Salad days. This phrase normally refers to the time in one’s life of carefree innocence and pleasures of youth. Let’s face it…I am not in the midst of my salad days. If the progression of a multi-course dinner were a metaphor for life…I’m more at the point of sopping up all the gravy on my plate from the entree with a crust of bread….and beginning to think of a nice cheese course or dessert to round off the whole glorious meal. But, to hell with this depressing metaphor! What I want to say is that in January, when the year is new and the old one is behind you–good or bad–you can feel the excitement of the blank slate, the promise of a fresh start, and yes, even the lightness of youth. After the heaviness of the holiday table and the trunk-fulls of baggage that gets unpacked when you hangout with your family for too many days in a row, January is a great time to make and eat salads. Indeed, in culinary school, we learned about the “composed salad” which elevates the dish to an art form with carefully thought out, individually prepared components that come together on a plate with symmetry and a balance of flavors. Thus, my offering today: mixed baby greens with crisp turkey bacon and black- pepper-cornbread croutons, dressed in a honey-clove-dijon vinaigrette.
Start with the cornbread. This is a basic, savory cornbread recipe that is moist and easily made gluten-free witht the substitution of corn flour (nothing more than finely ground cornmeal) for all-purpose wheat flour. A good helping of freshly ground pepper is a nice post-holiday workout for your arms, and I’m told pepper increases the metabolism, so I am almost positive that there will be no calorie gain from eating this. (Remember, being gullible is part of the innocence of youth…so just go with it!) This bread is a great vehicle for other savory or sweet combinations: jalepenos and cheddar, rosemary and parmesan, for instance, or add 1/4 cup more sugar and toss blueberries over the top before baking for a nice breakfast version.
Making this in a pre-heated cast-iron pan gives you a nice head start on a wonderful crust. When the batter hits the greased hot pan it begins to cook immediately, sealing the bottom. Starting this in a cold heavy pan would give you an unevenly baked bread that sticks to the bottom.
The first thing you do when this comes out of the oven is have a piece while it’s hot. In the name of research.
Now you have the energy to make the make the croutons.
Crisp up the turkey bacon in a little olive oil, since it has no fat of it’s own, poor thing.
Mix up the shallots, dijon, ground cloves, apple cider vinegar, lemon, honey, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper for the vinaigrette.
Lightly coat the greens by pouring the dressing along the side of the bowl, not directly on the greens, to avoid drowning them.
And finally you compose your work of art, this salad, this promise of all things fresh and clean and new…
…and feel as though anything, yes, anything is possible in the new year.
Mixed Baby Greens with Honey, Clove Vinaigrette and Peppered Corn Bread Croutons
10 oz mixed baby greens (two bags)
1 ½ cups Peppered Corn Bread Croutons (see recipe for Croutons, next page)
For the dressing: ( I recommend doubling this to insure it will be enough volume to blend properly)
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons minced shallot
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
Salt and ground pepper to taste.
1. Place greens in a large salad bowl.
2. In a blender or small food processor, puree the vinegar, shallot, mustard, lemon zest and juice, honey and cloves. With the machine on, slowly blend in the oil. Add the parsley and thyme. Pulse until chopped. Season the dressing with salt and pepper.
3. Pour 3-4 tablespoons of finished dressing along the side of the bowl and lightly toss greens to coat. Add more dressing a tablespoon at time if needed. Divide salad among 4 plates. Distribute croutons and crisped bacon over the greens. Drizzle a bit of dressing on the croutons. Serve.
Peppered Corn Bread
Makes one 10-12” corn bread
Canola oil, for brushing
2 cups stone ground (or fine to medium ground) cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose, unbleached flour (for gluten-free just sub this with another cup cornmeal, ground very finely in a blender or food processor to make “corn flour”. You can also purchase pre-ground Corn Flour made by Red Mill).
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons freshly ground pepper (to your taste)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk (or use plain milk mixed with a little yogurt)
½ cup sour cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a 10” cast iron skillet and heat it in the oven. (If you don’t have a one, grease a 9” round cake or similar size rectangular pan with oil but there is no need to preheat it.)
2. In a bowl, whisk the cornmeal with the flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, salt, pepper. In another bowl whisk the eggs, buttermilk, sour cream and butter, then whisk into the dry ingredients until combined. Pour the batter into the skillet (or pan).
3. Bake the corn bread for about 35 minutes, until risen and golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Let cool for 20 minutes before serving or dicing for croutons.
Note: You can add any number of things to enhance this basic cornbread, for example:
1. Add a small can of corn kernels (or a cup of frozen) to the wet ingredients. Combine
2. Add fruit like blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, but distribute them evenly over the batter after you’ve poured it into the skillet
3. For a savory cornbread to accompany dinner: Cut the sugar down to 1 tablespoon and add savory ingredients like cheddar cheese and jalapenos, or rosemary and parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, carmelized onions or anything else you can imagine!
Peppered Corn Bread Croutons
Slice long “batons” of cornbread and then cut them into 1-2 inch cubes (or rectangles, as in picture above). Place them on a Silpat-lined or lightly greased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Season with a light dusting of Kosher salt. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes, until the croutons are golden and crisp. Let cool before using.
Turkey Bacon Lardons
3-4 slices of turkey bacon
1 teaspoon of canola or olive oil
Take the slices of turkey bacon and pat them dry with a paper towel. Cut into 1 inch “lardons” or strips. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, the oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the turkey lardons and cook until brown and crispy along the edges. Transfer lardons to a paper-towel-lined plate. Cool slightly before adding to salad.