Sunday, December 20, 2009

Evolution of the Salad

When I was young, a salad carried a pretty narrow description. You had a few sad, pale leaves of iceberg lettuce along with a smattering of diced onions, sliced carrots and maybe a wedge of tomato. And there were three dressing options: French, Italian and Thousand Island. It's no wonder I couldn't get excited about eating that each night (no offense, Mom!). But thankfully at some point, the salad evolved. Like the high school wallflower who shows up at the reunion a complete stunner. The salad is stealing the show these days, giving the main course a run for its money and redefining the notion of what a salad is. 

Wolfgang Puck gets credit for reintroducing us to pizza back in the 80s when he opened Spago. It became white tablecloth-worthy when he began topping his pies with gourmet and exotic ingredients. I don't know who deserves the distinction of transforming salads but there is no denying the metamorphosis. You've now got a myriad of greens as the base (watercress, endive, mache . . . ), a dizzying list of cheeses to choose from (cambazola, halloumi, manchego . . .), and truly endless options of accoutrements (seared ahi, pistachios, roasted beets . . . ). It's the ultimate chinese menu of alternatives. 

This salad rendition is great for the holidays because the pomegranate seeds make it swanky, the roasted butternut squash makes it hearty, and the fried prosciutto makes it a little indulgent. And it's rather show-stopping sitting on the table. Quite the anti-wallflower as salads come. 

Autumn Farmer's Market Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit

4 1/2 - 5 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled seeded butternut squash (from about a 2-lb squash)
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of dried crushed red pepper
Coarse kosher salt
2 Tbsp fresh orange juice
1 1/2 Tbsp walnut oil (or other nut oil)
1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
4 oz arugula (about 8 cups lightly packed)
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
3 oz prosciutto thinly sliced
2 tsp pomegranate molasses

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss squash, olive oil, and crushed red pepper on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Roast 15 minutes. Using a spatula, turn squash over. Roast another 15 minutes or until edges are browned and squash is tender. Sprinkle with coarse salt. This can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. 
Lay the prosciutto slices on top of each other and slice them thinly in a chiffonade. In a hot skillet, add a bit of olive oil until almost smoking. Add sliced prosciutto and saute for 30 seconds or until it starts to crisp. Remove and set on a paper towel.
Whisk orange juice, walnut oil, and lemon juice in large shallow bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add arugula, toasted hazelnuts, prosciutto, and pomegranate seeds; toss to coat. Season to taste with coarse salt and pepper. Spoon warm or room temperature squash over salad. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses and serve. Yields: 6 servings. 

Note: Pomegranate molasses is a thick, tart syrup found at some supermarkets and Middle Eastern markets. You can omit it if you can't find it. It finishes the salad with a nice zing. If you're feeling really motivated, you could try to create your own by reducing down pomegranate juice or you can soak pitted dates overnight in pomegranate juice and then puree. 

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