February 6, 2011

a fine Sunday, a fine salad

A few weekends ago, I planned a lunch party for one of my favorite travel companions and longtime friends Grace. She brought her friend Christian, flowers, wine, and this astonishingly good sparkling jasmine tea. We made a salad and grilled a whole chicken Mexican-style, which we ate with various things -- raw tomatillo salsa, wilted chard, hot pink pickled onions, and corn tortillas. Smoke from the grill wafted through the air, our skin felt hot from the sun, and we lingered at the table and talked for 4 hours. I could have stayed out there forever. Eventually the sun set, though, and we retreated inside for warming glasses of Fernet, dessert and more catching up.

Sunday afternoons aren't always as lovely as this, so I want to remember it. This picture helps.

the definition of a lovely afternoon

I like planning menus but I always waffle (big time) about what to make. In the end, though, the warm weather made my decision for me; how could you even think about braising lamb when it is 70 degrees and sunny outside? Nope, salad and smoky grilled chicken in the sunshine sounded just right. And once I saw the arugula and mounds (I'm talking mounds) of citrus and avocado at the market, I knew just what kind of salad to make.

My favorite kind of salad is the kind that is full of contrast. Take the classic French combination of endive, greens, pear, Roquefort and toasted walnuts. In one bowl, you've got bitter and crunchy (endive), juicy and sweet and crisp (pear), pungent and creamy (blue cheese), warm and crunchy (toasted walnuts), cold (everything else). By playing around with different flavors and textures, you can come up with an almost unlimited number of ways to make your salads contrast-y and interesting.

When I'm making salad, I like to include at least 2 or 3 contrasting elements to keep things interesting. In this arugula salad, you get crisp texture and peppery flavor from the arugula, sweetness and juiciness from the orange, and a firm creaminess from the avocado. The vinaigrette (not too much!) adds some additional richness, sweetness, tang, salt and some heat to the party. Also, if you make and eat while the chill of the fridge is still on all the ingredients, everything should stay cool. The only thing missing is some crunch (doh! slivered red onions were in the refrigerator waiting to be added). Slivered red onion, dunked in an ice water bath to tame the pungency, or sliced radishes would work well here. Go forth, and make salads everyone! Here is mine.

Arugula salad with oranges and avocado
Serves 4 as a starter

A few notes about the ingredients: Freshly squeezed navel orange juice turns bitter after 20 minutes or so (weird, right?). If you use navels, you'll want to juice the oranges just before serving. If you use a different variety of citrus, you can make and refrigerate the vinaigrette a few hours in advance.

Also, do taste the vinaigrette as you go. Your ingredients may require you to tweak things: super sweet oranges and mild arugula may call for less honey, while mature/spicy arugula may need more honey and less cayenne. (The nice thing about vinaigrette is that it is infinitely adjustable: too sharp? add more olive oil. too flat? add more acid or salt.)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 teaspoons honey (start with the smaller amount and add more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 large or 2-3 small juicy oranges (see note above about navel oranges)
1 large or 2 small creamy, but not too ripe avocados
3-4 generous handfuls of arugula, washed and dried (roughly 4-5 ounces)

1. Wash and dry your arugula carefully and heap in a salad bowl.
2. Segment the oranges by slicing off the ends with a sharp knife. Cut off the peel and white pith, then segment the orange by slicing between the membranes. Drop the segments into a bowl and squeeze any remaining juice into the bowl with the segments. Reserve the juice.
3. Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt, cayenne pepper, honey and reserved orange juice. Mix well, taste and adjust seasoning (I like it to start sweet and end with a hit of spice at the back of your throat). Set aside.
4. Just before serving, add the orange sections to the salad bowl containing the arugula. Top with thin slices of avocado. Mix the dressing once last time and gradually add to the salad, folding the mixture as you go, until each leaf is lightly dressed with the vinaigrette. You may not need all the vinaigrette; any leftover vinaigrette will keep in the fridge for several days.


LJ said...

according to betterbaking.com, http://www.betterbaking.com/viewArticle.php?article_id=293
salt can't dissolve in oil. so you should always dissolve the salt (or dried herbs) in the vinegar/acid portion first.
it's a little tip that makes a huge difference!

Amy said...

I do agree with the need for crunch in salads - my recent obsession is toasted, candied pecans on everything. Im not sure it would work with the avocado here but then again, why not? Also, I've never grilled a whole chicken.. How does that method work? I've pretty much given up grilling chicken parts, so dry.

Kim said...

Lynh -- That is true! I used to do that religiously, but I stopped for some reason. Thanks for the reminder.

Amy -- I also gave up on grilling chicken parts, but I really love grilling whole chickens. I use organic/air-chilled chickens and am always happy with how they juicy and tender they are. (You do have to be careful not to overcook an air-chilled chicken though!)

The key to grilling a whole chicken is spatchcocking the bird and grilling it over indirect heat. I really, really recommend Rick Bayless' recipe for Grilled Roadside Chicken. Both the wet rub and the indirect grilling method are tops.

Laura said...

Ahh! I don't like the talk of warm weather. Jealous. I do like the sound of the salad -- simple enough for a weeknight, but elegant enough for a dinner party.

Also, the hot pink pickled red onions sound (and look!) sooo good! I'm thinking about a Mexican-style pork braise for my aunt's birthday party in a few weeks and I think they would be perfect. Can you pass along the recipe?

Lisa in DC said...

I made this salad last night -- I just happened to have arugula, avocado and oranges in the fridge. But I made a few changes: no cayenne pepper (MIL was there while I made it and thought it sounded weird, whatever) and I left out the oregano too. Still, everyone loved it! Thanks for the recipe, I'll definitely make it again :)

Kim said...

Laura - Pickled red onions and braised pork should go great together. I like the recipe from David Lebovitz's blog: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2008/09/pickled-red-onions/

Lisa - so glad it worked for you!