Normally I wait to write here until some synapse fires connecting something that happened in the kitchen to something that happened outside it.
All quiet on the synapse front these days.
There are so many reasons for my mental flat-line. Here’s one: my beloved lunatic Dog B, silky grey cherished bane of my existence, has begun to pick up speed on a slide into some kind of canine dementia even though she is not especially old. This is provoking all manner of deep, soul-draining considerations of What Constitutes A Life Worth Living and side excursions into Who Gets To Play God. On a less profound level, her condition is also provoking a lot of cleaning up the floor and daily instances of finding her inexplicably stranded inside the wood box in the furnace room in the basement or stuck under a table. Because I am the sun of her days (everyone is the bread of heaven for some creature), she sometimes leaves off pacing in circles around the room to very very quietly pad up under my feet while I am cooking, and then I trip over her and she screams like a rabbit and then so do I. It’s not especially relaxing for anyone, though there is a maudlin kind of humor to the whole mess that is sometimes the only kind of humor on tap, and one must take humor where one finds it is my personal credo of survival.
This dog situation has nothing at all to do with salad, except that the dog is pacing around the table in endless circles as I’m writing and was underfoot as I mixed the dressing. But salad is what I have to feed you, so let’s talk salad.
We had an epic salad at the tail end of our trip last month, at this wonderful restaurant that my sweet nephew took us to for dinner. By the time we got to Seattle, home of the sweet nephew and the epic salad and the wonderful restaurant, we had been traveling for over a week. My kids had narsty headcolds and a little bit of guest room fatigue and we had progressed northward from climatically perfect San Diego's sandy beaches to Seattle’s signature cold urban rain. Even so, the kiddos maintained the jolly humor that is of primary importance to travel, and they ate every single weird thing that landed in front of them at this small-plates establishment, including a salad of roasted papaya and queso fresco. It should be noted that no one in my house but me eats papaya. And yet it was universally snarfed.
It was crazy simple, this dish, and hardly a salad in the strictest sense since it was composed mainly of hot cheese and utterly devoid of vegetables. I vowed to recreate it at home, according to the (later proved incorrect, though I don’t think malice was involved) insistence of the server that the papaya and cheese were roasted in a hot oven.
If they were, it was a magic oven. Roasting them in my hot oven produced a mush that was quite delicious (hello, Hot Cheese; I am always here for you) but more along the lines of a winner in the alone-in-the-kitchen-standing-up-hoovering category than a qualifying entrant in the Presentable On A Small Plate Sweepstakes. I am sparing you a photo.
I spared myself the chore of creating a balsamic reduction, which I’m pretty sure the restaurant had deployed, by resorting to a little life-hack-ish combo of balsamic vinegar and honey that is entirely worth the 45 seconds of time it takes to whip it up, no matter what you put it on and what manner of mammal you are stepping on as you do it.
After I made home version #1 of the salad, I text conferenced with the nephew, who obligingly returned to the restaurant (it is across the street from his apartment, thankfully) to eat the salad again, and we agreed we had a pan-roasting situation on our hands. Bingo was his name-o. I sent him a picture of the final result and he (a little accusingly, to my ear) observed that I had “healthified” the salad with the addition of greens. I suppose it’s a fair analysis. It’s just that it's harder when you’re at home to call a bowl of hot cheese a salad, and frankly it's also harder to eat it when you are out of vacation dining mode. The greens also make a more forgiving atmosphere for the roasted items, which in a home setting are not getting whisked to table at their precise au point moment of readiness. Somehow in a tangle of greens that all works out fine.
Anyway, given that local food is not quite back up out of the ground in my mercury-schizoid home zip code, and given that the elements in this concoction are almost always available in the market, this was a cheering little thing to whip together, far fancier in its end result than the steps to get there would suggest. The third time I made this, it was for dinner at a friend’s house, and I just re-heated the already-roasted pieces very quickly in her hot oven before tossing the salad and noted that all of that worked out just fine.
A note on the cheese: some of the cubes will not fry up gorgeous, as you can see below.
You or another person in the vicinity will likely feel compelled to eat these in order to dispatch them quickly, which is why I've suggested you fry up five ounces of cheese when in fact you probably only need three or four for the salad. With the extra queso fresco that you haven't fried (it usually comes in blocks of 10 oz or so) do make a beeline over here for these beauties. They'd make a handsome accompaniment to the salad.
salad of papaya & queso fresco with mint
2T balsamic vinegar
1T excellent honey
1 clove garlic
half a large papaya, firm ripe
4 oz baby arugula
5 oz queso fresco, straight from the fridge
a little olive oil for the pan
handful of fresh mint leaves, finely minced
handful of raw cashews, finely chopped (optional)
half a lime
some coarse salt
Whisk the olive oil, honey and balsamic vinegar together in a small bowl until they come together nicely. Peel the garlic clove and use the flat side of a knife to crush it lightly. Stir the garlic clove into the dressing and allow it to sit there while you do all the other stuff.
Seed and peel the papaya, and cut it into cubes of about an inch by a half inch. Slice the queso fresco into cubes of a similar size. Heat a well-seasoned cast iron skillet over medium heat, and skim it lightly with oil. Working in batches and keeping them spaced well apart, lay the cheese cubes in the hot pan and cook undisturbed until the underside is seared and toasty; flip and repeat for the second side of what is now a small pancake and no longer a cube, and remove them to a small plate. When all the cheese has been cooked, sear the papaya cubes, again taking care not to crowd the pan or space out and make papaya jam. If you'll be reheating them later, lay the cheese and papaya cubes on a parchment-lined tray.
At serving time, remove the garlic clove from the dressing and discard. Toss the greens and the seared cheese and fruit with about half the dressing, the minced mint and the cashews (if you are including them) and taste and add more dressing until you like the degree of coatedness of the various elements. Drop a sprinkle of coarse salt, a grind of pepper and a squeeze of lime over the bowl and toss again.