When it comes to meal salads, I feel pretty much everything you need to know is summed up by one of my favorite commercials of all time, which assures you that no matter what’s in your bowl (deep-fried taco shell, ground beef, guacamole, sour cream and cheese), as long as it vaguely resembles a salad, it must be good for you. [“Is it healthy? Of course it is! It’s a salad, isn’t it?”]
I have the most boring thing, ever, to tell you today (and clearly it’s not “how to write an enticing lede”): I tried not to eat bread for a couple months. Wait, come back! Let me explain. I don’t mean ever. I am not anti-carb or anti-dessert, nor is Wheat Belly our new idea of a good bedtime story; I am ever your gluten-full host. I remain certain that freshly-baked, crackly-crusted artisanal bread is one of the greatest things in the world; to turn it down a moderate serving of it when you’re able to enjoy it (chemically and all that) is a sacrilege. But that’s not really what most of our bread looks like, does it? Most often, bread is merely bookends on a sandwich, with the goal of making filling portable. Or, it’s toasted so that it can sop up butter, jam or a runny yolk, or crouton-ed to make a salad feel bulkier. It’s all too infrequently in and of itself noteworthy. These latter categories of bread were what I suspected I wouldn’t miss if when I challenged myself to skip them. That is, at least two meals a day: an ascetic, I am not.
Deep in the Julia Child archives, past the boeuf bouguignon, onion soup, jiggling aspics and the patently untrue yarn about the chicken that fell from the counter, mid-trussing, and was dusted off and put back into use with a remark about “nobody’s in the kitchen but you,” there are recipes so low in butter and bacon that they hardly fit the stereotype of French food as gluttony, as are thus rarely mentioned. A good lot of them are in From Julia Child’s Kitchen; published in 1975, it contained recipes and kitchen wisdom that came from episodes of her PBS show. Gentler to novices than her Mastering the Art of French Cooking classics, the recipes were probably more familiar to American audiences, things like leek and potato soup, sauteed chicken breasts with tarragon and tomatoes, and, here, a riff on deviled eggs that I am making my mission to rescue from obscurity.
My mother’s standard party donation is a boule of pumpernickel bread with the center scooped out and filled with a spinach dip that includes water chestnuts because, of course. The sides are cut into fingers that remain attached at the base (as “severed fingers” would be unsettling, yes?) and can be torn off when the urge comes to swipe one through the center. The urge will come often, so I try to position myself in any room that the boule is not. Nevertheless, I hadn’t considered that there were other approaches to party bread until I came upon this 1998 recipe for one in Taste of Home, the belly full of dip forwent for a multi-pronged attacked of butter, cheese, scallions and poppy seeds, all toasted until melted and crisp.
You don’t have to look at me like that. I know, I know how you and most people feel about lentils. About how they’re mealy and brown and generally lackluster, like health food putty; about how you’ll eat them, sure, but only if you must. And how if I were trying to convince you that lentils are something that you will very much love if only you could try them this way, my way, that this yellow-and-muddy-purple-brown speckled thing up top, despite the ambitious efforts of the bright green parsley chop scattered over it, is not going to be the thing to pull it off.
This soup is the very best thing I ate in December, which is saying a lot for a month that involved the purchase of at least 4 pounds of butter. And it didn’t involve any of them. I know, I know — that’s crazy talk.
I have a long history of spectacular tomato tart failures. There was the one that enchanted me on TV a decade ago, with a parmesan crust, bacon, fine breadcrumbs and roasted garlic, that — several hours of work later — ended up tasting metallic and clashy against the acidic tomatoes. There was the tomato tarte tatin flop from a fancy French chef, for which I have only myself to blame. And two summers ago, there was an heirloom tomato galette, with colors like a rainbow, that fell apart before we ate it. The problem more often than not is a basic one: tomatoes are very wet and tart crusts need to stay fairly dry. But this has never stopped me from trying again, and I’m glad, because it led me to this.