The holidays are coming, you guys. They're creeping in just like they do every year, not caring one bit that it feels like we just celebrated the 4th of July. Even though that was already four months ago. FOUR MONTHS AGO! How does this happen every year?!
With the holidays comes the usual gorging on sweets and treats and all of those things we pretend not to eat in the summertime. Lets be real though, pies and cookies are a 365 staple and there's no reason to save them all up for the short period between Halloween and New Years. I feel the same way about salad: it's not just summer food. Great salads can be made using all sorts of cool weather crops, and I've found that putting a big, festive salad on the Thanksgiving table is a welcome and refreshing surprise to all that encounter it.
The idea of making a salad out of grapes, radicchio and fennel popped into my head one recent evening just as I was drifting off to sleep. I groggily jotted it down in the notes on my phone, only to wake up and read "grapes, radical and feel," as autocorrect rarely gets my late night ramblings right. I seem to always have my best ideas right before I go to sleep. Why is that? It also happens in the shower, but I never have a note pad handy so my ideas get washed down the drain along with the soapy water. When I was a kid we had these colored soap crayons that let you draw on the bath tiles. They need to bring those back solely for us adults who do our best thinking in the shower. You feel me?
I digress. The next day I set out to construct a beta version of the salad I'd literally dreamt up the night before. (Disclaimer: I do in fact realize that dreaming about salads is the nerdiest thing ever. I'm cool with it.) I chopped the raw ingredients, dressed them in a mustard-shallot vinaigrette and dug in only to find it was lacking in many departments. This wasn't at all what I'd imagined, and it bummed me out because I really wanted it to work. It was too cold, too crunchy, too sterile. Even with all the interesting ingredients, it managed to feel boring. So back to the drawing board I went.
The radicchio is what bothered me the most. It's a very bitter green (purple?), with a hearty, almost cabbage-like texture and appearance. Left raw, it was too crunchy and too overpowering. I thought about grilling it, but we were experiencing a week straight of pouring rain, so I opted to roast it instead. Bingo! It softened the texture and flavor just enough, while still retaining it's overall character. I also roasted the grapes, which intensified both their sweetness and juiciness.
And the fennel? I pickled it! Mostly because I've been pickling everything I can get my hands on lately, but also to give a sharp note of contrast and to mellow out it's more licoricey flavors. Served warm with a few toasted walnuts for crunch, creamy gorgonzola for added tang and that same mustard-shallot vinaigrette and we had ourselves a winner.
My salad dream had finally become a reality. Festive and fancy enough to sit on your holiday table, but easy enough to put together for your weeknight table, too.
For the Pickled Fennel
- ½ small fennel bulb
- 1 cup white vinegar
- ½ cup water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
For the Salad
- 2 small heads radicchio
- 1 small-medium bunch of red grapes (about 2-3 cups)
- 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for drizzling (eyeball it)
- salt and pepper to taste
- ½ cup walnut halves, toasted
- 4 ounces gorgonzola dolce
For the Vinaigrette
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Remove the core from the fennel, thinly slice, then place in a bowl. Bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt up to boil in a medium saucepan. Pour over the fennel and set aside.
- Cut the radicchio in half, remove the core, then cut each half into thirds. Place them on a baking sheet along with the grapes, and coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for about 15-20 minutes, or until the grapes are wilted and the radicchio is slightly charred.
- To make the dressing, whisk together the shallots, mustard, honey vinegar salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and whisk until emulsified.
- Arrange the radicchio and grapes on a platter, then drizzle with dressing. Drain the fennel and arrange over top, then sprinkle with walnuts and crumbled gorgonzola. Serve warm.