Are you confident about choosing a cantaloupe? Do you have an appreciation for apricots? Need a refresher on freshness?
If you’ve ever wondered what a professional chef looks for when choosing produce, come along with local caterer, teacher and cookbook author Linda Carucci as she cruises the aisles of Berkeley Bowl West in search of ingredients for her roasted chicken salad with raspberry vinaigrette.
To save time in the store, Carucci keeps her shopping list organized by area: Perishables are always on the sides of the store and non-perishables in the middle. (Tip: Any time you walk into an unfamiliar store looking for milk, you can figure that it will be on one side or the other, where the power sources are.)
But the apricots happen to be outside the store, so they’re the first to be selected. Carucci picks up several Goldbar apricots and feels for heft, then breathes in the aroma. Her original recipe calls for grapes, but these apricots make for a perfect summer substitute. Good weight for the size is what she’s looking for.
Inside, her first stop is in front of the hazelnuts: She chooses roasted, with no salt. These go into the salad and are also used as a garnish, so she prefers the unseasoned variety.
At the bin of shallots, Carucci checks the root ends to make sure they’re free from discoloration, and also checks for heft.
“The fresher they are, the heavier they’ll be,” she said.
When selecting red onions, Carucci looks for some that are small enough to slice with her mandoline. Again, she checks the ends for discoloration, and looks for the right size with the “paper” still on them. She’ll get extras for future use since they keep well.
Sometimes, using a salad mix is the way to go. If Carucci buys packaged salad mixes, she checks the date to find the freshest mix, and turns the package upside down to check the color and fluffiness of the contents. Even though the salad mixes are washed three times, she’ll wash them again to “fluff them up.” The lettuce rehydrates in the salad spinner.
If time is limited, Carucci might buy a rotisserie chicken for this dish. She chooses one that looks plump and juicy and doesn’t have too much visible seasoning. But if she’s planning to cook it herself, she prefers organic chickens, with no added moisture and no antibiotics—ever. She points to the label—that’s what it says.
The next item on the list is cheese. The recipe calls for Stilton, “the king of English cheeses.” Carucci checks the rind to make sure it isn’t moist or sticky; it should look dry. In the case of blue cheeses, “green or blue mold is OK, but red or yellow isn’t safe to eat.” She will use a fork to crumble the cheese—this prevents it from melting all over her fingers.
Her vinaigrette requires walnut oil, and there are many choices in the store—oil takes up a great deal of shelf space. Carucci likes the toasted variety of walnut oil because it has a more pronounced flavor.
Since she’s using hazelnuts in the salad, why not use hazelnut oil? In this case, she wants “punch and flavor,” so it has to be walnut oil. She selects a dark container, since this is a delicate oil that can turn rancid if kept in a warm place or exposed to light. It should be stored in the fridge, she says. One needs to be watchful with oil; as with any ingredient, “when in doubt, throw it out.”
A vinaigrette must, of course, contain vinegar. Again, many choices here. After careful consideration, she chooses Kozlowski Farms Red Raspberry vinegar. She holds the bottle up to the light to admire the color, then adds it to her cart.
Carucci chooses the acid content of the vinegar based on what she’s using it for.
“Acid makes you salivate—it makes you want to eat more,” she said. But a vinegar with an acid content of 7 percent is too much for her salad, so she chooses one with 6 percent acidity.
“You don’t want to notice it,” she said. “It should meld with the other flavors. White wine vinegar is good for salad season coming up—especially Caprese, since it won’t stain the cheese.”
Even though cantaloupe isn’t an ingredient for the salad, she pauses in the produce section to talk about how to choose a good one: she looks for a really pronounced web with good definition. “Knock it gently,” she said, “and listen for a hollow sound. Smell it at the stem end. Good heft means a melon is at peak ripeness.”
Two summer favorites are corn on the cob and cherries. She can’t pass these without offering a few more tips.
The corn cob silk should be moist and brown. If the ear of corn isn’t “windowed,” peel down a bit of the husk and look for kernels that are tight, with no indentations or divots. Bigger kernels are less tender than small ones. Look for uniformity in color (unless the corn is supposed to be bi-color or a mix). The stalk end should be moist, indicating it’s been freshly cut. Each ear should be filled out up to the silk, with good heft.
It’s cherry season now! To avoid any duds, it’s best to hand-pick the cherries, rather than grabbing them by the handful. For sweet cherries, choose the darkest ones that are firm and heavy for their size.
