Sunday, April 8, 2012

Friends with Salad (Spring Green Panzanella)

I love spring. If I had my way, I'd simply go into hibernation from November until May. I find the bleak, gray, snowiness simply unbearable. Consequently, I'm always innervated with a jolt of manic elation when the thaw comes, the days lengthen, and birds sing in the garden once again.

Garden fresh

Speaking of gardens, the peppermint is coming back so strong in ours, that I already have a ton to use. I think the thing I miss most during the winter is the color green, so I decided on something with pesto. Pesto doesn't always have to be basil and pine nuts, here I put peppermint and hazelnuts to work. This adaptation of a traditional Panzanella salad is well-positioned to help start things off with an explosion of verdant shades and flavors.

Exhibit A
Spring is the season of greens and this brings them to the forefront: the sharp, nutty pesto of peppermint and toasted hazelnuts stains the bread with brilliant green and asparagus tips, tender arugula, spring onions and herbs all conspire to form a panoply of freshness. I wanted to make this version somewhat lighter than the original, so there's less focus on bread and its entirely vegan.

Don't worry, it's still delicious
If you're looking for a lighter meal, or something fancy to impress, you'll love this recipe. Perhaps one can win friends with salad, after all...

Party platter
Spring Green Panzanella
Adapted from Michael Chiarello

Fair warning, this one is easy, yet hard. The steps are simple, but it'll have you running all around the kitchen. Pair this with something simple like cacio e pepe or roast chicken. It can most definitely stand on it's own, too. Update: vegans beware! Wegman's wheat loaf is, in fact, not vegan. I double-checked the ingredients and it contains honey. Feel free to substitute your favorite vegan option. :)

1/2 loaf of day-old bread, cubed
10 tbs extra virgin olive oil, divided
Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste
1 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced
1 c fresh peppermint leaves
Juice of 3 lemons
1/2 c hazelnuts, chopped and toasted
1 clove of garlic
5 oz grape tomatoes, halved
2 c fresh arugula
4 scallions, slivered (pale green and white parts only)

Preheat the oven to 350, set a large pot of salted water to boil, and line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper.

The staff of life, the stuff of salad
Toss the bread on the baking sheet with 2 tbs of olive oil, then dust with salt and pepper. Toast in the oven until bronzed and crackly, about 15 minutes.

Prepare a large bowl of ice water and toss the asparagus into the pot of boiling water. Blanch lightly for 1-2 minutes, until tender and more brilliantly green, then immediately remove them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice bath.

Way easier than doing it by hand

In a food processor, combine the peppermint, garlic, hazelnuts, and juice from two lemons (this makes it lighter than using straight-up olive oil). Blend while streaming in 6 tbs of the oil, scrape down the sides, and pulse a but more, yielding a heady, verdant pesto.

Pictured: verdance

Drain the asparagus and toss in a large bowl with the croutons, pesto, arugula, tomatoes and the remaining lemon juice and 2 tbs of olive oil. Garnish with slivered scallions and additional chopped, toasted hazelnuts, if desired.

Despite seemingly small amounts of individual ingredients, this makes a big, hearty salad. Which kind of makes sense, as it is still about half croutons. Serves about 12 as a side, 6 as a meal.


Unknown said...

Did you use Italian bread?

Jp1083 said...

I actually used Wegman's ambiguously named "wheat loaf," available from the bakery section. Any bread with a crispy crust and soft center should perform admirably, which means traditional Italian may be a little on the soft side (toasting in the oven could fix this) but ciabatta would be an ideal choice. :)

VegeCooking Club said...

I absolutely love panzanella. It is interesting with the fresh mint. I can't wait to try this!

Jp1083 said...

Thanks, Dawn! I don't think we see savory mint preparations very often in the US, but I just love it. I think the fresh peppermint has a more intense, sharply cool character than sweet basil, but without the licorice notes of Thai basil. The toasted hazelnuts and olive oil help mellow it out a bit and round out the flavors.

beti said...

I also love spring way better than winter, salads are just perfect for spring and I love the combination of pesto with asparagus, never thought about using hazelnuts but it sounds pretty good

Jp1083 said...

Hi, Beti! I'm a huge fan of hazelnuts. I think their warm, toasty character really gives the pesto an "oomph" equivalent to cheese.