I get really stressed out when I have to plan a menu. Typically it goes something like this: Pull every cookbook out of my bookcases and scour them for just the right dishes. Find nothing that meets my expectations and reluctantly put them back — after double checking the ones that I think should be able to help but aren’t. Then I grumble about it and decide on the type of main course I want to serve and work from there.
Then I start the process all over again for dessert. It’s tiring.
As much as I love to cook, and cook well, I am in a never-ending quest to have every meal I serve — but particularly those to guests — be absolutely perfect. Perfect pairing. Perfect presentation. Perfect everything. And that, my friends, really stresses me out. But I’m working on relaxing a bit. No one needs that much pressure.
When I was planning the menu for a special lunch with a very good friend the other day, I decided to go simple. Yes, I went simple. I know — sometimes I go nuts with cooking huge meals, but I wanted this to be a comfortable, relaxed visit so I made two dishes that I could prepare most or all of ahead of time – a panini and a salad.
I mentally built the salad piece by piece. First, I decided to start with a bed of baby spinach. And what pairs really well with baby spinach? Strawberries! And I happened to have a few, so I sliced those up. Of course, the salad had to have cheese — everything needs cheese. Seriously, people.
But it needed something more to elevate this from just another spinach and strawberry salad to a WOW! (Did I mention that this was the first time ever that this friend ate something I cooked? It was. And we’ve been friends for, um, seven years. So, it had to be an all-around WOW! meal.) After scanning the cabinets, I found my supply of dry roasted almonds and decided to do a candied almond to toss in the salad too.
These almonds were awesome. Nice and crispy and sweet. Mmm. Shawn’s first response was “Wow, those almonds really make the salad!” I tend to agree. If you’ve never made candy before, don’t worry. These are super easy.
yields 2 cups
1/2 cup water
1 cup white sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 vanilla bean
2 cups whole dry roasted almonds
Stir together the water, sugar and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Scrap in the center of one vanilla bean. Stir in the almonds. Turn on the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens (all of the liquid should evaporate, leaving a syrupy mixture that moves together when you tilt the pan).
Spread a sheet of wax paper on a baking sheet. Make sure that the wax side is up. Pour the almond mixture onto the sheet and separate the almonds. Let cool.
Store in an airtight container.