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28 April 2010

asparagus salad with walnuts and Mizithra

raw asparagus salad with toasted walnuts and mizithra cheese

Thank you.

For days I have been speechless. The stories that arrived on the comment section of the post I put up last week left me in awe. All day Thursday, when I wasn't with Lu and Danny, I was reading comments, emails, and messages you sent me. I wish that I could hug you all.

Before writing that piece, I felt like I was living in a small frightened silence. The act of writing it felt like singing. Hitting the publish button felt like liberation in a chorus of voices.

Your kindness has left me feeling completely at peace.

Every time I have gone for a run since I published that piece, I have been running with you. So many of us struggle with our weight, or how we feel about our bodies, or how little we take care of ourselves in the face of busy days and crises — but we rarely talk about it out loud. And if you write a food blog, eating too much or eating mindlessly is the thing you don't talk about.

Thank you for talking, for sharing yourselves with me, and with each other. This has been a revelation for me. Truly.

And now, I'd like to share this asparagus salad with you.

* * *

We've been eating plates of salads around here, at nearly every meal. It's spring time again. Tulips are in full bloom and English peas are back in season. Green vegetables are back at the farm stands and the markets. Finally, we can say our sweet farewells to the starchy root vegetables of winter, knowing we'll be happy to see them again in October. But for now? Buh-bye parsnips and rutabagas. Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out.

These salads have been more than a frenzied celebration dance of spring, however. (At least three times a day, Lu calls out for us to gather around and fling our arms in the air with her, bending our knees to the beat of Talking Heads or They Might Be Giants. Spring feels like these spur-of-the-moment dance sessions.) We love vegetables around here. We're just declaring that love more clearly these days.

I've been looking at food differently since I published that post last week. Somehow, before this, I had forgotten to slow down and enjoy my food. Eating bits of cookie dough from the refrigerator when I felt stressed out about deadlines meant I never tasted it. I inhaled it. Sitting down at the table for a meal with Danny and Lu, the sunlight coming in, and the hunger starting to nibble at the edges of my stomach, I am much more grateful for what is before me.

I've been enjoying my food more fully this week than I have for years. I've been eating exactly what I want.

When I really listen to my hunger, instead of the anxious appetite of stress and mindless finger foods, sometimes I want pork ribs that have been braised in Danny's Chinese barbeque sauce. Sometimes I want a square of dark chocolate. And sometimes I want asparagus, tarragon, a lemon-juice vinaigrette, and some small curlicues of Mizithra cheese.

* * *

A few days ago, Danny came home from the restaurant with stories. "We made this spaghetti tonight, a test for this couple who is getting married. They wanted spaghetti with browned butter and this really tangy cheese, something from the Mediterranean."
"You mean Mizithra?" I said.
"Yeah! You know it?"
I laughed. "I do. And they must have been to the Spaghetti Factory."

When I was a kid, the Spaghetti Factory was a fancy restaurant. We didn't go out to eat often, other than fast food. For me and my brother, a trip to the Spaghetti Factory meant staring in awe at the faux-Tiffany lamps, the high ceilings, and the train cars filled with diners. They had actual, old train cars from the 1910s, in the restaurant. If you're a kid, that is about the coolest dining experience you can imagine. Sometimes, even though we were hungry, we put our names in for a reservation and waited until we found seats in the train car.

(I can't remember if my brother and I ever convinced my parents to put in our name as the Donner Party or not. I think not.)

When we reached our table, we were greeted by a chipper waiter and a basket of crusty bread dripping in butter. We grabbed at it immediately, because we knew that more was coming. One of the lures of the Spaghetti Factory was that ever-replenishing basket of garlic bread. (To my horror, the one time we went with my creepy uncle, he insisted that his timid wife dump the entire basket of bread into her purse, so they could eat the leftovers for lunch the next day.) As we waited for our Shirley Temples and the menus, we ate one slice after another of garlic-so-good-oh-the-butter-and-the-parmesan-cheese bread.

Eventually, we opened the menus and scanned them, in a cursory fashion. We had to look, to be polite. But it was always the same. I wanted the spaghetti with Italian sausage. (I still love that stuff.) What did my brother and mother get? Spaghetti and meatballs? I don't know, because my dad's order was so unusual that it has obliterated the rest. Spaghetti with browned butter and Mizithra cheese.

