This, like my last post, is a lovely fall salad. Fresh, bright, cool but with a hint of warmth, the salad with its varying flavors and textures forms a deliciously disparate yet coherent whole. Here in the mountains at this time of year, our thoughts usually turn to great pots of thickly bubbling substances. Paulo and I have been making split pea soup and minestrone, shepherds’ pie and warm grain salads, mashed potatoes topped with ladles of day-long-simmered borracho beans. Eating in this way is a simple pleasure. But once in a while, even when the day is chilly, we like to make something like this salad. Lovely and almost unexpected this season, it serves as a welcome fall palate cleanser.
I’m not usually a fan of precious cooking. And to me, there seems to be something precious about polenta croutons. Not sure why, but some part of me rebels at the idea. But the rest of the salad, devised by Nicola Graimes (then altered somewhat by me), sounded so succulent that I relented. Polenta croutons? Polenta croutons. Couldn’t hurt to try making them once. I will say that they took some time. They weren’t difficult, but a little commitment was necessary. As for the end result? Fun and tasty. The croutons were crispy on the outside and creamy within, their rustic corn flavor contrasting nicely with the elegant pears and the herbal spinach. A little precious, maybe, but I’m sure I’ll find myself making them again.
Apart from the croutons, the salad was quick and easy to make. So, if you don’t have much time, make the rest of the salad as described, and simply top it with prepared croutons (whatever kind). It will brighten a gray day with thoughts of warmer weather.
Spinach Salad with Spiced Pears and Polenta Croutons
½ cup quick polenta
2 T butter
¼ tsp chile flakes (preferably Aleppo)
4 T olive oil
2 firm ripe pears, peeled and cored
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp honey
1 T lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard
5 oz baby spinach leaves
¾ cup pecans, toasted, coarsely chopped
4 oz blue cheese, crumbled
To make the polenta croutons, pour 1 ¼ cups water into a saucepan, and sprinkle in the polenta. Bring to a boil and stir frequently until the polenta has thickened to a porridge-like consistency, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the stove. Stir in 1 T butter and the chile flakes. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon into a greased 8×8 pan and smooth into an even, ½-inch-thick layer. Refrigerate until the polenta has firmed, about an hour.
Slice the firmed polenta into crouton-sized cubes. Heat 1 T olive oil in a medium sauté pan. When it is hot, carefully place half of the croutons in the pan in a single layer with space between each. Sprinkle with a little coarse salt. Let the croutons sizzle until a golden crust forms on the bottoms. Carefully turn the croutons over and repeat. Continue turning them until they are golden brown all over. Remove from the pan. Add another 1 T oil and heat. Cook the other half of the croutons in the same way. Remove them from the pan.
Slice each pear lengthwise into 8 wedges, and then each wedge crosswise into 2 or 3 bite-sized pieces. In a clean sauté pan, heat 1 T butter. Saute the pears until they begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the ginger and honey. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to warm through. Set aside.
To make the dressing, combine 2 T olive oil, the lemon juice, and mustard, along with salt and pepper to taste. Whisk or shake to combine. To assemble the salad, toss the spinach with the dressing (your hands will work great for this). Portion it onto individual plates. Top with the pears (and any accumulated juices), the pecans, the blue cheese, and the croutons.