Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chicken and Arugula Salad with a gremolata dressing

Lately, I haven't been able to cook as much as I normally like to, so last night I seized the opportunity to make a nice meal. Last weekend I started to put together an idea for a "fall salad" that might lend itself to a holiday side dish as well. I started a list of ingredients in my head of arugula, snow peas, chicken, almonds, pomegranate seeds and then got a bit stuck. Zucchini is a staple in my diet, but I'm beginning to feel a bit too dependent on it in my cooking so I wanted to branch out. I was also stuck for what type of dressing to use. After a quick consultation with a very knowledgeable friend, I got some more direction.

A suggestion of fennel was one that I hadn't even considered. Fennel, specifically the Florence Fennel, is basically an herb, but has two different parts that can be utilized in consumption. The frawns, or the feathery plant like section has a nice light anise like taste to it. The bulb of the plant can be sliced down and used in salads as a crispy addition for some textural differentiation. The bulb also contains that great anise flavor to it, but also has a similar water component to a cucumber so you get that nice refreshing flavor into your salad. Salads with fennel are always a hit with me so I was excited to use it last night.

I started my salad last night by creating an envelope of tinfoil and baking my chicken tenders in a bit of olive oil and some lemon herb blend for some flavor. I baked this for about 40 minutes at 375 degrees. Then I started on the dressing. A gremolata had been suggested, and though I had never made one before it sounded like an excellent idea. Gremolata is an Italian based accompaniment normally to veal, comprised of Parsley, Garlic and Lemon Rind. When Ive had it in the past its been a "chunky" condiment, thick in texture and a great addition to a variety of meats and fish for flavor add. Thinned down with an olive oil/vegetable oil combination it could make an excellent salad dressing.

I pulled out my Cuisinart and threw in four cloves of garlic, a couple very healthy handfuls of parsley, the juice of two lemons, and some salt. I started the Cuisinart and then drizzled in some olive oil and then some vegetable oil until I reached my desired consistency. The result was a beautiful light green, with a wonderful flavor of spicy garlic, fresh parsley and then that great citrus punch of lemon.

I then poured some sliced almonds into a pan and toasted them up for another crunch to the salad, and a bit of a different flavor component. Toasted almonds have a great nutty flavor that sort of reminds me of eating nuts at Christmas time with my family. The flavor just screams fall to me.

When the chicken was done I pulled it out of the oven and let it sit to cool down. My goal was a room temperature salad, not a piping hot one. Once cooled I began to assemble the salad. Arugula in first, then the snow peas. I sliced a pomegranate in half and removed the seeds by hitting the bottom of the rind with a spoon. Soon I had a beautiful burst of color in my very green salad. I sliced the chicken into bite size pieces and added them, then I sliced just the bulb of the fennel. Thin slices, cut down into small pieces added just enough to the salad. Then I added the thinned down Gremolata in, and tossed the salad, to the top I crumbled Ricotta Salata, and then the toasted almonds were added. Ricotta Salata may be my new obsession. I have always loved the flavor and versatility of Ricotta cheese as it morphs between savory and sweet dishes. Ricotta Salata is made in the same way, but in its final stages it is salted and dried so that it forms a consistency similar to Feta Cheese. The finished product is the same delicate flavor with a bit more salt.

All together, I really enjoyed the salad. The Gremolata added a lot of flavor, bringing in a bit of spice and the great citrus taste to the peppery arugula. The chicken was hearty, the pomegranate seeds were sweet and juicy, and the fennel added the missing texture of fresh crunch. I will definitely be making this salad again, and I think Ill check in with the family about adding it to our holiday meals- perhaps without the chicken to make it a bit lighter.

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