I used to think salads were bland, insipid and flavorless. “Grass,” my carnivorous father would declare, and I would agree vigorously, “is for rabbits. We,” needlessly clarifying, “are not rabbits.” And then he went and turned entirely vegetarian, the traitor.
I’ve learned to make salads that satisfy me: fresh, flavorful, filling. A good salad must taste like you picked the greens from your garden minutes ago. And it must be balanced: you can’t throw random things in and expect it to taste great.
The salad in the picture alongside is one I made one evening when I was hungry and tired, feeling a bit broke, and craving something that tasted real. I figured I was doomed to a relatively bland dinner fit for rabbits, but was happily surprised to discover that my creation was delicious and satisfying–and something like $5 or $6 per serving.
I was going to make the same salad this evening, but what should I spy at the grocery store near my apartment? Figs, reader, figs! I performed a small, happy dance, and stopped when a passing dog gave me odd look.
So here you are, my dinner tonight: Mixed baby greens, with shallot-and-garlic-sautéd chicken, topped with figs, goat cheese and toasted almonds. Quite a mouthful, no? I should call it Salad No. 3, as if I were a slightly pretentious artist.
Salad No. 3:
Mixed baby greens, with shallot-and-garlic-sautéd chicken, figs, goat cheese and toasted almonds.
Not recommended for rabbits.
Chicken breast, 2 lbs
Garlic, 3 – 4 cloves, minced
Shallots, 2, sliced into fine rings
Figs, 3 – 4, quartered lengthwise
Almond slivers, a handful
Mixed baby greens
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
Make the salad.
Prep the ingredients: Cube the chicken; toss with salt and pepper. Cayenne pepper or smoke paprika would be a nice touch. Slice the shallots finely in rings (I used a mandoline, but a sharp knife and a steady hand will serve you just as well). Mince the garlic. Rinse the figs, slice off the stem and quarter the figs lengthwise. Eat a quarter now, just to make sure it really is a fig. If no one is looking, eat another one. Chef’s rights.
Toast the almonds: lay them in a single layer on a skillet over medium heat for 3 – 5 minutes. Stir to check whether they’re starting to color a bit. Almonds go from “ooh, nearly there” to “damn, burnt” in moments, so keep a close eye, and remove them from the heat when they start to look like this.
Sauté the shallots: begin by heating a bit of olive oil in a wide skillet, maybe 2T, over medium heat. Add garlic, stir. When it starts to brown, half a minute, turn the flame up a tad and add the shallots. Stir to combine, spread into a relatively thin layer to maximize the surface area of shallots in contact with the skillet. Now: walk away and don’t come back for 5 – 7 minutes. Seriously. The shallots will turn translucent and start to color. Leave them be. Stirring interferes with the coloring process. Check on them after 7 minutes, stir briefly, and walk away for another 5 minutes if you want them darker still. Color equals flavor!
Sauté the chicken: Add the chicken to the skillet. Stir to combine with shallots. Spread into a single layer and – you got it – walk away. Leave it be until you see that the tops of the chicken cubes have just become opaque. Now lift the edge of a cube in the center; it should be browned; if not, let it be for 2 more minutes. Now flip all the cubes over with a spatula. Again, single layer. Leave be for 2 – 3 minutes, then cut into a large cube to check for doneness. Take the chicken off the heat when it’s barely done. It will cook a bit further on its own, and you don’t want overdone, dry chicken.
I like mine with little burnt bits. Lots of flavor.
Dress the greens: In a bowl, combine olive oil with balsamic vinegar, in a proportion of your choosing; season with salt and pepper. If you’re feeling fancy, zest some orange peel into it. Whisk briskly with a fork to emulsify. Pour a bit over the greens; toss gently; add more dressing if you need. If you accidentally pour in too much dressing, add in more greens to balance the ratio out.
Assemble the salad: Divide the dressed greens between two dinner plates or large salad bowls. Add a third or half of the chicken mixture, and half of the figs. With your (clean) fingers, crumble goat cheese over the greens, and then some almond slivers. And you’re ready!
I imagine a crisp, dry wine would be delicious with this, but it’s really not necessary.
Variations: The original version of this salad used strawberries instead of figs. You could substitute walnuts for the almonds. Shaved pecorino would be delicious, sharp and salty, with the figs, instead of goat cheese. You could use just baby spinach instead of mixed greens. This is a versatile and forgiving salad, so experiment! And eat!