Whim and Whimsy: Chocolate Vinaigrette

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Hey all! I promised you hummus today, so you may be wondering why I’m offering you a chocolate vinaigrette instead. The answer is that I changed my plan on a whim. Last night, I learned that one of my former college professors, the poet Paul Violi, had passed away at the age of 67. Today, as I go about business as usual, I’m thinking about him.

I was fond of Professor Violi: he was wry, amicable, and obviously very kind. He taught me and other undergraduates American poetry without unnecessary reverence or deference; he rarely taught us a poem that didn’t invite us—if not downright beg us—to read with a humorous touch. He chatted with us after class let out, and during breaks. He was a forgiving grader. And he and I both happened to frequent Le Monde, a cheesy imitation French sidewalk café in Morningside Heights.

I spent nearly every night of my undergraduate career at Le Monde, smoking camel lights and sipping wine, either alone (in which case I fancied myself very independent and sophisticated), or with my friend Gabi (in which case we were probably talking about boys). Sometimes, I brought one of my books to the café, sat at the bar, and read. Sometimes, Professor Violi would be there, too, doing the same thing. On those nights, we’d usually have a short and amusing chat—maybe about what we were reading, maybe about the weather, maybe about class that day. I’m sure that these exchanges made me feel precocious and special; I’m sure he was just being polite, and would have liked to read in peace. But if my chatter was an imposition on his time, he never let on.

Young students tend to forget that their teachers have professional lives that extend beyond the classroom. I knew Professor Violi was a working poet while I was his student, but it was only years after I studied with him that I realized what a major force he was in the world of contemporary American poetry. In the whole semester I studied with him, I’m ashamed to say I never once looked up one of his poems.

Years later, when I worked at FSG—a career I may not have pursued without inspiration from Professor Violi and others—I read some of Violi’s poems with a newfound admiration. I was thrilled to discover that they were energetic and playful and sly. Take this poem, for instance—one of his most famous:

Appeal to the Grammarians

by Paul Violi

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we’re ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn’t bounce back,
The flat tire at journey’s outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, “See, that’s why
I don’t like to eat outside.”

The poem is playful and agile; what begins as a series of musings on the problem of language is quickly mapped onto the absurdities of everyday experience. If you’d like an even funnier example, check out “Extenuating Circumstances” or “Excess.” Violi’s poems are high and low, articulate and blunt, sincere and cheeky, all at once.

As an undergraduate, I assumed that “great” poetry had to be magisterial and grave: it had to have the poignancy of “In Memoriam” or the ominousness of “The Second Coming” or the psychedelic intensity of “Kubla Kahn.” It couldn’t possibly be worth studying, I reasoned, if it didn’t have…well, gravitas. Then I read John Donne and Robert Burns (“Bobby Burns,” as Professor Violi once hilariously called him) and Alexander Pope and Frank O’Hara, and I realized that great poetry can be playful and sensual and full of whimsy. It can be satirical, and it can be pleasing. Great poetry can be a lot of things. Violi’s work has its moments of sadness, to be sure, like this stanza of “Little Testament”:

“It’s not the four million tons
of cosmic dust
that gravity gathers
and drops on earth each day,
it’s your own squandered magic,
the weight of your own quiet voice.
It’s the peculiar sense of nothing
when the middle of nowhere shifts again.
It’s the quiet, disappointing extreme,
another long-deserted drive-in movie
at high noon…”

But even those moments are softened with a disarming candor and familiarity.

When I was a teen, I marveled at how the adults in my life could laugh even when things were gloomy, or how they could see the world, not in the black-and-white and very moral terms in which I saw it, but rather in all sorts of amusing shades of gray. The older I get, the more I understand the necessity of good humor. I’m still a serious girl, but I allow myself to chuckle at most things. And when I read Violi’s poems, I feel particularly grateful that one of the true marks of growing up—at least as I understand it—is developing a rich capacity for amusement.

Since I tend to process things through the recipes I create and the food I eat, I thought I’d make today’s recipe a little whimsical, in honor of my late professor and his work.

