Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I am on a salad kick, whowouldathunkit?

Something has happened in my brain recently - as though some of the wires have come loose, or something in the gray matter short circuited, or some kind of temporary stroke has rendered a portion of my cerebral cortex obsolete - because all of a sudden, out of the blue, I like salad. This is a big deal for me, and definitely indicates a brain malfunction, because for most of my life I have been the only person I know who just doesn't care for salad.

Now, I am not fundamentally opposed to salad by any means. In fact I can stomach a nice pre-dinner spinach salad or side salad with most any meal. I especially appreciate salads that do not resemble salad at all because they lack all vegetation properties, like tuna salad or apricot chicken salad. However, I have never been able to, until recently, handle the idea of a salad as a main course. In fact, I usually dislike salad so much that I might actually skip a meal rather than order the chicken caesar for lunch. And I NEVER skip meals.

Salad is just so awkward. I can never get an even bite on my fork. Croutons are rolling off, there are too many tomatoes in a bite, the dressing is heavy on one leaf and light on the next... the list of salad-eating hardships goes on and on. Plus, I am always miffed that the good stuff in a salad always falls to the bottom before I can taste it. I like romaine alright, but what I really want is the bacon and pecans layered on top of romaine. Except that when I eat salad, I end up searching in vain for bites with romaine, bacon, AND pecans, but end up with about twenty romaine-only bites followed by a grand finale of two or three forkfuls of the good stuff at the bottom of the plate, but soggy in the leftover dressing. The salad ingredients never seems to emulsify into a complete dish for me. The whole experience is just massively unfulfilling. Or should I say un-FULL-filing, as salads also tend to leave me hungry (and often with blatant garlic mouth for hours).

My dislike of salad often leaves me feeling guilty, as though somehow my propensity for being slightly rotund and constantly several pounds overweight is indefinably linked to my inability to enjoy eating salad as a meal. After all, I am convinced that salads and successful dieting are linked by science. There is some kind of unwritten mathematical equation about the inverse relationship between how much salad one eats and the size of their jeans. I like to think of it as "The Law of Salads" and it is probably why I wear a size 16 pant.

However, I think I have turned over a new lettuce leaf (relish the visual pun, and imagine me poking through a plateful of butter lettuce, forking leafy green pieces around in vain before suddenly flipping over a piece and ravenously consuming the salad with a newfound appreciation). Last week I independently chose two salad recipes from various cookbooks and blogs, prepared both salads, and enjoy both salads so much that I made them a second time this week. That equals four salads in two weeks, an all time record for me. And the truth is I want to make them again. They are that good.

I wrote about the BLT salad yesterday. It's a very simple, incredibly fulfilling comfort food type of salad. The salad of today's post is a little more extravagant, a dinnertime salad if you will. It involves a few of my favorite ingredients - pine nut, niçoise olives, and bell peppers - plus the addition of roasted chicken, the more exotic leafy greens of arugula, and a simple yet very chic dressing. We simplified by purchasing a pre-roasted chicken from our local luxury grocery store, which yields enough chicken for lunch leftovers.

For this salad, I even made my own croutons. Making croutons is an act of love in my book, but this salad deserves it. Making the crunchy treat involves not only slicing bread into small pieces, but individually brushing each side with oil, and then the worst of the worst in cooking tasks, rubbing raw garlic all over each side. Ewwwwww. But the results are delicious, and the usually disgusting lingering scent of garlic on my fingers all week only served to remind me how good the salad tasted. I have to give credit to Orangette's blog for this recipe. The girl posts tasty meals, and this one is a gem.

Warm Chicken Salad with Arugula, Olives, and Pine Nuts
Inspired by The Zuni Café Cookbook

1 crusty chunk of country bread or baguette
Olive oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 handful of coarsely shredded meat from a roasted chicken
Red wine-mustard vinaigrette
1 Tbs pine nuts
6 Niçoise olives, pitted and halved
1 generous handful of arugula
1 small handful of very thin slices from a yellow or red bell pepper
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tear the bread into a handful of irregular croutons. Brush them with olive oil to coat, spread them on a sheet pan, and toast until golden at the edges, about 6 minutes. Cool the croutons slightly; then rub them the garlic while still warm. Be as thorough as you are fond of garlic. Turn off the oven.

Meanwhile, toss the chicken with a bit of the vinaigrette—just a touch, for moisture and flavor—and set aside.

Place the pine nuts and olives in an ovenproof serving bowl—I use my favorite round, vintage Pyrex bowl—and place it in the turned-off oven for about 2 minutes to warm through. Carefully remove the bowl from the oven—it may be hotter than you think—and add to it the arugula and the peppers. Toss with vinaigrette to coat lightly but thoroughly. Add the chicken and the croutons, crumbling some of the latter over the bowl to let garlicky crumbs fall into the salad. Add a little more vinaigrette, and toss gently to coat. Taste, and add more vinaigrette or salt if necessary.
Serve promptly—straight from the bowl, if you like.
Yield: 1 serving

Red Wine-Mustard Vinaigrette
Adapted from Michael Roberts’s Parisian Home Cooking

1 Tbs Dijon mustard, preferably Grey Poupon
3 Tbs good-quality red wine vinegar
½ tsp fine sea salt
5 Tbs good-quality olive oil

Combine mustard, vinegar, and salt in a small bowl, and whisk to combine. Add the oil one or two tablespoons at a time, whisking continuously to emulsify. Taste to correct vinegar-oil balance, if necessary, and toss with your favorite salad ingredients. The dressing will keep for up to two weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

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