Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fresh a Salad with Escarole, Mint, Grapes and Walnuts

I think that we must be experiencing an especially fine year for fresh figs.  For the past two or three weeks, every time I have entered my local Whole Foods I have been greeted by a large table overflowing with fresh Black Mission Figs.  I buy some almost every time...I can't get enough of them.  Figs that make it all the way to the Midwest haven't always been so great.  But even though these have been shipped in (probably from California) they have been surprisingly good—plump, heavy, relatively unblemished...and if not already perfectly ripe, they are close enough to it that they will be after a day or two on my kitchen counter.  Once ripe (soft...on the verge of squishy), they need to be consumed quickly or they will begin to decay.  But this has not been a problem.  I have been eating them raw for breakfast with yogurt...roasted in a compote...and last night as the centerpiece of a delicious, spur-of-the-moment salad. 

Besides figs my salad included red grapes, walnuts, escarole, arugula, mint and a favorite creamy Dijon vinaigrette.  Like most of the impromptu dishes that end up on our table, the inspiration for this particular combination of ingredients came from a number of different sources...not the least of which was what I happened to have in my pantry.  In any case, trying to untangle all of these sources would probably not be very instructive.  Suffice it to say that I have had fig salads on the brain since I prepared one for a private dinner group this past Saturday night and have been thinking a lot about figs in combination with various greens, styles of vinaigrettes, as well as other fruits and nuts. 

As usual, I have included a recipe at the end of my post, but as with all salads this is a "to taste" affair and you should combine the ingredients in quantities that please you.  To begin, add the escarole to the bowl (torn into bite-sized pieces).  Escarole is a substantial green with a delicate crunch.  It adds a slight bitter flavor that contrasts beautifully with the sweet fruit and its texture gives the salad nice structure.  Next add a few leaves of arugula (torn, if large)...not too much, to me this is a mostly escarole salad—the arugula adds some peppery spice and great color contrast to the pale escarole. 

Next add some mint.  If the leaves are very large, tear them into two or three pieces.  My mint patch has just begun to recover from the summer heat, so the leaves are tender and small.  Add more mint than you think you need.  From references I have found in other cookbooks, it seems it was Richard Olney (in his book Simple French Food) who introduced the combination of figs, mint and cream to the mainstream food world...and it is an inspired combination.  The mint really lights this salad up.

Mint for two salads (half a recipe)

Finally, add fresh figs (halved if small, quartered if large), halved red grapes and toasted walnuts (broken into medium-sized pieces).  Add as much as you think you want to eat...this salad should be a celebration of the wonderful fruits and nuts of early autumn.  

Drizzle some of the dressing over the contents of the bowl and gently and carefully toss (you don't want to squash or tear the soft figs).  Use less than you think you don't want a sodden salad.  If you want more dressing, you can always add more...or drizzle some over the plated salads.

To plate the salad, layer the fruits and greens carefully on a platter or individual plates.  Take the time to tuck the fruits in, under and on top of the greens so that they are shown off to most advantage.  If you are arranging the salads on individual plates, make sure that the figs are divided evenly among the plates.  I freely admit that if I were seated next to someone who got more figs than I did I would resort to polite begging or surreptitious thievery in order to get my fair share of figs. 

The interplay of the sweet (figs, grapes and mint), the bitter (escarole and walnuts) and the spicy (arugula and Dijon) well as the contrasts in soft and crunchy textures...made for a particularly delightful salad.  If I hadn't already had the rest of my dinner ready and waiting on the stove, I would have gotten up from the table and made myself a second salad.  It was that good.  So, in the interests of fair warning: although the recipe states that it makes four salads, this should be understood to be four nice, medium-sized, first-course dinner salads.  If you decide that you want to revel in a special meal of fresh figs and greens, then you will find that there will only be enough for two. 

Autumn Salad of Fresh Figs with Grapes, 
Walnuts, Escarole & Mint

1/4 c. walnuts, plus more for garnish
7 to 8 oz. ripe, fresh figs (about 10), stemmed and halved
1/4 lb. red grapes (about 18 to 20), halved
2 oz. trimmed escarole (see note), torn into bite-sized pieces
a small handful of arugula (a generous half ounce), torn into bite-sized pieces
a handful of mint leaves (about 1/2 cup—measured by dropping the leaves loosely into the cup)
Salt & Pepper
Creamy Dijon Vinaigrette (below)

Preheat the oven to 350­°.  Spread the walnuts in a small pan and toast until fragrant and light golden—about five minutes.  Drizzle sparingly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Set aside to cool.  When cool, break into medium sized pieces. 

Place the escarole, arugula and mint in a large bowl.  Add the figs, grapes and walnuts.  Season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle with a small amount of the vinaigrette and toss carefully.  Everything should be coated in a light film of the dressing. 

Divide the contents of the bowl among four individual plates...tucking the fruits among and around the greens and dividing the figs evenly among the four plates.  (Alternatively, arrange the salad on one large platter.)  If you like, drizzle more of the vinaigrette over the salads.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4.

Note: To prepare the escarole, trim away the bruised outer leaves and the bitter dark green portions.  The prized part of the escarole is the tender, inner, yellow and pale green portion.

Creamy Dijon Vinaigrette:
1 T. champagne (or white wine) vinegar
1 T. Dijon mustard
salt & pepper
1/4 c. olive oil
6 T. whipping cream

Combine the vinegar and mustard in a small bowl and whisk until smooth.  Continue to whisk while slowly drizzling in the oil to form an emulsion.  Whisk in the cream.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  (The vinaigrette will continue to thicken as it sits.)

Printable Recipe


Unknown said...

Had this salad yesterday evening made by chef Paige herself. I never knew figs could taste so good! It was fabulous!

Paige said...

I'm so happy you liked it...and that you enjoyed the figs. I love figs!