It wasn't until I walked through the grocery store doors that I realized I had grossly miscalculated.
It was supposed to be so simple. A last-minute menu change, sure. And for Easter brunch, okay. With guests. Fine.
But the guests were good guests, the sort you routinely greet not just minus make-up, but minus combed hair, and any semblance of housekeeping, and also, often, plus p.j.'s. The best kind.
And the menu was mindless, old beloveds, braised leeks, garlicked greens, this asparagus, that crisp. And for the drumroll-please-centerpiece? A shiny, foil-wrapped, spiral-sliced ham. Heat 'n serve. All glammed up with the powdered glaze packet, enclosed. Seriously, seriously easy.
And anyway, brunch was truly too strong a word for a meal to be eaten while wearing jeans, and shooting the breeze, amidst seven kids, traipsing up and down stairs and all over the house.
And the change was such a small, straightforward thing, adding in a family dish I ate every Easter, growing up. And Christmas. And, I think, Thanksgiving. Without fail. With tremendous glee. It was the one dish everyone longed for, lunged for, helped themselves to thirds and fourths of. The one I hadn't eaten in fifteen years, since my grandparents passed, and the tradition, with them. The one that has all of three ingredients. Three.
How hard could this be?
Very hard. And humiliating.
Also, possibly impossible.
Because although I had the potatoes on hand (one), and knew just where to find the sour cream (two), I realized, in a frozen paralytic moment, Easter morning, around 9:27 a.m., just after the market's automatic doors whooshed shut behind me, that I had no clue, NOT A CLUE, where in a store to find Cheez Whiz (three).
I mean, do you?
And moreover, what would you do, if you didn't?
Right. Me, neither. I don't hesitate to ask directions on the open road, when driving and lost, which is pretty much always. But send out an S.O.S. at the grocery store, when I'm stranded and in search of a cheese product so processed it has to spell itself with a "z", while most of the world is at mass? Yeah, no. So I mustered my signature stubborn, and set out to systematically search the aisles.
Probably with the crackers, yes? Yes! Of course! I scanned 3A, up and down, side to side, walking the length of the entire aisle, slowly. Twice. And found the Velveeta! Neighbors, surely? Surely not. No sign.
Chips! With the chips. Of course. Like canned queso, that other shelf-stable, cheese-like, oddly orange fake food product. And sure enough, there was the queso! Complete with chilis! But alas, no Whiz.
Condiments, maybe? Next to the mayo? I mean, they're almost the same thing! Thick, gelatinous, jarred, weird. Only, one matches construction cones. Impeccable logic wins the day!
Or not. I spent ten minutes in condiments. That aisle is just full of jars. None of them, turns out, containing fake cheese.
The bread aisle! Surely!! My deductive powers were now warming up, having gotten off to a slow start. Sunday and all. Cheez Whiz will be by the jams and jellies! Like peanut butter!! Highlighter-orange peanut butter.
Nada. With the beans? Noodles? Canned soups? Breakfast cereal? Seemed unlikely. Then again, so does Cheez Whiz. I scanned each section with military precision. Due diligence was my holy grail. Zip. Zilch. I was twenty minutes in, with nothing to show. I did not flag.
I expanded my search, and my thinking, scanned the overhead aisle signs, tightened my problem-solving thumb screws. Maybe it's with the juice? The fabric softeners! The plastic wrap?!? Pretty much the same thing...
(Or not. Still nothing. Hello, easy?)
I was so stuck. I contemplated asking an employee, but the only one not pinned to a register this holiday Sunday sat behind the cheese counter. Naturally. Surrounded by machego, countless triple crèmes, six types of blue, fourteen vintages of cheddar. My question was, shall we say, awkward.
I slunk away, and did the only thing I could think to do in such dire straits: googled it. Right there, pressed against the tea aisle. (I checked first. For the record, Cheez Whiz is, not surprisingly, not stocked next to the Earl Grey.) I had little hope when I punched into my phone, "Cheez Whiz Where Find Grocery Store". (Funny how Google reduces us all to toddler-speak.) I wasn't sure if anything would come up. I really wasn't sure what to think about the 840,000 results.
840,000 RESULTS?!? It's a THING! Cheez Whiz is a WILY little rascal!!!
