Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Autumn Update: Pink Pomegranates and Yali Asian Pears

Last Saturday was our first fog. Fog is the beginning of clarity for me, oddly enough. And though around February it can get a little old, it is a welcomed sight after last week's heat wave. To tip my giddy scales, yesterday, it rained. In celebration I bought a few pounds of pears and a few too many pomegranates at the farmers' market. I couldn't have been happier: my nose was cold.

From the bounty of the market I made this salad. It is sweet and fruity, pink and pretty, and grounded just enough. It is my attempt at recreating a similar fruited lentil salad I made in early September while we were in Washington. I haven't told you about that trip yet, nor the salad. Until now I just didn't know how.

It wasn't only the simple fact that I had no real recipe for the Washington salad (just a list of ingredients and the memory of taste). It wasn't only that I had no photographs of the trip except a few pictures of the Gum Wall in Seattle. It was also, and mostly, that it was such a big trip, such a turning point trip, such a so-nice-to-be-back-in-the-Pacific-Northwest trip, that I just haven't yet wrapped my spirit around it.

And then that salad--the one that begot yesterday's pomegranate beauty? Well, it came out of a rain cloud or something. It had apple and blueberries in it and was ribboned with basil, celery leaf, and mint. Sounds rather nice, but it looked homely. Lentil salads usually do. But that salad made up in flavor what it lacked in looks. It showed up two cake monstrosities (both of which I made and spent too. much. time. fussing with), and it reminded me that the simple things in life can more than sparkle.

It was Great Grandma's 90th birthday, and we wanted to celebrate with pizazz. So I baked the ubiquitous carrot cake, doubled, and a certain (incredible) German chocolate cake, also doubled. So what if one was half the height it should have been and the other broke apart? Nothing a little icing couldn't help.

But that blasted, simple lentil salad stole the show. It was unexpected. It didn't shout for attention like the cakes did. I think people liked that. They spooned it onto their plates thinking it was just another healthy salad, and then tidileedee! A little salad faery tapped them on the forehead, and they were blessed. Secretly I think it was my mood while making it that must added a magical--ooh, enchanted--touch. The lentil salad just made me happy. I got to pick herbs from my aunt's garden. A garden, I might add, that is a little meadow surrounded with billowy trees and mountains on all sides. Quite the little plot. It was green and cool and gorgeous. Once inside the house, I got to tinker and chop and taste, and I didn't have to measure a thing. Unlike the cakes.

When party time came it was clear what my culinary triumph had been. It was not cake. The salad was what spurred the thumbs-up. The salad recipe was what the two lovely ladies wanted when they gave me their email addresses (ok, and the German chocolate cake, it was good). But despite the enthusiasm, those requests have sat untended for nearly two months. It wasn't until yesterday that I finally got myself in order. After all, there was no recipe. Usually I just get a bored and start chopping. And usually I don't write down any notes. 

But yesterday I saw the pink pomegranates on my counter. And then I saw the Yali Asian pears. Bingo. I had been a little stumped as to how to really recreate the salad when there weren't any blueberries around, but then there were those pomegranates. And there was a bowl of pink peppercorns in the corner by the stove that I'd gotten out to make ice cream. The rest is obvious. I started chopping. The sparkle happened.  And maybe a faery tapped me on the head because this time, I took notes. Here's to hoping the faeries come more often, and the sparkles of the simple shine on.

Fruited Lentil Salad, or, Lentil Salad with Pink Pomegranate and Asian Pear

I was precise about my measurements, but use this recipe as a guide. Swap out regular lentils for black, golden balsamic for the champagne vinegar, et cetera. Just be aware you may need to then alter other parts too (example: some vinegars are milder than others). And for those who are not familiar with lemon basil, it tastes like lemongrass rather than actual lemon and basil. It is used in Indonesian cuisine and is my new favorite herb. Naturally, then, lemongrass simple syrup could substitute, as noted below. One more thing: I've given the blueberry approximation of this salad at the bottom. 

1 1/2 cups cooked black beluga lentils
1/2 cup pink pomegranate kernels
1/2 cup chopped*, Yali Asian pear or other crisp variety
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon basil simple syrup**
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pink peppercorns, crushed

Combine lentils and fruit in a medium bowl and set aside. In another small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients until emulsified. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add vinegar if it tastes flat, oil if too sharp, syrup if too dull, and salt if too bland. Add more pepper if you like extra zippididoodah. If you must have nuts, try raw slivered almonds, as any toasted flavor will overwhelm this salad's delicate nature. And finally, I suggest serving it as I did, at room temperature, but cold could be nice too. Enjoy!

*I did not follow this advice this time, but for the first salad I did: try to match the size of the pear (or apple) to the size of the pomegranates (or blueberries). It is less jarring to the mouth and more pleasing to the eye, at least in this case.

**To make the simple syrup: bring 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water to a boil, add 1/2 cup lemon basil blossoms and leaves and simmer for a minute. Take off the heat and let steep and cool. Strain and store in a jar in the fridge for a while (they usually say a week to three weeks, I (sheepish grin) keep mine for months.

For a lemongrass simple syrup, do as above but instead of the basil add to the syrup a stalk of lemon grass, sliced in rounds. Substitute is equal. Add a tablespoon of chopped basil to the salad.

Or, if syrup irks you, chop up a couple tablespoons lemon basil and use a tablespoon of honey for sweetness. You may need to add more of both.

For the late summer version:

Swap out blueberries for pomegranates and tart apples for the pears. Use apple cider vinegar instead of champagne vinegar, honey instead of the lemon basil simple syrup, and black instead of pink peppercorns. Add to this: 1 sliced green onion, 2 tablespoons chopped basil, 3 tablespoons chopped celery leaves, and 1 tablespoon chopped mint. Top with fresh goat cheese and toasted walnuts, or nothing at all.

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