goat-cheese-salad

OK, see if this sounds familiar. You’ve got dinner done, and suddenly you realize there’s nothing green on the table, so you toss together whatever’s in the crisper (or shake from a packaged bag of chopped greens), pour on the bottled dressing, and – voila! – salad.

And it’s usually the exact same salad with the exact same dressing. The only part of the meal that’s usually an afterthought.

Salads get no respect.

But, with just a little planning and effort, you can make a restaurant-worthy salad at home.

Here are a few tricks:

1. Find Your Formula.

Think about your favorite restaurant salad and what you love about it. Now, break it down into a formula.

For example, if you love a classic Caprese Salad, it’s formula might be Tomato + Something Soft and Mild (mozzarella) + Something Punchy (basil). So, a variation might be something like Tomato + Avocado (Something Soft and Mild) + Red Onion (Something Punchy).

Maybe you need beans in your salad or a grain or something crunchy.

My favorite salad formula is Greens + Something Juicy + Something Crunchy, which is exactly what you find in the Arugula Salad with Strawberries and Pecans I love so much. That’s why I couldn’t wait to try this salad with Field Greens, Spiced Pecans, Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette. You should give us some time alone together now.

2. Make Your Dressing.

There’s no reason to pay for bottled dressings full of preservatives when it’s so easy (and cheap) to make your own. I usually take an old jelly jar, pour in 3/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar, add 1/2 teaspoon each of Dijon mustard and minced garlic (plus salt and pepper to taste), and shake it. A light, quick dressing that goes with everything.

3. Choose Interesting Greens, and Treat Them Right.

If iceberg is your go-to lettuce, try romaine, Boston or bibb. Or try combining your greens, like tossing two handfuls of spring mix with a handful or arugula. Or skip the lettuce and use spinach. Just be sure to dry your greens once they’re washed so they’ll be as crisp and flavorful as possible. Wet salad is bad salad.

4. Practice Your Knife Skills.

The same salad ingredients will have an entirely different taste and mouth-feel depending on texture, so experiment with slicing, chopping, dicing and tearing. You might find that you hate diced cucumber but love it thinly sliced. I did.

5. Add Something Unexpected.

Sometimes all it takes to wake up a sleepy salad is a little surprise: fresh herbs, thinly sliced pepperoncini, spiced nuts or toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped bacon or pepperoni, sun-dried tomatoes, shaved Pecorino, homemade croutons, disks of goat cheese rolled in panko, spiced pecans or toasted coconut.

A little variety goes a long way towards making a salad something special.

Field Greens with Spiced Pecans, Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Adapted from Rebecca Rather’s “The Pastry Queen”

Makes 4 servings

    Spiced Pecans:

  • 1 1/2 cups pecan halves
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter*
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    Balsamic Vinaigrette:

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup to 2 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil (Experiment to decide how much works for you.)
    Salad:

  • 1 (6-ounce) goat cheese round, at room temperature
  • 3 cups assorted baby greens, washed and dried
  • 1 small bunch arugula, washed and dried
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, preferably organic, quartered
  1. For the Spiced Pecans: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the pecans in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the cumin, cayenne and salt. Pour the butter mixture over the pecans, and toss to coat. Spread the pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet, and toast for 7 to 9 minutes, until golden brown and aromatic. Set aside to cool at least 15 minutes.
  2. For the Vinaigrette: In a blender or food processor, blend the garlic, mustard, honey, both vinegars, lemon juice and salt for about 20 seconds. Pour 1/2 cup olive oil through the feed tube in a slow stream, and blend until the mixture emulsifies (this won’t take much longer than it takes to pour in the oil). Taste and add more oil as desired.
  3. For the Goat Cheese Rounds: Coarsely grind 1/2 cup of the spiced pecans in a food processor, and pour the ground pecans into a medium bowl. Then divide the goat cheese into four equal parts, and gently form each quarter into a disk. Roll the goat cheese rounds in the ground pecans to cover completely.
  4. To Assemble the Salad: Toss the baby greens, arugula, the remaining 1 cup of spiced pecans and some of the balsamic vinaigrette to taste in a large salad bowl. (Leftover dressing will keep in the refrigerator up to 3 days.) Serve salads on individual plates, and top each salad with some of the cherry tomatoes and a disk of pecan-coated goat cheese.

*Gluten-Free Tip: Make sure to use GF butter.