This offered some measure of comfort. I began working my way through the false starts ("by the chips"? been there...) and dead ends ("with the crackers"? done that...) and related detours (homemade cheez whiz??? I cannot... ), when I put down my phone. Because right then, like an angel, or a serious test of character, appeared a plot twist, in the form of a friend.
This was the worst thing and best thing. Do I ask if she knows where to find the Cheez Whiz? Does this permanently damage my reputation? More to the point: do I, in posing the question, in implying she might know where to find the stuff, scandalously and irredeemably insult her?
Either I care little for my own standing*, or my friends' feelings**, or maybe both, but there was no time to lose. Dear reader, I asked. No shame, people.
*(In the split second between friend-sighting and question-asking, I paused long enough to recall this bald truth: I love Cheetos, and Pringles, and Arby's Beef 'n Cheddars. I have no reputation to lose.)
**(Also, I noticed she had Froot Loops in her cart. Probably, she wouldn't judge. I mean, Cheez, Froot, they're practically first cousins.)
The good news, here, is that I was courageous and also appropriately humble for a high holy day. The bad news is that she didn't know the answer. She thought she did, suggested over by the squeezy cheez, even went so far as to make the universal squeezy cheez gesture (head cocked back, mouth wide open, pointer finger pressed down on imaginary plastic pump). I thanked her, and the universe, for the redemption of good intentions, and gracious humans, and the communion of fake cheez.
And then, I trudged toward the half-and-half, discouraged, downtrodden, resigned. No excellent Cheesy Potatoes, after all. But at least their would be good coffee.
Now, if you've scrolled down and noticed the dish at the bottom doesn't exactly scream Cheez Whiz, it's not due to the tragic ending. Because as I fetched my list's last items, cream, yogurt, milk, and made my way down the dairy aisle, there, like a beacon—and I don't mean poetic-license beacon, but literal, pulsing day-glo orange beacon—sat the Cheez Whiz.
The dairy aisle.
So I grabbed two jars, let out a loud WHOOP!!, and hurried home to set the spuds boiling. And I'm so glad that my forty-five minute "quick" grocery run panned out, because boy, did those cheesy potatoes bring back memories. And they were so good, are so good, in a totally luxe/deeply mid-century/oozy-cheesy casserole-y kind of way. And maybe I'll make them again, next year. And maybe I'll write them up here, sometime. But here's the blind-siding bit: I liked Megan's salad so much more.
Maybe it's me. Maybe it's the passing of years. Maybe it's the Cheez Whiz that's changed. (The dairy aisle?? Wasn't the whole POINT of Cheez Whiz that it needs no refrigeration? I'm convinced it still doesn't, that it's current frosty fling is pure branding, misguided uppity aspirations. I mean, this is fall-out shelter fare at its finest. Fluorescent food is always shelf-stable.) I'm not sure. All I know is that in the moment, the dish that I kept reaching for, sneaking pinches of, shoveling up, was this bountiful salad.
(I know, I know. I was all GO Cheez Whiz!!!, and now I come to you with salad. With more quinoa, for goodness sake. Mea culpa. But seriously? Cheez Whiz, sour cream and potatoes are one HIGH bar to beat. And this bowl beats it, handily.)
If this all sounds familiar, it is: I sung this salad's praises last Spring, not long after Megan posted it, and soon after my 97th batch. I loved it from the first; couldn't quit when spring ended; and wound up working variations all summer. Which eventually led to this late summer edition. And while what you see here hews closely to Megan's original, I realized last weekend that I've tweaked it enough, evolved it over my many makings, that I wanted to preserve those adaptations, here.
I begin with Megan's foolproof formula: pot of quinoa; seasonal veg; heap of fresh herbs; smattering of cheese. Bind the whole with good olive oil and abundant lemon, and you've a basic blueprint for serious happy. Really, all I did was amp up that happy.
To the original medley of asparagus and radishes, I add slivered snap peas, for sweet crunch. I love Megan's called-for cup of parsley, mint and cilantro. So much so I double it up, to two. I take similiar liberties with the lemon, upping the juice to vivid proportions, then adding the zest, for extra oomph. Quinoa seems to drink up lemon, in the same way potatoes suck salt. I love that about the both of them.
I use chives when I have them, scallions when I don't, and have come to consider chickpeas mandatory. They add a bit of heft, of course, but better, their wonderful buttery tender.
