I’m often asked if I really go home, after a day in a restaurant kitchen, and make dinner in my own. Even after a day in July in a restaurant kitchen, when I swear I could bake a cake in the car driving home, the answer remains: yes.
That said, I don’t always cook dinner. It’s July, remember, which means that I often can’t stand the idea of anything that generates heat any more than you can. Instead, I stand in front of the freezer and/or refrigerator and wait for dinner to essentially present itself.
My freezer is my friend. When I cook any kind of seed, grain, or legume, I always make more than I need at the moment. Always. I am not making that up for the sake of a good blog. I cool the leftovers, then freeze them in (labeled) ziplock bags, flattened so they stack easily and I can see what I have. An excellent habit to cultivate if you haven’t already.
After cleaning and rearranging the freezer recently, I ended up with a couple of stacks of frozen thises and thats. Faced with the need to invent something to take to a picnic that I could make in advance, hold overnight in the refrigerator, and transport without spilling or sloshing, the solution was obvious: salad.
Remember sand art? When the idea began to form, that’s the image that came to mind. Minus the food coloring. Yeah, there are nice, complete proteins here, lots of good fiber – and all are purely incidental and completely secondary. The point is that nothing needed to be cooked. The ingredients simply appeared, all layered up right in front of me. The refrigerator yielded additional layers of color and crunch. I was strictly the messenger.
FOR THE LAYERS
Makes enough for one large bowl or 8 half-pint bowls or jars
I trust it goes without saying that all the frozen items need to be thawed.
Cooked black beans
Cooked rice of any color (I had Bhutanese red)
Cooked lentils (I had yellow)
Celery finely diced
Red onions finely diced
Cucumber, 1/2″ dice
FOR THE DRESSING
2 ounces red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
8 ounces olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
LAYERING THE SALAD
How much you’ll need of each ingredient will be determined by the size bowl/ bowls in which you intend to layer them. I had about two cups of each ingredient. And I knew exactly how I was going to serve, store, and transport these beauties.
A couple of years ago as I was preparing to teach a class on soups, I had one of those “what was I thinking” moments, when I realized the afternoon of the class that I didn’t have remotely enough bowls for everyone to taste each soup without washing in between servings of different ones. As I’ve mentioned, I can be so focused on an outcome that fine details get past me.
I had to make a trip to the store for soup supplies anyway. After I’d gathered everything on my list, I quite literally wandered the aisles of a popular – very popular – retailer looking for some sort of vessel to leap out at me. I needed about 20 whatevers, and wasn’t wild about paying $5 or so apiece for true bowls. Besides, who needs to have to store 20 bowls? As I rounded the corner into an aisle full of canning supplies, I exclaimed out loud, “Oh, that’s IT!” If people glanced at me out of the corners of their eyes as they edged away, it was lost on me. I was focused.
As I was checking out, the curious clerk asked what I was going to put in the 2 cases of wide-mouth half-pint jars. I’d practically dislocated a shoulder patting myself on the back for Nobel-quality thinking, and chirped with a smile that I was going to serve soup in them. She sniffed and said, “Oh. I thought you were going to do something interesting.” You’re familiar with the phrase, her jaw dropped open. Mine did, as I blinked stupidly at her. I’d been struck dumb.
I relive that little vignette every time I get these out. They’re the perfect size for ice cream parfaits; not too much, not too little. And a freaking brilliant way to serve crème brûlée to a crowd. Or a layered salad.
- Make the dressing. Whisk together the vinegar, lime juice, mustard, cumin and coriander. Add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking all the while. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Finely dice the celery and red onion (1/4″ dice). Peel the cucumber (or not, if you don’t mind the skin; I find it bitter), slice it in half lengthwise, and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. That is where much of the water is, and if not removed, your salad will accumulate excess water in the bottom of the bowl. Dice the cucumber into 1/2″ pieces.
- Begin layering your salad. For my jars, I used about a generous 2 tablespoons of each ingredient. If you are using a bowl (clear glass, I hope), don’t make the layers more than a half-inch to an inch deep; you want to be able to see the beautiful striations, and each serving spoonful should yield a combination of them all. I began with black beans on the bottom because they are the sturdiest of all the ingredients and can stand to soak up dressing that accumulates at the bottom. Next, I layered the celery because, again, it is hardy; too, its color is beautiful against the black beans. I spooned about 2 tablespoons of dressing over the celery. Next, in went some yellow lentils, followed by a layer of red rice, and more dressing. The red onions, yellow corn, some red rice, tender cucumbers and some more dressing finished filling the jars. I set the lids in place, screwed on the rings, and stored the jars of salad in the refrigerator overnight. Plan to do the same if you are layering the salad in a bowl, and be sure to cover it tightly with plastic since there are some strong flavors and scents that will be best retained in the salad, not flavoring your butter and eggs.
- To transport the jars, I simply put them back into the box in which they came. I try to make sure people return the lids and rings to me, but inevitably some go missing. Fortunately, they are easily and inexpensively replaced.
- Being a solitary cook is one thing; being a solitary bow-tyer is another thing entirely. I tried to tie twine around the rings for a rustic-looking presentation, but failed utterly as they slipped right off. If you have an extra finger in your kitchen, enlist it to help you.
So stack your freezer with leftovers, go wave eight bucks or so at a checkout clerk as you grab a dozen of your own jars to stash away (keep the box!), and you, too, can look brilliantly clever. To yourself, at least.