Ad Hoc Broccolini Salad for Home Cooks

I love experimenting with foods, second-hand.  While I don’t always create the most unique dishes on my own, I always try to re-create imaginative dishes I’ve enjoyed at restaurants.  It need not be anything too outrageously inventive.  Two of my favorite re-created items now served regularly in our kitchen are Asparagus Risotto with Truffle Oil (a dish I first tasted at the Chef’s Station in Evanston) and Butternut Squash Ravioli with Mascarpone Cream Sauce and Toasted Hazelnuts (from Zia’s Trattoria in Chicago).  As long as I can identify component elements and am able to discern underlying flavors or spices, I enjoy meeting the challenge of conjuring up that magical dish in my home kitchen.  “Re-creating Restaurant Dishes” is essentially my constant Iron Chef challenge.

Sometimes, restaurant dishes are faithfully represented in a celebrity chef’s cookbook.  Other times, dishes in cookbooks are just a shade less interesting (less restaurant-worthy?) than they tasted on site.  Such might be the case with a broccolini salad that Will and I enjoyed at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Napa Valley.

Last June, when we were in Napa Valley, Will and I kicked ourselves for not attempting to get reservations at the French Laundry.  But trying to get a table seemed a difficult endeavor, involving calling the restaurant exactly 2 months before the date you wanted to reserve for.  Plus which, the projected tab for the dinner—no doubt exquisite and worth every penny—seemed prohibitive, especially during a recession. . . for those of us in the 99%.   So we passed on dining at the French Laundry and contented ourselves with taking pictures of their vast herb and vegetable garden. 

But wait! There’s another Thomas Keller restaurant called Ad Hoc (so Frommer’s told us), and it turned out there was Bouchon as well, and the Bouchon Bakery.  Indeed, the strip of Yountville seemed to fairly teem with Thomas Keller restaurant spawns.

We liked the concept at Ad Hoc.  (Click here for their website with a sample menu so you can see what I’m talking about:  You reserve your date and time and show up.  They feed you whatever they are serving that day, and you hope that you don’t have an aversion to those particular dishes.  (It helps if you don’t have dietary restrictions and are not repulsed by any particular meats or fish…) 

Our main course happened to be pork roast (very large bone-in stuff, that), and our desserts of little financier cakes and made-from-scratch butter-caramel sauce were delightful.  But we’ve had pork roasts before—and even excellent financier cakes and homemade caramel sauces.  What we were surprised by were the broccolini salads they brought out to begin the meal.  I suspect that others have that reaction too as I heard a server describe the salad to another table and confessing that he devours the savory salad as if it were candy.

After our Napa Valley trip, we purchased the Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  They do have a recipe for a broccolini salad, but I’ve never tried making that.  It’s not the same one.  Instead of the recipe in the book, I refer back to mental notes I made of the meal afterwards and re-created the dish we tasted at Ad Hoc.

Since I don’t cook this from a recipe, I am going to outline some basic steps.  You can, of course, change the dish entirely and put your own stamp on it.

1.  Parboil the Broccolini:  Put a large pot of water on to boil.  While the water is heating up, take about a pound of (organic) broccolini and trim any parts necessary to produce lovely and fresh pieces without any dried out end parts or withering tiny leaves.   When the water has come to a full boil, salt it slightly and then throw in the broccolini.  Depending on how large the pieces are, you want to parboil them no more than 5-6 minutes.  Make sure they are still firm and bright green—not limp and dark green—when you take them out of the boiling water.  Either drop them into an ice bath or rinse with cold water in a colander and rinse again and again until they are cool to the touch.  (You want to stop the cooking process with the repeated cold rinses.)  Drain completely.

2.  Toast the Pine Nuts:  Either place about a ¼ cup of pine nuts in a dry pan over medium-low heat for 3-4 minutes, or toast in a 325 degree oven for about 5 minutes.  You want to toast them without the nuts getting too brown and bitter.  Remove from heat and let cool.

3.  Prepare the rest of the salad:  Drain and rinse a can of chick peas (garbanzo beans); thinly slice some red onion; crumble to produce about 1/3 cup feta cheese; and crack open and pit about ½ cup of large castelvetrano olives (or other good quality large green olives).  

Note: Castelvetrano olives, if you can find them, are great for this salad.  They are firm and much brighter a green than other green olives, and, as the package below describes, "mild & buttery."  Place a large chef's knife over an olive and apply pressure (by lightly pounding once with the heel of your palm) to crack open.  After that, you should have little difficulty extracting the seed from the olive.  The irregularly cracked large pieces of olives lend a sense of the salad's freshness.

4.  Make the Dressing:  Combine about 1/3 part olive oil, 1/3 part mild-flavored nut oil (like walnut oil), and 1/3 part sherry vinegar.  Season with coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Shake in a jar or stir until the mixture emulsifies into a dressing.  (Note: If you don’t have a nut oil, you can just use 2/3 part olive oil.) 

5.  Assemble the Salad:  Place the broccolini on the bottom, then pile the rest of the salad components on, then pour over the dressing and lightly toss.  Then sprinkle the pine nuts over.



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