Monday, May 5, 2008

Chic Me Out

Each and every one of us suffers from a certain culinary shame. I, for one, have been known to hide my overly buttered popcorn from a date at the movies for fear he may run away at the sight of the several cups of artificial butter I've pumped onto the already generously buttered kernels. In college I was known to keep an over-sized duffel bag overflowing with instant Top Ramen packets tucked under my bed, hidden behind my sky high platform penny loafers and retro go-go boots. And since I've already opened Pandora's box of embarrassing food moments, I might as well reveal my most secret food shame: I love iceberg lettuce. It's true. And I know what you're thinking, because I've heard the same thing a million times. "But Laura, it has no nutritional value!" No, it doesn't, but frankly, I don't eat it for nutritional value. I eat it because it's crunchy and delicious. Is there a better reason?

But of course, the time has come for me to evolve into a mature eater with a varied and sophisticated palette. That, and the combination of fires and droughts in California have caused the price of iceberg lettuce to skyrocket. Fortunately for me I have been trying to eat more vegetation from as close by as possible, so I've been passing on iceberg lettuce and it's ridiculous price tag for the past few months. Instead I've been doing my best to eat whatever lettuces and greens are in season, readily available, and affordable. Spring is a great time to experiment with new lettuces and different salads because so many wonderful greens come into season. I happen to have a strange obsession with sour, bitter and tart foods, so I decided to stock up on some chicory lettuce this weekend. Chicory definitely has a bitter after taste and a slightly curly leaf. If you don't like chicory, (and many people don't) you can still get mesclun, m√Ęche (which is delicate and beautiful, also known as lambs lettuce) and several other spring lettuces.

I also decided to experiment with fennel, which for a long time I convinced myself I hated (because I detest licorice). It's also in season, as are Valencia oranges, so I figured I'd throw a few of those into this salad that I was concocting. I generally don't make too many salads, and I like to keep them rather simple when I do, but I find that my favorite salads generally contain some kind of fruit element. This time I used not only orange segments, but also the juice from the remaining orange 'carcass', which served to mask some of the chicory's bitterness. For crunch, smoke, and saltin
ess I cooked up some bacon, which really added a nice dimension to the salad. The dressing was simply orange juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and a hearty teaspoon of sugar to mask a bit more of that chicory bitterness. This salad is not only beautiful, but the flavors are really well balanced. It's perfect for a dinner party or entertaining because it's super impressive but really easy to make. Don't be afraid to really be heavy handed with the dressing in this instance either. Normally it's important to use just enough dressing to lightly coat the leaves, but in this case you want to make sure each leaf has a good amount of dressing to compliment the chicory and mask that biterness. Here's how to make it:

Chicory and Fennel Salad with Bacon and Oranges

4 cups chicory lettuce, washed and dried
3 strips cooked crispy bacon, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 cup thinly sliced fennel
1 large orange, cut into sections or supremes (do not discard body of orange)
extra virgin olive oil (about 3-4 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp white sugar
1 tsp orange zest

1. Combine lettuce, bacon, fennel and orange in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar. Squeeze juice from what's left of the segmented orange and add to the lettuce mixture. Toss to combine.

2. Add sugar, orange zest, salt and pepper and toss to combine. Enjoy!


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