Until I met Jeremy, I didn’t do salads at all. I know… what kind of a self-respecting woman am I, anyway?
I didn’t like the dressings, and I didn’t really get the point of eating lettuce. It doesn’t taste like anything, or at least the lettuce I was familiar with at the time. Probably iceburg lettuce was a big contributor to my aversion, because, frankly, it tastes like crunchy water, and if I want crunchy water, I’d eat a snow-cone or Slurpee, which at least are sweet. And I can’t stand lettuce stems, which rarely get removed in salad preparations. I was not, and for the most part, am still not, a fan of most raw vegetables or cold (read: not melted) cheese. I was also extremely skittish about the thought of fruits and vegetables in the same bowl, and even nuts provided a strange textural contrast that was not to be trusted.
When I met Jeremy, though, he encouraged me to taste new foods. Some, like sushi, I still just can’t make myself like because of the texture; others I have slowly willed myself to try until I actually came around to enjoying them. Preparing the food myself, to my own tastes, has also played a big part in my willingness to experiment. He got me started eating Caesar salads, which, I know, are about the most unhealthy salad you can eat, but oh so tasty. It has very basic ingredients—Romaine, dressing, Parmesan and croutons—so I could order it at most any restaurant and not have to worry too much about what sort of creative license the chef would use.
Once I felt thoroughly comfortable with Caesar salads, I decided it was time to branch out in new directions. We went to Da Vinci for my birthday in October, and decided to split a pear salad before the main courses. It was a fantastic salad, with baby greens, thinly sliced pear, crumbled gorgonzola cheese disarmingly mixed with candied pecans, and a simple balsamic vinaigrette. I studied every bit of that salad as I ate it, pondering the reasons it could be so tasty even though it was full of combinations I didn’t think I liked: veggies with fruit, nuts and cheese. Now I think it was because all the elements balanced each other so perfectly that nothing stuck out. Sweet was balanced with tart and salty; crunchy was balanced with crisp and creamy. Perfect harmony.
I went home from Da Vinci determined to start making a salad akin to that pear salad in my own kitchen. I made it many times and have now started branching out, a tentative step at a time. Right now I am still clinging to the Pear Salad Principles, which I see as the following:
1. Use baby greens. Baby greens are more delicate and have stems that I consider edible, because they are short and soft. They aren’t as tough as some other lettuces can be and require less prep work (ie: pulling out huge, yucky stems).
2. Sweet-tart dressing. I think the reason the balsamic vinaigrette works so beautifully is because it is sour with a hint of lurking sweetness. I’ve made successful dressings with various fruits (pureed pear, dried cherry, strawberry jam, pomegranate syrup, etc.) to offset the sourness of the vinegars (which could be balsamic, white balsamic, white wine, red wine, sherry, etc.; not a fan of the rice wine vinegar though). I stick mostly with extravirgin olive oil, but have some walnut oil on hand to try out sometime.
3. Fruits. So far I have not experimented too much with fruits in my salads. I’m pretty happy sticking with thin slivers of Granny Smith apple or firm pear (Asian pear is lovely). I am a big fan of pomegranate arils, and sometimes strew them over my salad for a little extra pop of sweet-tart flavor. I’ve also done blood orange or mandarin supremes, which was tasty, but not my favorite. Will need to try strawberries this summer when they make a come-back.
4. Nuts. I prefer these to be candied, unless the dressing is on the sweet side or I go heavy on the fruit, in which case, they do just fine toasted. I’ve used walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts.
5. Sharp, creamy cheese. My preference was at first for a gorgonzola dolce, but now I prefer goat cheese. I’ve been using plain Montchevre Crottin, which has a nice balance between creaminess and crumbliness (the latter making it much easier to incorporate into the salad). I’ve tried using feta, which I love in certain dishes, but I just don’t like it so well in salads… too dry and salty. I haven’t even attempted Parmesan on any of these new salads yet. And any cheese that melts halfway decently (Cheddar, swiss, etc) has no place anywhere near one of my salads. Go jump in a gratin dish, please!
Pear Salad with Gorgonzola and Caramelized Pecans
This salad was inspired by the fantastic one at Da Vinci, and has become our house salad, of sorts. It lends itself to variation nicely, also.
1 10-ounce bag fresh mixed baby greens
1 ripe Bartlett pear or several small Asian pears, cored and sliced thinly
2 T balsamic vinegar
3 T olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
2 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola (or other creamy blue cheese), or to taste
1/4 cup caramelized pecans* (or chopped pecans), to taste
Mix crumbled gorgonzola with candied pecans and toss with salad greens. Vigorously whisk together balsamic vinegar and olive oil, drizzle over salad, and toss to coat. Top with several thinly sliced pieces of pear.
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 cup pecan halves
To toast nuts, place on a shallow baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F. for 10 minutes, until fragrant.
Lightly grease a rimmed cookie sheet. Set aside. In a small saucepan bring sugar and water to a boil. Increase heat to medium-high and cook syrup without stirring until mixture turns golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Dump in pecans, swirl pan to coat, then spread pecans in a single layer on prepared sheet. Let stand until cool, then break into small pieces. Store covered at room temperature. Makes 1 cup.
Update 12/4/06: We’ve made this salad numerous times now, with Asian, Bosc and Comice pears (the latter is really too delicate and juicy, but it was all we had at the time).
Update 1/3/07: We made this twice with my parents when we were in Colorado for Christmas, both times with purchased candied walnuts instead of home-sugared pecans. We had some lovely and very fresh gorgonzola from Tony’s Market, and it packed quite a punch. My mom was nervous about it being blue cheese, but she seemed to like the salad a lot.