We had an ice storm last week.
I know ice storms are not uncommon, even in parts of the Northwest (hello, Portland!). But I am not from those parts, nor have I ever been in them, mid-storm. For those of you accustomed to such things, I understand this wasn't exactly anything to write home about. I've heard tell of inch-thick sheets of ice, two inches even, if you can imagine. I understand this.
I'm writing home, anyway.
I didn't start out so twitterpated. Actually, the day before, I was rather blasé. I knew it was coming—we all knew it was coming—due to the fact it was broadcast far and wide. Newspaper, radio, talk on the street, all day Monday, the buzz was ice storm. They actually used the emergency broadcast system. Thirty-eight years I've watched PBS, and not once have I heard any voice-over other than, "This is test, this is only a test". Until last week, when stern warnings issued forth. Pshaw, I thought. Frozen rain, fancy sleet. What's the big deal?
The big deal, it turns out, is that ice storms coat everything.
The entire city was glazed in crystal. It was only a quarter-inch of ice. Half an inch, in spots. But, every spot. Every surface, horizontal, vertical, and in between. Every street and sidewalk, every bud, branch and brick. Every single needle on our pine tree turned icicle. Every crabapple wore Cinderella's slipper. You would swear we got desperate and turned to cryogenics in an effort to preserve last summer's thyme. Even the ugly, un-deadheaded mums looked somehow oddly appealing, like those funny lucite buttons embedded with flowers, or something ripped from an Edward Gorey story. I'm not normally drawn to the underlying allure of Hefty bags and automobile windows. Then again, they don't normally look Made by Swarovski.
I struggled to understand how this had happened. I did some research, learned that it requires quite particular conditions. Near-freezing temperatures, not too hot, not too cold. A confluence of two weather fronts, long-standing cold ground plus incoming warm air. 100% chance of precipitation. Snow falls, then melts mid-air, then freezes on impact, when it hits the cold earth. Or car. Or itty-bitty pine cone.
Or so they say. I'm only half-convinced. I sort of suspect Christo rang up Chihuhuly, said, "Yo, you and me, join effort, whaddya say? Shall we go give Columbus a quick shattery dip?" Kudos, fellows. You've outdone yourselves.
It was magical.
It was treacherous.
The neighborhood trees had a tough time of it. Gravity gets the best of heavy, brittle branches. (Though when the wind blew, that first day or two? They made the most fantastic music, a thousand chandeliers, rustling.) We took a few spills, thankfully all mild. We had two snow days off school. With no new snow. (Six inches of snow may be business as usual, here. But ice everywhere? Another story.) It didn't shut down the entire city, but it did make life a little interesting, extra crispy.
Since last week, some snow has fallen, enough fluffy traction to mostly settle things down. Zoë did request my hand, today, "so that you can slip with me". (She also asked, this morning, "where have all the soldiers gone?" Maybe I ought to ease up on the Peter, Paul and Mary.) But save the occasional seismic crackling underfoot, it's almost like it never happened.
The memory of the thing's been hanging with me, though, perhaps because I've been hungering after crisp, myself.
I know I was just rattling on about warm salads, how I turn to roasted vegetables, beans and grains, in the cold months. I wasn't kidding. I inhaled this very dish, two weeks back. I consider warm toss-togethers one of the high-points of low temps.
In fact, I adore the whole winter menu, and cherish my collection of cold-weather cookbooks. I look forward to stews, soups and braises all year, and consider them one of winter's finest features. There are layers and layers of flavors to be had, built up over time like some old spoon's soft patina. Winter food, done well, has personality, depth, character. I tend to be of the mindset that says if it doesn't have character, why even bother? This may be extreme, but I don't think I'm alone. Just ask any politician.
But winter food's soft. Really, really soft. Sippable, tender, fall-apart, all good. But sometimes, you know, a person needs c-r-u-n-c-h. And let's face it, my plates and forks need an outing. Looking back, I can see I might've known to expect this. Apparently I craved crunch around this time, last year. Numb fingers and toes and noses aside then, I say queue the salad, the crisper, the better.
