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TODAY

Sunday, August 9

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One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying new foods, enjoying new culinary adventures, and opening myself up to falling in love with new foods. You'd think that traveling to Phoenix would mean that I'd be surrounded by Mexican food, or at least Tex-Mex. But you'd be wrong. I'm sure part of it has to do with the area of the city we stay in when we visit family, but it's disheartening to be surrounded by chain restaurants. If I wanted to go to the Macaroni Grill, I'd be a happy camper. But instead I want to try original and local cuisine.

Thankfully on this most recent visit, I got some of that experience without too much trouble. It began with Andrew and I meeting a couple of fantastic people we don't see enough and spending a long evening waiting for a table so we could try what some people claim is the best pizza in the country at Pizzeria Bianco. (And the people who claim that happen to be Chicagoans.) Despite the two hour wait, we were not disappointed. The crust was perfectly thin and crusty, the ingredients were fresh and complexly flavored, and the sides were delicious. However, we were grateful that we have several of our own Neapolitan-style pizza joints to choose from locally so we don't have to travel to Arizona just for pizza.

Later in the trip, while we were sucking wifi at a coffee shop, I decided to try some Columbian-style empanadas. I got the rice and bean filled pies made with a flaky crust and was satiated and happy with my lunchtime choice. In case you're looking for a comfortable coffee shop in Scottsdale, Arizona where you're just as likely to run into parents lecturing their child about the dangers of drug use as you are to run into a tango class, please let me suggest INZA. Named after a section of Columbia, they only serve fair-trade coffee, seem to make all their food items themselves (some of it is cooked outside on their gas grill), and offer up a wonderfully low-key and comfortable environment.

But the culinary highlight of my dining experiences came with a recipe offered and printed by our server at Cowboy Ciao. While dining with several of Andrew's female family members for lunch, the server suggested we share the Stetson Chopped Salad as an appetizer. We were looking at the rich dishes we knew we'd be ordering and agreed that a salad would be a good way to begin the meal. We were skeptical about his claims that we would find ourselves craving the salad; boy, were we wrong.

As we were winding up our lunch, I asked for a piece of paper and a pen so I could write down the ingredients that I thought were in the salad so I could try to recreate it afterward. Our server said "It might be easier if I just print up the recipe for you." We were overjoyed and I decided that I would make the salad to accompany our next night's dinner. There was some skepticism that I would be able to recreate it, but I was determined to try. And I'm happy to say I think I made a successful duplication. And after having a few bites, I even realized (with the help of my lunchmates) what a few of the "missing ingredients" were.

The presentation of the salad was a big part of the appeal. (Click on the "menu" button on the restaurant's website to view an image of the salad.) It was plated so that each ingredient was striped side-by-side in a bowl. After we diners ooh'd and aah'd, our server drizzled the dressing over top and tossed the salad with two large spoons before plating. It was a clever presentation technique. But since we couldn't remember the order of the ingredients, we did our best to recreate the salad stylings on a platter, since we were making it for 12 people.

This is a show-off dish. It requires a lot of ingredients you're not likely to have in your larder. But it is impressive enough that it will be great if you're bringing it to a friend's house for a potluck, or to serve when you're having friends over. And I'll warn you that it isn't cheap. But you'll get enough ingredients in your purchases to make two to three salads. And you won't have leftovers. Trust me.

Since you can view the restaurant's original recipe for yourself, I thought I would provide to you the altered recipe made for four people, instead of two with a few extra ingredients. I'll also provide a recipe for a reduced-quantity dressing since the dressing as their recipe made enough to serve 12 people and still have a couple of cups leftover.

Several of the ingredients used to make the dressing can be purchased pre-made from the grocery store. Or you could make your own. The first option will save you time, the second option may save you money, depending on where you find the ingredients. If you're interested in making your own pesto, you can use one of the recipes I published a while ago, or you could use this recipe from epicurious.com. To make the aioli, which is simply a suspension of olive oil, garlic and egg yolks, I would suggest following this recipe from Gourmet Sleuth, or this recipe from Epicurious. Feel free to omit the mustard if you like.

Modified Stetson Chopped Salad
courtesy of Cowboy Ciao (who I am grateful to)
1 roma tomato, diced
4 basil leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
2 ounces of super sweet dried corn
1 ounce of pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds)
1 ounce of dried black currants (chopped dried cranberries or tart cherries would work)
1 ounce of asiago cheese (chopped into corn-sized chunks)
4 ounces of chopped arugula
2 ounces of Israeli or pearl couscous that has been cooked according to package directions and cooled
3 ounces of smoked salmon, chopped

In a small bowl mix the tomato, basil and vinegar together with your fingers. Place this in a stripe running down one side of the plate. Place a stripe of the dried corn next. Toss the pepitas, currants and cheese together and place in a stripe next to the corn. Chop the arugula and place it in a stripe. Use a spoon to place the couscous on the plate beside the arugula. Finally, chop the smoked salmon and place it in a stripe beside the couscous.

Pesto-Buttermilk Dressing
1 tablespoon of pesto
1/2 small shallot, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons of aioli
several grinds of coarse black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of buttermilk
salt to taste

Place the pesto, shallot and aioli in a blender or food processor. Mix until the shallot is pureed. Add the pepper and lemon juice and while the motor is running, pour the buttermilk in slowly. This will help to create a thicker and more emulsified dressing. Taste before adding salt and mix after each addition. This dressing can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week. Pour the dressing (you may not need all of it) over the salad after presenting it to your guests and use two large spoons to toss.
Serves two as a main course, or four as a side salad.

One of the things that thrills me is dissecting dishes and trying to figure out what exactly is in every dish I eat. I know this makes my favorite sushi chef frustrated, but I can't help it, it's automatic. As I recognize each ingredient I get giddy. But sometimes things trip me up. I knew that there was basil in the dressing, and buttermilk and garlic. And adding just those ingredients together would probably make a tasty, albeit flat, dressing. I was, and am, grateful that Cowboy Ciao was willing to release their recipe to the public and it is something that I wish other restaurants would do. I know that it would result in greater copying of "signature" dishes. But I think it will educate diners and help them develop tastebuds that can discern ingredients, as well as understand how it affects the whole. And even though I can cook, and usually quite well, I still enjoying eating out. I don't see that changing. No matter how many chefs give me their recipes.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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