The Vernal Equinox is only days away. I’m setting up my April and May menus to take full advantage of early crops, especially anything leafy and green. The first greens to pop up at the farmer’s market (and probably a little before from my insider farmer friends) are likely to be kale, spinach and chard, cool-weather varieties that stand up to wilting, sautéing and pureeing. Spinach is one of my favorites for salads and smoothies. It also performs beautifully in pasta and egg dishes. Its flavor is far more delicate than either kale or chard, so it plays nicer with other foods, allowing its fresh earthiness to melt into the background of quiche or lasagna, while not altogether disappearing.

I must have a million spinach salad recipes, (and we’ll explore some of these in the months ahead) but one of my very favorites is a fairly rich concoction that can really be the whole meal… just add a crusty bread and some crisp, fruity white wine.

One thing about this particular recipe: much depends on a quality olive oil because it is sort of a star in the dressing. And olive oil is NOT simple to understand. Also, it is NOT inexpensive to buy. Really, I’m still figuring it all out myself, and I do the best I can. For instance, as a rule of thumb, I always try to purchase organic when possible, and for many things, organic represents the best quality. But for olive oil I’m learning that this is not necessarily the case. The quality, manufacturing and culture of olive oil is as complex as its flavor—where the olives come from, when they were harvested, whether the distributor is totally truthful on its label,all count. It’s very easy to be misled and pay more than you should for what you are getting.

In my quest to understand this kitchen staple, I checked out writer Tom Mueller’s website: Truth in Olive Oil. It’s pretty intense, but fascinating and helpful. Mueller is so very easy to read, and you feel as if he’s really with you in this quest. He even includes a Buyer’s Guide. I don’t know about you, but I figure there is always room to learn more, change my choices based on new information, and, in the end, decide for myself what’s best in terms of flavor and price and the environment.

Spinach, Mushroom and Egg Salad with Toasted Almonds, Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 main dish servings or about 6 starter plate servings

Serving Size: 1 dinner plate full or 1 starter plate full

Spinach, Mushroom and Egg Salad with Toasted Almonds, Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Ingredients

    For the Dressing:
  • Two cloves minced garlic (Well, sometimes it’s three for me.)
  • One-half cup quality dark balsamic vinegar
  • Two tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • One tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • One tablespoon dried herbs (I like a mixture of thyme, basil and oregano.)
  • A dash or two of sea salt
  • One-half teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • One teaspoon lemon juice
  • One teaspoon honey
  • One-half cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • For the Salad:
  • About one pound of spinach leaves, washed thoroughly with stems removed from mature leaves—or however much it takes to fill your salad bowl and feed your crowd
  • One-half pound mushrooms, chopped (I try to buy local gray oysters from Leo, but shitakes work really well in this recipe as do crimini.)
  • One-third to one-half cup minced red onion
  • Two hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped
  • One-half cup coarsely chopped toasted almonds
  • About three or four ounces of good-quality goat cheese (You could leave this out of the recipe if you are avoiding dairy or you could replace it with a half-cup Parmigiano Reggiano. I’ve done both.)
  • Kalamata olives (optional, but tasty)

Instructions

  1. Place all the dressing ingredients, except the olive oil, in a small bowl or screw-top jar. Since this dressing has a tendency to separate, the jar is nice for a quick shakeup to reincorporate the ingredients when necessary. Whisk to combine.
  2. Place a damp kitchen towel underneath your bowl or jar to add stability. While whisking constantly, add the olive oil in a small steady stream. Take at least a full minute to a minute and a half to pour in and combine the oil so that your dressing emulsifies evenly.
  3. Toss your spinach, onion and mushrooms (and olives if you are including them) in your salad bowl. Add the egg, almonds and goat cheese; give it all a toss. Dress, toss again and serve.
  4. If you are plating your dish rather than serving family style, begin with just the spinach, onion, mushrooms and olives. Toss with the dressing to completely coat. Place this mixture on individual plates and top with chopped egg, toasted almonds and crumbled goat cheese. Sometimes I use extra egg slices for garnish. This usually turns out very pretty.

Notes

This dish works well as the main course because it's rich and contains several varieties of protein. If it is your starter salad, it pairs well with lighter fare, since it is very rich. Fish, for instance, is a nice choice. However, my husband cannot resist the urge to add bacon.

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This salad is a familiar dish on our table. It is fresh, rich and satisfying. And, this will be a great addition to our Easter dinner–when I’ll be using up those colored eggs! The dressing is pungent, so a little will go a long way—there’s enough dressing in this recipe for at least two more salads, in my experience. It stores in the frig for at least a week… so no wasting, right? It works equally well on a traditional Italian salad, as the marinade for antipasto and my husband has used it to marinate chicken breasts.

To reuse the dressing, bring it out of the frig at least an hour before you shake or whisk to recombine. The cold will cause the olive oil to become solid. Bringing it back to room temperature makes it a lot easier to recombine.

Above all, don’t let the olive oil quality issue get in the way of fixing this super salad. Do your research and be brave in the kitchen. And, if you have olive oil buying and using tips, a favorite brand, a good resource, please share!

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