A Zuni Cafe Classic Without The Chicken Its Possible

A Zuni Café Classic Without the Chicken? It’s Possible.

Try a warm bread salad with crisp mushrooms, inspired by the restaurant dish.

As fall produce shuffles in at farmers’ markets — persimmons, chicories, squash, citrus — my cooking is becoming more practical and comforting. I’m drawn to simple stews, roasts and pots of beans like this one from Melissa Clark, which builds flavor with seaweed and simmered carrots, celery and fennel — and this vegan recipe from Sarah Digregorio, which uses miso, soy sauce and smoked paprika to approximate the more savory, smoky flavors of a pot of red beans and rice.

But between those one-pot meals, it’s fun to find time for one-off experiments. The other day, I tinkered with a vegetarian dish inspired by the classic roast chicken with bread salad that’s still on the menu at Zuni Café in San Francisco.

Here’s what I imagined: little pieces of open-crumb bread, browned in olive oil; mixed with vinegar-soaked currants, toasted pine nuts and sautéed garlic and scallions; and soaked in hot pan juices. The bread, soggy in places but still crisp in others, would tangle with wispy salad greens in a little vinaigrette, and a big pile of crisp, brown mushrooms would nestle on top. Once I started imagining it, it became impossible not to cook it!

If you want to try it, start by prepping Judy Rodgers’s classic bread salad. You can use the same pan to fry the bread in olive oil, toast the pine nuts and sauté the garlic and scallion. Then, instead of roasting a chicken, sear some mushrooms with olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. For extra crisp mushrooms, try placing a heavy pot or pan on top to squish them — a life-changing tip I got from the writer Bettina Makalintal.

Set aside the browned mushrooms and put the pan back over the heat. Add about a half cup of water and scrape up any browned bits at the bottom, letting it simmer for a minute. This liquid takes the place of pan drippings and will help dress the bread and flavor the salad, so don’t forget to taste and season it! Water alone works fine, but you could build up more flavor by sweating some finely chopped shallots and fennel in the pan before adding any liquid, or by using kombu dashi or vegetable stock instead of water.

Toss the bread portion of the salad (everything but the dressing and the leaves!) into the simmering pan juices. Mix well, letting it all soak and meld for a minute. When hot, scrape the bread mixture into a large bowl and toss in the salad greens and vinaigrette. Mix, taste and season with salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil, depending on what it needs, and then pile the browned mushrooms on top. Heaven!

A Zuni Cafe Classic Without The Chicken Its Possible
Romulo Yanes for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Vivian Lui.
Christopher Testani for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
Craig Lee for The New York Times

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Persimmons are here! This means I’ve started nudging friends with Hachiya trees about taking excess fruit off their hands so that I can dry it in the sun and make a big batch of hoshigaki, just like the cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai showed me last year.

If you’re seeing the fruit at shops but you’re not so interested in a big, multiweek project, consider baking a persimmon pudding or making a quick persimmon salad with pomegranate seeds and walnuts or with a mix of citrus.

P.S. Here’s a look at how that Zuni-style mushroom bread salad experiment turned out!

Tejal Rao

Thanks so much for reading The Veggie, and see you next week.

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