Disparate Elements

Last Friday, I made a tuna Niçoise salad for dinner. For those unfamiliar with this concoction, it contains green beans, boiled potatoes, black olives, tomatoes, marinated tuna, anchovies, chopped hard-boiled eggs, and a vinaigrette-type dressing. It sounds utterly bizarre, and it is, but it’s also very tasty.

It must be said, I merely enjoy this salad. My DH loves it almost more than he loves me, to the point of writing love letters to it and holding forth on its merits in wonderfully eloquent style every time it appears on the table. As he waxed rhapsodical over the dish, I started thinking about the recipe, and why it works.

Tuna Niçoise salad, as described above, is comprised of rather odd ingredients, few of which belong together. It’s also a dish that was either invented after the advent of rapid long-distance transport, or comes from a region with multiple growing seasons. Probably the latter; Nice is quite temperate. So it’s reasonable to assume that this salad is legitimate ‘peasant food’ in the Mediterranean, and the ingredients are sourced locally.

I’m not a connoisseur of food by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve cooked enough to know that certain things play well together. I didn’t expect boiled green beans and potatoes to combine well with fresh tomatoes, or with tuna. It’s simply not something I’d ever thought of. But it works surprisingly well.

The other merit of this dish is that it has so many disparate ingredients that you can’t fit all of them on your fork at once. Well, I suppose you could, but you’d need a rather large fork and very steady hands. Most people have to get by with tasting only a few of the flavors at once. And these ingredients produce a lot of different flavor combinations, so you never get bored of it. Each bite is different, and they come together to form a cohesive whole.

They tell me I’m obliged to spin this post into something writing related. Um…

Okay, how’s this? A story needs to be a cohesive whole, so the reader can follow it from beginning to end. But it doesn’t follow that the story must be boring and predictable. Don’t be afraid to take ideas and tropes from other genres and thread them through your plot and characters to add a little sparkle to your work. You may find successful combinations that you never thought would work out.

Back to food, and it’s your turn! What weird recipes are in your cooking repertoire? What ingredients shouldn’t logically go together, but turn out wonderful despite your expectations?

26 thoughts on “Disparate Elements

  1. First, I love Niçoise salad, but only with fresh tuna, so I have it rarely. Second, vanilla ice cream with chocolate balsamic vinegar is quite tasty. Third…
    Well, there isn’t a third. Oh well.

    1. I do, too – when I was in college, we had a Vietnamese refugee foster living with us who called it “Salad Nuk-Wah.” Yeah, it was fun living with Kiet.
      One of my own frequently-prepared recipes is a combination of rotelle pasta with sautéed tomatoes, red peppers, marinated artichokes, fresh basil leaves and a couple of other things, tossed with cubed mozzarella cheese.
      Food of the gods, people, food of the gods.

  2. Hot wilted spinach with fresh orange or strawberries. It sounds so odd, and looks so blech, and tastes so good.

  3. Does it count as a “weird recipe” if one just transcribes it incorrectly and has no idea what one is doing? I have a PDF of my grandmother’s cookbook. I’ve transcribed it into Google Docs. I thought I would try Orange Cake. There is a meta-issue here: I’m not a cake baker and the recipe has no instructions, just a list of ingredients.
    I thought it was a bit odd that the recipe called for 1.5 cups of flour and 2 cups of SwansDown cake flour (why both?), but what do I know about cakes? 6 egg yolks and 0.25 cups of orange juice is not enough liquid for that; it turned into a brick in the mixer. I tried thinning it, but that just made lumpy paste. Threw that out. OK, maybe it was supposed to be 1.5 cups of water. That made an interesting almost-custard, but definitely not a cake.
    The frosting recipe calls for 5 egg whites. Hey! I have 6 of them laying about from the previous cake attempts; I’ll just use that. Mistake. The Italian butter cream turned into runny icing.
    Looked up the original. It was sugar, not flour (or water). Meanwhile, talked to several people about cakes. There’s also supposed to be oil in a cake recipe. So, I looked around the Intertubes for orange cake recipes. I found out that SwansDown used to make a premixed flour with baking powder and salt added (in a green box). They no longer make that, but kindly supply the formula. Williams-Sonoma (dot com) has a reasonable looking version.
    Attempt three turned out great – except my oven heats unevenly and the closest-to-oven-center sides of the two cake pans (layer cake) rose more than the the outsides. Of course, it wasn’t symmetric enough to just stack tall side over short side. The pans also do not have vertical sides; they are slightly slanted. Stacking the cake created a lopsided ziggurat. Pouring the rest of the previous frosting – adding a jar of marmalade to it didn’t thicken it (surprise!) – on it didn’t really help the aesthetics. A ziggurat in a lake of orange frosting tasty enough, but not very pretty.
    Attempt four has not yet been made.
    I’m thinking I need to do a Julie and Julia thing and vlog my adventures trying to make all the recipes in that cookbook. I’m not adverse to admitting my cooking ignorance and by the end, I’d probably be a decent baker (lots of cakes and cookies in that book).