Have you ever eaten Mizithra cheese? It's delicious. It's a hard sheep's cheese, vivid white and eventually crumbly. It's equal parts milky sweet and tangy like salted yogurt. Apparently young Mizithra has no salt, a sweetness on the tonuge like milk straight from the cow. The only one I've ever eaten is the aged Mizithra, however. It has the distinct honor of being the only cheese I don't want to eat on its own. A bite of Mizithra without a cracker, a salad, or some gluten-free spaghetti? No thanks. My tongue curls against my mouth to prevent that entry. It's an intense taste.

So as a kid, when I saw the plate of mounded spaghetti in front of my father, a pile of pasta without red sauce, I always thought it was weird. He offered tastes. I turned him down.

However, when we went to the Spaghetti Factory in Newport Beach, at the end of a long day of bodysurfing and spreading baby oil on our skin for a better tan (ouch), I wanted that spaghetti my father ordered each time. I wanted whatever food could be set in front of me.

I squirmed in my seat to move away from the sand trapped in my bathing suit and the sunburn line glowing warm along its edges. Other than Fritos and a can of bean dip, or a hot dog or two, we had eaten nothing all day long. Instead, my brother and I been so joyfully jumping waves, flinging our arms toward the sky when the ocean smashed against us, that I had forgotten food. I was only sun on my head, sand shrinking beneath my feet, the triumph of riding a sytrofoam boogie board into the shore. I spent the day outside, moving my body, and I didn't want to eat.

Until we reached The Spaghetti Factory, that is. As I sat in that dining car, waiting for my Italian sausage and spaghetti, anticipating the cold scoop of Spumoni ice cream in a metal bowl, I could hear the hunger rumbling in my stomach.

And to my surprise, that hunger felt good. Alive.

* * *

This last week, I've been feeling that hunger again, the hunger of waiting to eat, of anticipating a meal, of true stomach rumbling. No mindless nibbling. I've been eating every bite at the table, with the people I love, sun coming through the window, and my body exhausted from moving so well.

This asparagus with tarragon and Mizithra tasted better than almost anything I've eaten this year.

Raw Asparagus Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Mizithra

This salad was inspired by a recipe in
Melissa Clark's book, The Skinny: How to Fit into Your Little Black Dress Forever. (It came into the library the day after I wrote that I was intrigued to read it, which I took as a sign to pay attention.) So much of what she and her writing partner talk about in the book resonates with me. I especially like their dual urging to eat exactly what you want, then add vegetables:

"Use veggies to satisfy your hunger. Fill up on them before you dive into that ooey-gooey-decadent treat. Want a root beer float for dinner? Have a pile of sauteed broccoli rabe first. How about that burger with a fried egg on top? Swap out the fries for a salad or sauteed spinach. Need the fried calamari? Add a fennel-and-orange salad or a big bowl of vegetable soup to it. The bottom line? Vegetables are your friends."

We already love vegetables in this house, but it's good to welcome good friends to the house in droves. Clark offers a recipe for thinly sliced brussels sprouts, toasted walnuts, and Manchego cheese. When I asked Danny if he wanted to eat it, he said, "Yeah. Next January! It's spring." So, asparagus instead. After the memories of Mizithra, we added it here. No offense to the first recipe. I'm sure it's great. Right now, however, this is about the only salad I want to eat.

1 bunch asparagus
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, leaves removed from the stem
1 cup walnuts, toasted
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup Mizithra cheese, shaved into small curlicues

Preparing the asparagus. Remove the woody stems of the asparagus stalks. Bend the thick end of each stalk and look to see where it wants to break. Break it off there. (Danny says you can knee-cap it.) If you want, you can save the stalks to make asparagus stock. But that's another recipe. Slice the asparagus stalks into 1/2-inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Put them in a large bowl. Add the tarragon leaves.

Toasting the walnuts. Put the walnuts into a small skillet. Set the skillet over low heat (and we mean LOW). Allow the walnuts to toast, tossing them every few minutes, until they are browned and you smell toasted walnuts, about 10 minutes.

Making the vinaigrette. Put the lemon juice, zest, and a pinch of salt and pepper into a small bowl. Stir while you slowly drizzle in the olive oil. (You can also do this in a jam jar with a lid or with a stick blender if you want the dressing to be fully emulsified.)

