Photo by JMRosenfeld/Flickr CC
This is a really great and very refreshing spring salad that I've been making regularly in recent weeks. I tasted the basis of it for the first time in Portland while I was out there in April and had dinner at a nice Greek restaurant called Eleni's. I've been trying slightly different versions each time. I'm not ready to put it into formal, carefully recipe-tested quantities yet, but it's really very simple and very good, so I'll give you the quick overview here and then you can take to tweaking on your own if you like the idea. What follows is, again, inspired by what I had out west (credit to the crew at Eleni's for the inspiration but what I've got here is my own version so...don't hold them accountable for what I'm putting down).
Anyways, long salad story short, this is a very easy salad to make on short notice and, because it holds up well for hours (or probably even days), it's great for picnics and barbecues and stuff like that. The base of it is fresh fennel, fresh celery, and fresh cabbage. Shave a good bit of each into very thin slices. I've been going about 60/30/15 fennel to celery to cabbage because I like fennel best, but you can alter that ratio to your preference any way you like. The key is to slice pretty thinly so that you're eating thin bits about the thickness of what you'd put into cole slaw, not into big chunks.
Sprinkle on a bit of coarse sea salt and grind on a lot of black pepper. I've actually been using the Balinese long pepper cause I like it a lot and I think it's a good match for the salad. It needs a good bit of salt and pepper so while you obviously don't want to overdo it, don't skimp on it either. Squeeze on some fresh lemon juice and toss the salad.
Then dress it with good vinegar and olive oil. I've tried a whole range of vinegars over the course of my testing and any good one works okay, but what I've definitely decided I like best is the Chilean Chardonnay vinegar from Origens. It's made from carefully chosen Chardonnay grapes, naturally converted to vinegar, then oak-barrel aged for at least six months. The vinegar's lively, very light oaky fruit is a great underpinning for the salad. It adds vitality without taking over.
Then pour on a good bit of olive oil--a Greek one would be appropriate. Moleon is great, and the soon-to-arrive oil from Daphne Zepos' sister's farm on the island of Zakynthos would be excellent. In truth of course any good oil would world well--I prefer one of the ones with a bigger flavor for this dish. The very excellent Mahjoub oil from Tunisia would also be great.
While you're doing all that toast up some nuts--almonds work well, as do walnuts. I've tried each and also a blend of the two...all were good, but I think I'm slightly partial to the walnuts. Chop the nuts and toss on the salad and mix the whole thing again. Taste for salt and pepper and lemon and adjust as you like.
That's pretty much the bulk of the work. The salad to this point can be prepped a bit ahead because it holds up so well. When you're ready to serve put it into individual bowls. On the side of each bowl put a nice slice of the barrel-aged Greek feta. (I've also done it with fresh goat cheese--a kind they've been selling at my local farmer's market that's dressed in honey and almonds is particularly good with this salad.)
The last thing before you eat is to sprinkle on some good paprika. When I saw that listed on the menu at Eleni's my first I thought was that it would extraneous addition, and that it would get in the way of the other ingredients, but in fact it's a surprisingly harmonious addition. I've tried it with and without the paprika in recent weeks and I really do prefer it with it on. To continue my testing, I've use the really delicious but little known in the States, non-smoked paprika from Murcia on Spain's east coast, as well as the smoked ones (both hot and mild) from La Vera in western Spain. All worked well so you can use whichever you like best and/or whichever you have on hand.
A good slice of Paesano bread along side to soak up any extra oil and vinegar and help guide the less well behaved slices of celery and fennel onto your fork and you're ready to go. Nice crisp textures of the vegetables, which contrast nicely with the crunch of the nuts. Nice bit of spice from the pepper and the paprika to contrast with the liveliness of the lemon and the vinegar. And the creamy richness of the feta or goat cheese eaten on the side seals the deal!