Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Combine in a small saucepan:
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds reserved
The first heat wave of the season is always a shock. The days have been so temperate this spring, with regular rain and lush greenery, that I had almost forgotten how unbearably hot and humid the southern summer becomes. But here we are again.
To be honest, this sort of weather is my least favorite part of living in the South. Over 80 degrees, I turn into a delicate flower who needs smelling salts and iced tea. No wonder southern belles were so fragile--beneath all that crinoline and lace, heat waves must have felt like the world was going up in flames.
Thankfully, we've moved on to tank tops and Chacos and generally more reasonable expectations for how women should dress.
This weather ushers in the official start of salad season for me. Of course, spring is probably a more appropriate time for eating salad, as lettuce fares worse in the heat than I do, but for me spring is all about dancing on that line between hot and cold, rich winter dishes and light summer dishes.
Fortunately, not everyone's lettuce patch has wilted. In fact, this has been a truly magnificent year for salad greens of all sorts. As farmer's markets become more popular, farmers are planting more unusual vegetables to satiate a public easily bored with romaine and radishes. From vividly purple kohlrabi to slender and delicate fingerling potatoes, I've noticed a definite upswing in peculiar vegetables.
This is all to the advantage of the adventurous cook. When I find something at the farmer's market that I've not tried, I always buy some just for experimentation's sake. I mean, it's just a vegetable. The worst that can happen is that you find out you're not crazy about it.
Thus, our salad of purple mizuna and arugula. Arugula I know. A pure pleasure for the jaded palate, mixing arugula into any salad provides a peppery contrast to the prevailing bland lettuces on the market. Arugula can be expensive, so we usually end up mixing it into less pricey greens such as spinach or bibb lettuce.
Purple mizuna, on the other hand, is something new even to me. Variegated and deeply lobed, it has a fresh, slightly peppery flavor (although not to the same extent as arugula). A Japanese green, it can serve as a salad or for garnish, which is what I recommend you use it for. While it can be treated like any other green--steamed, boiled, sautéed, stir fried--it is still rare and expensive enough to be a poor choice for cooking into oblivion. Besides, it's such a lovely thing that I can't imagine wanting to cook it.
Arugula and mizuna combined are flavorful enough to stand up to a racy salad dressing--something bold and garlicky came to mind when I sampled the raw leaves. Then, I remembered the jar of preserved lemons in our pantry. I made them some time ago for one of our JOY recipe tests, and, having never used them before, was at a loss as to what to do with them.
As it turns out, they're wonderful for adding a bright, lemony, and complex flavor to most any dish that needs a lift. I've included the recipe for making the lemons here (and they're very easy to make), but you can find them at most Middle Eastern and Asian markets for a decent price. As you know, though, I always think that if you can make it yourself, you should.
If you're not a fan of garlic, this dressing may not be for you. I would normally tell you to just add less garlic, but not this time. The garlic makes this dressing. Without it, the lemon is just too sharp and astringent.
These lemons will keep for a year if submerged beneath their brine. Always remove the lemons with clean tongs to avoid contamination.
Wash and dry thoroughly:
2 pounds lemons
Spoon into a sterilized (to sterilize, place the jar, lid, and ring in boiling water for 5 minutes; dry thoroughly) wide mouth quart jar:
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Roll the lemons on a countertop, pressing down firmly to help them release their juices. Quarter each lemon lengthwise, stopping 1/2 inch from the bottom so the quarters fan out but remain attached at one end. Squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl, being careful not to tear the quarters apart. Gently open the lemons and sprinkle the inside with:
1/2 teaspoon salt per lemon
Pack the lemons into the jar, sprinkling over each layer:
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Pour the accumulated juice over the lemons. If the juice does not cover them completely, add more fresh lemon juice to cover. Be sure to leave 1/2 inch headspace at the top of the jar. Slide a spatula down inside the jar to remove any air bubbles. Wipe the rim of the jar, place a piece of plastic wrap that's been folded into a square over the jar, and screw on the lid.
Place the jar on a plate (it may leak some liquid--this is fine) in a warm spot to cure for one month. Every time you think of it, turn the jar upside down to redistribute the salt and juices. When ready, keep the lemons in the refrigerator or a cool place. They can be added, with great success, to soups or stews, casseroles, lamb and chicken dishes, or stuffings (among many other things).
Preserved Lemon Dressing
Makes about 1/2 to 3/4 cup
Combine in a quart jar:
Half a preserved lemon, very finely chopped (this will be a paste)
3 large garlic cloves, grated on a rasp grater or very finely minced
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Shake the jar to combine the ingredients. Serve with flavorful salad greens, such as arugula, mizuna, watercress, endive, escarole, frisee, dandelion greens, or radicchio.