This winter, this is the salad I'm queuing, the one that I'm craving, and keep coming back to. It came together in a most unlikely moment, one Friday night, post-playdate, that saw us tumbling in at ten-to-six. Normally these become noodle nights, with apple wedges and beans, divvied up for good measure. I'm not sure where your kitchen inspiration comes from, but mine rarely begins with three hungry, tired kids. But somehow, on this particular Friday, everyone remained otherwise entertained during that crucial ten minutes it took the water to boil. I scavenged the fridge, came up with some greens, and set to work impovising a salad. I'd had, at the back of my mind, for months, a miso-dressed lovely in the Momofuku book. I didn't look it up (I still haven't; I'm bad with recipes), but the idea of the thing spurred me along. The reality of the thing has kept me coming back for weeks.
The thing is really two things, if you will, the salad itself and the dressing that accompanies. I mention this because I'm ordinarily an oil-and-vinegar girl. Even mustard and shallots seem a bit baroque. A recipe for salad dressing? Borderline absurd. (Bottled dressing, I haven't bought since Max was born. Why waste the money and refrigerator space?). But every once in a while, the dressing is everything, like when you want sliced tomatoes to boom!, become lunch, or steak-studded leaves, a celebratory meal. This is one of those once in a whiles.
That may be too much build-up for a basic dressing, because for all that, the only work here is scoop, drizzle and shake. It is nothing more than two spoonfuls of miso, plus a dollop of mayo and that good ol' oil 'n vinegar. I tweak the standard 3:1 ratio a bit here, upping the vinegar, dialing down the oil. The mayo stands in for some of the latter, and the miso mellows out the tang of the former, and can we just talk miso for a moment? Oh, lip-smacking, addictive miso! Miso—Japanese fermented bean paste—is, in my home, more a staple than mayo. I usually finish up a jar of mayonnaise when I move, typically by chucking it half-full in the trash. Miso, I replenish every few months, for endless bowls of miso soup, and extra oomph in other dishes. (It is lovely, in fact, in all sorts of soups and stews, little smudges adding unidentifiable, wonderful depth.)
But I've never yet added it to salads. Until now. Please don't make the same mistake.
What you wind up with is a dressing with depth, surprisingly lush, seriously savory. Just the thing for a crunch parade. Because the other half of this equation—the salad itself, the body and bulk—is its own little flavor-fest. There's one whole tart apple and a half-dozen of radishes, sliced up just as thin as you can. There's a heaping handful of sunflower seeds, roasted and salted and hopelessly hippie. And tumbled throughout, there's soft lovely butter lettuce, plus a half-head of raddichio, slivered fine. I avoided this latter "green" for years, because it seemed too costly and was definitely too embarassing. But it adds a marvelous crisp bitter edge to such salads, and its compact head yields leaves galore. Also, it's magenta. Go ahead. I dare you.
To be honest, I've made this salad five or six times, and I've yet to make it the same way twice. Always, there's the same solid line-up of flavors, earthy, sharp, bitter, tart, salty and sweet. And always the same sultry, smart dressing, cashmere to all that crunch. But beyond that, I've played endlessly. Once, I swapped out the apple for two persimmons (the short, firm fuyus, not the jellied hachiyas). That was fine. Though the juicy crisp Asian Pear may have outdone them both. Once, I added a whole head of cilantro, roughly chopped, in amongst the leaves. Lovely. Last week, I tossed in a heap of crushed hazlenuts, which I decided on the spot was my most favorite, yet. Until I tried it with those salty seeds, again. You'll just have to let me know what you think.
A Crisp Winter Salad with Miso Dressing
Miso comes in many shades; any mild or medium will do. Dressing quantities will vary, depending on produce size. Start with the smaller amount, and store leftovers in the fridge, up to two weeks.
1/2 head raddichio, slivered
1 head butter lettuce, torn
6 radishes, very thinly sliced
1 tart apple or asian pear, very thinly sliced
generous 1/2 cup salted sunflower seeds or chopped hazlenuts
2 tablespoons miso (white or yellow)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 tablespoons mild vinegar (rice, sherry, cider)
1 tsp. honey
1/2 - 1 tsp. salt
10 grind fresh black papper
2 tablespoons oil (peanut, olive, canola)
Make dressing: Into a jam jar with a lid, add first six dressing ingredients. Stir with a fork to dissolve miso, then add oil, attach lid, and shake vigorously to combine. Dressing may be refrigerated several weeks.
Make salad: In a large bowl, combine all salad ingredients. Add three-quarters of dressing, toss well, taste for seasoning and dressing, and add a bit more of either, as needed.