Building a salad is one of the most creative things I ever do in the kitchen. It's where I feel most comfortable experimenting and the possibilities are vast. Often, I use a leftover of some sort as my base, around which everything else is built, be it a few slices of grilled lamb, a couple roasted and diced chicken breasts, or the remains of a juicy, rare steak. Next I determine what green would best go with my protein. Maybe it's some peppery arugula, or baby spinach, or chopped romaine. I almost always include red onion and I love using beans, unexpected ingredients likes quinoa, or fruits like sliced figs, ripe peaches, pears or apples, or berries. And then there is the dressing. Sometimes I go for a simple, classic vinaigrette of Dijon mustard, an acid of some sort, a clove of garlic and olive oil. Usually I like to add fresh herbs or experiment with flavored mustards and oils or other condiments like tapenade or preserves. However occasionally the freedom from a specific recipe can culminate in well meaning but misguided hodge podge that is far from appetizing looking. I think the technical term is a "dog's breakfast."
This salad was inspired by a small dish of leftover Tarragon Salsa Verde I noticed in my refrigerator. There wasn't a lot left, but there was enough to use as a marinade. I picked up some chicken, tossed it in a bag and spooned in the salsa verde, massaging it into the shiny pink flesh. The next day I put it on a sheet pan and roasted it in the oven at 350 degrees F for about 20 minutes. From there I started planning my salad. First I settled on mache as my green. If you are unfamiliar with mache, it's becoming pretty common. I picked mine up at Trader Joe's. It's very French and has a sort of nutty flavor. According to an article in the SF Gate, Thomas Jefferson grew mache in his garden at Montecello. That's sort of interesting, isn't it? It's also very pretty, sort of little blossom-like clusters of spoon shaped green leaves. The bag even helpfully noted that it's great with avocado. Who was I to argue? A beautiful cookbook called Zest by Michele Cranston gave me the idea to toss in some segments of grapefruit.
For the dressing I decided to use some of the grapefruit juice as my acid and a spoonful of some nice tarragon flavored mustard that Mark picked up for me while on a trip to Berlin. (I love when people bring be condiments as souvenirs) Of course, I have seen the same mustard here in the states, but whatever. I was tempted to add some leftover grilled corn that I'd stripped from the cob, or some steamed haricot verts, or black olives or cheese or all of the above, but I thankfully I refrained. After all, less is more.
(For the salad)
4 to 6 handfuls of mache, also known as lamb's lettuce
1/4 red onion thinly sliced and soaked in a bowl of ice water for about 10 minutes (This tames the sharpness of the raw onion)
1 avocado, diced into large chunks
2 cooked chicken breasts, diced
(For the vinaigrette)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 shallot, minced
zest and the reserved juice from the above grapefruit
a spritz of fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon tarragon-dijon mustard (If you can't find or don't want to buy tarragon mustard, just use regular dijon and a tablespoon of fresh minced tarragon)
1/4 cup or so extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
First, zest the grapefruit into a small bowl and set aside.
Next, cut the peel off and segment the grapefruit. To see how to segment citrus, check out the photos here. Place the grapefruit segments in a small bowl and set aside.
To make the vinaigrette, squeeze the remaining juice from the grapefruit carcass into the bowl with the zest in it. Add the garlic, shallow, lemon juice, honey, mustard and fresh tarragon, if using. Whisk to combine. In a slow, steady stream whisk in the olive oil, until the dressing is combined. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
In a large bowl, combine the mache, red onion and diced chicken. Spoon in about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and using your hands, gently toss until everything is lightly coated with the dressing. Divide the salad between two plates and then top each with the grapefruit segments and chunks of avocado. Any time a salad includes ingredients that are soft and easily mushed or broken up, like the avocado and grapefruit segments, I prefer to add them to the salad after I've tossed the greens with the dressing and plated them.
Drizzle over a little more of the vinaigrette, grind over some black pepper and then serve.
This salad is perfect for a warm evening when you don't want to heat up the kitchen. It's really light and fresh tasting but at the same time, substantial. The flavors are so summery. A really great salad includes an assortment of flavors and textures (but not too many) and this one truly does. The juxtapostion between the sweet, tart grapefruit and the buttery, creamy avocado is really sophisticated, and the pairing of the grapefruit and tarragon is one of those flavor combinations that is a guaranteed hit. The honey in the vinaigrette mellows the bitterness of the grapefruit, while the lemon juice spikes it with a welcome hit of acidity. Unlike your standard mixed baby greens, the mache doesn't get depressingly limp and flat when slicked with dressing. In fact the tender yet study little rosettes give the salad some architecture and height. One change I might make is next time I might toss in a handful of toasted walnuts, just for a little crunch. Otherwise I think this salad is practically perfect.