The Art of the Salad with Chef Joshua McFadden
When you think of Italian food, chances are hearty classics like meatballs, osso buco and pastas with a slow-cooked ragus first jump to mind. So you might be surprised that those aren’t necessarily the most crave-worthy dishes on Chef Joshua McFadden’s Roman-inspired menu at Ava Gene’s, his much-touted restaurant in Portland, Oregon: the veggies are.
We call them salads by default, but there really should be a different word for McFadden’s layered and complex vegetable dishes, often made with grains, nuts, cheese, and sweet-and-savory combinations of vegetables and fruits.
Luckily the “vegetable whisperer” is now sharing the recipes for 200-some of these dishes in Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables. Peak-season produce is the star of each and every dish, including Cucumbers, Celery, Apricots and Pistachios, and Raw “Couscous” Cauliflower with Almonds, Dried Cherries and Sumac. Or Celery Salad with Dates, Almonds and Parmigiano — McFadden’s take on childhood favorite “Ants on a Log.”
The book is divided into six micro-seasons (Fall, Spring and Winter — plus Early, Mid and Late Summer) to help home cooks pinpoint which veggies are at their peak throughout different points in the quickly-evolving months of June through September.
So what inspires the chef’s balanced, unexpected, deceptively simple and very interesting “salads” (for lack of a better term)? McFadden credits an unexpected source as one of his early inspirations: a crispy watercress salad at cult-fave Thai spot Sripraphai in NYC’s Woodside, Queens neighborhood. “That was one of those moments that changed my idea of where I could go, even with simple, Italian-style food. Because the dish was at a temperature that you didn’t expect, and there were layers of ingredients like cashews, peanuts, chiles, sauce, mint, and fermented shrimp that weren’t expected. It was a symphony of flavors, instead of something one-note,” says McFadden. “And then while working at Franny’s I started working with colatura, the Italian fish sauce. From that point on, it opened up doors to start playing with flavors, and not be so classic — even with Italian food.”
But getting creative with your cooking shouldn’t be daunting for home cooks. McFadden likes to remind people that it should be fun: “And no one knows how to do it until they do it!” So cook your way through Six Seasons, learning McFadden’s clever techniques along the way. And then keep his four-point formula for a perfectly-balanced vegetable dish in mind as you make your own seasonal creations at home.
So how does McFadden come up with these combinations of cauliflower and cherries, celery and dates…and make them work? “It becomes fairly obvious when you’re thinking in the context of a season, and what ingredients you have available,” he says. “Whether it’s citrus, tomatoes, or parsnips...that’s your starting point. So what are you doing to that produce? Hopefully not much, but whatever you treat it and add to it, you want say ‘What the hell just happened?’ when you taste the finished dish.”
McFadden considers acid to be an essential component to every dish…but not in the traditional way salads are dressed. “We don’t make vinaigrettes,” he says. “I’m a real big believer in dressing first with vinegar or lemon juice — or whatever acid you’re using — and then getting the dish to a point with salt, pepper, chile and all the other components you’re using that you don’t need olive oil. And then you taste it all and add the olive oil as its own ingredient, which brings it all together and adds another layer.” (Take for instance the recipe for Cucumbers, Celery, Apricots, and Pistachios below, where McFadden calls for the apricots to be plumped in vinegar before getting mixed with the rest of the salad.)
When McFadden was a kid, he hated crunch from nuts added to cookies or stuffing. But now he understands how texture can take dishes to the next level. “It’s fun to pull that out of vegetables and then enhance it with nuts and puffed grains. Not just for texture, but also for flavor. And it’s really cool that it’s all healthy too.”
McFadden wants the seasoning in his salads to be uniform…but likes to mix up the size and shape of ingredients. At one point while cooking at Franny’s, he realized he should stop ripping up fresh herbs, and started using the whole leaves as…well, leaves. “A basil leaf is like a salad leaf…why rip it up? Why can’t you just have explosions of flavor from herbs? I don’t want every bite of a dish to be exactly the same, so why I would I cut it up?”
Recipe excerpted from Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2017.
This dish hits every flavor note—sweet, sour, salty, bitter . . . and it’s all kinds of crunchy. The more herbs you pack in there, the better. Mint, parsley, basil, and celery are just the beginning—you can add sorrel, every kind of basil you can find, chives, even some cooked grains or couscous. Serve this with grilled lamb, friends, the great outdoors, and cold pink wine.
Peel the cucumbers if their skins are tough or waxed. Trim the ends of the cucumbers, halve lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. Cut the halves crosswise on an angle into very thin slices.
Put the cucumbers in a colander and toss them with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Set aside for at least 20 minutes to extract their water and give them a “quick-pickled” flavor.
Meanwhile, cut the celery crosswise on an angle into very thin slices and soak in ice water for
10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, and pile into a serving bowl.
Put the apricots, garlic, and vinegar in a small bowl. Let the apricots plump for 10 minutes.
Pat the cucumbers dry and add to the celery, along with the pistachios, mint, parsley, basil, and celery leaves (if using). Remove the garlic from the apricots and discard it. Add the apricots and vinegar to the bowl, along with the chile flakes and 1/4 cup olive oil. Season with black pepper, but don’t add more salt yet because the cucumbers will have absorbed a bit. Toss, taste, and adjust the flavors with more salt, vinegar, chile flakes, or black pepper until it’s bright and zingy. Finish with another drizzle of olive oil. Serve right away.
Heat the oven to 350°F.
Spread the nuts on a pan in a single layer. For a small quantity, a pie plate is good; for more, use a rimmed baking sheet.
Bake until you smell the nuttiness and the color is deepening slightly, 6 to 8 minutes for most whole nuts.
When the nuts are done, transfer them to a plate so they don’t keep cooking on the hot baking pan. Determining doneness can be tricky, because the final texture won’t develop until they’re cool, so at this stage, you’re mostly concerned with color and flavor. To be safe, take them from the oven, let cool, taste one, and if not done enough, pop them back into the oven.
Photographs by Peden + Munk (top) and Laura Dart and A.J. Meeker (bottom).
Per serving: Calories 279 ; Fat 21 g (Saturated 3 g); Cholesterol 0 mg; Sodium 654 mg; Carbohydrate 21 g; Fiber 5 g; Sugars 11 g; Protein 6 g