Finishing the salad. Drizzle a bit of vinaigrette over the asparagus and tarragon and toss. (You know your own tastes best as to how much you want to use.) Plate the asparagus on small saucers. Add the toasted walnuts and the curlicues of Mizithra. Eat.

Feeds 2 to 4 people, depending on how much they want to eat.


At 12:10 AM, Anonymous Diana said...

It really is amazing, when we stop to REALLY enjoy food and the company of people we love. I think just that makes so much difference and it's a much more healthy approach to food. I've been trying to get into that mindset again. :)
With that said, that salad looks delicious and I'm pretty sure I'll make it soon. :)

At 3:22 AM, Blogger Paula said...

I like so much such simply dishes! It looks awesome and I`ll do it!

At 3:23 AM, Blogger Jennifer Jo said...

I already made (and posted) a salad very similar to this: asparagus, walnuts, Parmesan, red wine vinegar, etc. It's a phenomenal combination!

I'd love to try it with that fancy-schmancy cheese sometime...

At 3:39 AM, Blogger J. Chapman said...

thank you so much - what a toast to spring!

At 3:48 AM, Blogger sweetpea said...

This does look delicious but raw asparagus? I might have to grill or roast mine a bit first. I am sure there are all kinds of merits to the raw diet I am missing out on but I can't wrap my mind around a few raw foods including asparagus.

At 4:02 AM, Blogger erika said...

I have very similar Spaghetti Factory memories from my childhood - for us we always ate there when we went to the "big city" - there wasn't one in our little town. And like your family - we too always ordered the same thing. I can't wait to take my own kids there one day. Thank you for reminding me of those memories.

And thank you for sharing that salad recipe - seasons are so awesome at making things novel. If a person could eat that stuff all year round I am sure we would get bored and unappreciative.

At 4:10 AM, Blogger Heather said...

As much as I enjoy salivating over your baked goods food porn, I never actually make any of those recipes. Fresh vegetables are dear food friends at our place and, along with daily exercise, the reason the skinny jeans still fit. More salad recipes like this one would be most welcome. Best of luck with your lifestyle makeover. Thank you for your bravery and honesty, inspirational both.

At 5:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the transition from thinking what your parents ate when you were little was incomprehensibly strange, to something that might be exciting and satisfying. Mine used to eat quince paste with munster for dessert and I couldn't wrap my mind around why anyone would do that on purpose. Now I can't get enough.
Are there kinds of cheese that are similar in taste to Mizithra? I can't seem to find any...

At 5:35 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This salad looks amazing, I just have to hunt down the cheese and I need to look for that book. It sounds like a good place to start, although I am not a lover of vegetables, but I will try.

Also, I wanted to tell you that your post the other day was such an inspiration. I have been looking at Couch to 5k on and off for months and listening to friends who have successfully used it. Well you inspired me me and I started yesterday with Day 1 of week 1, not too tough, but we shall see. Thank you!

At 7:47 AM, Blogger jessie w said...

Can't wait to try this!! I just wanted to thank you-As a starving college student(yes the food is that horrific, and without a car it's really difficult getting to a store) it's your inspiring words, amazing recipes and beautiful pictures that have gotten me through this semester. I absolutely can't wait to try these recipes once I have access to my kitchen again. Thank you :)

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Sally Anderson said...

If I can't find the Mizithra cheese, what would you recommend as a substitute? I'm going to the grocery store today! I can't wait to try this recipe. Thanks for it.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Jennywenny said...

I must try that when I get my asparagus next week. I've always been a little dubious of raw asparagus. Maybe its ok chopped thin!

I must take your advice and eat more mindfully...

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Cindy said...

Thank you for making me crave vegetables! Can't wait to see what vegie-treasures will be at tomorrow's farmer's market.


At 8:39 AM, Anonymous Coco @ Opera Girl Cooks said...

I have been doing my best to eat intuitively these days as well -- not for weight-loss, exactly, but to free myself from worries and hang-ups about food, and become healthier in the process. I really think it's a valuable exercise to step back for a second, and recognize what you want to eat and why. I'm glad you're having a more positive experience with food these days! And all that running must feel fantastic. Go Shauna!

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've never heard to that cheese, let alone tasted it, but i'm obviously going to have to track it down! made raw asparagus salad for breakfast yesterday, with aged feta, pecans, and hazelnut oil, and it was pretty darn tasty :)

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Lora said...

