You Start with an Onion
Of course you start with an onion. Everything starts with an onion. I was going to write a cookbook, an intuitive cookbook like my great-grandmother with phrases like “cook ’til done,” but I never got around to it. This book, which captures the magic of the original title, but without much in the form of culinary guidance, is actually a compilation of books that were never written, now in their compact, non-good-novelist form in this tome. I use the word tome so I can go off on a tangent because apparently stream of consciousness is considered an acceptable writing style. I had a manager at a restaurant who employed a white 3-ring binder that he called the “server tome,” filled with schedule sheets so we could all look up when each member of the waitstaff was going to his or her second job. I didn’t really know what “tome” meant and years later I was reading a novel with word “brackish” that was very overused. Even in its overuse, I couldn’t figure out what it meant by the context. It had to do with water – that I know because it was always used in the context of “brackish water.” What I’m trying to say is that I will likely overuse certain words that will tend to annoy you because, while I find them alluring in some way, they may stand out due to their repetition. For example, I’ve been known to overemploy the word “plethora” in addition to “copious.” I actually have no right to call out copious instances of brackish water due to my own hypocrisy. But see, that’s one of themes of this book – hypocrisy. Some of the themes will be subtle and some will be annoyingly, cloyingly hammered in by a deluge of metaphors. But hey, butt hay!
Speaking of butt hay, I shite thee not, I actually referenced stiff dried grass and rectums in an email exchange with a teaching assistant once, unbeknownst to me at the time. More on that later (but I’ll hint that the reference contained tomato soup). That’s for you, Monkey! Okay, now I’m just getting inside jokey. See, this book is a bit of an inside joke in itself, my inside insight for humanity, not that anyone was asking. But, if you ever felt the need to buy a product from me after I bought one-of-a-kind stretch pants or substandard chocolates from you, you won’t need to invest in a series of my off-brand literature because I’m putting everything together in this aforementioned tome. My mom is a writer and she’s a big fan of italics so I may have inherited her penchant for stylistic repetition as well. But more on apologizing for one’s genetics or upbringing later too (I mean, I think there will be more later. Isn’t that a topic that preoccupies many of us? If I need to start somewhere though, I suppose I will actually start with an onion.
An onion is a base for almost all savory food. And yet, my dad and my friend, Becky, hate onions. So, I need to accommodate them too. I hate the taste of fish. Really hate it. My brother married a gal who doesn’t like olives. But wait, you don’t understand. She doesn’t like black or green olives. Imagine that! I didn’t put quotes around that to delay the surprise, but my dad actually had great concerns in this area and said that exact thing. He has a favorite onion-free cabbage salad that several women have desperately tried to duplicate for him over the years, tweaking this and that to get the perfect saltiness and tang. Through various analyses and samplings that were increasingly approaching “the real thing” by Grandpa Tucker, I’ve meticulously reproduced the complexity of the Tucker salad and the associated culinary processes here:
Buy coleslaw mix
Buy a jar of sliced green olives
Open the jar of olives
Pour the jar of olives, with the juice, over the cabbage.
This is a true American recipe. And Tucker was a true American, the farthest back of both sides that I know of. His real name was Graddix, but even his parents didn’t know.
My kids are named for their grandpas, but only their middle names. Their first names are nearly as devoid of meaning as my midwestern, white bread middle names – meant for filler and syllable harmony more than anything else. Coworkers from India regale me with explanations of their religiously inspired children’s names, while I try to make the fact that my mother in-law was reading a book with a character in it whose name we liked seem like a noble move. And I had a neighbor once, who was really cute and nice and he had the name of my second son (confession #1: I don’t remember the kid. My brother remembered him and I thought he had a cute name so maybe if I say “he” in honor of my brother’s memory it will mean something. Wait, it’ll mean the wrong thing. So, I just say I had a cute neighbor with that name). Anyway, here’s my first direct piece of advice – go nuts on middle names.
Well, back to the philosophy of this book. It starts with an onion because one skill I have been complimented on and would like to share with you is my construction of salads. In the grand tradition of the book I didn’t write, I hesitate to use measurements. I claim artistry, but it’s actually based on laziness, another overarching theme of this work. Laziness or inertia, I’m not sure. I was assigned an essay on inertia by Mr. Hoenig, my 10th grade English teacher and I think about it often. I’m 42 and have almost reached the point of defining inertia. Hoenig means honey in German, by the way. Also, there was a Minnesota Twin named Chuck Knoblauch who was part of the winning world series team and if he had visited Germany, they would have heard, “I’m Chuck Garlic.” My extensive food vocabulary in German stems from my proximity to the border for a decade in France and the depth of the discounts across said border. Billig!
