Last week ushered in the beginning of a new season. For many, it was lunchbox season. For others not living in the continued summer swamp of NYC, it might have been PSL season. Football fans welcomed dip season. And the especially food obsessed, welcomed the greatest season of all: fall cookbook season!!
When I got home last Monday, after a week on Martha’s Vineyard, my doorstep was stacked with Amazon boxes. Charlie appeared horrified (the endless parade of random boxes addressed to Phoebe Lapine is on my list of “cohabitation quirks”). I, meanwhile, tried to suppress the same nerdy excitement that used to crop up every time I entered the school store to pick up my fall text books.
This Middle Eastern Seven Layer Salad in a Jar came from one of the first new spines I cracked open: Kristin Donnelly’s Modern Potluck.
Potlucking has always been a huge part of my cooking life. If you’ve been following my adventures in the kitchen since the BGSK days, you may remember a little tradition called Magazine Club.
Basically, reading one whole book a month seemed like too much of a commitment for a group of 21-year-olds working entry level jobs with long hours. And forcing one person to host a dinner party for ten guests felt equally unfair and impractical for the same time and budget-related reasons. So, instead, a new potluck tradition was born: once a month we would arrive with short-form article in one hand, and Tupperware of some buffet-ready food in the other.
It didn’t take long (er, maybe two months), for the Magazine Clubbers to realize that the real reason we were gathering was the food and the company, not the magazines. So for the 5+ years following, it just became a potluck.
There is an art, albeit a casual one, to bringing dishes to a shared table. And Kristin unpacks the rules so beautifully in her cookbook: 1) The dish has to travel well, and more importantly, sit well on the buffet. 2) It has to be unfussy and hands-off. And 3) it has to please a variety of palettes, while still being interesting enough to warrant praise from your peers.
Dishes that fit the bill in all these areas are especially important right now. And not just because it’s the time of year for a variety of PSL and Cheese Dip-themed gatherings. But also because of that other season: back-to-school.
The art of lunch packing is not all that different from potlucking. Portability is of course key. But if your kid is heavy into the cafeteria trading business, Kristin’s rule #3 certainly applies as well.
As I eased back into my batch cooking this past weekend, I went straight to Modern Potluck for some ideas. And when I saw Kristin’s updated take on a Seven Layer Salad recipe, I knew it would be the perfect thing to portion individually for my daily infusion of greens.
Instead of the usual cheese, bacon and scallions, Kristin’s recipe uses Middle Eastern ingredients to create lighter (more modern!) layers. It’s a great way to recycle any random herbs you have from the summer haul (I used dill and mint), or make use of an extra serving or two of cooked grains. There are instructions in the recipe for making the quinoa layer, but feel free to use whatever you have on hand. Either way, the combination of toasted spices, crunchy vegetables, and luscious creamy dressing is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Even if that crowd just includes yourself.
I portioned this recipe as a salad in a jar and included some notes on that below. If you’re using pint-sized containers, simply halve the recipe for 4 servings (I used a whisk to really pack each layer in there). Or for a bigger salad, use a quart-sized jar. This will give you a little extra room to mix up the layers at your desk. The nice thing about the creamy dressing is that it sits right on top, so you don’t have to worry about soggy greens. But that also means you have to put in a little work to incorporate it when you’re ready to eat.
I sent Charlie to the office with this Seven Layer Salad in a Jar and he couldn’t get over how delicious and satisfying it was. I’d like to think that this makes up for the cookbook overbuying, just as his tortilla chip hoarding helped the communal greater good by leading to this Mexican eggplant parm.
If you too are celebrating fall cookbook season in tandem with back-to-school, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Modern Potluck. Not only will you get ideas for portable lunches, but it’s also a great reservoir of make-ahead dinner party dishes for your own table, should you decide to take on the whole meal yourself.
Check out my recipe for Moroccan-Inspired Shepherd’s Pie, which I was honored to bring to Kristin’s bound buffet, on page 130!
From one healthy, potluck-loving hedonist, to another,
Middle Eastern Seven Layer Salad in a Jar
- 2 cups quinoa (any color, but red or black is especially stunning), rinsed
- 5 cups water
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 medium head iceberg lettuce or romaine, thinly sliced
- 4 cups fresh herb leaves, I used mint and dill - awesome combo!
- 1 bunch red radishes, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
- 1 pound seedless cucumbers, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
- Assemble the salad: In a large heavy pot, cover the quinoa with water, add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the quinoa is tender and the water is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pot, top with a clean kitchen towel, and close the pot again; let stand 5 minutes. (This will help ensure the quinoa is dry and fluffy). Spread the hot quinoa on a platter or baking sheet and let cool to room temperature. (This sounds like a fussy step, but it helps the quinoa cool without overcooking and getting mushy).
- In a very large clear plastic serving bowl, spread the lettuce in a single layer and season lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange the herbs on top, followed by the quinoa. Spread the radishes on top, followed by the cucumbers, pushing them toward the edge of the bowl if you don't have enough of each vegetable to form a complete layer.
- Make the dressing: In a dry skillet, toast the spices over moderate heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a mortar or bowl. Use a pestle or an ice cream scoop to lightly crush the spices.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the yogurt with the mayonnaise, lemon juice and vinegar. Season with salt. Spread the dressing over the salad, sprinkle with the spices, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.