Before I go any further, let me make a few things clear: First, the “white” in this case doesn’t refer to the Christmas (in fact it was 40-something degrees in New York that day, with the kind of crisp blue skies on quiet streets that could make even the Grinchiest of New Yorkers love their lives), but to the salad. Second, this salad may well represent the apex of my culinary life to date, the end result of a combination of inspiration, working with what the moment presented, and restraint: or everything I have learned about food and cooking so far. And thirdly, sadly, I did not take a picture.
The idea for this salad came to me and my friend Steven on the eve of Christmas Eve, when we had dinner at one of countless fabulous new restaurants in our fabulous West Village neighborhood, Dell’Anima. We didn’t order the salad but the people next to us did: endive spears arranged in parallel lines on a long platter. For our Christmas dinner, we wanted a bunch of different colored side dishes: roasted carrots, something green, so this would be our white.
We bought the ingredients and intended to copy the salad. On Christmas night, Steven started meticulously arranging the leaves on narrow, one foot-long platter. It was a nice idea, except that we were serving 25 people and doing it this way would take him twenty minutes and as many platters. That’s when we got the idea. Actually I got the idea, which is significant because I rarely have any ideas that are better than Steven’s, especially when it comes to the way things look. But alas he’s the decorator and I’m the food person so I threw it out there. “Let’s toss it all together and make a big white mountain of a salad!” I said with the kind of courage of conviction that makes you feel like you have a place in the world. I added shaved fennel because I love a simple salad of shaved fennel and olive oil. And I put the cheese on top, like snow. (My idea for this was based on Pasta alla Norma, the official dish of Sicily, where shaved ricotta salata shaved over the finished dish represents the snow that never melts on Mt. Etna. Well, maybe it melts now that the globe is warming but that’s another story…)
The salad was perfect. I have added it to my mental list of Things to Bring to a Christmastime Dinner, along with the Sicilian-Style Cauliflower and Sourmash Apple Cobbler that most of my friends are probably sick of by now. Steven and I were so excited about and proud of our salad that we’ve thought of using the salad as inspiration for an all-white meal but we have yet to invent the other dishes. I’m thinking pork bathed in milk. (Not kosher.) Roasted cauliflower. A potato gratin. Vanilla ice cream. “I thought you said you wanted color,” Steven’s mom said as we couldn’t stop bragging to each other about our Snow Salad. But as Steven says with regards to choosing paint, “White is a color.”
To make Snow Salad for six…
Start with four heads of endive. Take the leaves off of the spears and put them in a bowl. I don’t wash endive. (There, I said it. I also don’t wash endive. I don’t wash radicchio. And I don’t wash fresh herbs unless I taste a leaf and find I am biting into sand.) Take one fennel bulb, cut it in half and carve out the core. Lay it flat. (The one specific piece of cooking advice that Alice Waters told me when I did an internship at Berkeley was that whenever you have something round that you want to cut—say, a fennel bulb or an onion or a head of cabbage—the first thing you want to do is make it flat. This can usually be done simply and easily by cutting the thing in half.) Slice the fennel bulb into thin half-moons and throw them into the bowl with the endive. Hopefully while you have been doing this, you’ve talked someone into shaving a small wedge of Pecorino Romano cheese into thin slices. Do this with a big sharp knife or a vegetable peeler. Don’t buy the already shaved stuff. It dries out and loses its flavor. At least that’s what Nancy told me and she has the best palate of anyone I know so I believe her. Add half of the cheese slices. Squeeze lemon juice over the salad. Drizzle with good quality olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and toss. Taste the salad and add more of any of the above if it tastes like it needs it. Dump the salad onto a platter or into a low-sided bowl. Top it with the remaining cheese, and serve. We put it in a gorgeous slate-gray bowl by a company Steven likes called Mud