November 25, 2006

Table for 6? I'll make the salad...

Top Chef fans will note that Carlos packed up his knives this week, largely because the judges felt his salad was an easy attempt to skate through the elimination challenge in the middle of the pack. Tom Colicchio went so far as to ask what he did with the rest of the four hours he had to work with.

Cutting edge or not, some of my favorite salad recipes are quite labor intensive. In response to Gabriella's call for favorite fall salads, I included a cool-weather standby on tonight's menu; a creation I euphemistically refer to as my "Thousand Calorie Salad".

Owing it's origins to this recipe, production begins with toasting and then candy-ing the almonds. Yes, I could just as easily buy them in a bag. No, they don't taste nearly as good. This part of the project was actually far more tedious (and occasionally painful -- hot caramel BURNS) before the advent of the silpat.

The Candied-Almond Process:

Line cookie sheet with clean Silpat. Mix 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring until mixture turns deep amber color, brushing down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush as necessary. Remove from heat and stir in almonds. Immediately pour onto prepared Silpat, spreading almonds out to the edges in a single layer. Allow to cool and harden.

Time-consuming step two in the Thousand Calorie Salad centers around the salad dressing itself. will tell you that it takes 20 minutes to reduce 4 cups of cider to 1/2 cup. would be L-Y-I-N-G. It typically takes upwards of an hour. But it is an hour well spent. The viscosity and the sweetness of the reduced-then-chilled cider creates one of the most complex sweet salad dressings I've ever encountered.

The Salad Dressing Process:

Boil 4 cups apple cider in heavy large saucepan until reduced to 1/2 cup. Transfer to 1 cup Pyrex container and refrigerate (2-3 hours will produce a nice viscosity). Remove from refrigerator and whisk in 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons each minced shallot and Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon poppy seeds. Gradually whisk in 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil. (The original recipe calls for 1 cup olive oil, but I found that produced too heavy a dressing).

What happens next depends on what ingredients I have on hand and on how I intend to serve the salad. I typically toss 10-14 ounces of lettuce (butter lettuce and romaine both work very nicely, endive and radicchio add a pleasant bitterness) with sliced apples of whatever variety I have handy and/or a handful of candied cranberries, plus a small red onion that I've sliced finely and soaked to remove some of its punch. If I'm going to serve the salad straight out of a single bowl, I toss 10-12 ounces of crumbled goat cheese in at this point too, adding the dressing and the candied nuts immediately before the salad hits the table.

If I'm going to plate individual salad servings, I dress the goat cheese up a bit. I slice a log into disks 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, dredge them in nutmeg-seasoned panko crumbs, and pan fry them lightly until the bread-crumbs darken and the cheese softens a bit. I plate the lettuce mixture across the requisite number of servings, add a couple of goat cheese disks, a small handful of the nut brittle and drizzle the dressing lightly over the top.

This salad pairs nicely with hearty, meaty fall fare -- such as the Individual Beef Wellingtons and French Onion Soup with which we served it tonight.

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