When I was a girl, in a small town in eastern Kentucky, restaurants were built around salad bars. Even the Wendy’s, on a little highway across from the river, boasted a salad-and-potato bar. In my memories, I shuffle around those salad bars on Sunday afternoons, after church, on the patterned carpets, sporting my slick-soled flats and little-girl pantyhose with humiliating runs up the backs, gathering and regathering salads onto heavy, icy plates that popped up from beneath the counter. Iceberg lettuce and sunflower seeds, ground bacon bits and finely shredded cheese, croutons and melba toast. Ranch, honey mustard, Italian, Catalina, Russian. No one had ever heard of “salad greens” or balsamic vinegar. We liked it that way. I’m sure the salad bars accompanied a main dish, but I don’t remember those.
The only other kind of restaurant I remember is the sort that specialized in great heaps of deep-fried things: seafood, and french fries, and hush puppies. (They also included a little plastic dish of coleslaw, which seemed more like a condiment than a real side dish, and which I always just pushed off to the side.) This sort of restaurant belongs to the weeks of sunburned shoulders and salt-burned eyes, to summer vacations on the Atlantic coast, when Mom washed us clean of sand and dressed us in sunsuits before taking us out to dinner. I remember one dinner at a big, noisy restaurant in Myrtle Beach when the waitress kept bringing more hush puppies for my little brother, who was then a brown little guy with big eyes and a bowl haircut. That is, I think, my only memory of hush puppies as anything other than some, sad, oily, neglected thing at the bottom of the golden-fried pile.
And then I grew up. Today, “hush-puppy-ish” is an (invented) adjective to which I aspire. Hush-puppy-ish cornbread ascended and salad-barry salads descended, crossing in the middle of the barometer of my affection sometime in my twenties. (Though I have to admit that I still enjoy a salad-barry salad now and then, huddled next to a salty quarter-pound hamburger on a forgettable bun. Yum.)
In this house, we eat almost all of our meals at home (no salad bars and no deep fryers to be found) and sometimes we take our joys on the side, the main dish shrinking in importance, outshined by the bright “house salad” or the hush-puppyish cornbread. Next time your own meal plan seems a little flat, try one of these side joys for a little relief.
In a big bowl, combine…
A big pile of salad greens (we like “spring greens” mixes, and I like pre-washed ones, for obvious reasons)
Some roasted and salted mixed nuts and/or seeds (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and pepitas in any combination), chopped
A couple tablespoons of sweetened dried cranberries, dried cherries, or raisins, chopped if they are big
Some crumbled feta cheese (Sometimes we like a little blue cheese or goat cheese, for variety, but I definitely recommend a soft-ish cheese with some salty tang to it)
A few thinly sliced rings of red onion
Homemade balsamic vinaigrette
Yes, my kids do eat this dressing. In fact, even on days when they don’t want salad, they will eat huge quantities of dressing, sopped up with bread. I keep it always mixed up, on the countertop, in a bottle like this one:http://www.chefscatalog.com/product/28089-emile-henry-oil-cruet-14-ounce-0215.aspx.
If you make it, don’t refrigerate it. Nothing in it requires refrigeration, and cold temperatures and olive oil don’t get along, not if you want your vinaigrette to emulsify agreeably when you are ready to use it.
1/3 cup balsamic vinaigrette
2/3 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
a pinch of salt
Combine in a bottle or jar of some kind, and shake the blue blazes out of it to dissolve the mustard, honey, and salt. A relatively gentle shake just before each use will persuade the oil and vinegar to lock arms while you eat it.
Warning: Make this recipe just once, and you’ll never want to buy Jiffy Mix again. (Of course, it’s not much more difficult than Jiffy Mix, so what have you got to lose?)
1 cup flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
3 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/3 cups buttermilk (This is the key ingredient, and, no, making your own out of milk and lemon juice won’t work just as well.)
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 large egg
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and place a large (8-inch or so) cast iron skillet in the oven while it is heating.
2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
3. Combine the wet ingredients in a small bowl or large liquid measuring cup, and whisk them together.
4. Add your butter to the pan in your preheating oven. Allow it to melt but not to brown. Yank the pan out of the oven and pour almost all of the melted butter into the liquid ingredients. Leave about 1/2 tablespoon of melted butter in the bottom of the pan. That hot butter will create the fried-tasting, hush-puppyish crust on the bottom. Look:
5. Combine your wet and dry ingredients with a wooden spoon.
6. Quickly scrape the batter into the hot pan and bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Of course, when it is done, you can stick a knife in the middle and have it come out clean and all that jazz.
7. When it is done, quickly flip it out of the skillet to cool slightly on a cutting board. Serve it with salted butter.
If you love this cornbread (and you will!), try it with some mix-ins: chopped bacon, chopped chipotles, a few fresh corn kernels, a half-teaspoon or so of your favorite seasoning blend, a bit of shredded cheese, or even some berries.
I try to take my joys wherever I can find them–not because they are scarce but because there is no such thing as too many joys, especially when those joys are as nourishing as these.