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Summer in a bowl

Sarah L. Stewart
Kristin AndersonA salad at Sweet Basil made with olive oil poached beets, shaved asparagus, mache, endive, mizuna, citron vinaigrette, and tempura goat cheese.
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Salad is like seafood: If you don’t like it, you probably haven’t had the good stuff.

Salad, as it was intended, is not that pale out-of-the-bag-and-into-the-bowl stuff, laced with dried-out shredded carrots and doused with bottled ranch. Salad is a marriage of the food groups, a chameleon that can as easily satisfy the appetite as whet it ” depending on the chef’s goal.

Though summer’s bounty of farmer’s-market greens and homegrown lettuce is still somewhat distant, that doesn’t mean our palates aren’t already turning toward the new season. Some local restaurants are plotting their warm-weather menus, and you can count on new salads finding a place on them. Until then, here are some pointers from area chefs on how to craft your own super salads at home.

Fresh veggies are crucial to a great salad.

“Definitely use fresh ingredients,” says Timothy Wastell, sous chef at La Tour Restaurant in Vail. “The freshest you can get your hands on.”

Since they form the base for the salad, greens should be your first concern, says Paul Anders, executive chef at Vail’s Sweet Basil.

Getting fresh greens during the cold mountain spring can be tricky. Anders suggests shopping the farmer’s markets in the summer and trying local shops like the Village Market in Edwards now. If you decide to grow your own lettuce, he suggests sticking with leaf lettuce such as bibb, which is sturdier than baby lettuces.

Darrell Jensen, executive chef at Vail’s Game Creek Restaurant, favors organic greens whenever possible.

“It shows the people growing it care about the product,” he says.

Anders also tries to use seasonal ingredients as much as possible in Sweet Basil’s salads. Heading into the spring, asparagus and peas come into season, as do baby potatoes such as creamers and Yukon Golds. Toward the end of spring, stone fruits such as plums and apricots are ready.

If you want your salad to taste and feel like a treat rather than a chore, a few non-veggie additions are in order.

“I don’t usually like salads without cheese,” Wastell says. His favorite salad cheeses include Fourme d’Ambert, a cow’s milk blue cheese, fresh mozzarella and ricotta salata.

Anders recommends using soft cheeses that will crumble nicely throughout the salad, since harder grated cheeses often don’t disperse as well.

Both chefs emphasize the importance of paying attention to the natural pairings of the salad’s ingredients.

“Definitely balance your flavors and textures,” Wastell says. Crunchy nuts might match nicely with a soft cheese, for instance. Flavors, too, call out for pairing: Wastell suggests blue cheese with beets and nuts, and mozzarella with tomatoes. Anders likes blue cheese with apples and a Spanish manchego cheese with pears ” a combination currently on Sweet Basil’s menu.

A little caution while making your salad can go a long way to making it better.

One common mistake is being too rough with the greens, Anders says. At Sweet Basil, they combine most salads by placing the greens in a bowl and pouring the dressing and wetter ingredients around the sides, then hand-tossing the dressing into the greens.

Home cooks can run into trouble when dressing the salad, adding either too much or too little.

“You always want to add little by little… because you can’t take it out once it’s in there,” Anders says.

Jensen recommends dressing the salad right before you eat it, to avoid wilting. And when making your vinaigrette, don’t use too much extra virgin olive oil, because its strong flavor tends to overpower the salad, he says.

“Always taste everything, even after it’s tossed,” Jensen says.

Anders also suggests adding salt and pepper while tossing, instead of once the salads are on the table.

“It’s pretty amazing what a little bit of salt will do,” he says.

This new recipe will appear on Sweet Basil’s spring menu. Though it is quite simple, Anders says, it takes some time to prepare. “Just the dressing and some great greens would make an excellent salad (that) people can embellish however they wish,” he says.

1/2 pound Belgian endive (remove stem, cut into quarters lengthwise)

1/2 pound mizuna or arugula

1/2 pound mache (or substitute any fresh, leafy young greens of your choice)

2 pounds jumbo asparagus

Roasted beets (see recipe)

Citron vinaigrette (see recipe)

Tempura goat cheese (see recipe)

Season the beets with a little bit of the vinaigrette and salt and pepper. Arrange the beets on a plate. Remove the woody ends of asparagus and shave very thinly lengthwise on a Japanese mandoline. If you don’t have a mandoline, you can buy smaller asparagus and lightly blanch them in boiling salted water and cool them in ice water.

Place the asparagus in a large salad bowl and dress with the vinaigrette and allow to sit for one minute, which will help soften up the asparagus. Add the greens and season the salad lightly with salt and pepper; dress with the vinaigrette a little at a time just until the greens glisten. Place the asparagus/greens mixture on top of the beets, and garnish with the warm goat cheese. If you choose not to fry the goat cheese, simply crumble it over the top of the salad. If you like a little extra dressing, you can spoon some of the vinaigrette over the beets or around the plate. Serves 8.

Beets:

8 medium beets

1/2 gallon blended olive oil

1/4 pound fresh thyme branches

10 cloves garlic

Place the beets, thyme and garlic in a deep roasting pan. Warm the oil in a pot and pour the oil over the beets, so that they are completely submerged. Cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and poke a few holes to let steam out. Place in a 350-degree oven and roast the beets until they are fork tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Allow the beets to cool in the oil and remove them. Peel the beets and either slice them or cut into wedges and set aside.

Vinaigrette:

3 large cloves garlic, smashed

5 large shallots, finely diced

1 teaspoon fennel pollen (can be omitted)

1 1/2 cups citron vinegar (may substitute any high-quality, low-acidity vinegar such as rice wine or champagne vinegar)

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 cups neutral oil such as canola or a blend olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper

2 large pinches of kosher salt

Place the garlic, shallot, fennel pollen and vinegar in a non-reactive bowl (such as stainless steel or glass) and let stand for 30 minutes. Slowly whisk in both oils and season with the salt and pepper. If the vinaigrette is too acidic, add more oil as needed.

Goat Cheese:

12 ounces plain goat cheese

3/4 pound rice flour

1/2 liter Pellegrino or other sparkling water

Roll the goat cheese into small 1/2 ounce balls and coat completely with rice flour. Blend the rice flour and sparkling water together to make a tempura batter. Dip the floured goat cheese into the batter and make sure they are completely coated. Place in a deep fat fryer at 350 degrees and cook until the balls are crispy and warm in the center, which takes about a minute. You can simply crumble the goat cheese into the salad, but you won’t get the same texture and crunch.

This sweet and salty treat has been on the menu at Vail’s Game Creek Restaurant all winter. If you can’t find pomegranate puree, juice will work too.

Baby organic spinach

Red onion, thinly sliced

Candied walnuts (see recipe)

Blue cheese, high quality such as Point Reyes, crumbled

Pomegranate vinaigrette (see recipe)

Place spinach in a large bowl. Add onions to your liking. Add blue cheese. Generously coat with vinaigrette and gently toss. Place on plates and top with walnuts.

Pomegranate Vinaigrette:

30 ounces pomegranate puree

6 shallots, minced

4 oranges, juiced

4 tablespoons black pepper, ground

1 cup sherry vinegar

1 1/4 cups olive oil blend

Mix together all except oil and shallots. Blend in oil. Fold in shallots and season.

Candied Walnuts:

Walnuts

Powdered sugar

Cooking oil

Salt

Blanch walnuts in boiling water, very briefly. Strain and place in a large bowl. While still hot, toss with a generous amount of sugar. Deep fry in clean oil until golden brown. Place quickly on sheet pan and dust with salt.


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