So, this is a tale of two salads. No wait, three. Okay, this is the tale of three salads. The first one crossed our table at brunch with my mother and the little pilot two weeks ago (you might remember that our last brunch together resulting in us obsessing over monkey bread; who knew brunch could be such a source of inspiration?) at one of my favorite local restaurants: warm mushroom, softly cooked, chestnuts cooked in brown butter, bacon lardons and a port reduction. We haven’t stopped talking about it since.
So, when I was looking for a salad to make for our accidental dinner party last weekend that did not hinge entirely on out-of-season always-going-bad-too-fast never-tasting-as-good-as-they-should salad greens and spied on a warm mushroom salad in the always-amazing Sunday Suppers at Lucques, I had a good feeling about it.
It involved a whole lot of things. Two pounds of wild mushrooms, toasted and skinned hazelnuts, shallots cut in two ways, a ton of a fresh herbs, sherry vinegar, delicate mache and an obscure percorino, and a very careful cooking and plating process. Our friends cleaned every speck of salad off the serving platter. It was a clear home run.
And yet, it bugged me. Hey, I love some obscure pecorinos and fancy wild mushrooms as much as the next person with taste buds, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that — at least for the kind of cooking I prefer to embrace at home — I could make this with more reliable, humble ingredients, like brown mushrooms. So the next night, I did. Out of mache, I used arugula, but many greens would do. Out of sherry vinegar, I used a white wine vinegar. Out of almost every herb, and appalled by the post-blizzard pick of them at the store, I skipped them. And we enjoyed it just as much — possibly even more, because I had gotten the flavor I wanted without having relegate it to “special occasions” because we’d nearly broken the bank for it.
So, below is a warm mushroom salad you can make humble or fancy. It could a Saturday night showpiece or it could be be a Thursday night dinner with a poached egg on top and hunk of crusty bread on the side. I think we know which one I vote for.
Warm Mushroom Salad with Hazelnuts and Pecorino
Adapted generously from Sunday Suppers at Lucques
1/2 cup hazelnuts
2 tablespoons finely diced shallots
3 tablespoons sherry or a white wine vinegar
9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds mushrooms (cremini or a mix of wild mushrooms), cleaned and sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ounces salad greens such as frisé, arugula or a mix of your choice
A 1 cup mix of fresh herbs (optional) such as chives, tarragon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or a couple pinches of dried
1/4 cup sliced shallots
1/4 pound pecorino (Goin loves di Grotta, and we did too, but Romano would also work) or Parmesan-Reggiano or another hard, sharp cheese
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Toast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet for 8 to 10 minutes, rolling them around once or twice to make sure they toast evenly. Rub nuts in a dish towel to remove skins then let cool. Chop the hazelnuts coarsely.
Whisk the shallots, vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt together in a bowl and let sit for five minutes (this will soften and almost pickle the shallots), before whisking in 5 tablespoons olive oil.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter until the butter foams. Add half the mushrooms, half the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Sauté the mushrooms for about 5 minutes, until they’re softened but not limp (your cooking time will depend on the type of mushrooms you used).
Transfer mushrooms to a plate then repeat with the second half. When they are cooked, return the first half of the mushrooms to the pan then toss in sliced shallots, cooking for an additional 2 minutes.
Spread salad greens on a plate. Sprinkle fresh herbs on top, if using. Spoon hot mushrooms over the salad greens. Pour three-quarters of the vinaigrette in the sauté pan and swirl it in the pan until heated. Season it with 1/4 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour over salad and toss carefully. Adjust to taste — you may need more salt, pepper, vinaigrette or even more sherry vinegar.
Use a vegetable peeler to shave cheese over the salad. Sprinkle with hazelnuts. Serve immediately.