Friday, April 9, 2010

quelle salade

My high school French teacher was a force to be reckoned with.  At scarcely five feet tall, she commanded her classroom with an unyielding abidance for order that belied her limited stature.  I knew that under her surly facade, she was a kind soul with a wry sense of humor and I held her in high esteem.  Whenever she was exasperated by a poorly executed assignment,  she would wave a dismissive hand over the paper and remark, “Quelle salade!”, which roughly translates to, “What a mess!”

By the time I was eight, I had developed an interest in making food.  One of my earliest attempts involved a foraged salad, akin to what you would find in a hip new bistro with an eco-conscious bent.  At said locale, the menu might boast local ingredients such as ‘organic dandelion greens, tender fireweed shoots, fiddlehead ferns and spruce tips, lightly tossed with a smoked paprika balsamic vinaigrette.’   If you swapped the gourmet dressing for an ancient bottle of Catalina dressing, unearthed from the darkest recesses of our pantry, you would have my first attempt at salad making. 

My friend and I were playing in my back yard when inspiration struck.  More often than not, this amenable friend was willing to take part in whatever scheme I dreamed up, making her the ideal accomplice.   I had recently taken a nature walk with someone well-versed in the field of botany and was flush with newfound knowledge on the subject of edible plant life.  How thrilling to discover that the forest and even my own backyard were teeming with wild growing things that I could eat.  We had at our fingertips everything we needed to prepare our very own gourmet salad.

Dandelion greens, essentially glorified weeds, are fairly ubiquitous on the food scene.  Fireweed grows like wildfire in Alaska, hence the name.  Their shoots are savory and delicious, with a texture and flavor reminiscent of baby spinach, only more concentrated.  Fiddlehead ferns have a short season and are coveted in many culinary circles.  They also happen to be the namesake of a beloved, now defunct Juneau restaurant with has a bestselling cookbook of the same name.  Fiddleheads are cooked and prepared simply, in a risotto or tossed with pasta, to allow their flavor to shine through.  Spruce tips are another story.  Consumed raw, their taste is acrid and unpalatable.  The most common use for spruce tips is in brewing beer, where the flavor is subdued and imparts only a hint of pine rather than the feeling that you’ve been punched in the face by a tree.  There are even spruce tip jellies and spruce sorbets, where one can assume that the sugar cuts the intensity.

I got to work, fervently plucking the bitter dandelion leaves, delicate reddish green fireweed shoots, tightly coiled fern heads and pale green tips from Sitka Spruce trees.  My friend gamely followed my lead, gathering  bits of this and that for a salad which she no doubt deemed unfit for human consumption.  While she was reliving the days of making mud pies, I was inadvertently channeling Alice Waters.  I transferred the accumulated greens to a salad bowl before unceremoniously dousing them with half a bottle of the Catalina dressing.

My friend’s vivid memories of our salad misadventure are generally accompanied by a shudder and some good natured finger pointing.  I admit, I may have coerced her into partaking of my ‘inspired’ creation.  Not long after her valiant efforts to choke down her serving, the salad made an encore appearance.  I maintain that the dressing was to blame.  I should have gone with a vinaigrette.

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