Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nancy's Chopped Salad: It will never be Diana's Chopped Salad

When I read a recipe, I automatically react in one of the following ways:

1. I blanch at the list of ingredients that either don't appeal to me, don't fit within my budget or require an obscene amount of effort to prepare, and blow by it like I'm running for a gold medal.

2. I clip, print or tag the recipe in question and add it to the perpetually growing list of dishes I want to try... someday.

3. I fall in love at first read and come to the conclusion that I must try it within the next week.

This past Wednesday, the LA Times "Food" section published a recipe that engendered the latter response. As my eyes scrolled over the list of ingredients, my face grew flushed, my heart began to beat faster, and I could barely sit still long enough to finish sipping my tea and eating my morning oatmeal. I felt as though I'd won the foodie lottery -- I now possessed the recipe for Pizzeria Mozza's infamous Nancy's Chopped Salad, a dish that LA Times critic Irene Virbila described in her Mozza restaurant review as "an updated, pristine version of salads you used to find in New York's Little Italy."

In other words, hubba hubba hubba.

Instead of relegating the section to my recycle bin with the rest of my newspaper, I immediately clipped out the article and accompanying recipe, and made plans to make the salad for my lunch on Saturday. This one couldn't wait. I had to try it as soon as possible, and felt as though I was somehow involved in an imaginary race with other Los Angeles cooks/chefs to be the first one to churn out the lovefest of salami, provolone, cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, pepporocinis, red onion, radicchio, iceberg lettuce, and a pungently tangy oregano dressing. Nevermind that I didn't have any of the fresh ingredients stocked in my produce bin. Nevermind that radicchio was $7.99 a pound at Whole Foods, and I had to go to three different grocery stores to get everything I needed. And nevermind that my Mozza-sessed friend Rob thought the affair would require "excellent knive skills" that I don't really possess.

There was no way I wasn't going to make this salad this past weekend. It didn't matter to me if it turned out good or bad, pretty or ugly. All that mattered was that I try it -- regardless of how many obstacles (or grocery store parking lots) stood in my way.

I thought that once I collected all the right ingredients, the rest would be easy. The article had emphasized the importance of using quality oregano, hard salami and aged (not smoked) provolone, and I was most concerned about being able to recreate the dish with my lesser quality products. Yet, as I sat down to my heaping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salad, I realized something.

Even when using the best foodstuffs the markets in Los Angeles have to offer -- the finest red wine vinegar and olive oil, the salad would still never be the same as the version at Mozza's. It is called Nancy's Chopped Salad for a reason -- it is hers, and is at its best when prepared and served within the muddied brick colored walls of Pizzeria Mozza. While I enjoyed my lunch and was pleased with how my version turned out, I couldn't help but feel that it was out of place on my grandmother's dining room table. The salad seemed somehow incomplete outside the context of the restaurant, and I felt slightly disingenuous as I ate it -- as though I was trying to pull a fast one on one of the greatest chefs in Los Angeles.

My humble hands are no match for Nancy Silverton's, and my West Hollywood apartment is no match for the vibrant dining room at Mozza. I won't make the salad again. Not because it wasn't good -- it was -- but because the salad is intrinsically linked in my head with the experience of dining at the restaurant. It's not the same without a glass of Barbara, or the promise of exquisite pizzas to come. It's not the same without the clatter of conversation that fills the space with an intense flow of energy. And it's not the same without the illusion that Nancy herself may have watched over the preparation of her namesake dish.

Nancy's Chopped Salad at Pizzeria Mozza

Nancy's Chopped Salad
Adapted from the recipe in the LA Times

Makes 1 generous entree-salad portion

Oregano Dressing
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano (I used McCormick's
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
(*Note: May not need all the dressing)

1. Mix the garlic, oregano, salt and pepper together. Chop the mixture together and use the side of a knife or a mortar and pestle to make a grainy herb paste.

2. Add the lemon juice and vinegar. Mix with a fork, allowing the salt to dissolve, then add the oil and whisk with a fork until well combined. The dressing should be thick with garlic and oregano.

Salad and assembly
1/3 cup can chickpeas, drained
1/6 red onion, peeled and sliced into fine rings
1 ounce aged provolone, sliced into ribbons
1-2 ounces hard salami, sliced into ribbons (I used Fiorucci from Whole Foods)
2 small pickled pepperocini, sliced into rings
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1 cup iceberg lettuce, cut into ribbons
1 cup radicchio lettuce, cut into ribbons

Mix ingredients together in a salad bowl. Toss with dressing and top with extra oregano, if desired.


Alessandra said...

I love how you have a huge chef-crush on Nancy! I've never seen your eyes light up the way they did when we saw her at Osteria Mozza!

The Blonde Duck said...

I love how you pick your recipes! My problem is I get so excited about everything and just make a big pile, then get distracted by all the new ideas!

Sara said...

I had this at Mozza too and really liked it. I think there's a similar recipe in her sandwich book, haven't made it yet.

Apples and Butter said...

I think yours looks beuatiful and I'm sure it was delicious! I'm still carrying around my food section from last week. I will have to dive into right away!

Lo said...

Oh, wow. I have a total crush on Ms. Silverton myself. I could DIE for some of her sammiches.

I think taste memories that are connected to place are really powerful... I can totally respect the fact that, no matter how good this salad is at home, it's definitely better OUT.

Glad I stopped by; really like the blog!

The Duo Dishes said...

We get it. Sometimes there are things that are special because of their circumstances. That salad is your 'biscuit of today', btw! Just ask Edward Espe Brown!

Diana said...

Ali - I know, I'm such a food dork. I get more excited about Nancy than I do about the "real" celebrities!

Miranda - Hah, I have a HUGE pile of recipes at home. It's really ridiculous -- I need to get a big binder and organize all of them!

Sara - I have to get that sandwich book - it sounds unreal!

Jessica - It's a good one! I look forward to the food section every week. :)

Lo - I'm so glad you stopped by too! Thanks for the kind words -- I like your blog too!

Duo - Hah, I had to google that! It totally is! :)

Esi said...

grrr, just tried to leave a comment and it didn't work. Well if you don't get it here is what I remember saying: It looks like the restaurant version, and I am sure it tasted great, but there is something to be said for having it in that same atmosphere.

Heather said...

it sounds delicious, even if it isn't exactly the same as your meal at mozza. and sometimes, i think the pleasure of dining in pjs is totally worth the minor flavor changes accompanied with the home cooked version of a restaurant recipe.

happy st. pats!

Reeni♥ said...

I have a similar way of choosing recipes. I'm all over this salad! And I immediately knew it when I spotted those chickpeas and strips of salami! Yummmmmm!!

Leila said...

That looks wonderful! Can you believe that I STILL have not eaten at Mozza? Ridiculous.