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Sunday, August 9, 2020

End-of-the-Line Herb Salad

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One of the first games children learn in grade school is called telephone or grapevine. All the students in the class form a line, and the teacher whispers a sentence into the ear of the first child, who then whispers the sentence into the ear of the child next to him or her. On and on it goes until the last child in the row reveals a sentence that is usually much different in meaning than the original.

It’s a fun, silly game but also one that offers a few deeper lessons: The game often is used to show how quickly rumors become gossip, which tends to be factually incorrect.

But another takeaway is far more intriguing, and that is the unreliability of human recollection. Some children genuinely mishear the sentence whispered to them; some change a word here and there according to their understanding; others deliberately change the sentence to make it more humorous or interesting.

As a child, I was extremely anxious about getting the sentence wrong and not making a mistake. To make matters worse, instead of standing at the beginning of the line, where no one could blame me for getting it wrong, somehow fate always had me standing in the middle. Try as I might to repeat the sentence exactly as I’d heard it, my anxiety over making a mistake would render me unable to hear the whispers in my ear. It took a while, but once I realized that the last one in line got rewarded with all the laughs, I always tried my best to be that kid.

Since I first tasted this salad in Israel 12 years ago, everyone I’ve fed it to falls in love with it.

Belting out that punch line might inadvertently have made me realize I was good at improvising and led to a lifetime of learning to build on other people’s ideas. It’s certainly served me well in the kitchen.

I was reminded of this recently while talking to my cousin Tali about a salad. This incredible herb salad is so unusual that it has appeared on every one of my restaurant menus and is a regular staple on my table at home, particularly when I’m entertaining.

In my restaurants, it’s called Tali’s Garden Herb Salad-Four Tastes. The four tastes are salty, sweet, sour and spicy. It features feta and caramelized pecans on top of cilantro, parsley and mint, dressed simply with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and chili flakes.

Since I first tasted this salad in Israel 12 years ago, everyone I’ve fed it to falls in love with it.

I phoned my cousin the other night to tell her about my intention to write about her famous salad, and the conversation went something like this:

“Tali, I want to write about that herb salad you make. Can you remind me how you came up with the idea?”

“I didn’t come up with that salad.”

“What do you mean? I thought you used to make it when pecans came into season on Uncle Leon’s farm, and Aunt Viola would caramelize them in big batches.”

“That’s so romantic, but we never used our farm’s pecans for the salad! My mom used to make salted pecans on the farm, not sugared ones. I buy the ones for the salad at the store.”

“Really? I must have misunderstood. Other than the cilantro, parsley and mint, do you ever use any other herbs in the salad? Like basil?”

“No, you’re the one that added parsley and mint. I use only cilantro, and I got the recipe from the owner of the bakery on a nearby farm. I was annoyed because I had to wait for my order to finish baking and he made me this salad to distract me. You make caramelized pecans yourself?”

“Wow! I wonder why I started adding parsley and mint to it.”

“Remember Aunt Dora hated cilantro, so you probably added parsley for her and then Aviva suggested mint may be good in it.”

“And did the baker come up with the dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar
or was that your idea?”

“I hate to tell you this, but there is no vinegar in the salad, Yamit. Only olive oil and garlic.”

“But what makes the sour fourth taste?”

“You made it by adding vinegar! Now, get over it already and teach me how to caramelize pecans.”

As I hung up the phone, I smiled, remembering that life is a little like a game of telephone. Although it’s human nature to want to avoid making mistakes, sometimes it pays to be at the end of the line.

YAMIT’S GARDEN HERB SALAD-FOUR TASTES

Better double or triple this recipe for a gathering. No matter how much I make for a party, the bowl is always empty in 10 minutes.

1/2 cup Caramelized Pecans, coarsely chopped (recipe follows)
2 large bunches (about 4 cups) fresh cilantro,
leaves only
1 bunch (about 2 cups) fresh flat-leaf parsley,
leaves only
1 handful (about 1 cup) fresh mint,
leaves only
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 clove crushed garlic
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 grinds freshly ground black pepper
1 cup crumbled feta cheese, preferably
Bulgarian
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Make Caramelized Pecans; set aside.

Use sharp kitchen scissors to cut the leaves of the herbs from their stems. Wash herbs thoroughly and dry using a salad spinner or paper towels. Chop the leaves, leaving some whole leaves, and chopping others medium to fine. I use a mezzaluna for this, but kitchen scissors work great as well.

In a bowl, whisk together olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic, vinegar and pepper, and toss with herbs an hour before you want to eat. Store salad in the fridge to chill.

Right before serving, crumble in the creamy feta and the chopped pecans. Give it a final mix and taste to adjust salt.

Makes 4 servings.

CARAMELIZED PECANS

1 tablespoon butter
1 cup pecans
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Over medium heat, melt butter in a pan. Add pecans and sugar and let cook slowly, frequently stirring with a wooden spoon. The butter/sugar mixture will become syrupy and then evaporate and glaze the pecans. Keep stirring until the pecans turn a dark, shellac brown, about 10 minutes. They are easy to burn, so keep an eye on them.

Carefully, pour the glazed pecans onto a plate covered with a sheet of baking paper, sprinkle on salt, and let cool to harden thoroughly for about 30 minutes. Nothing hurts more than caramel sugar burns, so consider wearing gloves.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

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