I never thought something as simple as making a salad could remind me of why I cook in the first place.
I cook for a living, but before I made money doing it, I just lived to cook. Making things in the kitchen was my creative outlet, and made people around me happy.
Ever since I was a teenager, one of my favorite activities has been being around friends or loved ones and digging through their fridges to see what needs to get cooked for dinner. I make food without any recipes and pretty much slap it together in an hour or so. For me it’s a way of living in the moment, and enjoying not having to worry about if something isn’t perfect for paying guests at the restaurant. Unfortunately I don’t get to cook like that often, but I do occasionally.
Some of the best food you’ll ever eat is made “a la minute” like that, so I’ve been trying to occasionally set aside the culinary literature and menu development, and remember to just cook once and a while. Chef Eric Ripert has an entire book focused on this type of cooking, appropriately called “A Return To Cooking”– it’s a favorite in my collection.
The last time I just stopped everything and just made something was when an old friend of mine came into the restaurant for her birthday. The friend happened to be my high-school girlfriend. Like most teenage relationships, it ended pretty rough, but we’ve managed to keep in touch and occasionally grab a drink or send each other old pictures we come across.
I wanted to make her something not on the menu, so I looked around for things I thought were special, and then I remembered a dinner I made her that she loved-a risotto with fresh tomatoes. We had a bunch of nice heirlooms that had just come into the restaurant, so I made a salad with them.
I picked out a few tomatoes with interesting shapes, some ramp oil, pickled chanterelles, greens and basil. There were no complicated sauces, reductions or techniques, just a knife and a pinch of salt and pepper. It felt really good to just live in the moment and make something again.
So, if you’re a chef, line cook, prep cook, caterer, home cook, or don’t identify with any of those titles at all, remember to cook without recipes once in a while, improvisation is good for the soul.
Heirloom Tomato Salad with Pickled Chanterelles and Ramp Oil
This is all about the heirloom tomatoes, using out of season tomatoes won’t work for this.
- Ramp oil
- Heirloom tomatoes, as many different colors and shapes as possible
- Pickled chanterelles
- Small salad greens (I used a mix of orach, French cress, and burgundy amaranth)
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- Dash of champagne vinegar
- Shaved cheese, like Grana Padano
- Fresh basil, sliced thinly-you could use whole, leaves too if they’re very small
- Look at each tomato individually and try to cut some of them in different ways to show off their uniqueness, you could dice some, slice some thinly, quarter them, etc.
- Put a few slices of tomato on each plate, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Garnish with some of the basil and the pickled chanterelles, then dress the greens with a bit of the ramp oil, salt, pepper and vinegar and place haphazardly around the tomatoes. Shave a few thin slices of cheese over each salad and serve immediately.