One last question before Carucci heads for the checkout line: Which butter is better? She says it depends on what you’re using it for.
“A higher butter fat content isn’t the best choice if you’re making cookies—they’ll spread out more,” she said. But if she’s serving butter to go with bread, “I always use organic unsalted butter. It’s made from fresher cream.”
For those who may prefer a taste of salt, she’ll sprinkle on something decorative, like red Hawaiian or pink Himalayan.
And with that, Carucci heads home to prepare the salad, a fitting dish for a summer evening: a tasty and colorful combination of carefully chosen ingredients.
Roasted Chicken Salad with Baby Greens, Apricots, Toasted Hazelnuts, Stilton and Raspberry Vinaigrette
From Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course salad or 12 as an appetizer
1 medium shallot
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (she likes Maille brand)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves stripped from about 10 stems
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine, freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup red raspberry vinegar (Kozlowski Farms brand preferred)
1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (she likes Katz or Sparrow Lane brands)
2/3 cup toasted walnut oil (such as La Tourangelle brand)
One 3- to 4-pound roasted chicken
1 pound mixed baby salad greens, washed and spun dry
1 small red onion, shaved into very thin rings (she uses a mandoline)
1/2 pound apricots, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/3 pound Stilton cheese, crumbled
3/4 cup toasted, skinless hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
MAKE THE VINAIGRETTE Drop the peeled shallot into a food processor (alternatively, cut it into a few pieces and drop into a blender while motor is running) and mince. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the mustard, thyme, salt, sugar, and pepper. Add the raspberry vinegar and 1 tablespoon of the red wine vinegar and blend well. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Slowly drizzle in the walnut oil while the motor is running. Taste and add more red wine vinegar if necessary. The dressing should be acidic enough to balance the richness in the chicken and Stilton. Set the dressing aside for at least 15 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. The dressing can be made up to 24 hours ahead of eating time. Cover and refrigerate; bring to room temperature about 30 minutes before using.
MAKE THE SALAD Remove the skin and bones (save for stock or discard) from the chicken and shred the meat by hand into large bite-size pieces. You should have 3 to 4 cups of shredded chicken. In a very large bowl, toss the chicken with about half of the raspberry vinaigrette. Add half of the greens, red onions, and a few more tablespoons of the remaining vinaigrette and toss well. Toss in the remaining greens, apricots, Stilton, and all but about 3 tablespoons of the hazelnuts (these will be used to garnish the finished salad). Taste a piece of lettuce for seasoning and add more dressing, if desired. Add the Stilton and toss to combine. Garnish the salad with the reserved hazelnuts.
SHOPPING TIPS FROM THE CHEF
- Apricots: They should smell sweet and feel heavy and dense for their size. For Blenheim apricots: the more freckles the better!
- Shallots: Check the root ends to make sure they’re free of discoloration. The fresher they are, the heavier they’ll feel.
- Packaged salad mixes: Check the date, and turn the package upside down to check the color of the contents. You can re-use the container. Even though the contents are washed three times, wash them again to rehydrate the greens. Spin dry in a salad spinner to “fluff them up.”
- Rotisserie chicken: Look for one that’s plump and juicy.
- Stilton, the king of English cheeses: Check the rind to make sure it isn’t moist or sticky. It should look dry. (In the case of blue cheeses, “green or blue mold is OK, but red or yellow isn’t safe to eat.” Use a fork to crumble the cheese—this prevents the cheese from melting all over your fingers.
- Walnut oil: The toasted variety has a more pronounced flavor. It’s a delicate oil, best stored in the fridge so it won’t go rancid.
- Cantaloupe: Look for a really pronounced web with good definition. Knock it gently, and listen for a hollow sound. Smell it at the stem end. Good heft and a sweet scent indicate peak ripeness.
- Pineapple: A ripe pineapple has a sweet scent. Most of the outside fruit will be golden yellow.
- Corn: The silk should be moist and brown. If the ear of corn isn’t “windowed,” peel down a bit of the husk and look for kernels that are tight, with no indentations or divots. Bigger kernels are less tender than small ones. Look for uniformity in color (unless the corn is supposed to be bi-color or a mix). The stalk end should be moist (indicating it’s been freshly cut.) Each ear should be filled out up to the silk, with good heft.
- It’s cherry season! To avoid any duds, it’s best to hand-pick the cherries, rather than grabbing them by the handful. For sweet cherries, choose the darkest ones that are firm and heavy for their size.