The nature of my relationship with salads tends to be sequentially monogamous. There. I’ve said it. It makes me feel rather silly, not to mention fickle, but alas it’s true. It all begins when I discover a new salad. I instantly fall in love with it, and proceed to make and eat it every day. I revel in its flavors, textures and aromas. I continue to do this for what seems to be an unreasonable amount of time. I know, because my husband Erik starts to cry when he comes home and sits down to another all-too-familiar plate of the stuff. Then, out of the blue, I meet another salad…
And I fall in love. I’ve adapted this recipe from a wonderful cookbook, Italian Country Cooking: The Secrets of Cucina Povera by Loukie Werle. I frequently refer to it for inspiration.
All this to say that this Winter Salad with Pan-Toasted Walnuts and Country Ham is my newest obsession. How long it will last I cannot say. Based on the ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ coming from both me and Erik last night as we chomped on it, it might be a while. Come to think of it, ‘chomp’ is the right word for this salad. The chewy and crispy country ham and the cabbage in particular make this a hearty salad that takes quite a few chews to get it down. Let’s put it this way, if you’re looking for a Boston lettuce salad experience, steer clear of this one.
If you don’t mind chewing, though, this salad’s a keeper. In my capricious and lovesick state, I can’t imagine this love affair ever ending.
In addition to feeling rather ‘meaty’ and being very filling, I love the flavors, textures and colors of this salad. The radicchio brings in a bit of purple-ish bitterness, the fennel provides pearly sweetness, the cranberries lend crimson tartness and chewiness, the toasted walnuts add an earthy crunch, and the country ham looks glorious in all of its caramelized savoriness…ahhhhh! It’s 7:51 a.m. and I’m ready to eat it yet again…
A special ingredient I use in this salad, which is optional, is walnut oil. Made from walnuts that are dried and then cold-pressed, it is topaz-hued and adds a subtle nutty taste to anything it touches. I don’t cook with this oil, though, as it tends to turn slightly bitter with heat. Instead, I reserve it for salad dressings or add a few drops to a dished bowl of soup. As an added bonus, and without geeking out on all of its nutritional benefits, it is extremely healthful to boot.
Now, this salad has a very, very basic vinaigrette of just vinegar and oil because it’s so rich with other flavors that it doesn’t need any more added. What this means is that this dressing will begin to separate if you leave it sitting awhile, since it doesn’t contain traditional emulsifiers such as mustard, egg yolks or mayonnaise. I don’t find this particularly troubling. Since I make my dressing in a jelly jar that I then store in the refrigerator. When I’m ready to use it, I just shake it up and go on my way.
making country ham & cranberry winter salad
The evening prior to making the salad, soak 2 slices of country ham in milk. Doing this will remove some of the excessive saltiness from the ham. If you don’t do it, just be prepared to drink lots of water that evening!
In a small glass jelly jar, combine 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste. Place the lid on the jelly jar and shake until thoroughly blended and the salt has dissolved. Then remove the lid and add ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil (OR ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup of walnut oil) and, covering the jelly jar once more, shake thoroughly. Set aside. This dressing will last for several days in the refrigerator.
In a 10-inch skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil on medium-high heat. When the oil starts swirling in the pan but is not yet smoking, add 1 cup of walnuts. Cook for several minutes, stirring frequently to avoid excessively toasting them. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Remove the country ham from the milk and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Slice them into little matchstick-sized pieces.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the same skillet in which you toasted the walnuts and, when the oil starts swirling in the pan but is not yet smoking, add the ham. Cook for about 5 minutes, swirling them around in the pan often. Take them off the heat when the strips start looking golden and slightly caramelized. Allow to cool.
Thinly slice ¼ of a medium-sized cabbage and put it in a salad bowl and add 2-3 tablespoons of the prepared dressing and mix well so that all the cabbage is coated.
Allow the cabbage to rest for an hour or so. Doing so will allow the acidity of the vinegar and oil(s) to start ‘cooking,’ or somewhat softening, the cabbage slices.
Then add 1 medium-sized head of radicchio that has been quartered and thinly sliced (including the core).
To it, add 2 thinly sliced heads of Belgian endive...be sure to discard those solid rounds that you start seeing as you approach the base of the endive.
and 1 crunchy apple such as a Honeycrisp or Granny Smith, cut into 3/4-inch matchsticks.
Add just enough of the dressing to lightly coat everything. Add a little more sea salt to taste and mix once more. Top with the country ham, the pan toasted walnuts and ½ cup dried cranberries and serve. Makes 6 servings.