    1. I forgot to mention: The “put parchment paper on the bottom” step of the instructions (from Williams-Sonoma; grandma apparently knew this) is only somewhat optional. I did manage to get the cakes out of the pans, but it would have been simpler to cut the circle of parchment paper.

      1. You also forgot to mention how much oil you ended up putting in….. inquiring minds, etc…

        1. Grandma’s recipe:
          1 ½ cups sugar
          6 eggs (whites separate)
          1 orange rind
          ½ cup orange juice
          2 cups Swansdown™ flour (after sifting)
          [SwansDown™ used to make a “green box” flour that had baking powder and salt preadded, like Bisquick™; they no longer make this.]

          William-Sonoma’s recipe:
          1 ½ cup sugar
          6 eggs (room temperature)
          separated plus 2 egg whites
          1 orange zest
          ½ cup fresh orange juice (room temperature)
          2 ¼ cups cake flour, sifted
          1 Tbl baking powder
          1 tsp salt
          ½ cup vegetable oil (canola recommended)
          ¼ cup water
          ½ tsp cream of tartar

          Next time, I’m leaving out the “plus 2 egg whites”; there was a bit too much batter for my cake pans. I’m willing to grant the cream of tartar to common knowledge, since “fold in egg whites at the end” is not documented, either. The extra 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water may cancel out. But leaving out the oil definitely seems like a mistake on grandma’s part (although not as severe as my changing the sugar to flour).

    2. I watched a British bake off episode about orange cake. Mary Berry put a whole orange in the middle of the cake. I think you should try that next time. Then tell us how it did.

      Mind, I don’t recall if she peeled it or not.

      1. I think it would have to be done as part of the layering process. 9 inch cake pans (at least mine) are nowhere near deep enough to fit an orange. Orange sections scattered throughout might be interesting. First, I need to get a cake that doesn’t look as if it was built by drunk Mayan’s.

        1. I don’t know; Drunk Maya might be better than stoned Olmec, Inca on heroin, or Aztecs on meth.

    3. > my oven heats unevenly

      Sigh. “They had *one* job…”

      You can even out the temperature somewhat by using a baffle if your burner or heating element is on the bottom. Another steel cookie sheet will do; glass cookie sheet would better. Set your steel cookie sheet on top of the glass one with some trivets to keep it from direct contact.

      Now, back to wondering why nobody puts circulating fans in ovens…

  4. Sour cream mixed with brown sugar. It is the best fruit sauce ever.
    I don’t know if that’s even a recipe or weird but it’s fabulous.

    1. I adore that. Sour cream, brown sugar, and white grapes. I brought it to a friend’s bridal shower once. They dubbed it “eyeball salad” but that didn’t keep them from eating the entire bowl.

  5. My Ancona wall oven has a circulating fan that I can program for certain settings. Foreign made, ordered through Costco, 24 inch so won’t take a full half sheet pan, and reliably cuts out after several minutes at any setting over 400 F. Only wall oven the size to replace one that died of old age. Mostly I bake at 350 so no big deal.
    Tuna? Either sushi grade lightly seared or canned in water (oil tastes better, but OMG)
    Mix with sweet relish and my grandmother’s secret salad dressing (mostly sugar, vinegar, dry mustard, and a few other things)
    Toasted tuna salad sandwiches with chicken rice soup has always been my comfort meal when sick with a cold, flu, or just a crappy cold wet day.
    And I found that my oven actually does a better job with toasting at the lower temp, nice char on the bread and enough time that the tuna salad gets fully warmed.

  6. I used to make sour cherry pickles and then put the leftover juice in my spaghetti sauce.

  7. Tangines. Seriously. “You’re putting apricots and prunes and honey in a meat dish? And nuts? And saffron and orange blossom water? Are you nuts? And Argan oil? You are aware there’s beef or chicken in this dish, right? And tomatoes, and peppers, and onions? Oh, and olives, because olives and apricot totally go…. together?”

    But it all works out.

    1. Mmm, tangine. I have a recipe for something similar- chicken or turkey with orange juice, kalamata olives, leeks, and dried cherries. Sounds bizarre; tastes great.

  8. I’ve never tried making it: the recipe I have makes twenty quarts! but I had it at a cousin’s as a child: mincemeat pie. Not the mock mincemeat you can buy at the grocery, but the kind that the recipe looks like the child of a meatloaf, a pecan pie, and a fruitcake.

    1. I love real mincemeat- I use the 20-quart recipe from Fanny Farmer, cut down to size. And if some of the proportions aren’t quite right, no big deal; mincemeat is such an ancient concept that every cook probably had her own recipe.

      1. Or did after the first batch. “You know, this is pretty good, but the boss likes spicier food, and Old Bridie says this will be a bad year for plums. What if instead I used . . . “

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