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Whenever possible, I aim for my food to be optimally nutritious. Sometimes, though, it’s important to make food that’s as playful as it is useful. Here at CR, we all love to eat salad. But most of us also know how to savor some of the sweeter things in life, like chocolate. And why shouldn’t we appreciate them both at the same time? Forget green smoothies: this salad is the quickest way to make greens alluring. It’s also a reminder that even the things we take seriously—like healthy eating—can be infused with a sense of fun.

Strawberry, Avocado, and Roasted Beet Salad with Chocolate Vinaigrette (mostly raw, vegan, gluten and soy free)

Serves 1

For the salad

4 large strawberries, sliced
3 baby beets, roasted, baked, or steamed, and quartered
1/2 small avocado, chopped
3-4 cups baby romaine or spinach greens
Optional: 1 tbsp cacao nibs

Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette

1/2 cup oil; you can use flax, hemp, a healthy EFA blend, or olive
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons raw cacao powder (substitute regular cocoa powder if you don’t have cacao or it’s outside of your budget)
1/4-1/2 tsp sea salt
Dash pepper

1) Combine all dressing ingredients in a blender or by hand. Set aside.

2) Toss all salad ingredients together, and drizzle with 1-2 tbsp dressing. If you like, sprinkle the salad with 1 tbsp cacao nibs, for crunch and taste!

This salad is chock full of heart healthy EFA’s (essential fatty acids) from the flax oil, polyunsaturated fats from the avocado, antioxidants and Vitamin C from the strawberries, and Vitamin A and folate from the greens. But these health benefits faded into the back of my consciousness as I focused on the creaminess of the avocado, the sweetness of the baby beets and strawberries, and the rich, deep flavors of the cacao dressing. I was in heaven.

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Note that while this salad gets an A+ for heart healthy fat and antioxidants and vitamins, it’s not my own definition of a meal sized salad. So you may want to beef it up by serving it alongside some beans/hummus, a slice of sprouted grain bread with almond butter, a cup of my wall of green soup, a slice of my hemp bread, or some steamed sweet potato topped with mashed black beans. Whatever you like—as I’m sure you already know, there are few things in life that don’t go well with chocolate.

May you all start your weeks off with both a sense of seriousness, and a sense of fun. And may you take Professor Violi’s wise words to heart:

For we were made to reach for things.
For imagination extends life.
For our reach must exceed our grasp.
For in confinement imagination thrives.

-Paul Violi, 1944-2011


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Categories: Dressings
Ingredients: Beets

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  1. Touching tribute to an obviously gifted poet. I love the nostalgia in the tone of this piece as you reminisce about drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, feeling sophisticated dining alone with a good book. It brought me back to my former self, how different I was just a few years ago. I too smoked camel lights and often indulged in wine, and for a year, when I lived in Morningside Hieghts myself, used to spend many a spring and summer evening sipping at the outside cafes along Broadway. It’s so funny how our habits change. Looking back I often romanticize my past. However, today, after reading this post, I feel gratitude for the difference between who I was then and who I am now. I am so happy that I have let go of some of my unhealthy ways in favor of those that nourish me.

  2. What an extra special treat, to find your thoughts on a wonderful poet, when I just got back from a two-day intense roadtrip during a month in which I’ve committed to writing a poem every day!

    Your breadth, as well as your depth, continually awes me and inspires me. I love your choice of his poetry that you share, and your snapshot of the cafe and your undergrad days.

    Roasted beets are one of my current faves, and your pairings with them sound delightful.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Amazing. I just made this for lunch (substituting raw beets chopped and marinated in lemon juice and sea salt for the cooked beets), and I am in love! I think I have a new favorite. Thank you for sharing!

  4. What a lovely way to spread his memory and his inspiration! I think your salad is the perfect poem for this circumstance. It also seems like it would be a great Valentines Day plate.

  5. Gorgeous post. What a talented writer he was! It sounds like the world was lucky to know him.

    Chocolate salad dressing is brilliant… I can’t believe I never thought of it! 🙂

  6. chocolate vinaigrette? done! i am definitely trying this recipe.

    my favorite kind of thing. interesting food combinations that look super tasty and healthy at the same time.

    how DO you do it Gina? 🙂

  7. It’s funny, I was watching the show “Chopped” the other day (one of my favorites on Food Network), and chocolate was one of the must-use ingredients. A couple contestants made chocolate vinaigrette! I thought it sounded great, and now I have a recipe! I can’t imagine better ingredients to put in a “chocolate” salad than strawberries, avocado, and beets. This recipe is getting added to my to-make list.

