So Fresh

Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Michelin-starred chef Nancy Silverton, co-owner of LA hot spots Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, gives Purist some tasty tidbits, and shares her favorite spring salad.
Nancy Silverton Talks Food
Fresh produce and flavorful herbs are Silverton essentials. Photography by Aniko Szabo

PURIST: What spring flavors are you craving right now?

Nancy Silverton: If I am in a luxury mood, I’d say morels with asparagus. In a regular mood, grilled asparagus.

PURIST: What’s your secret for making a great salad?

NS: Each leaf of lettuce needs to be properly seasoned and dressed. Too many salads are lopsided.

PURIST: What menu would you suggest for a spring dinner party?

NS: Fresh spring pea soup, spring gem salad, a roasted leg of spring lamb and some fruit sorbetti.

PURIST: What key culinary tip should Americans adopt from the Italians?

NS: Restraint.

PURIST: For bread makers, what’s a good way to add a spring twist to their creations?

NS: Add a herb, like rosemary.

PURIST: What sage advice do you plan to offer chefs at your presentation in Aspen?

NS: It wouldn’t be sage advice in Aspen if I told you now. You’ll have to tune in then.

The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen runs from June 17-19;

Nancy Silverton Talks Food
Spring Gem Salad With Soft Herbs and Labneh Toasts. Photography courtesy of Nancy Silverton

Spring Gem Salad With Soft Herbs and Labneh Toasts

I started adding herb leaves to salads in the ’80s, when I made a butter lettuce salad with fresh herbs and a simple lemon vinaigrette that became our “house salad” at Campanile. I used that salad as an inspiration for this, but added spring vegetables, including raw asparagus, sugar snap peas and English peas to make it more than just a side salad. It’s the first tell on the Osteria menu that spring has sprung in Los Angeles. I welcome any excuse to eat with my hands, especially when I’m eating salad—and this one, made with sturdy leaves of Little Gem lettuce, which is similar to romaine, invites that. The shape of the leaves catches the herbs and other vegetables like little lettuce tacos, and I serve the salad with toast slathered in labneh, so I can hold the toast in one hand and the lettuce in the other. The only thing that might improve the situation would be a third hand for a glass of wine.

If you can’t find chervil, substitute Italian parsley and tarragon in equal parts.

Serves 6 to 10

For the toasts:

8 ½-inch-thick slices from a bâtard or fat baguette or 4 slices from a large round of rustic white loaf, halved

Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing

For the salad:

¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the blanching water

2∕3 cup shelled English peas

3 ounces medium asparagus, stems snapped off at their natural breaking point and discarded

3 ounces sugar snap peas

6 French breakfast radishes

Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

3 heads Little Gem lettuce (or hearts of romaine)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons each finely chopped fresh chervil, dill, tarragon and Italian parsley leaves (each from about ¼ cup packed whole leaves), plus several leaves of each herb for garnish

15 to 20 (1-inch long) fresh chive batonettes

For finishing the toasts

Heaping ½ cup chilled labneh (purchase at local specialty shop)

Finishing-quality extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Sweet smoked paprika (optional)

To make the toasts, place the oven rack in the middle position and heat the oven to 350 F.

Place the bread slices on a baking sheet, brush the tops with olive oil and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown and crispy, rotating the baking sheet from front to back halfway through the baking time so they brown evenly. Let the toasts cool to room temperature while you make the salad.

To make the salad, fill a large saucepan with water, bring to a boil over high heat, and salt it to taste like the ocean, adding 1 tablespoon of salt to each quart of water. Prepare an ice bath in a medium bowl and prepare a bed of paper towels.

Put the peas in a fine mesh strainer and plunge them into the boiling water to blanch for 2 minutes, then plunge the strainer into the ice bath for about 1 minute to cool the peas. Place the peas on the paper towels to drain.

Starting at the tip and keeping the entire tip intact, slice the asparagus on an extreme bias ⅛-inch thick. Put the sliced asparagus and the tips in a medium bowl.

Remove and discard the strings from the sugar snap peas and slice them ⅛-inch thick on an extreme bias. Add to the bowl with the asparagus. Holding the radishes by the stems, thinly slice them on a mandolin and discard the stems. Add to the same bowl, and add the peas. Drizzle the vegetables with 3 tablespoons of the Lemon Vinaigrette, toss gently, and set aside to marinate.

Remove and discard the outer, limp, dark green leaves from the lettuce. Pull the remaining leaves from the cores and put the leaves in a large bowl.

Sprinkle the leaves with the lemon juice, sprinkle with the ¾ teaspoon of salt and toss to coat. Drizzle all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining vinaigrette over the salad, sprinkle a quarter of the chervil, dill, tarragon, parsley and chives into the salad, and toss gently. Continue adding the herbs a quarter at a time, tossing to distribute the herbs and massaging the vinaigrette into the lettuce leaves with your hands, until you have added all of the herbs. Add the remaining vinaigrette if necessary to coat the leaves.

To finish the toasts, slather a heaping tablespoon of labneh on each toast, leaving the edges of the toast visible. (This is purely for aesthetic reasons, but for me, that’s as good a reason as any.) Drizzle the labneh with finishing-quality olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of paprika, if you are using it.

To serve, lift the lettuce leaves and herbs out of the bowl they were tossed in and put them on a large platter, arranging them like tacos with the “bowls” facing upright and the leaves slightly overlapping one another. Scatter the marinated vegetables into each lettuce cup and scatter the herb leaves over the salad. Serve with tongs and the labneh toasts on a separate platter.

Lemon Vinaigrette

We use this simple vinaigrette to dress many salads at Mozza, and also as a base for other vinaigrettes. The “secret” is to let the shallots marinate in the vinegar. This softens texture and flavor, and brings out their sweetness.

Makes 1 cup

¼ cup minced shallots (from about 1 medium shallot)

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon champagne or white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a small bowl, combine the shallots, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and pepper; set aside for 5 to 10 minutes to marinate. Add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly to emulsify. Use the vinaigrette or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Bring the vinaigrette to room temperature and whisk to recombine the ingredients before using.