Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Sensational Spring Salad

It’s officially spring and I have enjoyed wandering around Riverside Park with my camera these past few days. I had grand plans for a variety of seasonal springtime meals that I wanted to share with all of you lovely friends reading this blog. These photos of newly budding trees at sunset were going to be a bonus inclusion in various blog posts, the proverbial icing on the cake.

Aren’t they pretty? I thought you’d enjoy them.

But I have a confession to make. I haven’t been cooking at all lately. I haven’t really been writing either. I am a horribly negligent blogger, and I apologize to all of you who have checked in on my little blog in these past weeks only to find no recent activity. I’m sure you’ve wondered if I will ever put up a new post, and I am sorry that I have been remiss in neglecting Kitchen Fiddler this spring. However, I do have a good excuse.

Lately I have been focusing on the ‘fiddler’ part of my blog’s name much more than usual, for I have been practicing the violin like a madwoman in preparation for a big concert in California. On May 1st I will be performing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with my cellist father and with world-renowned pianist Menahem Pressler. Just writing those words gives me a serious adrenalin rush, for Mr. Pressler has been one of the great musical inspirations throughout my life.
I grew up listening to recordings of Mr. Pressler’s consummate artistry with the Beaux Arts Trio. I also have had the joy of hearing him perform live each year from the time I was ten years old, as Mr. Pressler has been the Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at my parents’ university for the past 25 years. He has given master classes and recitals during his annual visit to Biola University, and in the past several years my father and I have had the honor of joining him for chamber music performances. We’ve performed piano quartets together in the past with the wonderful violist on the faculty, Sam Formicola, and on May 1st we will play the glorious Schumann Piano Quartet on the first half, followed by Beethoven’s majestic Triple Concerto for solo piano, violin and cello with orchestral accompaniment.

Whoa, there goes that adrenalin spike again! Needless to say, I’m thrilled out of my mind about working with Mr. Pressler again. In preparation for this concert, my days lately have consisted of lots of violin practicing, doing major cardio and strength-training at the gym to build endurance, going for walks in the park to clear my head, and more practicing. As a result of this musical and physical discipline, I have had neither the time nor the energy to prepare elaborate meals this month, much less blog about them. My attention has been so focused on getting myself into the best possible violin-playing and mental shape that I can, and lately I’m just eating to survive. But I do have a fabulous recipe to share with you today. I love it so much that I think I’ve made some variation of it for nearly three weeks straight.

If you haven’t already bought your own copy of Molly Wizenberg’s debut book, A Homemade Life, please allow me to introduce you to my riff on Molly’s Sliced Spring Salad With Avocado and Feta. This is a beautiful salad, not only from a purely taste perspective but also on a visual level. It is a riot of greens, reds and whites all tumbled together, reminding me of a garden growing wild with brilliant flowers.

It would be an understatement to say that I absolutely LOVE this combination of ingredients. I adore the way the crunch of the endive and peppery greens contrast with the silky avocado slices. If you read my previous post about my newfound love of radishes, you will see that I have found yet another way to incorporate my new favorite vegetable into my daily diet. I have experimented with various kinds of feta cheese, and I really enjoy making this salad with water-packed French feta or with the mild Bulgarian feta that I’ve found in some of my local stores. (But regular crumbled Greek feta is still delicious with this.) I’m a huge cilantro fan and have often torn leaves of it into salads, but if cilantro is not your favorite herb, you could also substitute fresh dill or tarragon or even mint leaves, and the salad would not suffer for the herbal switch. And the zippy Dijon-laced vinaigrette is so easy to make and so versatile, you’ll probably want to have some on hand at all times for many of your other salad endeavors.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve made this for myself nearly every day for the past three weeks. I keep a large bowl of the sliced greens and radishes in the fridge, and then for each meal I dish out a large bowlful and add the freshly sliced avocado, feta and a spoonful or two of vinaigrette just before serving.

Even though it is a fully vegetarian dish, this Sliced Spring Salad is surprisingly satisfying, as though the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. In addition to tasting divine, it fills me up and gives me energy. This is a particularly welcome result when you’re trying to stay focused and accomplish a lot in your life! I'm certain that this salad will make many more appearances on my table in these coming weeks, and I hope that it will find a happy place on your table as well.

Adapted ever-so-slightly from a recipe in A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

I have added arugula to Molly’s basic recipe and have tweaked the proportions of the vinaigrette, but otherwise I follow her template for this sensational springtime salad. If you can find the water-packed French or Bulgarian feta in your local store, I urge you to try these milder creamier varieties of feta for this salad. This recipe makes more vinaigrette than you need for this salad, so store the remaining dressing for a future round of salad.

For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
A few grinds of freshly cracked black pepper
6 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad:
2 cups arugula leaves
8 red radishes, ends trimmed
1 medium radicchio, root end trimmed and discarded
4 Belgian endives, root end trimmed and discarded
1 medium ripe avocado
A good handful of cilantro leaves
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

Make the vinaigrette by combining the mustard, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk to blend well. Gradually add the olive oil, whisking constantly, until the oil has been thoroughly incorporated and the dressing has emulsified. Taste for seasoning, adding more oil or salt and pepper as needed.

Coarsely chop the arugula leaves and place in your serving bowl. Trim and slice the radishes into paper-thin rounds, and add to the arugula. Quarter the radicchio from stem to end, and discard any ragged outer leaves. Slice each quarter crosswise into ¼-inch thick ribbons, and add to bowl. Slice the endive crosswise into ¼-inch slices and add to the bowl. Add the cilantro leaves and gently toss the salad with just enough vinaigrette so that the ingredients are lightly coated. (You will have leftover vinaigrette, so save the remaining dressing for another use.)

Quarter the avocado from stem to base and discard the pit. Dice each section into thin ¼-inch pieces and scatter over the top of the salad. Top with the crumbled feta and serve immediately. Makes 4 generous servings.

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