- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

A lot of people stop eating salad just at that time of year when they really need green vegetables to help keep them healthy during the colder months. It’s not surprising, though. Who wants a plate of fresh, crisp, well-chilled greens when cold winds are blowing or snow is falling? Not me.

That’s why I will always be thankful for the warm spinach salad craze that started sweeping America in the early 1970s. The qualities of most leafy greens are better enjoyed with a cool, light or creamy dressing. Spinach, however, improves with the application of just a little heat. Drizzle on a hot dressing and the leaves wilt slightly while retaining a pleasant contrasting edge of crispness; their flavor becomes richer and more well rounded, losing much of the sharp, astringent quality that turns some people off. When that dressing’s warmth comes from a little sauteed bacon and some briefly heated white wine vinegar, well, spinach definitely meets its match in flavor.

Warm spinach salads seemed like the latest sensation when they first became popular, and now they are enjoying the kind of revival that sometimes comes to “retro” foods. In truth, however, there was nothing new about them; they were simply variations on a traditional salad from Lyons, France. That salad features frisee, the French term for what we call curly endive or chicory, leaves with a distinctively bitter flavor that, like sharp-tasting spinach, gets softened by the warm dressing and complemented by its rich, tangy character.

Poached eggs traditionally top the French classic. Each person cuts up the egg to let its warm yolk intermingle with the leaves and dressing, forming a very satisfying lunchtime main course. Likewise, popular warm spinach salads usually include chopped hard-boiled egg. In the recipe that follows, however, I’ve taken a cue from the original, frying the eggs sunny side up instead of the more time-consuming poaching.

Feel free to substitute curly endive for the spinach in my recipe. If you do, be sure to use only the paler, more tender and milder tasting inner leaves, tearing them into bite-sized pieces. If you make the salad with spinach, look for prewashed bags of baby spinach, an ideal choice; otherwise, make sure you wash the spinach thoroughly, swishing it around in a sink of cold water, then lifting it out, draining and rinsing the sink, and repeating the process until you can’t see or feel any more grit on the leaves or on the bottom of the sink.

Whichever type of leaf you use, you’ll be amazed by the combination of flavors, textures, colors, and temperatures in this salad. If you like, add some crunchy croutons of your choice to each serving; or leave them out for a light, fresh-tasting dish that will delight even today’s most carb-conscious eaters.

WARM SPINACH SALAD WITH SUNNY SIDE-UP EGGS

Serves 6

6 cups loosely packed baby spinach leaves, thoroughly washed

3 rashers bacon, cut crosswise into strips 1/2 inch wide

6 eggs

1/2 cup good-quality white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup croutons, optional

Put the spinach leaves in a large heatproof salad bowl and set aside.

Scatter the bacon strips in a nonstick skillet. Place the pan over medium-low heat. Cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the strips are evenly browned and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. With a slotted spoon or spatula, remove the strips to paper towels to drain, then add them to the salad bowl with the spinach.

Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat into another nonstick skillet. Heat the fat in the second skillet over medium heat. One at a time, carefully crack each egg on the edge of the skillet and then open the shell just over the cooking surface, gently letting the egg fall into the skillet without breaking the yolk. Fry the eggs, in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, until the whites are firm and the yolks are heated through but still runny, about 3 minutes, spooning some of the hot fat over each egg to help it cook evenly.

While the eggs are cooking, raise the heat to medium-high under the first skillet with the 2 tablespoons of bacon fat. Add the white wine vinegar and, with a wooden spoon, stir and scrape to deglaze the pan deposits. Simmer briskly until the vinegar reduces by half. Stir in the sugar and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour half of the hot bacon dressing over the spinach, add croutons if you like, and toss well. Divide the salad evenly among 6 serving plates, arranging it in a loose mound on each plate. With a spatula, transfer a hot sunny side-up egg to each mound of spinach. Drizzle the remaining hot dressing over the eggs and serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

2004 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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