Thursday, October 29, 2009

Arugula Fennel Salad With A Twist

I must admit that I’m having a difficult time finding a good balance this fall. I wanted to find the happy medium between work and play, but I have to accept the reality that I find it very difficult to be disciplined in more than one area of my life at a time. I’m thrilled to be working on a major project right now, one that is exciting and unusual, though it is taking up a vast amount of my mental energy and is eclipsing most of the time I would ordinarily spend cooking. I don’t mean to be a hopeless tease about my so-called Project X, for I hope to be able to share it with all of you in time. Please forgive me for being cryptic at the moment, but perhaps I can appease you with a recipe for my new happy discovery: an Arugula Fennel Salad with a bit of a crunchy twist.

Arugula has long been my salad green of choice, and I’ve often tossed it with paper-thin slivers of fennel, finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. But I was inspired by a salad that I had at the Zuni Café in San Francisco this summer, one in which the baby arugula and fennel shavings were enlivened with a scattering of toasted breadcrumbs and finely chopped pistachios with a hint of orange. I was so delighted by the Zuni Café version that I had to recreate my own variation for myself here at home.

I love a salad that is a study in contrasts, just to keep things interesting. Peppery arugula leaves and anise-scented fennel are tempered by the sweetness of the orange zest and balsamic vinegar. The tender greens are then generously flecked with a toasted breadcrumb-pistachio mixture that adds an unexpected yet appealing crunch. I find that the toasted crumbs are less intrusive than the average crouton, and I don’t know why it never occurred to me to do this to a salad before.

I love this salad so much that I’ve been making it on an almost daily basis. In the same way that I was obsessed with making my Sliced Spring Salad practically every day earlier this year, unwilling to branch out from that particular combination of ingredients, I have happily stumbled upon a new fall favorite. While I may be struggling to achieve a healthy equilibrium in my life right now, at least I have found a beautiful balance within this Arugula Fennel Salad. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have in these past few weeks.

Inspired by a salad I enjoyed at Zuni Café in San Francisco, August 2009.

A food processor makes it easy to whirl torn bread pieces into fine crumbs. I got lazy the other day and bought some panko breadcrumbs from Whole Foods—I didn’t feel like hauling out the food processor—and I was totally happy with the results. This will make more of the breadcrumb mixture than you probably need for the salad, but I usually mix in half of it and then pass the rest in a small bowl for people to sprinkle on top as they wish. Use your best olive oil and balsamic vinegar to finish the salad.

4 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon pistachios, finely chopped
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
4 large handfuls arugula, washed and spun dry
½ a fennel bulb, ends trimmed
Olive oil
Aged balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

Heat the 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add the breadcrumbs and toast until lightly golden, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl to let cool for a minute. Stir in the chopped pistachios and orange zest.

Place the arugula leaves in a large mixing bowl. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the fennel into paper-thin slivers and add to the arugula. Drizzle a little olive oil over the salad and toss gently, using just enough oil so that the arugula leaves are very lightly coated. Add the balsamic vinegar, a sprinkling of sea salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Toss gently and taste for seasoning and balance, adjusting as necessary. (I use a scant 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon balsamic for a salad this size.)

Sprinkle half of the breadcrumb mixture onto the salad and toss well. Pass the rest of the breadcrumb mixture separately to add as you please. Serves 4. (Or if your name is Louise and you’re totally preoccupied with very little free time in which to cook, this counts as a one large single-serving salad!)

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