See, though you might never get the actual meaning of the word Billig (they capitalize nouns in German, huh!), it will help your brain carve its way around understanding if I share this graphic with you: [author intends to insert a picture of a fist slamming down with the word ‘Billig!’]. Lots of produce went on sale in Germany. My favorite was the endives – a whole bag of endives for 1 euro. Billig, indeed. And, oh the irony, I remember two words for carrot, but none for onion. But I digress.
There are rules in France that I like to respect. Maybe they’re not rules, but principles. Here are some that I’ve come up with:
- Every meal should have a cooked vegetable (légume) and a raw vegetable (crudité)
- Garlic is good, but detectable (don’t overuse)
- Spinach doesn’t go with tomato (I disagree so I’m not sure why I included this one)
- Cheese to bread ratios shall not be judged
- On that note, cheese can be a meal
- Americans put cheese on everything
This, again, is a long intro to tell you why it’s so vital to make good vinaigrette. The first principle I noted is one I either noticed or someone told me, but it nestled into my heart as truth. Different properties of plants come out with different cooking techniques and it’s important to vary the veggies. What I’ll call salads are actually the gambit of raw vegetable dishes to fulfil this rule. My whole family feels better when we have greens every day. However, winter sometimes dulls the appetite for salads, but we still keep a box of baby/spring greens around for good measure. Lately, we’ve been buying cheap cabbage salads from Aldi, essentially non-gross coleslaw (Grandpa?). If you already make your own salad dressing, don’t waste your time on this chapter. It’s sort of like learning cursive. It’s not hard or necessary, but gives you that air of je ne sais quoi in these trying times.
So cut up some onion. Or don’t, Becky. I accept you. If you did finely dice an onion, salt it and pour some acid over it.
Acid: citrus juice – lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange or vinegar: apple cider, balsamic, wine, white, rice
For salt, waste your money on anything fancy or just buy Morton’s. The girl with the umbrella is cute. The salt is not good, but you don’t really want to be one of those salt people, do you? If you must know, I prefer sel gris de Guérande. It’s flavorful and irregularly shaped, possibly full of plastic because of the natural harvesting process, and reminds me of a young woman giving salt tours who had a binder not unlike the server tome that she tapped with a very specific hand motion. I saw the back of a hand of a young man who sold cellphones in another country tapping a clipboard with the same understated zeal and in my mind they are a couple. They have never met, but in some universe there they are, discussing salt and taking turns trying out Google Cardboard. Nick and Laney.
Let the acid cook the onion a bit and throw in some herbs if you have any. In my ripe age, I have yet to master planting enough basil. I always pinch it off before it can grow back. One year I planted 14 pots of basil and didn’t have enough. Then they got powdery mildew. Dog gonnit. Anyway, dill, parsley, cilantro (if you are not genetically disposed to thinking it tastes like soap), basil, lemon balm, rosemary, whatevs. I just have to go back to that parenthesis – I read an article about cilantro taste being genetic, but I swear on my honor that I used to think it tasted like soap and now think it tastes delightful and fresh. Apparently, my genetics changed when I got pregnant a third time. For realz, I also read something about how male fetuses slightly modify their mom’s DNA in vitro by adding a snippet of themselves so that the Y chromosome mass is not rejected. Really! So if you have a biological son, you actually become related to your male partner. Wow? Yes, wow. I used to be cold all the time (for 20 years at least) until I was pregnant with the little hotbot. Now I’m normal. And I like cilantro. Baby #3 was gene therapy.
So, herbs and onions in salty acid, with or without microplastic bits from the Pacific Garbage Gyre. Now add the oils. Oils? Yes, oils. Variety is the spice of life. Olive, sesame, roasted pumpkin seed, avocado, walnut. I think sunflower oil tastes like plastic, but a lot of French people like it so go for it if you like. There’s probably no additional harm in eating something that tastes like plastic when you’re already eating plastic like a bird from the Midway Atoll.
You now have a tart and savory vinaigrette that you can flavor to your liking for green salad. My mom always asked me to make vinaigrette because she said hers wasn’t salty enough. My mother in law makes the saltiest dressing in continental Europe. If only there were a way for them to collaborate on a symposium to get to the bottom of this conundrum. Oh, wait. They could just taste the vinaigrette. That’s how you make the vinaigrette taste good, you taste it. This would seem intuitive, but it’s like that ancient mystery of how to make a sandwich taste more mustardy. Enigma indeed.
