I must confess: even I, the mule of the table, get a little burnt out after the holiday season. The caviar. The foie gras. The goose. The prime rib. The munch-encouraging social environment.
I don’t really want to stop…but boy is my body giving me signals that I should.
Now, I’m not about to go cold turkey (except, perhaps, for a leftover sandwich!)…but on or about Jan. 2 I do start seeking lighter foods that also give me a gastronomic charge.
Happily, a few years back I discovered a salad in Austria that is so different, while remaining so simple…that I look forward to it at this time of year, or whenever I seem to be in need of a de-tox.
There I was, at Teutonic lunchtime, in the heart of Austrian wine country, about 90 minutes from Vienna. My pulse was racing, because I was entering Schwillinsky, a warm and lovely upscale bistro that looked like THE place to get exquisite versions of traditional Austrian food.
However, a quick actual look at the actual menu utterly failed to confirm that intuition: Schwillinsky, despite being Schwillinsky, is obviously enamored of, guess what, Italian food (“Oh great,” I grumbled…”another menu with buffalo mozzarella and carpaccio…just like the ones I saw recently in Houston, Heraklion and Hong Kong.”)
Little did I know that amidst the sun-dried tomatoes I was about to discover two utterly authentic Austrian dishes, virtually unknown outside of this part of the world, that would form (in my mind, anyway) the very basis of what I now take to be “Austrian” food.
The first I shall rant on about at a later date. Suffice it to say that the Austrians are great beef-eaters, and one of their greatest beef dishes is Zwiebelrostbraten, a kind of pan-cooked upper-back steak piled high with fried onions, and awash in deep-brown sauce. I am at work on a reverential re-creation of this great recipe which, to an Austrian, is every bit as iconic as Wiener Schnitzel or Tafelspitz. But I am not here at the beginning of January to tell you about that.
It is the second thing that’s the subject for today. For next to the steak, and its potatoes…was a bowl of leafy green salad.
I was in such a bovine rapture, I guess, that the peculiarity of this salad failed to register at first. And then its freshness, lightness, coolness—a perfect fried-steak complement—hit me hard. I looked at this thing, and saw no oil-spattered leaves, no fat-based glisten. I poked around with my fork, and spotted something watery at the base of the bowl—though all the leaves were ultra-crisp, non-drowned. I tasted, one more time, and found nothing more than a light, sweet-sour-salty dew that brought the greens alive.
When the plates were cleared, so was my seat…for I had to get to that kitchen and find out what Schwillinsky hath wrought.
“Oh that,” Schwillinsky grinned, a little amazed someone had picked it out for attention. “It’s very local,” he said, “very Viennese, too. Very eastern Austria. You would never find it in Salzburg.”
And then Schwillinsky proceeded to show me a water-vinegar-sugar bath in which the greens get sloshed just before serving. “Ja, we make the water in advance,” he said. “It’s better that way.” And that’s the secret. I’m not sure how long the fresh greens get drug through the water (hey, this is country food, please allow some country talk)…but my own experiments have shown a minute or two to be ideal. You will be amazed at the kind of salad this becomes. Since stumbling upon it, I have started thinking about the “tyranny of oil,” the way we have become inured to a heavy oil wash on our greens. Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for fat…but this Austrian thing…it’s like tasting salad greens for the first time!
And its perfection with hearty Austrian cuisine! It’s almost like having a pickle on the side, or raw sauerkraut…except it’s a salad!
As soon as I can match Schwillinsky’s Zwiebelrostbraten, you shall be getting that recipe too. For now…make the Viennese Water Salad (which no one calls it except me)…and serve it along side the lightest January main course you can muster. It will light up your January table.
But whatever you do…praise Schwillinsky. And pray that someday he’ll fully get over pesto.
Viennese Water Salad
Yields: 4 large salad servings
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 tbsp. sugar
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
3/4 cup water
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. olive oil
8 cups of washed and torn greens, chilled
1. Place the vinegar, sugar and garlic in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring almost to a boil, by which time the sugar should be dissolved. Pour liquid into a large mixing bowl.
2. Add the water, salt and olive oil. Mix together. Chill water for at least a few hours (a few days is even better).
3. When ready to serve, dump the greens in the water bowl, and turn leaves quickly, until immersed in liquid. Let sit for 2 minutes. Lift greens from bowl, shaking lightly, and divide greens among 4 salad bowls. There should be a little water in the bottom of each bowl; if there’s not, pour a little of the remaining water from the mixing bowl over each salad. Serve immediately.