Friday, June 22, 2012

Easy and Elegant - Summer Salad with Cheese, Fruit and Nuts

There are some days in every summer where it's so hot you don't even want to think about turning on anything to cook food - not the oven, the cooktop, not even the grill.  You just want a cold drink and a cool, crisp salad.  This salad is for those days.   It's deceptively simple - just four main ingredients plus a vinaigrette - but the beauty is in the simplicity that lets perfect ingredients shine.  The nuts and cheese provide enough protein that it's perfect for a light dinner.

Yes, you could buy one of those salad-kit-in-a-bag meals at the store and be done with it, but I can give you several good reasons why this is better.  First, making your own salad allows you to choose the specific fruits, nuts and cheeses that are your favorites.  Second, your salad will be much fresher than one made in a warehouse sometime last week.  And third, it allows you to use up any leftover nuts or cheese you have in your refrigerator rather than having it go to waste.  (I'm always looking for ways to use up food rather than throwing it away.)

Think about the lettuce you typically get in a salad bag - pale, maybe some pieces are starting to brown.  Now look at the lettuce I found for this salad.  (By the way, it's not all that easy to photograph your own hand.)

Interesting enough, I did find this lettuce at the grocery store, but not in a prepared bag.  Two heads of mini-Bibb lettuce (one green, one red) were sold in a hard plastic shell under the "Deli Express" label.  They were absolutely fresh and delicious and I would highly recommend them if you can find them in your store. 

While we're on the subject of lettuce I wanted to give you a tip that I learned (back in our community garden days) regarding the best way to keep lettuce leaves fresh.  Dunk the whole heads (or leaves) in a sink of very cold tap water and swish them around.  If they just came out of a garden you may have to drain the water and do it again.   At this point if they are whole heads you should cut the cores out to release the leaves. Put the leaves in a salad spinner and spin them around until nearly dry with just a few drops of water on them.

Lay out a really long piece of paper towel on your counter and spread the leaves along its length.

Carefully roll up the entire length of paper towel like a jelly roll.

Then place the whole thing in a gallon ziptop bag, gently squeeze most of the air out without crushing the leaves, and put it in the refrigerator.  The remaining moisture from the lettuce leaves dampens the paper towel, which in turn keeps the lettuce fresh and crisp without being too wet.  Stored in this way, lettuce will keep very fresh for up to a week.

OK, now that I've discussed lettuce probably more than you wanted, on to the other main ingredients - nuts, fruit and cheese.  I used some spiced pecans for this recipe that were a gift from a friend, but plain pecans or walnuts would work equally well.  For the cheese, choose a variety that's relatively firm and full-flavored.  I found a smoked Gruyere that was absolutely delicious.  And for the fruit, you could certainly use whatever fruit is in season during the summer, but apples or pears work equally well.  I like the crisp sweetness of apples so I used a Fuji for this recipe.  Whatever nuts, cheese and fruits you use, make sure they're top quality because they really make the difference in such a simple recipe.

One last thought - I threw a little walnut oil in with the olive oil to add some additional nutty flavor and because I have this beautiful french walnut oil sitting in my refrigerator that looks at me every time I open the door.  Just in case you have oils that stare at you too.

* * click here for a printable recipe * *

Summer Salad with Nuts, Fruit and Cheese
Serves 4

1 large head of Boston or Bibb lettuce (or 2 small heads)
½ lb of good quality firm cheese, such as cheddar, gouda, or gruyere
1 cup shelled walnuts or pecans
2 apples or pears, or other seasonal fresh fruit
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 small shallot, diced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Rinse the lettuce in cold water, then drain and spin dry. Wrap in paper towels and chill for several hours before using.

Cut the cheese into bite-sized pieces. Coarsely chop the walnuts or pecans if desired. Core and thin slice the apples or pears.

To make the salad dressing, in a small bowl combine the oil, lemon juice, vinegar, shallot, salt and black pepper. Whisk until well blended.

Place the lettuce, cheese, nuts and fruit in a large serving bowl. Pour over the salad dressing and mix well. Serve immediately.

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