When your good friend turns 75, invites his closest friends to a dinner in which each guest will contribute a different course, and then specifically asks you to make a salad because “you make THE best salads” (I blushed,) you look back at all the salads you’ve ever made for him or anyone else to find THE salad of all salads.
You see, this dinner wasn’t your average potluck. And our birthday boy Eugene Philips is not your average home cook. He is one of the best recreational cooks I know. He thinks about every meal hours, days, sometimes months in advance. And that’s one of the many reasons we became fast friends.
When John and I first moved to NYC, we saved up for the occasional glass of wine and plate of pasta at the bar of Felidia’s. Ruben was our bartender, and would chat us up and top off our glasses, knowing that we were not their average customer. One evening, eleven years ago, Ruben introduced John and me to Gene and his husband Brian, two of his other bar regulars. It was a month or so before our wedding. Gene and Brian ask us about our wedding food, and we told them that we were cooking it all ourselves. They didn’t balk or spit out their wine mid-gulp like most people did (even folks in food business.) Instead they smiled and pulled their chairs closer to us. We pulled our chairs closer to them, too.
Since that moment, we have been friends. John and I follow them around like baby ducklings. They travel for food – they are fortunate, and newly retired. Scotland, Japan, Myanmar, Mexico, France. We follow them whenever we can. Because they don’t just travel – they cook the food and create the traditional dishes of the place they are visiting. They go to the markets, take a cooking class, eat like the locals, and cook from traditional cookbooks. It doesn’t hurt that they adore our children and vice versus. They are part of our family now.
For the big three-quarter century event, I chose a chicory salad from Upland, which I wrote about for Bloomberg Pursuits a few years back. When I first tasted it, I couldn’t figure out what I was eating. And that’s because I was tasting the most subtle, umami-infused pixy dust breadcrumb I’d ever had. They should be called bread “gold,” not crumbs. Anchovy fillets are dehydrated in a low-temperature oven until your home smells absolutely amazing or absolutely fishy, depending on who you are.
Then you crumble the dehydrated anchovies into a powder, and mix them with breadcrumbs. This pixy dust is delicious on salads or sprinkled over buttered spaghetti. A dust and salad fit for the king of home cooking. Happy Birthday, Eugene!
Chicory-Watermelon Radish Salad with Anchovy Crumbs
Adapted from Justin Smillie of Upland
Serves 6 as an appetizer; or 3 as lunch
For the anchovy crumb:
⅓ pound (about ⅓ large loaf) Italian white bread
1 (2.8 ounce) jar oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained
½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons anchovy paste
2½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
½ small clove garlic, finely grated
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the salad:
1 watermelon radish, or other radish
4 cups ice water
1 head Little Gem lettuce
1 head Treviso radicchio
1 head Tardivo radicchio
1 head Castelfranco radicchio
1 small head Lacinato kale
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of about 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil, to drizzle
1. Make the anchovy crumb: Three days before preparing the salad, cut the crust off the bread; discard or save the crust for another use. Cut the crust-less bread into thick slices and lay on a baking sheet at room temperature to dry, ideally for three nights. (In a pinch, you can dry the bread for just one night but grind it a second time after toasting the crumbs, step 3 below.)
2. The night before, preheat the oven to 175°F. Lay the anchovies flat on a wire rack set over a small baking sheet. Set in the oven until dry, 8 to 10 hours.
3. The next day, preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the bread slices in a food processor and puree into fine crumbs. Spread the crumbs on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Let cool completely. Place 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs in a small bowl and stir in ½ teaspoon of olive oil; set aside. Reserve the remaining breadcrumb for another use.
4. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the dried anchovies into a powder. (Alternatively you can crumble them using a rolling pin.) Combine the anchovies with the oiled breadcrumbs and set aside.
5. Prepare the salad dressing: In a medium bowl, combine the anchovy paste, Dijon mustard, honey, and garlic. Whisk in the red wine vinegar. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
6. Prepare the salad: Using a mandolin, thinly slice the radish. Place the slices in an ice water bath and let soak for at least 15 minutes.
7. Remove the leaves from the heads of Little Gem, Treviso, Tardivo, and Castelfranco. Remove and discard the spine from the kale and tear the leaves in half. Wash and dry the leaves well, if needed.
8. Make the salad: Place 6 large handfuls of mixed leaves (about 12 leaves of each green) in an extra-large bowl. Place ¼ to ⅓ cup of the dressing around the bowl, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the anchovy crumbs over the greens, and toss together using clean hands. Taste and season as needed with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil (about 1 tablespoon of each). Place the dressed greens in shallow bowls and tuck in some radish slices in each. Divide 1 tablespoon anchovy crumbs among the salads and sprinkle on top. Serve immediately.
Note: Dehydrated anchovies will keep for up to 3 weeks. Anchovy crumbs are best the day they’re made but will keep for a few days.