It’s been so cold lately that almost everyone we know is craving comfort food of one kind or another. You know, foods like meatloaf, lasagna, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, Mom’s hotdish, and…salad?
Huh? We usually crave comfort food during the winter months as a way to warm ourselves and salad is, well, cold. But add a little bacon to fresh spinach, in the form of a warm dressing, and suddenly a salad becomes more than just a way to get our vitamins. It becomes comfort.
We first encountered Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing back in the early 1990s, when Tony and I were working aboard cruise ships. We served it to our passengers every week, and know of no other salad capable of creating such a favorable response. Fortunately, our cruise line had a generous policy of sharing its recipes, because our passengers were eager to recreate the experience at home.
Like the Cobb or Caesar salads, Spinach with Warm Bacon Dressing is a time-tested favorite, but our recipe endeavors to give this classic salad a modern makeover. Traditionally served with hard-boiled egg, mushrooms, red onions and bacon bits, the inspiration for our recipe comes from the desire to create a balance not only of flavors, but also of textures.
Our salad features fresh spinach leaves with crumbled bleu cheese, whole pecans and thin slices of fresh pear, but there are several ingredients in the dressing which work together to promote an overall comforting experience.
We use Marsala, a fortified wine from Sicily, to bring sweetness and flavor to the dressing. This sweet wine, similar to Madeira or sweet Sherry, brings out the creamy tang of the bleu cheese and the tartness of the pear, creating a wonderful blend of sweet and sour. The addition of brown sugar in the vinaigrette compliments the pecans so that their full, nutty flavor shines through.
But the real star of this show is the warm bacon dressing, which must be served when hot. While flavored with bacon, this dressing isn’t heavy. The acid from a generous dose of red wine vinegar in the dressing helps cut the richness of the bacon fat, and the cold slurry mixture acts as a thickening agent, thus ensuring a lush consistency. The heat from the dressing causes the spinach to wilt, which adds to the balance of textures while allowing the full flavor of the greens to come forth.
The dressing also contains a cup of red wine, but there is no need to use an expensive wine for this recipe – any red table wine will work just fine.
When preparing the salad, remove the stems from the spinach leaves for a more refined presentation. Cooking the dressing will take about 25 to 30 minutes from start to finish, but it can be prepared up to a week in advance and warmed up just before serving. Our recipe calls for a cold slurry, a simple mixture of corn starch and cold water, which should be prepared just before adding it to the dressing.
While only the flavor of bacon is represented in our version of this salad, you can certainly add some fresh bacon bits if desired. Bacon has the ability to elevate our mood and reach all our senses, thus creating a feeling of comfort, even in a salad.
This post is the full copy of our column from the February 27, 2013 edition of The Forum which you can subscribe to daily or find online at InForum. Our column appears in the SheSays section every Wednesday, and you can also access past columns right here on the blog.