- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

In springtime and summer, when cooks enjoy their pick, literally, of the widest variety of wonderful produce, there’s nothing I like better than starting dinner with a vegetable salad - or even enjoying a larger version as a lunchtime main course. Carrots, string beans, artichokes, celery, tomatoes, onions, corn and lettuces - I just can’t get enough!

Which explains why, for more than 30 years, chopped vegetable salads have been some of my restaurants’ most popular dishes. But that’s not the whole story.

Of course, chopped salads have been around for a long time. So many Italian restaurants, for example, offer combinations of crisp lettuce, salami or ham, cheese, onions, garbanzo beans, pepperoncini and other ingredients. Though I love Italian food, and had a restaurant that served fancy pizzas and was named after the Italian slang for spaghetti, Spago, I’d never made a chopped vegetable salad myself.

Then, one day, during Spago’s early days, I saw one of our waiters, Philippe, heading back to a prep station in the kitchen to chop up a mixture of tomatoes, onions and celery. He piled the mixture on a plate and returned to the dining room. I followed, intrigued.

Philippe delivered this simple chopped salad to one of our best customers, a major Hollywood mover and shaker. I took the waiter aside and asked him to let me know the next time the man ordered it.

A few days later, Philippe caught my attention. “Another chopped salad,” he said. I went to work immediately.

At the time, I’d just discovered the incredible organic produce from the family-run Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., near San Diego. I took 1/4-inch dice of fresh green beans, diced carrots and artichoke bottoms and blanched them - first plunging them into boiling water to cook them al dente, then into ice water to stop the cooking and set their bright colors. Then I added more diced vegetables that were tender or flavorful enough to eat raw: sweet onion, white corn kernels, sun-ripened tomato, and radicchio for its purple-red color and refreshingly bitter taste.

Such an amazing assortment of bright flavors needed only the simplest of dressings. I combined balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, tossed everything together, and mounded it on a dinner plate.

Within moments, other guests saw my Chino Chopped Salad and asked for it themselves. We had a hit!

It remains so to this day, and varies only with what is freshest in the market. Sometimes we’ll add a little grated or shaved Parmesan cheese. Other times, for a main-course salad, we’ll top it with poached or grilled shrimp or lobster tail or grilled chicken breast.

In any version, it’s a perfect way to celebrate the season’s bounty.

CHINO CHOPPED VEGETABLE SALAD

Serves 4

DRESSING:

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup almond oil or safflower oil

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

SALAD:

1 large or 2 medium fresh artichokes

1/2 cup diced carrots

1/2 cup diced green beans

1/2 cup diced red onion

1/2 cup diced radicchio

1/2 cup corn kernels, cut fresh from the cob

1/2 cup diced celery

1 small vine-ripened tomato

1 small ripe Hass-style avocado

4 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

1 cup mixed baby greens of your choice

First, make the vinaigrette: In a mixing bowl, stir together the mustard and vinegar. Whisking continuously, slowly pour in the oils. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

For the salad, first prepare the artichokes. Starting at the broad base, break off the leaves by snapping them downward, working round and round until only a cone of tightly packed inner leaves remains halfway up from the base. With a sharp stainless-steel knife, cut off the top third to reveal the fibrous choke nestled inside the heart. With a sharp stainless-steel paring knife, peel off the remaining dark-green skin. Then, with a small, sharp-edged spoon, dig out the choke to leave the cup-shaped heart. Cut the heart into 1/4-inch dice.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a mixing bowl with ice cubes and water. Put the artichoke, carrots and green beans in a wire sieve, lower into the boiling water, and cook until tender-crisp, 2 to 3 minutes; then, plunge into the ice water to stop the cooking. Drain well and add them to the artichokes, along with the diced onion, radicchio, corn and celery. Keep the water boiling and the ice water ready.

With the paring knife, core the tomato and score a shallow X in its skin. With the sieve, lower the tomato into the boiling water to loosen its skin, about 30 seconds, then remove it and plunge it into the ice water. Drain well. Peel off the skin. Cut the tomato in half, scoop out the seeds with your fingertip, and cut the tomato into 1/4-inch dice. Add to the other vegetables.

Halve, pit, peel and dice the avocado and add it to the vegetables. Briefly whisk the dressing again and add most of it to the vegetables, reserving a few tablespoons. Toss well, sprinkle in the Parmesan, and toss again. Adjust the seasonings to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss the greens with the reserved dressing, season to taste, and divide among 4 chilled salad plates. Mound the chopped salad on top and serve immediately.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network.

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