Monday, April 30, 2012

In Abundance

Even though I complained about all the rain in April, I must say it's made things vibrant and apparently grow like weeds. All of a sudden it seems like there is a glorious abundance of flowers and vegetables everywhere. Like these roses on the Mission lawn. Or the rows and rows of neatly clipped asparagus at the farmers market.

I love roses (don't most girls?). But I think I love this salad even more. Perhaps that would explain why I've made it four times since this

It's quick to pull together and creates a stunning presentation which people will "ohhh" and "ahhh" over—even though the littlest kitchen helper could assemble. I also like it because it can be served room temperature, so it's a great choice for a simple weeknight dinner, an alfresco picnic, or for entertaining. And it's a wonderful combination of flavors and textures: Bright citrus, tangy goat cheese, and the crunch of hazelnuts, all layered on top of asparagus. 

You could easily substitute green beans or sugar snap peas for the asparagus, although I'm probably partial to asparagus. There is something about the tips of the stalks that have an almost anthropomorphic feel to them that I love. 

And probably any relative in the orange family could pinch hit. I used tangerines but i just bought a bagful of blood oranges at the market on Saturday that would also be delicious and delightfully eye-pleasing. 

Citrus fruits make me happy. Their colors are so vivid. And then there's the wonderful aroma released when you first tear into the peel. And I can't help but smile when you bite into it and the juice drips down your chin or hands. I'm momentarily transported back to playing little league soccer and stuffing orange slices in our mouths at half-time. I'm pretty sure we were more excited about the oranges than listening to the coaches' play they were trying to get us to run. Oranges also remind me of one of my best childhood friends, Dana. She had this amazing talent. She could peel an orange in a single peel! I would sit at the lunch table mesmerized by this fascinating feat. To this day, I still try to replicate her talent—to no avail. Well, I can do it with a tangerine (see below) but that's not all that hard. 

The dressing is what really pulls this whole dish together. I'm not sure where I picked this up, but I always put a dollop of dijon mustard in any vinaigrette I make. It's a great emulsifier, helping to bind the oil and vinegar, but it also gives a wonderful "oomph" to the flavor that seems to compliment whatever I'm serving. And while most people swear by the 3-1 ratio of oil to vinegar, I almost always go closer to 2-1. I don't want to feel my mouth coated in oil. I prefer more sharpness from the acid, so adjust according to your personal preference. And honestly once you realize how simple and fast it is to make your own vinaigrette, you'll abandon any store bought bottles. I promise what you make will far out-shine what you can buy. 

I also just want to assure you that even if you don't like licorice (which I don't), you'll like fennel when it's sliced very thinly and served with oranges. There must be some wonderful magic that happens then those two things are put together. It's like mushrooms and thyme. Or beets and citrus. You're just going to have to trust me, even though I can't give you a scientific explanation.

I hope you too have lots of abundance around you to enjoy

Asparagus, Orange and Fennel Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Adapted from Epicurious

2 lb asparagus, ends trimmed
3 medium oranges
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and halved
3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp whole-grain mustard
1/2 tsp salt, plus extra for sprinkling
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper, plus extra for sprinkling
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp finely grated orange zest
3 oz crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup hazelnuts, roasted with skins removed

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread asparagus on rimmed cooking sheet and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stalks), shaking the sheet half way through, until tender but still crisp. 
2. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in oil, then zest. 
3. Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat and add hazelnuts. Shake pan occasionally and cook for about 10 minutes. Be careful they don't burn. Usually, you can tell when they're ready by the rich aroma they give off. When they're done, remove from the pan and take a wet paper towel and rub the skins off. Place them in a small ziplock bag and take a mallet or the back end of a kitchen knife and crush. 
4. Cut and peel oranges, cutting between the membranes to release segments. If you're using tangerines, like I did, then just slice across. Squeeze any excess juice into the salad dressing and whisk to combine. 
5. Take a mandoline and shave the fennel paper-thin. If you don't have a mandoline, just slice the fennel as thinly as possible. 
6. To assemble, arrange the asparagus in a row on a serving platter. Add a layer of thinly sliced fennel down the middle, followed by the orange segments. Drizzle the dressing overtop. Sprinkle the goat cheese and hazelnuts on top and serve!

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