Altogether, it makes for a dazzling dish, not on the eyes, maybe, but on the taste buds. To the tooth, the texture's all over the place, crisp here, yielding there; in between, everything. The veg are all chopped to fork-friendly, meaning your shot at the perfect bite's excellent. Each brings its own particular slant, sweet peas, sharp radish, suave asparagus. And those herbs, they sparkle up everything, bright and hopeful, like the lengthening days. Ripped with lemon, lush with feta, endlessly charming with quinoa's soft comfort, it is a salad for the ages. Or at least the spring ages. As long spring springs.
Did I mention it holds like a dream, over a day, or several? No mayo, here, to go rogue at room temp. And it's as grand cold as four hours from the fridge. I cannot imagine a more perfect picnic offering, or barbecue side, or lunch of leftovers. True, by Tuesday, the asparagus goes a bit khaki, and the herbs start to hang their heads. But the flavor's as fine on day three as day one, and nothing more welcome, to my eyes anyway, than a bowl of the above, when the stomach grumbles.
Indeed, yesterday, shopping the fridge for lunch, I faced down two bowls of Easter overage, free for the taking. It was all between me, myself, and I. No witnesses; no shame. I tried to force my hand, pick potatoes. I almost succeeded. Then succumbed, to the salad below. Three helpings. The bald truth? If I want to restore cheesy potatoes to their full, unopposed glory? Next time, I need to not make this salad. The competition's just too stiff.
For the Salad:
1 1/3 cup dry quinoa
1 pound asparagus (preferably thin, though freshest is best)
1/2 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed + sliced 1/2"
1 cup thinly sliced radishes
1 cup parsley, chopped
3/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup scallions (white + pale green) or fresh chives, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
1-15 oz. tin chickpeas, drained
1 cup feta, crumbled
For the dressing:
3-4 plump lemons, zested + juiced to yield 2/3 cup juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly-ground black pepper
Prepare quinoa: I follow The Kitchn's foolproof instructions, adding only this one step: after simmering your quinoa for 15 minutes, and before setting it aside off the heat for five, slip a clean, taut, doubled-over dishtowel under the lid. This absorbs excess steam, and helps keep the quinoa light, fluffy and wonderful. For this salad recipe, prepare 1 1/3 cups dry quinoa in 2 2/3 cups water.
Prepare dressing: While quinoa is cooking, wash and zest all lemons, then juice enough to yield 2/3 cup juice. Measure 1/2 cup into a lidded jar (you may wish to add the remainder later, but save for now, to taste and adjust later), along with salt, 20 grinds of pepper, lemon zest, and olive oil. Shake well to emulsify. As soon as quinoa is finished and fluffed, drizzle over 2/3 of the shaken dressing, and allow to absorb for 5-10 minutes, undisturbed. After resting, fluff quinoa again with a fork, to distribute dressing. Set aside. (Quinoa can be cooked and dressed up to two days before serving, and refrigerated.)
Cook asparagus: Bring a wide skillet, half-filled with well-salted water, to a boil. While water is heating, wash and trim rough ends from asparagus. When water bubbles, set asparagus in, and turn heat to low, to maintain a steady simmer. Simmer 2 minutes for thin spears; 4-5 for thick; or until spears are just-tender to the knife, or when lifted with tongs, just flex slightly. Immediately remove and drain asparagus, running under cold water briefly to stop the cooking. Set aside on a clean dishtowel, in a single layer, to cool.
Prepare veg: Meanwhile, wash and thinly slice your radishes. Next, top and tail your peas, and cut into 1/2" pieces. Chop scallions, if using. Drain and rinse chickpeas. Crumble feta. When asparagus is cool, cut into 1" lengths (if narrow) or 1/2" lengths (if thick). Finally, heap all your washed and dried herbs on the board, and all together, roughly chop them.
Toss salad: When the quinoa is cool (so as not to melt the cheese or blacken the herbs), add the chopped veg, chickpeas, and herbs. Toss gently, thoroughly, to combine, then add remaining 1/3 dressing and 3/4 of the crumbled feta. Toss gently again. Taste a few bites, for seasoning, adjusting salt and/or lemon, to taste.
Salad is brightest on the first day, but holds beautifully, refrigerated, for four days.