  8. I’m certain he would have been pleased to know that he touched your life in such a manner. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

  9. I heard that he died, but have never read his poems before now. My loss — they’re beautiful.

    As soon as Lent is over (I gave up chocolate) I’ll have to try this vinaigrette. I always feel so bored by my EVOO/balsamic dressings, so this will be a nice change.

  10. What a wonderful post – thank you so much for sharing his beautiful words with us. It must have been an honor to be his student 🙂

  11. Wow, what a sweet post and tribute! So sorry about your loss.This salad sounds simply amazing, I’ve never tried chocolate in a salad before. But I must now! Thanks.

  12. What a wonderful tribute to your professor! .. and this salad sounds amazing!

  13. This beautiful tribute immediately brought memories of special professors in my past to mind. I know your professor would be proud of your abundant talent and honored by the kindness exuding from this memorial post, Gena.

  14. Any poem that ends with “See, that’s why
    I don’t like to eat outside,” is my kind of poem. I have to admit you made me a bit teary eyed thinking of all the professors, particularly lit professors, who so influenced my life, my writing, and my general sense of the world. Beautiful tribute and gorgeous salad.

  15. Only on this site would one have to apologize for posting chocolate rather than hummus 😉
    This is a very nice tribute to Violi. I’m a huge poetry fan, but haven’t read any of his poems. I’ll be on the lookout – thank you for both the recommendation and the recipe.
    PS – I love Le Monde! I had my first drink after turning 21 there!

  16. Thank you Gena. As part of my high-intensity research-based undergrad degree, I worked one on one with academics on individual projects. I became really close with my English professor, who was one of the most generous, hilarious, and smartest people I’ve ever known. He was also a very heavy smoker, and died from a stroke two years ago. I still miss him, but your post has made me feel grateful that he, and your poet professor, were able to pass along their passion for words to we students before they departed.

  17. What a wonderful tribute! it is amazing what we can learn and remind from past professors or loved ones. Today would have been our grandfathers 93rd birthday and we looked back at all the amazing stories and things he taught us 🙂 It was wonderful!

    Oh my chocolate vinaigrette!! Love it. I would have never thought to do that, you are brilliant 🙂

  18. He was/is the same age as my father, who taught me to love the English language and other beautiful things.

    Thank you.

  19. What a lovely tribute to your Paul Violi. Interesting that you noted “Young students tend to forget that their teachers have professional lives that extend beyond the classroom.” but that he made time for your chitchats, and didn’t let on (if he was) even “bothered” by chatting. I doubt it. Anyone who is hanging out at a cafe rather than at their own kitchen table, probably relishes a few moments of chitchat and small talk 🙂

    Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette = now THAT is my kind of dressing! It looks and sounds wonderful, Gena.

    And beets. I love beets. And I bet the choc vinaigrette brings out the flavor in them, even more.

    I love seeing recipes like this from you…diversity and whimsy are wonderful 🙂

  20. !!! Paul Violi was your professor?! I love him! I know a poet has captured my heart when random little phrases make me super happy. His “House of Xerxes” makes me giggle with all the lines on warrior fashion, like “a dressy apocalyptic beach look.” I’m so sad to hear he passed on. You were so lucky to have him.

    Whimsical poetry made me much more interested in poetry as a whole. I mean, my little preteen heart beat faster for “The Raven” and anything by W. H Auden, but I think I realized I really loved poetry when I read Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and (if you count them as poems), all the little hilarities of The Canterbury Tales.

    Thank you for making me remember the loveliness of well-placed words. I love the chocolate-topped salad too! If I were to pair it with something, I’d pick a sweet potato with black beans…but smash the black beans with some spices and cocoa (and a dash of almond or peanut butter), for a spicy-sweet mole effect.

  21. What a beautiful story, and a wonderful recipe to honor your professor. I love the idea of veggies and chocolate together – two of my favorite things.

