Apologies for the downtime here; I’ve been a bit mired in details. When we last tuned in on our hero, he had made a reasonably simple dish of frozen lettuce and red wine vinaigrette. I wanted to extend on the experience, and ended up going in a few different directions.
My favorite salad topping is croutons. If I’m being 100% honest, I’ll have to admit my secret favorites are the super-cheap bulk kind you can buy in Wal Mart, mainly because that’s what I grew up on. My mom wasn’t a crouton lady when it came to salads, so as a kid my exposure to croutons was limited to Saturday night dinner after church service in Leitchfield, at Carolyn’s Townhouse Restaurant. This place was maybe a short step up from a diner, and my family ordered the same things every week. My dad got the buffet and stripped it of chicken; my sisters got pears with cottage cheese (a dish that still kind of makes my mouth feel as curdled as it did when my friend Kris sent me a link to this cookbook). My mom went for the salad bar, and by around 7th grade my tastes had matured away from the usual hamburger I had gotten up until then, and I decided to hit the salad bar too. In addition to the wonders of French dressing (my mom’s household was a Thosuand Island one, and that shit is gross), I found the crouton bin; it didn’t take long before I was making salads that were 70% toasted stale garlic bread bits.
So. I wanted to try to make a chic crouton. Where to begin? My favorite type of bread is Pumpernickel, with light rye being second. I can buy the latter down here, but not the former, so before I could even consider making a pumpernickel crouton, I had to figure out how to make pumpernickel bread.
It took me about 7 attempts before I got a loaf that I considered good. My first few failed miserably, my next ones were ok but pretty boring. So I tried taking the boring ones and remaking them, adding dashes of random ingredients (one loaf saw me dump a tablespoon of Ranch popcorn seasoning into it. SHUT UP. This made sense in my head: crouton, salad, ranch dressing. I thought “Oh man, Grant Achatz is totally going to read this and think I AM A GENIUS and invite me for a free meal and offer to pay for my ticket from New Zealand because of my clever thinking”. The loaf didn’t even attempt to rise and smelled AWFUL). I was venting my frustration one day to my friend Kevin, who loaned me a cookbook that totally turned me around. This book is seriously awesome, guys. It had chapters on chapters about breadmaking, the science involved, every little detail carefully explained. Using it I made a pair of loaves that were what I’d say every bit of what I wanted (incidentally, what I wanted was that bread Outback Steakhouse serves with butter. That shit is AWESOME).
Having been able to successfully bake a loaf of bread, I tried to think up ways that I could present the crouton. More than anything I wanted to make it into a serving dish of some sort. I tried all sorts of things…smearing dough onto the back of a bowl and baking it, wetting baked bread and trying to mold it into a shape, building various architectural pieces that I tried to assemble after toasting the croutons.
Unfortunately, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. In this case, I couldn’t come up with anything clever. Also toasting pumpernickel too much singes the molasses it contains, which made it taste not so great anyway.
Another direction I went was playing with the greens and salad toppings. One of my favorite restaurants in Wellington is Moyses Taverna, a greek place that serves cabbage and mint salad with oil and lemon juice. It’s simple and delicious, and lends itself to being presented in this form. I also made some of Thomas Keller’s amazing basic vinagrette I mentioned last time; this turned out pretty ok, but our crappy fridge’s freezer hovers just below 0, so it doesn’t have the muscle to freeze vinegar well. I ended up with something closer to vinaigrette sludge, which still tastes great.
In the end though, all I really managed to do was freeze some different types of liquids, which is hardly laudable or interesting I think, so I’m considering this particular endeavour subpar. The silver lining was definitely the breadmaking experience.