In Cape Verde, where Jen and I spent our first year of Peace Corps service, I had one cookbook: How to Cook Everything. I needed new blood. I wasn’t smart enough yet to purchase other e-cookbooks. Instead, I had the brilliant idea to buy a cookbook and have it shipped to me. Knowing I only had one chance, I went big and chose the The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser. Resembling an unabridged OED, my selection cost more to mail to Cape Verde than it did to buy. But Jen’s mom very generously shipped it without–as would have been justified–calling me a moron. When Peace Corps Cape Verde closed and we found out we were being sent to Benin, I hid the cookbook/tome in a bag we sent back to the US with friends who’d visited Cape Verde. Along with Jen’s rock collection. Somehow the bag made the weight limit.
Fortunately, I made good use of the cookbook by studying it daily and cooking from it almost as often. One of the winners from this cookbook was a carrot salad with cumin. Carrots and cumin. It doesn’t roll off the tongue like peanut butter and jelly (nor is there a great Family Guy segment about the pairing) but it is a wonderful combo. This recipe from the Essential NY Times Cookbook sold me on the match.
The idea for the cookbook is straightforward: a sampling of recipes printed in the Times over the past 150 years. Appetizers, vegetables, grains and each other section begins with a timeline showing how ingredients, tastes and presentation styles changed decade by decade. Recipes from each decade follow the timeline. It’s a fun view into America’s culinary history. The short historical notes and stories about each recipe make the book extremely readable. I write love poems to the cookbook in my spare time.
The carrot salad recipe was such a hit that I started to improvise with it from the second time I made it – using various herbs, dried fruit and nuts. It has become one of my go-to side dishes. I’ve made this salad close to a dozen times, first for me and Jen and then for various groups of friends. It’s been a winner with everyone who’s tried it. And it’s just as good the next day so make extra and enjoy.
Carrot Salad with Cumin, Sour Cherries, Almonds and Herbs:
6 medium sized carrots^^
½ C dried sour cherries^^^ (or raisins or dried figs or dried prunes)
½ C balsamic vinegar^^
½ C almonds^^^, pine nuts, peanuts or other nut, crushed
¼ C olive oil^^
1½ T ground cumin^^
½ C loosely packed basil, mint or cilantro leaves (or a combination of the three^^^^)
- Wash the carrots. Peel them. Or don’t. Then, use a vegetable peeler to slice wide, thin ribbons of carrot. Or cut planks as thinly and evenly as possible with a knife.
- Heat balsamic vinegar until it starts to bubble. Pour the vinegar over the dried cherries. Let the cherries steep in the vinegar. They will drink up the vinegar and rehydrate a bit.
- Prepare the almonds: finely chop with a knife or lightly crush with a mallet. Then, toast in dry pan until fragrant. Add olive oil, cumin and pinch of salt. Toss to evenly coat almonds and continue cooking for a minute. Turn off heat and let the almonds cool.
- When cool, scrape the almond mixture into the carrots; use a spatula to get all of the olive oil from the bottom of the pan onto the carrots. Add the cherries and any extra vinegar from the soaking. Toss and taste. Adjust seasoning. Add extra cumin, vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper to desired taste.
- Chop herbs and toss with salad just before serving.
^ Ingredient purchased in our town and used by locals on a daily basis.
^^ Ingredient purchased at supermarkets in Porto Novo or Cotonou that cater to wealthier Beninese and foreigners.
^^^ Ingredient sent courtesy of friends and families in care packages.
^^^^ From our garden.