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Spinach, Fennel, and Pear Salad with Brown Butter Hazelnuts

3 May

Do you ever wonder what makes the perfect salad?  Not really?  Just me?  I’ve thought long and hard about this—because that’s what I do, my friends, I think about salad—and I have to say that the elements that make a perfect salad, though constantly evolving, are almost always related to one magical element: texture.

Sure, flavor counts (obviously), but I think a salad’s texture will make or break it faster than the time it takes to swallow your first bite.  No matter how good a salad might taste, I find that, if the greens are soggy, the vegetables limp, or the various add-ons mushy or pasty, it takes a bit of effort to make each bite go down.  This is, of course, no scientific study I am undertaking here, but just a very personal observation.  And since I eat a lot of salad, I’d like to think that my established findings on the quality of salad-making hold at least a bit of weight.  Even if they don’t, I have good news for you.  I think I just made a salad with the most pleasing texture I have ever encountered.

Crisp spinach paired with crunchy-thin slices of fresh fennel provide a lovely base.  Perfectly ripe pears, so juicy and perfumed, counter the crispness of the spinach and fennel.  Toasted hazlenuts, flavored with a smidge of sea salt and brown butter to make their nuttiness even more forward, accent the crunch of the salad, but also pair perfectly with the pears.  A light vinaigrette drizzled over everything provides a punch of fruity acidity and, though I am aware that I have now started naming attributes that don’t concern texture, I don’t even know how to stop talking about how much I love this salad.  Sure, it’s true that I like almost all salad, but this salad?  This is a salad that everyone will like.

Last Year: Ya Hala’s Hummus This is, hands down, the best hummus you’ll ever eat

Spinach, Fennel, and Pear Salad with Brown Butter Hazelnuts Recipe

½ cup whole hazelnuts

1 large fennel bulb, green fronds and core removed

juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

large pinch of coarse sea salt

5 ounces spinach leaves, washed and dried

1 large ripe pear

Apple Cider Vinaigrette

juice of ½ a lemon

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon unfiltered apple cider

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Arrange hazelnuts on a baking sheet, then toast in oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the skins of the nuts begin to peel loose and the nuts appear dark golden brown.  Remove the nuts to a clean dishtowel, then wrap the towel around the nuts and allow to sit for a couple of minutes.  Then, with your hands, vigorously rub the hazelnuts in the dishtowel to remove the hazelnut skins.  Coarsely chop the de-skinned nuts (cutting them in half is just fine—you want nice big bites here), then set aside.

Slice the fennel to be as thin as possible, using either a mandoline or an extremely sharp knife.  In a medium bowl, combine the fennel slices and the lemon juice, tossing to coat all the fennel in the lemon juice.  Set aside.

In a small pan, heat the butter over medium heat.  Allow the butter to melt, then foam, then begin to sputter.  Stirring and watching the butter the whole time, allow it to turn a nutty dark brown.  Immediately pour the browned butter into a small bowl, then add the hazelnuts and toss to combine.  Add the pinch of sea salt and toss some more.

To make the dressing, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, and apple cider.  Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking all the while to combine until the dressing is thick and emulsified.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Place the spinach in a large bowl.  Core and slice the pear into thin slices, then add the pears to the spinach.  Pour the fennel, with any lemon juice remaining in the bowl, on top of the pears.  Give the hazelnuts in brown butter a bit of a stir, then add half of the nuts to the salad.  Pour half of the dressing over the salad, then toss to combine evenly.  Taste the salad to see if you desire more dressing.  Add as much dressing as you deem fit (some people like more dressing, some like less, so I am leaving the finished amount up to personal taste).  Serve the salad with the remaining hazelnuts sprinkled over the top of each serving.

Makes 4 very large servings, or 8 side salads.

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10 Responses to “Spinach, Fennel, and Pear Salad with Brown Butter Hazelnuts”

  1. Katie Whitehead May 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    This sounds amazing. Now I’m left sitting at my desk with my mouth watering. I might just have to swing by the store after work and look for pears…

  2. Claudia Michel May 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    Oh my Elizabeth. You’ve hit it out of the ballpark once again. On my way to find fennal. By the way – made the chicken byrani yet once again for my family in California. A hit!

    • savorysaltysweet May 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

      I hope the salad is as big a hit as the biryani (though, I admit, the biryani is a tough one to top).

      • Claudia Michel May 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

        I added dried bing cherries to the salad and it disappeared very quickly.

      • savorysaltysweet May 4, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

        Great addition! I think I might do the same next time I make it–it sounds very enticing.

  3. Karen May 5, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    This sounds like such a terrific salad…I love all the ingredients but have never combined them in one salad. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

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