Sunday, August 9, 2015

Green Sauce

My current culinary obsession is a simple mix of chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, salt, and a splash of red wine vinegar.  We call it “green sauce.”  To call it salsa verde would give it some exotic flair, but also create confusion between the Italian version which, like mine, is mainly herbs, and the Mexican, which has a tomatillo base.  And anyway, the Italian salsa verde is likely to also include anchovies, capers, and other elaborations that I eschew, so in our house, green sauce it is.  

Odd little digression:  whenever I make green sauce I can’t help thinking of a Waitrose magazine article from years ago about Terence Conran, the British retail magnate and restaurateur.  The article described a typical summer gathering in Conran’s splendidly English garden, where the main course was grilled sliced sirloin with green sauce.  It seemed oh so civilized, and summery, and at once sophisticated and appealingly rustic.  Funny the things that impress you, and stick with you, at different points in your life.  Aside from the green sauce connection, I have no opinion whatsoever about Terence Conran.

As the tidal wave of fresh produce from garden and market begins to build through July and into August, our cooking becomes ever more rudimentary.  It’ a matter of light the fire, throw everything on the grill, bung it on a plate, devour.  Fresh romano beans, tomatoes, corn on the cob, new potatoes and mild sweet beets wrapped in foil and roasted in the coals—these things need little adornment.  But—they do benefit greatly from just the right adornment, and for me, for now, that is green sauce.  A summery herbed mayonnaise is lovely, but sometimes a bit heavy, generally too much work.  Traditional Genovese pesto is something I enjoy a couple times a summer, but basil’s assertive flavor can overpower delicate vegetables and cause palate fatigue.

And then, there’s just something about exalting humble parsley to a starring role that really appeals to me.  It does seem civilized, and grown-up, in a good way, the sign of a mature palate.  Mireille Johnston, in her excellent cookbook Cuisine of the Sun,  opines that the classic French dish pot au feu (boiled supper, in essence) can only really be appreciated by those over the age of 30.  The same can probably be said for green sauce.

While I wouldn’t push aside a plate of Sir Terence’s sirloin, I think fish is the perfect protein with green sauce.  We broiled some Lake Superior whitefish a few nights ago, served it up with oven-roasted potatoes and romano beans, a coal-roasted beet left over from a previous repast, and fresh green sauce—just perfect summer eating.  Cold roast veal with green sauce pops to mind as a dish that would be quite typical of an English summer supper, enjoyed al fresco.  But who ever roasts veal these days?  Pork loin could take its place very nicely.

Just writing about this kind of food makes me think I’ve unconsciously started channeling Elizabeth David….

But here, let’s get back to earth, with our feet firmly planted on mid-American northern turf.  I went out to the garden and gathered a handful of beans, a carrot, a watermelon radish, a few ribs of celery, and parsley, of course.  Flat leaf, “Italian” parsley has the best flavor, I think, but I wound up with some curly parsley in my garden this year, too, by accident, so I used a bit of that.   From the market I had sungold tomatoes (absolute flavor bombs) and sweet corn.  Sliced a levain loaf and walnut bread.  Quickly whipped up a fresh batch of green sauce. A more elaborate lunch than is typical for us, but while the season provides this kind of bounty, I’ll happily skip the tuna fish sandwiches.  Such a light and flavorful lunch, and how colorful!

I’ve never measured the ingredients for green sauce.  It’s a handful of parsley, chopped as fine or coarse as you please, a good clove of garlic, or a couple puny ones, minced very fine though not quite to a paste. Then olive oil, enough to inundate the herbs and make it a sauce rather than a paste (pesto), a splash of good red wine vinegar, just enough to bring an edge of acid, not so much that it becomes vinaigrette.  You could use lemon juice instead of vinegar, that’s the only substitution I’ll approve.  Salt, plenty, gray sea salt if you have it.

Needless to say, but as this sauce is predominantly olive oil, you want to use a good, flavorful oil.  For years I was devoted to Zoe Spanish olive oil, but lately we’ve been buying, and enjoying, the extra virgin kalamata olive oil from Trader Joe’s. 

DO NOT ADD PEPPER! I’m sorry, you just can’t.  Because, that’s why.  Pepper doesn’t go in green sauce, not in mine, anyway.

Now, you could vary the herb component, add a little chervil, maybe some leaves of thyme.  But I wouldn’t let basil anywhere near my green sauce.  Well, maybe the tiniest bit, and only in early summer, when the basil is still mild-mannered, not the bossy, arrogant, anise-scented basil of July and August.  And of course, you could go full-on salsa verde with the anchovies, capers, etc. 

But then, it wouldn’t be green sauce.  It would have lost its innocence, scuttled its essential simplicity.  Why did I even bring that up?  This sauce is perfect.  Enjoy it before our fleeting summer flees....

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw