Simple dishes are the hardest to get right. You need great ingredients and you need them prepared the right way to have them truly sing. When making a salad, the pressure is even greater. It’s easy to mask average greens behind caramelized pecans and sweet summer strawberries, and the end result is pretty tasty, but not my idea of the perfect salad. When I crave salad (which I’ll admit is somewhat rare), I want something simpler, something better. My perfect salad is topped with a crusted goat cheese medallion, hot out of the oven. The creamy goat cheese oozes onto the crisp lettuce leaves and bite after bite is a symphony of tangy, bitter, and creaminess.
This is the kind of salad that you want to pick out carefully at the store, looking for the prettiest green leaves. You’ll want a lettuce with a slight kick, something that can stand up to the goat cheese. But watercress, chicory, or arugula would be going too far. I like escarole or even romaine, whatever looks freshest and greenest. I toss the salad with a more robust version of my favorite vinaigrette, and move on to the fromage.
When it comes to goat cheese, I’m a purist. I like very few cheeses topped with herbs, ash, or pepper, dressed up like toddlers in beauty pageants. Just give me a plain goat cheese, preferably one with a slight rind. At my mother’s house, we travel to a nearby farm that makes goat cheese from the milk of their herd. The cheesemonger is a reserved old lady who asks probing questions about our dinner plans before selecting the perfect medallions ageing on her shelves. Here in Chicago, I head to Trader Joes while dreaming of my next trip to the Loire Valley. Trader Joes has a bad habit of getting rid of my favorite products, but they’re currently selling a little package of tiny goat cheese medallions that is perfect for my purposes.
- 1 Head of Escarole or Romaine Lettuce
- 1 Large Goat Cheese Medallion or Two Small Medallions per person
- 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs
- 4 Tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons of white wine vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon of Dijon Mustard
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt (or less if you prefer)
- a very generous sprinkling of pepper
- Rinse and shake dry the lettuce. Rip it with your hands into small chunks. Lay them on individual plates if more than one person is eating.
- In a small bowl, pour the olive oil and vinegar. Add the lemon, salt and pepper. Last, add the mustard and stir vigorously to emulsify and give a creamy appearance. Drizzle desired amount on individual salads and toss lightly with your (clean!) fingers. Any leftover dressing will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
- Coat the goat cheese medallions with a light dusting of goat cheese. Heat a small frying pan on medium heat. Toast the goat cheese on one side for 2 minutes. Delicately turn it over with a spatula, sprinkling a little extra breadcrumbs to fix any uncovered parts. Toast for another minute. Carefully lift it off the pan and place it on top of your salad.
- Stop whatever you're doing and sit down to eat the salad right now, while the cheese is piping hot. The coolness of the salad contrasted with the creamy hot cheese is perfection in your mouth.