This month, Tasting Table celebrates all things salad. Keep your cool with us.
One cannot live on fried chicken and oysters alone. (Well, we like to think we could, but it might get a little uncomfortable.)
Such was the realization of executive chef Ari Kolender and co-owner Brooks Reitz when the duo opened Leon's Oyster Shop in Charleston, South Carolina. Despite a laser focus on serving the best of those two iconic staples (the chicken, brined, fried and hit with Old Bay, paprika and cayenne; the oysters, served raw, chargrilled and Rockefeller-ed), there had to be a few things to balance and complement all that crisp skin, bird and brine.
"Everyone loves fried chicken, but no one loves the way they feel after they eat fried chicken," Kolender says. "We wanted to implement the way we cook food at home and how we would cook for a modern-day picnic at the restaurant, treating that cuisine with a little more love and care."
The salad is the type of dish that sounds simple but has unexpected moments of greatness. There are the fragrant hazelnuts, toasted in a pan with olive oil, garlic and thyme. A drizzle of that savory infused cooking oil is poured into his yogurt dressing, bright with lemon, mint, grated garlic and sweet, sweated onions. And, of course, the lettuce itself gets a kiss of smoke from the grill, which "makes it a little more palatable and brings out the sugars," Kolender says. "It's one of my favorite flavors in the world."
If you're anything like us, you'll want to crib any leftover elements to use in other dishes, too (the hazelnuts, atop pasta; the yogurt, to dip chips—and everything else—into). But here it all works together beautifully: the smoky lettuce; the cool, garlicky yogurt; the crunch from the hazelnuts; and a smattering of raisins and fresh mint leaves for sweetness and freshness.
So though you could—and should—still while away a day at the long wood-and-steel bar in the highly stylized Leon's, downing a two-piece order of fried chicken and a Coors Banquet, don't overlook the inspired veg in the "smaller" section of the menu.
"One of the most beautiful things to me about working with vegetables is that they're never the same," Kolender says. "You have to work with zucchini that's this big one day and another size the next, and you have to make them taste the same."
And there's nothing chicken about that.
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