First Meal Back
After over two months cooking in Michigan, I knew my first dinner back in St. Louis would be important. After all, this meal would be for my number one client, my designer, my muse, my wife: Carol. Now while I consider my wife to be more proficient than me in virtually everything, (quoting movie lines aside, but I'm not exactly going to brag about that) her varied talents have yet to fully include the culinary arts. She's not a bad cook at all, it's just that she doesn't really enjoy cooking so her repertoire stays pretty limited. In fact, her favorite dishes to prepare typically have names like "Girl Scout Tacos" or "Inside-Out Ravioli". Tasty staples from her childhood, but not exactly recipes from Larousse Gastronomique. Which is fine, for as a chef who spends most days cooking food that's inspired by "Haute Cuisine", my wife's signature dishes provide the perfect type of sustenance: comfort food. Some of my fondest memories of working as an Executive Chef would be coming home, after 14+ hours of foie gras, diver scallops and the like, to a casserole dish of shell noodles, ricotta cheese and red sauce: "Inside Out Ravioli" (sorry no recipe, family secret). It's why I'll never understand why people are tentative to invite chefs to their homes for a meal; on those days when we don't have to cook we'll be happy eating just about anything.
So as I was driving back to St. Louis I gave a lot of thought as to what to make for my girl. For I knew that while I was up in the mitten state cooking for 10 to 12 hours a day, never wanting for any food or foodstuff; poor Carol had resorted to her "BK" days (Before Kirk). This meant either eating the leftovers from a mediocre lunch for dinner or rehooking the microwave (for I'd banished it to the basement) and heating-up God knows what. She wouldn't whip-up "Girl Scout Tacos" for just herself, instead she'd bide her time until her "knight with shiny knives" returned. And, frankly, I love this about her. Creative people working in any medium need those who are central to their lives to rely on their work, and more than in just a material way. I had known for a long time that as much as Carol might need my cooking, I needed to cook for her more.
I knew there would be some nice heirloom tomatoes waiting for me in our home kitchen, I asked a farmer friend to drop some off for Carol as a small anniversary token (What'd you expect me to send..flowers?). But as a result of the big storm that swept through St. Louis in July, and left us without power for days, the tomatoes would be the extent of our larder. Not a lot to work with, but considering I'd be arriving late (after stopping at the John Boos outlet in Effingham, IL for a great deal on their fabulous cutting boards; www.johnboos.com) it would be a great start for what I had in mind.
Every food culture has its means for using old bread. The Italians have panzanella salad and pappa al pomodoro, the French have panade, the Chinese have congee (OK.. that's with rice, but when was the last time you saw a crusty loaf in Tianjin?). My favorite had to be the Lebanese salad with crunchy flatbread, tomato and cucumber: Fattoush. A simple summer salad with a broad range of flavors and textures that's substantial enough to be served as a main course. Yes, this would be the ideal homecoming meal for my wife; a simple affair that would give me plenty of time to catch up with Carol, unpack from my trip and put the microwave back in the basement.
Kirk's Fattoush Salad (serves 4 as main course salad)
I recommend using a variety of tomatoes (for texture), French Feta (not as salty as Greek Feta) and making you own flatbread "pita" chips (it's worth the effort, see asterisk). While ground sumac makes the salad authentic, this version is still delicious without it.
Assorted Ripe Tomatoes, Diced 5 Cups
Seedless Cucumber, Peeled & Diced 1 Large
Pita or Flatbread, Cubed & Toasted* 1 1/2 Cups
Shallot, Sliced 1 Small
Mint, Chiffonade 3 Leaves
Italian Parsley, Minced 3 Tablespoons
Feta, Cubed (preferably French) 1 1/2 Cups (Plus extra for garnish)
Grilled Chicken Breast, Cubed (Optional) 4/6oz.
Black Olives, Oil-Cured (Optional) 1/4 Cup
Bibb Lettuce, Whole Leaves 1 Head
Dressing (Whisk all ingredients thoroughly)
Fresh Lemon Juice 1/4 Cup
Lemon Zest (To ensure you use real Lemons) Pinch
Plain Yogurt (preferably Whole Milk) 3 Tablespoons
Honey 2 Tablespoons
Garlic, Minced 1 Clove
Extra Virgin Olive Oil 1/2 Cup
Sumac, Ground (Optional) 2 Tablespoons
Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper To Taste
Combine salad ingredients with dressing and serve over bibb lettuce leaves. Garnish with extra shredded feta and lemon wedges.
*I highly recommend making your own flatbread "pita" chips. Simply use the pizza dough recipe from the "Weir Grooving" blog. Parbake the rolled-out flatbread (500d, 3-4minutes), let cool and slice into small squares. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake (350d, 12-15minutes) until crisp. These homemade "pita" chips make a delicious, healthy snack food as well.