When I started reading this I, too, immediately thought of the Spaghetti Factory. And the spaghetti w/browned butter and mizithra is what I always used to order as well. I will definitely be trying this asparagus recipe within the next few days...after a run to Sunday's farmers' market for the asparagus.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it a requirement that dads must eat the spaghetti with Mazithra. I remember my dad ordering that every time, and my mom and I would be so confused. How can you have spaghetti without a sauce? I loved Spaghetti Factory so much that I actually worked there. I loved the old Charlie Chaplin movies they used to play to entertain you while waiting for your table.

Thank you so much for your posts. They really are inspiring. For someone who has found out they can't eat gluten or even for those who can. It is nice to feel inspired to cook and take charge of what you eat. For that I thank you. Now, I must go and listen to "Triops Has Three Eyes" with my son.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Gluten Free Crumpette said...

Wow. Your post brought back some great memories! We used to go to the Spaghetti Factory in San Jose, CA when I was a kid. My stepmother would get half mizithra and brown butter, half linguine with white clam sauce. I used to think it was gross too but then I tried it. It reminded me of my favorite quick dish my mom used to make me - pasta with butter and parmesan cheese. She called it Pasta Buddha and we loved it. Anytime we went to a restaurant that was clearly for adults, they would make us Pasta Buddha. My sister even worked at the Spaghetti Factory as a teenager. She told me she would eat that bread like no tomorrow along with mizithra and the salad there. Can't wait to make this recipe and look for mizithra at the store - I miss that taste!

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Betsy Gluten Freedom said...

I always love reading your words, Shauna. Thank you for sharing more of your story last week.
Asparagus is fresh and in season in Atlanta so I've been making it simply roasted with lemon juice a lot. Will have to try your recipe with my next batch.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Amy said...

What a wonderful recipe! Can't wait to try it. You know the funniest thing about the mizithra cheese at the Spaghetti isn't even mizithra. It is a blend of ricotta salata and romano, if memory serves me correctly. The reason I know this is because you can buy a bag of the cheese to use at home and it clearly states the ingredients on the side of the bag. No mizithra in it, as I recall. Isn't that funny?

I do like the real mizithra in small amounts and this recipe sounds like the prefect use for it. Thanks!

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I love asparagus and Mizritha cheese AND walnuts so I'm going to have to try this for sure! One thing, though: is it really one full cup of walnuts and one half cup of olive oil? That's like over 900 calories for one of two servings (and 450 if it's split four ways; still seems like a lot for a salad), so I'm just wondering if that's a mis-type.

Congratulations on eating healthier! It's such a struggle for many.

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Laura said...

This dish sounds so tasty! I have to find this cheese, I never heard of it.

I was walking/running thinking of you the other day too. Keep inspiring us with your food and your determination to be at a healthier weight.

Keep on walkin'!

At 2:49 PM, Blogger McDolan said...

Great post on memories of the Spaghetti Factory, I too had very similar ones, I think it is time to pack the kids up and take them there so they too can have similar memories!

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Clare said...

Shauna- I have memories of the Spaghetti Factory, too, and I used to order the pasta with browned butter and mizithra cheese, just like your dad....that's actually how I discovered that cheese. I love it. AND walnuts are my favorite nut in the world. AND I cannot get enough asparagus when it's in season. So, YAY for me! This salad sounds like a dream!!

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Denise Rivers said...

What a lovely intro to a fabulous spring salad. Is there any harm in blanching the asparagus? I can't wait to try this this weekend!

At 6:45 PM, Anonymous molly said...

If this asparagus is any indication, I think you just might be entering your best chapter, yet.

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I so appreciate your transperancy about your struggles with your weight in response to your difficult year. So many of us have this experience, but instead of being able to discuss it openly it becomes masked with shame. The shame causes us to turn away from ourselves, making it all the more difficult to honor our true needs, our life circumstance and our bodies. I live in Portland, OR and have made it my work to help others find their own truths and the voice of their bodies again. My place is Thanks again for your courage!

At 1:35 AM, Blogger Katie Fries said...

The asparagus sounds wonderful! I'm going to file this recipe away and try it this summer.

