- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

When a close friend, the head of a renowned academic institution, called to tell us that he had decided to retire from his post to pursue a new career, we could hear both sadness and excitement in his voice.

He had served happily in his job well for over a decade, and although enthusiastic about his new undertaking, the decision had been bittersweet. My husband and I picked up on this right away and invited him and his wife, both bon vivants, to come for an overnight visit that we promised would be filled with laughter, wine and food.

Planning the menu, I started with the entree, choosing a beef tenderloin with port wine sauce served with an array of winter vegetables.

The dessert was to be our guests’ favorite: molten chocolate cakes. I was stumped, however, by the first course, which I wanted to be light yet distinctive.

Then I remembered a recipe that a talented assistant, Emily Bell, had sent me. It was for a green salad garnished with roasted pears, walnuts and feta cheese. My mouth had watered when I read the description, and I decided that this dish would make a perfect opener for my meal.

The salad turned out to be a real winner. Early in the day, I halved and cored pears, brushed them with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, then popped them in the oven until browned and tender.

I whisked together the dressing using orange marmalade, orange juice, balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and readied the walnuts. feta and baby romaine lettuce.

At serving time, I reheated the pears quickly in the microwave, then quickly assembled individual salads. Everyone (and especially the guest of honor) loved the colorful presentation and the delicious combination of flavors.

This salad makes an ideal first course because it is satisfying but not so rich as to overpower hearty courses that might follow. It would be equally good served as a side dish to a bowl of hot soup or to a creamy omelet for a cold weather lunch or light supper.

Roasted pear, walnut and feta salad

ORANGE BALSAMIC DRESSING:

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon sweet orange marmalade

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 teaspoon country Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon kosher salt and several grinds black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

SALAD:

4 medium red Anjou pears, slightly under-ripe

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 cups baby romaine or mixed baby greens

1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted (see note)

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

For dressing, whisk together vinegar, marmalade, orange juice, mustard, salt and pepper in medium, nonreactive bowl. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. (Dressing can be prepared 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature and whisk well before using.)

To roast pears, arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon vinegar and 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Halve pears, lengthwise, and core. Place pears in a shallow roasting pan and brush on all sides with the vinegar/oil mixture. Roast pears, cut sides up, 10 minutes.

Then turn pears cut sides down and continue to roast until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, 12 to 15 minutes longer, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. The cut sides of the pears should be browned and the skins slightly wrinkled when done.

(Pears can be roasted 4 hours ahead; leave them uncovered at room temperature. Reheat in the microwave 1 to 2 minutes or in a preheated 350-degree oven 5 to 10 minutes until warm.)

Cover pears with foil to keep warm while you assemble the salad.

Toss the greens with 1/4 cup of the dressing in a salad bowl. Taste and season with more salt and pepper and with a little extra dressing, if desired. Divide salad and mound on 4 salad plates.

Garnish each serving with two pear halves and sprinkle with a tablespoon each of walnuts and cheese. Drizzle some of the remaining dressing over the pears and salad on each plate. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To toast walnuts, place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until lightly browned and fragrant, about 7 minutes. Watch carefully so the nuts do not burn. Remove and cool.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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