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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mysterious Pairings


 Oh, the mysteries of chemistry.
Wait, that sounds like my high school self moaning about one of my most dreaded classes:  Sophomore Chemistry, and that's not what I'm talking about here.  
Don't we all know couples that cause us to wonder, “how on earth did those two ever get together?!”
          Exhibit A:  Ross and Rachel.  
          Exhibit B:   A former college roommate and her straight-from-the-50s,  a-woman's-place-is-in-the-home husband.
As I say...a mystery!  Well for me, this doesn’t just apply to people, but to ingredients as well.

Who hasn’t read a modern restaurant menu lately and wondered how “persimmon, amaranth, candied pecan, vin cotto and brown butter” ended up on the same plate together?  I kid you not.  This is a real life example pulled from a local menu.  And what is amaranth anyway?  
Had to look that one up, and I give you, straight from Wikipedia:
Amaranthus, collectively known as amaranth, is a cosmopolitan genus of annual or short-lived perennial plants.  Some amaranth species are cultivated as leaf, vegetables, cereals, and ornamental plants. 
Whaaat?
There are definitely times when I see odd combinations of ingredients in a recipe and like many people, I hesitate.   But I’m here to tell you it’s worth going forth boldly in cases like this, at least in the world of cooking and eating.  Whether you should go on a second date with the guitar-playing lawyer, well, let's leave that up to you.
When it comes to unconventional ingredient lists, I would suggest if even one element seems intriguing to you, GO FOR IT!  What’s the worst that can happen, really? 

 
Last night I made a salad that falls into this category.  Although they may not sound radical, the components were interesting:  spinach, dates, pickled red onions, pita bread and almonds.  Not ordinarily something I’d jump on but what caught my eye was the addition of sumac.  This comes from Ottolenghi’s book, Jerusalem and since I started cooking from Jerusalem, I’ve found I really love the taste of sumac.  It gives things a smoky, tangy depth that's indescribably alluring.  And, wouldn't you know it...with this salad, it's a stroke of brilliance.  
Here's how it goes:   
You do a quick (20 minutes or so ought to do it) pickle of thinly sliced red onion with slivers of dried dates (dates!  I know!  How often do you cook with dates?!)  in some champagne or white wine vinegar. While that's happening, you saute a couple handfuls of torn  pita bread with some coarsely chopped almonds in a combination of olive oil and butter.  The smell of the pita bits and almonds getting toasty and golden brown is intoxicating here.  You've been warned.  Once you've achieved golden toasty pita bit nirvana, sprinkle the combo with salt, some chili flakes and the aforementioned sumac and you're in the home stretch.  Wash your fresh spinach leaves and then toss with the pickled onion/ date mixture and combine with the toasted pita/almond goodness.  The sumac envelopes it all in that unique, smoky, tangy embrace that is indescribably delicious while the variety of textures provide a chewy crunchy symphony of tastiness that somehow all just works.  Don't ask me to explain how...it's just, chemistry.