Until It Looks Right
I was speaking with a friend of mine last week who wanted ideas for a dinner party. She’s in New York now (*sniff*), and she told me what was in season there: She was still seeing lots of springtime produce. I suggested a strawberry-asparagus salad and explained the basic process (blanch 2-inch chunks of asparagus, slice strawberries into wedges, dress with red wine vinaigrette, serve) and then told her I garnished with mint. “How much mint?” she asked. I answered with my normal response to such questions: until it looks right. Get the food to look the way you want, and it will be close to the way you want it to taste.
This insight may be one of the many things my friend Tom taught me. Or we may have arrived there independently. I forget. Certainly, “until it looks right” was a common direction of his.
It’s the rule I use for salads of various kinds and salsa. Probably other dishes as well, but those are the ones where I do it consciously. Come to think of it, I add chocolate chips to cookies until the mix looks right.
Consider my friend’s strawberry-asparagus-mint salad. If you looked at a bite and saw the dark green of minced mint, what would you expect it to taste like? What if you looked at a bite and saw chunks of strawberry and asparagus gilded with little flecks of green?
How you, as a cook, choose the look is up to you, of course.
Tonight I made myself (Melissa is away) a pasta salad with figs, tomatoes, and basil. I added the chopped figs and tomatoes and mixed. I looked in the bowl and saw a sea of creamy yellow pasta with islands of red and purple. I added more figs and tomatoes until there were equals amounts of each color. Then I added minced basil until each bite had 5 or 6 flecks of green, which looked about right. Then I tasted. It needed salt, a little lemon oil, and nothing more: The ingredients were balanced.
Maybe this is obvious: I don’t know. But in my quest to cook from technique and not from a set of instructions, it’s been one of my most valuable guides.
Some other notes on salads that may be helpful as the mercury climbs up the thermometer’s tube. Mix with your hands: You won’t damage the ingredients, and you’ll end up with a better mix. Cut ingredients into similar shapes: Don’t do horizontal slices of strawberries with wands of asparagus. Finally, taste is the final decider: Cooking by look just gets you most of the way there.
Incidentally, I would have loved a figgy Semillon or a crisp rosé with my tomato-fig salad. The Semillon would have complemented the figs in the dish and contributed acidity, while the rosé would have done the same for the tomatoes. But I had a simple Greek red in the refrigerator, so I drank that instead.