Speaking of mustard, it’s an emulsifier so if you like your dressing to be of a unified nature like Dogcat (Catdog was copyrighted), swirl some in. American or Dijon style will work; I read somewhere that all the mustard seed for French production comes from Canada anyway. You can tell what culinary ingredients people use in a culture by what allergens are marked on labels. In France, instead of peanuts, they warn you about mustard and celery because they are in everything. As an American would put garlic in everything, so would a Frenchman use moutarde – in pizza sauce, fondue, anything that needs a little ping. You used to see a little mustard crock as a condiment on every French table, next to the salt and pepper. Incidentally, tables identify as women in France and use the pronouns la/elle. I couldn’t figure out how kids could memorize all the genders of inanimate objects until I realized they learn them with the article (la table, le vagin), so essentially all words start with “L” in French minds. There is an Olympic level of gymnastique needed to effectively transpose and foment the anglophone-inspired controversy of identity politics to French.
So what else could you throw in that dressing? Perhaps some umami. I couldn’t get my French students to debate the death penalty (nary a barbarian to be found in this regard), but they are hardliners about Maggi. If their maman used the flavor enhancer – think concentrated soy sauce or Marmite – which she probably did if she’s from Alsace, they have a hard time eating less salted greens. And vice versa. The umami could kill it for a non-adept taster. But if you have a difficult time getting young ‘uns to chow down on the omega-3 wonderland of greens, try some umami in your vinaigrette and they may decide to ditch the plethora of chip products ending in -ito for some salad with nuts. Nuts make the salad crunchy and, according to my dad who ate only cashews for a month, anti-inflammatory. Maybe cashews aren’t actually nuts though. Anyway, Dr. Bragg’s liquid aminos are a good fit for umami. Speaking of which, here’s a recipe for Rainbow Salad, which any kid will eat:
- finely diced firm vegetables of any kind (carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, radish, kale, bell peppers, onion)
- add some other dominant flavor – herbs, grated ginger or something spicy
- lemon juice and liquid aminos
That’s right, no oil this time. I’m partial to salty, acidic dressing only for hard veggies, not oil. They keep for awhile in the fridge or to send along to school in a glass off-brand Tupperware that will undoubtedly leak, but temporarily ease your bisphenol-A oriented mind. Here are some good non-oily combos. Note the simplicity – French salads often feature one vegetable or flavor combination:
- Cucumber with salt, apple cider vinegar, white onion and dill
- Shredded carrot with lemon juice, cilantro, salt and a tiny bit of powdered cumin
- Raw shredded beets with lime juice, orange juice, mint, parsley and chives (okay, that’s more ingredients, but really good)
- Tomatoes with basil, shallots, and balsamic reduction (sea salt if you’re into that sort of thing)
But wait, there’s more! You haven’t ventured into creamy dressing yet. For the love of peat moss, let’s get crazy. Back to that cucumber salad from above…cucumbers are sort of boring. Here’s a way to make them delightfully delicious:
Leave the skin on or grate off about half of it – I find removing half the skin is a good balance of vitaminery, crunch and bitterness.
- Slice or chop cucumbers and put them in a bowl with some salt sprinkled lightly upon them like a dusting from a divine fairy. If you’re on team onion, include this too.
- With the same divine fairy energy, sprinkle some white balsamic or rice vinegar onto the cukarellis. They both usually come in the type of bottle that encourages restraint so you’ll have to activate that old Champagne-elbow and get to work.
- Once the cukes release some cuke water, pour this off into a mug for your immersion blender. What? You don’t have an immersion blender? Any you never learned to read! We’ll get through this – you can also finely chop, but you could also just give up now and go to night school. I didn’t mean to offend the non-readers, but you can see how I might exempt them from exposure to the offending content. An immersion blender is not expensive for its utility, much like community-based education for life skills such as reading.
- Throw some fresh basil into the mug. What? You still have the thing that came with the blender for mixing things? Well, good for you. Do you want a medal? I use a mug. Also, don’t throw the basil. Due to it’s shape and mass, it won’t fly very well and you’ll just make a mess that the dog will clean up, if he or she is into eating fresh herbs, which I hope is the case. So stuff some basil into the mug and let the blender rip. The cuke juice should allow you to mix the basil into a uniform paste/liquid/mush – it’ll be a surprise.
- Transfer the green matter back to the cukes and pour some heavy cream atop. Stir and mentally prepare yourself for recipe requests. You can refer them back here if you don’t remember how to use pencils, but you might have to explain the challenges associated with this method if your cucumber loving confidant is an individual of Type A.
On the pencil note, I highly encourage you to procure an electric pencil sharpener. Your life will improve. I have a box of golf pencils that my son shortened himself out of sheer joy. The waste is worth it.
This recipe format is getting annoying, even for me. You probably can’t bear my attempts at wit peppered into the salad recipes. But this is not a recipe book. Or is it? I just went back to add a link to the novel that overused the word “brackish” in case you were intrigued. It turns out the author’s name is Michael, who is a woman. I had a step-cousin named Michael who worked in a video store and she was female as well. I often went into the store (it was a Mr. Movies) to see if they had “Splash 2” yet. I’m still waiting for its release.