August 10, 2012
This week we have another guest post from Dr. Ingrid Nelson. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the story and recipe as much as I did! Ingrid’s composed salad lends itself to both creativity and the use of leftovers. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach! -Chloe
The best fish I have ever eaten was a trout simply fried served on a white plate under a tree on the roof of a restaurant overlooking a cerulean blue river from where the trout had been plucked. The flesh was firm and tasted of cold snowpack water, bright sun, and deep misty valleys planted with walnut trees. In short, it tasted of where it came from—high in the Dinaric Alps of Albania.
When traveling, I have noticed that the best foods taste like where they come from. I wasn’t a big fan of figs—mushy and sickly sweet was my opinion—until I picked one off of a tree in Montenegro and popped it whole into my mouth. It literally exploded with delicately flavored nectar, soft flesh, and crisp little seeds that crackled when I bit into them. I looked around the garden I was standing in. There was hot sunshine and a cool salt breeze off the ocean scented by the flowering shrubs that grew around the fig tree. My fig tasted exactly like this. Since then, I have searched the specialty shops of Manhattan for an even vaguely similar experience, but without luck. I guess it’s back to Montenegro for my next fig!
Other examples come to mind: eating oysters in Wellfleet on the patio of a bar next to the bay, air thick with the scent of drying seaweed and the sound of gulls cawing as they dive for food; a plate of tiny strawberries in France that were sweet yet somehow grassy, just like the field we were sitting next to.
I’ve even used this connection between food and place to treat my patients suffering from allergies. In the spring or fall, when their eyes are itchiest and their sneezes most uncontrollable and none of the prescribed chemicals help at all, I have suggested a trip to a farmer’s market for some locally produced honey, to be taken three times a day. The theory is this: as bees pollinate the local flora and fauna they take in small amounts of the pollens that produce allergic symptoms. These pollens then appear, in a more processed form, in their honey. Regular exposure will gradually produce tolerance and a cure. Sometimes, this has even worked!
Of course, local eating is not always salubrious. Many years ago, after a long hike on a difficult path in the north of Greece a friend and I arrived at a little village. We went to the local taverna, a dank and poorly lit room, where we were each given a shallow bowl containing two round brown objects that had been stewed in a brown gravy. I was as hungry as I have ever been, so I dug right in. Expecting meatballs, I was a bit surprised by the springy, somewhat chewy texture. I was mulling this over when my friend said with horror: “Oh my God! These are rocky mountain oysters.” Appetites gone, we beat a hasty retreat back to our campsite passing, on the way, herds of lambs and goats. Was their sad, downcast look real or only in my imagination? That night was an uncomfortably guilty one.
Which brings me back to the Albanian trout. We were sitting at the Valbona restaurant in the northeast region of Tropoje. The Valbona River, which originates high in the Alps, was just below us. It is a remarkable shade of blue produced by the snowpack that feeds it, the limestone massif it cuts through, and the clear mountain light it reflects. Our friends Aberdeen and Abdullah had brought us to this restaurant for a farewell lunch, as we were on our way back to Tirana. A large composed salad was the centerpiece of our meal. It consisted of a long platter heaped with cucumbers, roasted and marinated peppers, tomatoes, and onions; chunks of feta cheese; tzatziki with lots of garlic; olives; and, oddly, french fries. Sometimes Albanian composed salads include stuffed grape leaves as well but this is usually in the south, closer to Greece. In springtime, in the north, there are always stalks of fresh raw garlic. The salad was served with a few smaller plates of fried cornbread dusted with fresh cheese. We got started on this as we waited for the trout.
This particular arrangement—composed salad and bread in the center and the more expensive protein dish served to the side—is a feature of many meals I have had in Albania. It makes sense both economically and for health. And, it tends to highlight the piece de resistance—in this case, the trout.
And they were perfect, absolutely perfect. Fried to a golden hue, about six inches long, and beautifully fresh. There was only one problem: the heads. Small heads with fragile jaws, tiny teeth, and sad staring eyes. Should we eat them or not? I wanted to be polite and eat the fine meal our Albanian friends had invited us to as it should be eaten. But heads and eyes?
I looked discreetly around the table. Abdullah, the artist and poet, picked up his fish by the tail and devoured it whole, starting with the head. He swilled each bite down with deep draughts of chilled red wine and then licked his fingers noisily. Aberdin, the cool and collected businessman, left the heads to the side and carefully dissected flesh from bone while he took an endless series of telephone calls.
Hmmm, I thought with relief. I guess anything goes. But I also realized that I had to choose my eating method wisely because it would most certainly reveal my character!
These are a great centerpiece to a summer meal. The trick is to prepare and dress each ingredient separately, and then arrange them on a serving platter in a pleasing way. Use what is fresh and local: always tomatoes and cucumbers, with string beans, beets, or whatever catches your fancy. Peppers are best if you roast and marinate them for this will impart some sweetness to the platter. While the Albanians like to include fried potatoes, I think a potato salad, lightly dressed in oil and vinegar, is better. Don’t forget to include savory ingredients such as olives and feta cheese. And always have a mound of freshly made tzatziki in the center. Here’s a recipe:
- Low fat greek style yogurt and sour cream, in a proportion to your taste. I like about two thirds yogurt to one third sour cream. This will keep the texture thick and not watery.
- Fresh garlic, crushed, to taste
- Cucumber, cut small, salted and drained
- Fresh dill
- Olive oil
- Diced dill pickles (optional)
Dice the cucumber, toss with a generous pinch of salt, and let it drain for about 20 minutes. Combine the drained cucumber with the rest of the ingredients and refrigerate for at least half an hour or overnight.
*Note: I think all Greek yogurt with a squeeze of lemon juice would be a decent substitute for the sour cream, but only in a pickle, so to speak.