I’ve never been a less-is-more kind of person. In cooking as in life I usually go big and bold, or at least offbeat. That’s how I came to marry a man whose current fixation is becoming Amish (visually only, thank god). He already has the oversized blue jeans with farmer’s pockets on the sides. He cut the sleeves off a Ralph Lauren denim shirt so they hang limply right below the biceps. He bought black suspenders. Now he wants a flat-brim hat so he can be, his words, “Japanese Amish.”
“There aren’t many of us,” he remarked the other day. Many?! Honey, there aren’t ANY.
After going out to lunch with him in that get-up, I was ready to tone down my life with nude lipstick, mellow jazz and food that whispered instead of shouted. I remembered a suave pasta salad from Earth Fare that appeared to have just four ingredients: orzo, roasted red pepper bits, capers and Italian dressing. I couldn’t believe something so simple was so good.
Of course, there’s no room for error when playing with so few ingredients, so I carefully set about cloning it. My first try was too fancy — I added chopped black nicoise olives and sun-dried tomatoes, which ruined the flavor. The second time I kept it to the four basic ingredients plus salt and played with proportions. My restraint paid off.
If you’re in the mood for a simple, classy pasta salad, this is it. It’s not Tex-Mex or Cajun or fusion or even Japanese Amish. Thank god.
ORZO SALAD WITH CAPERS AND RED PEPPERS
1 box (12 oz.) orzo pasta
6 tbsp. olive oil
3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tbsp. drained cappers
1/4 cup chopped pickled or roast sweet red pepper
Cook pasta until al dente in boiling, salted water; drain well.
While pasta cooks, whisk together oil, vinegar, garlic, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and oregano in a medium serving bowl. Stir in capers and chopped red pepper.
Add orzo and toss well to coat pasta with dressing. Cool. Serve at room temperature. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
What I cooked last week: Grilled chicken breasts rubbed with Indian spices and marinated in yogurt; roast asparagus with olive oil, sea salt and lemon; rice-cooker jambalaya; grilled t-bone steaks, Italian orzo salad, roast asparagus and chocolate pudding.
What I ate last week in restaurants: Roast beef, baby Swiss and onion sandwich with Italian dressing at Shisler’s Cheese House in Copley; a chili dog, a country apple pie sugar-free ice cream cone and a gigantic pulled pork sandwich with slaw at Boss Frosty’s ice cream stand on Greenwich Road, across from the Blue Sky Drive-In in Wadsworth; boiled crawfish, crystal shrimp, a sweet potato slice, spring roll, beef stir fry and fresh fruit at Katana’s in Jackson Township.
* Katana’s, where Tony and I dined Saturday evening, is one of the buffets recommended by readers a couple of weeks ago. It is huge and it was packed. There were seven double-sided steam and food bars not counting soup, sushi and stir-fry stations. I don’t know if the food was house-made — most Asian buffet food is not — but it tasted fresh and the items were seasoned better than at other Asian buffets I’ve visited. Even the sushi was good, Tony said. Service was excellent.
“Tell your friends thank you,” Tony said after plowing through five or six plates of food.
Unfortunately, Tony will want to return. Although Katana’s is several notches above other Asian buffets I’ve tried, I’m still not a fan. Maybe it’s the businesslike way diners attacked the steam tables. Even while eating, hardly anyone talked or cracked a smile. It seemed like the kind of crowd that could turn ugly if the shrimp ran out.
But that’s just me. Or maybe it’s just Americans at all-you-can-eat buffets.
* CHICKEN IN A JIFF
As you can see in this week’s Gut Check, I no longer cook every day and when I do cook, it’s rarely complicated. The grilled chicken last week is a good example. Early in the day I rubbed two boneless, skinless breasts with garam masala, an Indian spice blend you can buy in many Asian stores or make yourself (which I have done exactly once). Then In a bowl I squished the chicken around with a cup of plain yogurt. I covered and chilled, then grilled it over charcoal on an oiled grid, leaving as much yogurt as possible clinging to the meat. Oiling the grill is important.
The yogurt keeps the chicken juicy and the spices permeate deeply into the meat. It made a luscious, healthful dinner with the addition of roasted asparagus: trim and rub the spears with olive oil on a baking sheet, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and roast at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Squeeze some lemon juice over the asparagus before serving.
* THE OTHER HALF
After chowing down at a buffet you may want to see how the other half lives, gastronomically speaking. If so, go to http://www.thomaskeller.com. In the “restaurants” menu find the French Laundry, and click on “chef’s tasting menu.” You will be transported to a world of duck foie gras torchons with strawberries and wild purslane, and grilled king crab with hen egg terrine and wild ramp emulsion.
The French Laundry is a picturesque restaurant in California’s Napa Valley. Chef Keller strives to perfect every morsel of food he serves in his multi-course tasting menu — the only menu available, which changes daily. I still count the meal I enjoyed there in the 1990s as the best I’ve eaten.
From MaryAnn, Charlestown Township:
Wow. I remember Spanish Bar Cake was my dad’s favorite store-bought item and it came from the Omarket Bread delivery truck. As a rural letter carrier Daddy ate lunch in the car out in the boonies of Southeast Ohio and this cake started moist and stayed moist. The A&P in town was only an occasional stop, but the cake was always on the list.
Also, next time you’re near Deerfield Circle head back to the Edinburg Township line and go to my friend Diane’s coffee shop, the Wistful Cafe and Bakery. Look for the tall signs for the camper place; she is nestled beside it.
Her bakery has outstanding items and I have purchased event and wedding cakes. We have a ladies’ lunch there once a month, and there is a strong community feel. Since she is in the heart of Southeast Schools, she has some dishes that were favorites from the school food service. I love an individual skillet of mac and cheese, or chili. I had a memorable butternut squash soup there last month. Check out her website for menus and specials: http://www.thewistfulcafe.com.
Dear MaryAnn: I drive by there frequently on my way to visit family in East Liverpool, but have never noticed the restaurant. After reading all the raves on the Internet, you can bet I’ll stop the next time I drive out that way. Thanks.