There's a chapter in Amanda Hesser's culinary-romantic memoir Cooking for Mr. Latte where she talks about developing her repertoire - the go-to dishes every cook goes back to, meals friends and family request, specialties that become the cook's particular signature.
Along those lines, in my house we call this "Signature Salad." I think it was the first item in my repertoire, though it didn't really emerge until I was almost 30. I cooked in my 20s, but mostly for myself, in my shoebox of a kitchen on the upper West side of Manhattan - pasta with garlic, experiments with bread and kreplach, caponata and pissaladiere and pasta frittata from the New York Times and back issues of Gourmet. I shopped at the Union Square farmers market and in the ethnic stores on Ninth Avenue, and I entertained, but my apartment was small and my dinner parties unambitious. I didn't have a repertoire to speak of because I didn't cook for the same people over and over, unless you count my parents, who liked everything I made.
At least, that's what I remember now. I've noticed that when I think back to prior decades my memories have all the clarity of Monet's cathedrals; I can make out the points and the outlines, but up close the details are quite hazy. I know I had dinner parties when I lived in Manhattan in my 20s. Let's see, there was an orphans' Thanksgiving, where I made my first turkey and dropped the pumpkin pie made by a friend of a friend on the floor. There was an election-night celebration the day Bill Clinton won his first term - no idea what I served, but my friend Judith showed up with her arm in a cast, having slipped in the bathroom at work. One Mother's Day I had my parents and grandparents over for lunch, where I served poached chicken breasts with a lemony vinaigrette.
The rest of that period is a blur. Early Alzheimer's? God, I hope not. Guess I'll have to do some research - friends, no doubt, will have retained memories I've long since let go. (If anyone for whom I cooked in the early 90s is reading this, please share.)
In any case, when I met Michael and moved to California (and then New York and then California again), and we started having people over more regularly, my menus did settle down a bit. "Signature Salad" became the stable element within a more variable dinner-party lineup. It's not so much a recipe as a method: greens, something creamy, something crunchy, and something sweet, dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and sprinkled with flaky salt. Most of the time the greens are baby spinach, but not always. For the creamy, goat cheese or feta. The crunchy element might be almonds, walnuts, or toasted pumpkin seeds. And the sweet note can be dried (raisins, cranberries) or fresh (halved grapes, tangerine segments, sweet Bing cherries in season). It's a light lunch if you add roasted or grilled chicken.
I'm still working on the rest of my regulars: the perfect roast chicken, simple soups, biscuits, the yogurt cake I can put together on a moment's notice (with variations). But with this salad in my hip pocket, I know I'll always have at least one hit on the table.
Spinach salad with goat cheese, almonds and black grapes
- 1/2 cup slivered almonds
- 2 bags ready-to-use baby spinach, washed and dried well
- 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
- 1 cup seedless black grapes, halved (or quartered if they're huge)
- 2/3 cup classic French vinaigrette
- a few pinches kosher salt or fleur de sel
Put the spinach in a large salad bowl. Crumble the goat cheese on top with your fingers, then add the grapes and toasted almonds. Pour on the vinaigrette, sprinkle with the salt, and toss with tongs until the ingredients are well combined. Serve immediately.