  22. thank you for sharing this beautiful poem and beautiful recipe. I am writing a paper all day, but during my yoga practice I think I will repeat the mantra, “for our reach must exceed our grasp”

  23. What a wonderful tribute to such a fun-loving individual. It isn’t every day we find the mentors in our life who devote their time and effort to their craft and students, and are successful in doing so in a way that makes us enjoy learning! This recipe is a perfect representation of what he taught!

  24. Forget hummus, this chocolate vinaigrette and salad that goes with it looks AMAZING. I recently made a tropical- type salad with black beans, banana, avocado, bell pepper, cocoa quinoa and coconut butter as dressing. It was amazing.
    I’m so sorry about your professor- great post about him!

  25. Thank you so much for this wonderfully quirky tribute to your late Professor, and for introducing me to his poetry.

    I think I can safely say that I would never have discovered it if not for you, and my life would be poorer for it. I am sure that the spreading of his words is exactly what he would have most appreciated. Well that and having a laugh about it.

    So I will make some lovely food, and click on the link and remember to try to look for the bright side of life.

  26. Gena, that is one of the loveliest tributes I have ever read. You knocked it out of the ballpark in terms of whimsey. I’ve had chocolate in my green smoothies, and I’m aware of mole sauce (though I’ve never yet had any), but I have never heard or thought of adding chocolate to a vinaigrette. I will definitely try this. You managed to be both serious and humourous at the same time here – very nice and comfortable sense of balance. I am really impressed with your skill as a writer, and I’m betting your former instructor would be really appreciative of this post.

  27. What a beautiful post. Sorry for your loss Gena.

    The chocolate infused salad sounds amazing!

  28. Cant wait to try this! Sorry for the loss and I loved that first poem of his! Thank you so much for sharing.

  29. Oh my, that sounds heavenly! Cacao nibs are NOT optional; they are mandatory! LOL Love them. 🙂

  30. What a nice tribute to your professor, Gena. A great teacher of mine from middle school recently died from an sudden heart attack. There is something truly magical about teachers who leave such a mark on an entire community-they have a way of reaching out to everyone.

    And my, that salad looks quite divine!

  31. Chocolate? I would probably eat anything raw if you put this on it. Beautiful post Gena!

  32. Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute to an inspiring teacher. His words evoked both laughter and a moment of reflection. Sometimes I need to be reminded of what powerful opportunities for growth come with great humour. Being able to laugh at mistakes and try things that feel silly have brought me moments of both clarity and joy.

  33. After 4 years as an undergrad and another 3 as a graduate student I’ve finally concluded that great professors such as Professor Violi are few and far between. I had one professor as an undergrad that really changed my life and I remember sending him an email thanking him a couple years ago. He commented that it was extremely satisfying for him to know how much he’d helped me. He later wrote a piece on his blog about how he actually had just thanked some of his own mentors.
    I think both he and I have learned to just give a nod every now and then to those who’ve helped us grow. It’s wonderful that you’re doing the same for one of your great teachers. It was a lovely post.

  34. So moving, such a beautiful tribute post, Gena. I, too, once discovered that poetry could be so much more than “grave” and “epic”. Late one hot summer night, perched outside on flimsy folding chairs, the charming night porter of a seedy motel in downtown Toronto read to me from an Al Purdy poetry collection. Never again did I look at/listen to/feel poetry the same way.

    May Violi’s words always be shared and remembered.

  35. beautiful tribute to your professor. love the poetry. I’m intrigued by this dressing. I think you are right; there are very few things chocolate doesn’t go with.

  36. I’m so sorry he passed away – but what a lovely way to make a tribute to him! Now you’ll think of him whenever you eat that 🙂
    Plus – it sounds delicious!!

  37. I’ve been thinking about chocolate in savory food ever since the Chopped All-Stars episode when he used it in the appetizer! I’ve been looking for recipes, and this sounds wonderful!

  38. Isn’t it wonderful when you find out that poetry can be funny? I remember the first time I read James Tate and Tony Hoagland, I thought…THIS is POETRY?!? I’ve been hooked ever since 😉