Whenever I return to Beaumont, I inevitably bump into a certain woman who corners me and jabs her finger under my nose. “I still miss that beet salad!” she exclaims accusingly. At Liberty Market & Cafe we served a roasted beet salad with chevre and balsamic vinaigrette. I know, I know, you can’t swing a cat by the tail in most parts of the world without hitting a roasted beet salad with chevre and balsamic vinaigrette, but Beaumont had only recently discovered baby mesclun mix when I began serving the dish 10 years ago. Each time we have this exchange, I patiently tell her how to make it (I’ve never been one to keep any recipe secret). “It’s simple,” I say, and launch into the recipe for the dressing, and instructions for roasting and peeling the beets. Each time, she waits with lips compressed and toe tapping for me to quit talking. “It doesn’t taste the same,” she huffs, and stalks off.
How is that possible, I wonder? It occurs to me that there are, perhaps, several techniques and ingredients employed in restaurant kitchen everywhere (well, at least the ones where they actually still cook things from scratch), that might be unknown or mysterious to cooks in home kitchens. First, there are several basic recipes that no chef worth his or her salt would ever purchase. These foundational components really, truly do make all the difference, no matter what Nigella says. First: stock. I make a pot of stock almost every week, keep it in the refrigerator, and use it for almost everything. Anytime I have leftover bones from roast chicken or from chicken breasts, I add them to a bag in the freezer. To make stock, “sweat” the bones with a quartered onion in a covered stockpot for 15 minutes. Add water, then simmer for 15 minutes. No salt, no celery, no spices. Now, your risotto, beans, soup, braised vegetables, sauces and mashed potatoes will have a certain magical depth, richness, and texture that was always missing before. No, you can’t replicate this with a cube of chicken whatever-that-is, or shelf-stable broth. Your food will still be good, but not as good. Vegetarians can make an amazing potato peel and carrot stock. Second, as much as I love Paul Newman, everyone should make their own dressing. Get out the whisk and fancy vinegars if you want, but placing 4 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, 1/4 cup of olive oil and a teaspoon of whole grain mustard in a jar and shaking it takes about as long as opening a bottle with all kinds of stabilizers and who-knows-what-else in it. Once you’re in the habit, basic vinaigrette can go in an infinite number of directions.
Ingredients matter, too. Chefs spend a lot of energy sourcing the most beautiful produce, the highest quality meat and seafood, and you should too. Taste, touch, sniff. Don’t buy anything pre-cut or “bagged and washed.” Make sure your salt, oil and spices are fresh. And use shallots. Diced shallots go into restaurant sauces, soups and pastas by the handful. They have a subtle flavor not quite like onion or garlic, but cousin to both. Again, that elusive, magical depth and richness. Salt is a key player too. Diamond Crystal kosher salt has no additives and is less salty than Morton’s or sea salt. Salt early (especially meat) and taste often.
And here’s a little trick I almost feel funny sharing. I’m afraid no one will believe me, but go to the restaurant supply store and buy a huge stainless bowl. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes. Really. Before roasting vegetables, drizzle oil and spices over them and mix well in the big bowl. They’ll cook more evenly and the flavors will really connect. Toss salads in the big bowl so that every leaf of lettuce is perfectly coated with vinaigrette. Sauce hot pasta in the big bowl and every strand of noodle will be perfectly sauced.
One drizzly March day several years ago, I had a cumin and lemon-scented roasted carrot salad at The Spotted Pig in Manhattan. One bite and I knew that my choices were to either move to New York City next door to The Spotted Pig, or learn to make it myself. Thanks, big bowl.
Roasted Carrot & Avocado Salad
adapted by memory from The Spotted Pig, NYC and from Jamie at Home by Jamie Oliver
1 bunch small carrots, peeled, some stem left intact
2 lemons, quartered
1 orange, quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
4 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 small red onion, sliced
baby greens, arugula, and/or mixed interesting salad greens, washed and torn if large
a few sprigs thyme
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. paprika
sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and pumpkin seeds
2 Tbs. Mexican crema
Preheat oven to 425. Place mixed seeds in small skillet and toast over medium to low heat. Set aside to cool. Cut carrots lengthwise and place in a large bowl. Add cumin, paprika, garlic, thyme, lemon and orange. Drizzle with 1/4 cup olive oil and red wine vinegar. Toss well to coat, place on heavy, oven-proof pan, and roast at until carrots begin to caramelize, but are still crunchy. Remove from the oven and let cool. Squeeze lemon and orange juice into a bowl along with all pan juices. Slowly drizzle in remaining olive oil and whisk constantly until emulsified. Slice avocado and squeeze lemon juice on top to prevent browning. Return carrots to bowl, along with salad greens and red onion, and toss with dressing. Place on serving platter or individual plates, arrange several pieces of avocado amongst carrots and greens, drizzle with crema and sprinkle with seeds.