Saturday, November 27, 2010

What is a waldorf anyway, a walnut that’s gone off?*

New York city: the Waldorf Hotel. Circa 1893-1896. Oscar Tschirky. Swiss. Not a chef.

Apple. Celery. Mayonnaise. Later addition: walnuts.

The Waldorf Salad.

Its genius lies in its simplicity. Like coleslaw, so very, very dependent on the quality of the ingredients. Like coleslaw, so easily and so frequently the victim of grave injustice.

The key is crunch and bite. The crisp clean taste of very, very fresh celery. Inner stalks only, with the tender pale green leaves retained for garnishing. Tart apples, preferably peeled. Granny Smiths are perfect, that hint of sourness to their juicy sweetness. And walnuts. Toasted. Some puritans insist that they are also peeled. I have never found this necessary.

Nothing is more important than using fresh walnuts. Or conversely, nothing is more rank than the taste of rancid nuts, the oils sour and foul. My preference is to purchase mine from a specialist nut-purveyor at the market. I know that they will be correctly stored and have frequent turn over. In a pinch I will buy them in vacuum sealed packets, sold in the supermarket next to the dried herbs and spices and sugars and salts (understandably my favourite aisle in the dreaded supermarket).

And then there is mayonnaise. At which point I give up. I am overly sensitive to what I consider a crime against both condiments and salad dressing: the mayonnaise jar. How a sauce so beautiful has become something so unredeemably fetid I cannot comprehend. I can usually find it in me to be at least a little understanding of food choices that differ from my own, but mayonnaise? Like the ungodly offspring of cream and industrial solvent, industrialised, commercialised, commodofied, squeezy-bottle mayonnaise has no place in the hallowed grounds of the waldorf salad.

I find homemade mayonnaise gentler and richer than any store bought jar (and I do grudgingly admit, some are better than others, and indeed almost edible). It is easier too, to tailor one’s dressing to the salad. A hint of mustard, a little walnut oil, thicker rather than pourable, the better to bind the ingredients without drowning them. A good discipline to learn: a basic emulsification, the miracle whipping of eggs yolks and oil. Less recipe and more technique.

And like every canonical recipe, the Waldorf Salad suffers from the non-canonical reinterpretation. So my secret: soak the apples in apple-cider vinegar for 15 minutes to enhance the sweet-and-sour qualities. A hint of cream cheese in the dressing. And slivers of shaved mouse-tailed pink radishes, hot and peppery and a pop of colour.

* Faulty Towers “Waldorf Salad”, 1979

Waldorf-ish Salad

Serves four as a side or light lunch

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1 cm dice.
1 ½ cup celery, cut into 1 cm dice
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
¼ walnuts, toasted (roast in a moderate oven for about 6-8 minutes)
½ cup mayonnaise (approximately)
1 tsp cream cheese (optional)
6 breakfast radishes, thinly sliced or shaved.
1 tbsp small celery leaves
1 tbsp extra toasted walnuts

Mix the apple and celery with the apple cider vinegar in a non-reactive bowl (ie, not metal) and leave sit for about ten to fifteen minutes (meanwhile, make the mayonnaise).

Mix the cream cheese (if using) into a quarter cup of mayonnaise, then toss with the apples, celery shaved radishes and toasted walnuts. If necessary, add extra mayonnaise until the salad is coated but not drowning.

To serve, scatter with extra walnuts and celery leaves.

Great with chicken or turkey.

To make mayonnaise:

2 very fresh egg yolks (keep the eggwhites for macarons or meringue or soufflé or something equally delicious. They freeze well too).
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp vinegar (white wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar)
250 ml oil (any kind of oil is fine. I like olive oil, which can have a strong taste. Sunflower oil or canola oil also works just fine)
Sea salt and white pepper, to taste

Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature.

In a large non reactive bowl (I use pyrex for just about everything) beat the egg yolks with the mustard and 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Beat until smooth and creamy looking.

Drizzle in 1 teaspoon of oil, and beat until fully incorporated. Drizzle other teaspoon, and beat until fully incorporated. Continue this process, drizzling and beating in tiny spoonfuls of oil until about half the oil is combined. Then, drizzle the remaining oil in a very thin steam, beat constantly until the mayonnaise is the desired consistency. Taste, and add salt and white pepper if needed.

Can be made with a wooden spoon or hand whisk or even electric beaters. The trick is the very slow incorporation of the oil into the egg yolks.

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