Friday, December 13, 2013

Jess Thomson: A Cure for Christmas Paralysis — Recipes for picnic's Kale Salad and Preserved Meyer Lemons

Last month, Storey publicist Matt LaBombard wrote about making a holiday meal everyone can enjoy. This month, Dishing Up® Washington author and food writer Jess Thomson offers her own delicious remedy for the panic cooks experience when faced with diners’ various food preferences and restrictions.

My mother-in-law cooks me the same dinner every time. There’s salmon (always high-quality but reliably overcooked), an overdressed salad, and sweet potato fries that have been slathered with sesame oil and roasted into submission in a too-cold oven. The food isn’t gorgeous, but it’s what she can do. Having to cook for someone who suddenly avoids as many foods as I do paralyzes her. And no one cooks well when they’re paralyzed.

Please don’t call me gluten-free. Sure, I’m avoiding the stuff, but it’s a temporary project, I’m sure. A phase. I cut gluten out of my diet to see if it might improve my lupus symptoms. Ditto for the soy and eggs. And though, as a cookbook author, I’ve managed to figure out a way to develop recipes that fit mostly into my own diet without becoming a special diet cookbook author, I have yet to conquer the holidays. Rather, I have yet to conquer being a good holiday guest. 

These days, being invited to someone’s home for dinner means they undergo something I call “dinner panic.” It starts with a phone call. “Hi,” the hostess says. “Can you eat fish?” Sure, I say. There’s a pause. “Does olive oil have soy in it?” On the other side of the phone, I always roll my eyes. 

Of course I can eat fish. And olive oil comes from olives, silly. But presenting even the most unflappable cooks with a list of no-gos causes them to doubt their entire relationship with food, whisking away preconceived norms and challenging their ability to put together dinner the same way they could before. It’s the same thing die-hard carnivores go through when the vegetarian cousin visits. With more and more Americans being diagnosed with food allergies each year—some sources say up to 50% of Americans claim one or more food sensitivities—the panic quotient is rising in kitchens across the country.

Which is why, when I wrote Dishing Up® Washington, I made a silent vow to stuff the book with recipes that would satisfy a huge variety of diets—things like a cognac-sauced prime rib for folks who always celebrate the holidays from a roasting pan, and vegetarian pièces de resistance like kabocha and black bean tamale pie, and a dark chocolate cake with figs, fennel, and pistachios that can be made with gluten-free flour. 

And it’s why, when someone invites me over for a holiday meal, I always make something I think everyone at the table will be able to eat—like the Christmas-colored kale salad from picnic, a Seattle food and wine boutique, which I’ve professed to be my favorite recipe from the book since its publication. Since it only gets better as it sits, the salad can be made ahead, and travels particularly well. And, yes, even my mother-in-law makes it well.

Photo © Lara Ferroni

picnic’s Kale Salad

It would be fair to call picnic, the little food and wine boutique at the top of Seattle’s Phinney Ridge, a blast from the past, even though it opened in 2008. The affable owners, Jenny and Anson Klock, run it the way I imagine my grandmother’s cheesemonger did, linking hellos and goodbyes with first names and questions about the kids. But behind the counter, they’re all business, slicing artisanal meats and cheeses for the sandwiches and picnic platters people eat in-house while browsing the magazine collection or take for the road, usually with a few bottles from their carefully curated, locally focused wine collection. 

This salad, made with raw kale, white beans, and toasted pumpkin seeds, and seasoned with Mama Lil’s peppers (a Washington favorite) and the preserved lemons Anson makes and sells at picnic, is great because you can make it ahead and it travels well. If you aren’t thinking three months ahead (it takes that long for the preserved lemons to cure), head to picnic for preserved lemons, or find a good homemade variety — the store-bought kind are often far less flavorful. 

Makes 6 servings

6 cups (packed) torn kale (a ¾-pound mix of lacinato, green curly, and red kale works best) 
2 cups cooked, drained white beans or chickpeas (from 1 cup dry or one 15-ounce can)
¼ cup Mama Lil’s or piquillo peppers, finely chopped 
¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
1 preserved Meyer lemon (recipe below)
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup canola oil

Note: When you chop the kale, remove all the ribs and tough pieces — the kale isn’t cooked, so it’s best if you tear it into soft bite-size pieces.


  1. Toss the kale, beans, peppers, pumpkin seeds, and chives together in a large bowl. 
  2. Rinse the lemon to remove any residual salt, then remove any visible seeds, and whirl it in a food processor or blender with the olive oil and canola oil until completely smooth. 
  3. Pour about half of the dressing over the salad, and toss very well to combine. This dressing is very powerful—bright, acidic, and salty. Add a bit more vinaigrette to the salad, tasting along the way. (If you don’t use all the dressing, save the remainder to use on another salad.) Let the salad sit at least 1 hour at room temperature (or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator) before serving.

Photo © Lara Ferroni

Preserved Meyer Lemons

Meyer lemons are sweeter than regular lemons, which means that once they’re preserved—packed in salt and left to pickle over the course of a few months—they lend a lovely sweet-salty note to anything they grace.

Makes 6 preserved lemons

6 Meyer lemons
2 cups kosher salt

Special equipment: 2 pint-sized canning jars and lids


  1. Wash the lemons well. Slice the stem end off each lemon 
  2. with a serrated knife. Starting from the blossom (smooth) end, slice each lemon into quarters lengthwise, stopping about ¼ inch from the bottom, so the lemon stays intact. 
  3. Place three lemons in each of two pint-sized canning jars, pouring about 1/3 cup salt over each lemon as you add it, stuffing salt between the slices of each fruit. 
  4. Screw the lids on the jars and refrigerate the lemons for 3 months, giving the jars a gentle shake about once a week. (They’ll slowly release their liquid and turn the salt into a brine.) The lemons will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator, packed in brine. To use, rinse lightly, if desired. The brine also makes a delicious addition to salad dressings.

Recipes excerpted from Dishing Up® Washington by Jess Thomson © 2012 by Storey Publishing, LLC.  Photos © Lara Ferroni. All Rights Reserved.

Jess Thomson is a food writer based in Seattle. Her work regularly appears in Sunset and Edible Seattle. She is a regular guest on Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW. She blogs about food and life at Hogwash.

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