I, too, have fond memories of The Old Spaghetti Factory, although as a kid who wasn't very fond of pasta (I wonder if even then my body was telling me gluten was bad for me, hence the aversion) my memories are from a little later in life. For those who happen to live near a location (we lived in Chicago for 8 years and weren't near one at all), they do serve gluten-free pasta (a rice pasta, though I wish they'd bring back the corn pasta they used to serve) and the mizithra sauce is also gluten-free. It's nice that they've added a gluten-free option so my kids can enjoy the same experience of dining in a cable car and getting the souvenir glass with their Italian soda.

At 3:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have only recently moved to a gluten free diet and as I also have poly cystic ovary system the challenge of controlling my wieght while consuming so much rice and rice based goods is taking its toll and my weight has started to climb AGAIN!
I am back to excercising but one of the things I find very helpful is to take chromium supplements each day. These help me feel full instead of starving all day.
Good luck on your quest to better health.
Sydney, Australia

At 4:30 AM, Blogger Heather @Gluten-Free Cat said...

Just delicious. I'm inspired. Thank you for the fresh, new recipe.

Food. I think about it, write about it, and talk about it whenever I'm not shopping for it, preparing it, or eating it! I've been reading Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch, and then to read your post that echoes their very sentiments was a beautiful coincidence. Those of us who eat gluten-free seem to have a double whammie with normal food issues coupled with hypersensitive gluten avoidance in order to prevent major sickness. We're an interesting bunch!

You have such an incredible platform to encourage others to savor, enjoy, eat mindfully, and to break patterns of bondage to food. Thank you for your recipes, and thank you for sharing your struggles. We're with you!

At 11:57 AM, Blogger Deanna said...

I love mizithra cheese. I too was introduced to it at the Spaghetti Factory in Newport Beach. Now when I want the browned butter/mizithra cheese combo it goes over broccoli instead of pasta. Makes it a tiny bit more figure friendly.

At 7:15 PM, Blogger Shauna said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone. If you haven't made this salad, do! I want another bowl right now.

Sweetpea, I promise you that raw asparagus in tiny fine dices like this is really delicious.

Heather, I'm glad you're making this one. More where this came from!

meanderingpathtoself and Kinderhook, in fact, ricotta salata is very similar. According to Amy, even the one at the Spaghetti Factory isn't real Mizithra. (WHAT?) So go try some tangy sheep's cheese.

Candace, oh heavens, you only use a couple of tablespoons of vinaigrette here. the rest you set aside for later.

Katie Fries (and everyone else who mentioned it), I cannot believe that Spaghetti Factory has gluten-free pasta. (I mean, I do believe you, know.) This means we have to go to the one in Seattle soon!

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Stephanie said...

My mother taught me to munch on the raw asparagus while trimming it for cooking. YUM! I'm definitely going to have to make this one. Sadly, in the Boston area the farmer's markets don't start until after asparagus season... have to buy it from my favorite non-market produce store, and plant some in my garden.

I see everyone's let you know about the Old Spaghetti Factory's gluten free menu! I had the browned butter & Mizithra last summer! They also let you go halfsies--I think I got half that and half the veggie-filled marinara. (Eat what you want, plus the veggies, eh?!)

At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Lisa G. said...

Thanks for talking about the feel of hunger and it being a good feeling. So many of us (me) eat before we are actually hungry that we forget what it feels like. I have to listen to my what my body is saying to get it the way I want it! Thanks for the reminder.

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Nicole ( said...

I happened upon your site today and I am so glad I did! The warmth, kindness, and delicious looking recipes (like this one, that I am going to try tonight!!!), are just what I needed. Thanks!

At 1:49 PM, Anonymous FibroHubby said...

I have a hard enough time not eating asparagus raw before I steam it. I don't know if I could wait long enough to make a salad of it, though it does look yummy

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Anita (Married... with dinner) said...

this was delicious last night! We made it with thyme and Parmesan, because we had no tarragon or Mizithra handy... thank you so much for sharing it!

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Stephanie said...

Finally made this as my post-yoga dinner!
AMAZING!!! Thank you!

I didn't have fresh tarragon, but I had my own dried from last summer--Mexican tarragon--and it's done the trick beautifully. No Mizithra, but I have aged Greek Ricotta, which doesn't make cute curlicues, but the same motion with a knife makes little crumbles and shards of slightly tangy, nicely salty cheese.

This is FABULOUS!!!!


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