried chiles 2

Parmesan 2 oz

Nutmeg 1/2

Unsalted butter 1 stick

Peel and slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch-thick disks. Peel and slice the garlic. Rinse the anchovies, crumble the chiles, and grate the cheeses and nutmeg.

Remove and discard the tough outer leaves of the cabbage. Cut into eighths and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Drain, then chop.

Melt half the butter in a thick-bottomed pan, add the garlic, and fry until soft. Add the anchovies and stir to “melt.” Add the chiles, grated nutmeg, and the cabbage.

Cook the rigatoni in boiling salted water until al dente, adding the potatoes after 6 minutes. Drain, reserving 3 Tblsp of the water. Add the pasta and potatoes to the cabbage and stir in the remaining butter. Add the fontina and a little of the pasta water. Cover for 1 minute to allow the cheese to melt into the sauce. Serve with Parmesan.

Now that I’ve cooked and typed this recipe in…

I’m convinced someone was utterly asleep at the wheel when they wrote and edited this book. Odd, because the sloppiness of this recipe is not typical of the other recipes in this volume. First of all, the imprecision of the amounts is maddening. I find it hard to believe that savoy cabbages in the UK are of uniform size. Here in the U.S., the size of cabbages vary widely. Why do I even have to make that point, it seems so obvious? So, just how much is enough? In the end, half of the small globe I bought at my co-op was too small.

Next. “NutmegĀ  1/2.” What does that mean? Can they seriously mean I should grate half a nutmeg into this dish? I have to assume this is a typo. But even if this means half a teaspoon, that’s a hell of a lot more nutmeg than most recipes call for. Therefore, I decided to eyeball it. For two portions, 1/8 tsp maximum.

Dried chili flakes worked fine. I intend to add more next time — if there is a next time.

Like the other recipes in this book, the directions include instructions to prep the ingredients before cooking. I like that, although I usually organize myself in that way whether the instructions include prep or not. I wish, however, that the list of ingredients was in the order of execution. Parmesan comes before nutmeg, but not in the instructions. I re-read them a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

Don’t pour the water out with the cabbage. Use a wire-mesh “spider” to fish the cabbage out of the water. It might have occurred to the authors that the pasta would have benefited from cooking in the cabbage water.

If the pasta you use calls for 12 minutes cooking, drain it and the potatoes (which you’ve added after 6 minutes) at 10-11 minutes. Then let it cook to completion during the one minute it’s simmering with the cheese and pasta water.

You’re going to need salt. No two ways about it. This is a seriously underseasoned recipe.

IF I made this again…

I would use more cabbage, anchovies (completely lost), chilies and salt. Odd that the fontina in the end stood out more than the anchovies.

And, finally, CRUCIAL: warm the bowls you’re serving the pasta in in the oven. It makes a big difference to all food, but especially this dish.

I DO NOT understand the potatoes. They added nothing.

Now that I’ve written this, I think this is a recipe that requires a high-wire act of balance. Maybe if I got the proportions exactly right — and left out the potatoes — this might produce the interesting combination of flavors that my first hunch told me it would be. But it will certainly take a bit of tweaking.

Epicurious: Kale Salad with Ricotta Salata

dsc00010.jpgLast night, standing in the street outside the home of friends after a delicious dinner of chops from local lamb, I told Jaana that it was time for Shadowcook to take stock of her calories. As soon as I got home I signed up once again for the only eating plan that makes sense to an obsessive person like myself: Weight Watchers Online. I’ll be counting points and calories for the duration. That should not be taken to mean an end to my blogging. It means only that for the next while I’ll be trying to create meals that stay within my week’s allotment of points. A boring change for some; a welcome change for others. However, since I’m soon leaving for a week in New Orleans, where I have reservations at three of the city’s finest restaurants, I promise it will not be dull.

Michael Pollan is my guide these days. He says, Eat food, not too much, and mostly plants. That prescription suits my mood to reduce. This recipe comes from Epicurious. I overlooked it when it appeared in the January 2007 issue of Gourmet. Swearing it was the best salad she’s had in ages, Patrice brought it to my attention. Finally I made it and got the point. It’s the best example of a simple, delicious salad I’ve encountered in a long time. For the WW Counters out there, each serving is worth 2 points.

As it appears in the magazine:

Serves 6.

3/4 to 1 lb lacinato kale (also called Tuscan kale) or tender regular kale, stems and center ribs discarded

2 T finely chopped shallots

1 1/2 T fresh lemon juice

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

4 1/2 T extra-virgin olive oil

2 oz coarsely grated ricotta salata (1 cup)

Working in batches, cut kale crosswise into very thin slices.

Whisk together shallots, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl, then add oil in a slow stream, whisking until combined well.

Toss kale and ricotta salata in a large bowl with enough dressing to coat well, then season with salt and pepper.

How I now do it:

First of all, I never make this salad with anything but lacinto kale, known also around here as dino kale. Use a pound of kale. It’s just too good. I chopped the kale almost like chiffonade. I make the dressing in a jar and shake it until it emulsifies. The amount of dressing is perfect for a pound. It feels slightly underdressed and light, which is how I like salad dressings. Make sure to toss it well. I dress the salad about 20 mins to half an hour before I serve it to let the dressing soak into the leaves. Lacinato kale is sturdy, so the soaking-in time won’t make the leaves soggy.

Last thoughts:

I think several friends now have become converts to this salad. I never thought a raw kale sald would be edible, but in fact I could eat this all year long.