- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Right up there with molten chocolate cake and creme brulee, warm goat cheese salad has become a staple on restaurant menus across America.

As an unabashed fan, I have ordered countless variations of baked chevre rounds served atop beds of greens. Sometimes the cheese has been baked with no adornments. On other occasions, it has been coated with bread crumbs or covered with nuts.

The greens have included spinach, arugula and mesclun, to name just a few. However served, the combination of this creamy white cheese baked until warm and runny, then paired with crisp greens, can be irresistible.

For a long time, I assumed that these salads were difficult to make and never attempted one at home. I was afraid that I would overcook the cheese and that it would turn into a puddle in the oven, but my fears proved false. When I dredged the cheese rounds in flour, then dipped them in beaten egg and coated them, they held their shape beautifully until cut into.

I also discovered that warm goat cheese salads make an ideal first course for entertaining, because most of the preparation can be done in advance. A log of chevre can be sliced into rounds and coated, arranged on a baking sheet and refrigerated until needed. And the lettuce can be cleaned and the dressing mixed several hours ahead.

At serving time, the cheese requires only a few minutes in the oven and the greens a quick toss with the dressing.

Recently I’ve been baking sesame-coated goat cheese rounds to serve with a salad of watercress, yellow bell peppers and scallions, dressed in a sherry vinaigrette.

I served this delicious salad as an opener at a dinner party and was delighted as guests swooned over the combination of tastes, colors and textures. So, two days later I offered the salad as a light main course at a weekday lunch for two cooking assistants. Both requested the recipe.

Warm sesame goat cheese and watercress salad

1 4-ounce log of goat cheese such as Montrachet

1/4 cup flour

1 large egg, beaten

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds (see note)

2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard with seeds

1 teaspoon salt, plus more if needed

6 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil (don’t use olive oil)

1 large yellow bell pepper

1 bunch scallions

1 large (6-ounce) bunch watercress, cleaned with tough stems removed and discarded

To prepare the goat cheese: Slice the log into 4 equal rounds. Spread flour on one dinner plate and sesame seeds on another.

Beat egg until blended in a medium shallow bowl. Coat cheese rounds with flour, then dip into egg, then into sesame seeds, coating completely. Place rounds on a foil-lined baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

For dressing, whisk vinegar, mustard and salt together in a medium, non-reactive bowl. Whisk in oil. (Salad dressing can be prepared 4 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate. Whisk again before using.) About 30 minutes before serving, arrange a rack in center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove stem from bell pepper, then halve lengthwise and remove membranes.

Slice bell pepper into 1/4-inch thick julienne strips and place in a large bowl. Remove roots and all but 2 inches of green stems from scallions and discard.

Slice scallion on a sharp diagonal into 1/4-inch pieces and add to bowl with the peppers. Add half of the dressing and toss to coat. Set aside to marinate 15 to 30 minutes.

Bake cheese rounds until heated through, about 6 minutes. While cheese is in the oven, toss watercress with pepper and scallion and enough of the remaining dressing to coat well. (You may not need to add all the dressing.) Taste and season salad with more salt, if desired.

Divide salad evenly and arrange on four salad plates. Top each portion with a warm cheese round. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To toast sesame seeds, place in a medium to large skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until seeds are light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature before using.

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