Autumn salad is the apple of my eye

October 24, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Every fall, the apple crop comes in and I search for new ways to enjoy the bounty.

Over the years, I have baked apples, fried them and stuffed them. In my opinion, few of these treatments top the taste of a homemade apple pie or the pleasure of biting into a crisp piece of fruit.

But recently, I tried a new apple dish that had me clamoring for more. It was a salad made with sliced apples, Comte cheese, nuts, celery and greens. It was exceedingly simple to put together. The keys to its success were its perfect blend of flavors and its dressing.

The Comte cheese, made with unpasteurized cow's milk, had a pleasing, nutty taste. It was an excellent partner with toasted nuts. The slices of tart apple provided a fresh, crunchy counterpoint. The recipe called for a Granny Smith, but said I could substitute any tart apple, so I used a Winesap.

The recipe also called for hazelnuts, but allowed walnuts as a substitute, so I used a little of both. The crunch they provided in this salad reminded me of the Waldorf salad with apples and nuts that my mother used to make. I love nuts, but recognize that some people can't eat them. This salad was so well put together that I think it still could work even if it lost the nuts.

The salad dressing was superior. It pulled the dish together and gave the ingredients distinctive apple notes. It was made with apple cider that had been reduced to an inch of its life.

I did a double take when I read the instructions dealing with the cider. They called for reducing a cup of apple cider and a splash of apple-cider vinegar down to a mere 3 tablespoons of liquid. That seemed almost wasteful to me.

But I put my penny-pinching beliefs aside and followed the directions.

Sure enough, the 3 tablespoons of reduced liquid had a potent flavor. When this syrupy liquid was mixed with some chopped shallots, a little Dijon mustard and a half-cup of olive oil, a remarkable dressing was born.

When it was poured over the greens and apple slices, cheese and celery pieces, the results were scrumptious. The other night at supper, I had two helpings of this salad, supposedly a side dish. My wife had three.

The recipe came from Crescent City Cooking, a new cookbook by Susan Spicer, owner of Bayona and Herbsaint restaurants in New Orleans.

"It is one of those recipes that was an inspiration of the moment," Spicer told me in a telephone interview from New Orleans. "It was a special of the day that moved its way over to the other side of the menu, with the signature dishes."

Spicer said she likes to use the reduced apple cider because when it gets almost syrupy, it adds body as well as flavor to the dressing.

It may seem wasteful to boil away almost a cup of cider, but she contends that the results are worth it.

"We are trying to figure out how to distill flavor, how to make the most of each element," she said. In the case of the cider, it worked, I told her.

As for the nuts, she said that they echo the flavor of the cheese.

"There are many combinations of the fruit, cheese and nut salad," she said. Sometimes she substitutes blue cheese for the Comte, she said.

Then there is the apple, the star of the dish, she said. "If you don't have a fresh apple, you should skin it."

But she said that if you are blessed, as I was, with an apple fresh from the farmers' market that has beautiful, thin skin, then you could leave the skin on.

"I am all for skin," she said.

The only trick to this dish, she said, is toasting the nuts. You can put them in a 325-degree oven for five minutes, but you have to watch them carefully.

You also can toast them, as we did, in a skillet. But, again, you have to watch them like a hawk.

That being said, this autumn salad is without flaws, a delightful way to celebrate apple season.

"October is a nice time of year in New Orleans," Spicer said. "It is the end of hurricane season, the weather cools down and we can dine in our outdoor gardens. And when the heat leaves, the visitors come."

Autumn Salad With Apples, Comte and Hazelnuts

Serves 4

8 cups mixed greens

1 medium apple (Granny Smith or other tart-firm variety), peeled (optional) and thinly sliced into matchsticks

2 to 3 ounces Comte cheese, cut into matchsticks

1/4 cup sliced celery hearts

Cider Dressing (see recipe)

salt to taste

1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts (or walnuts)

In a large bowl, toss greens, apple, cheese and celery hearts together. Drizzle in enough dressing to lightly coat the salad; reserve the remaining dressing.

Season the salad with a little salt and divide among 4 plates. Sprinkle salad with hazelnuts and drizzle with equal portions of the remaining dressing.

From "Crescent City Cooking" by Susan Spicer

Per serving: 138 calories, 7 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 9 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 11 milligrams cholesterol, 120 milligrams sodium

Cider Dressing

Makes about 3/4 cup

1 cup apple cider or juice

2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup olive oil or mild vegetable oil

1 teaspoon hazelnut oil or walnut oil (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

Place the cider and vinegar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until reduced to 3 tablespoons of liquid. Pour it into a small bowl and add the shallots and mustard.

Whisk to combine, then slowly whisk in olive oil and the hazelnut oil, if using. Season with salt and pepper.

From "Crescent City Cooking" by Susan Spicer

Per tablespoon: 91 calories, 0 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 3 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium

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