#9: Dates and Turkish Sheep’s Cheese Salad

dates-turkishcheese-IMGP1043I know. Another salad. How many of these do you have to see? Didn’t I promise something more exciting this week? Aren’t I already late on delivering on that promise?

Yes. I know.

Somehow when I set up this challenge for myself, I didn’t foresee the weeks of winter where getting out of our neighborhood would be close to impossible. Where a trip into town to my usual haunts might entail a 45-minute detour that would exhaust any ambition I ever had to spend any time in the kitchen. Where just when I thought I might have SOME ambition to spend SOME time in the kitchen, both of us here were felled by the cold from hell, leaving us to crankily argue over whose turn it was to go out to the ducks. Where no one was healthy enough to make up the garlic soup we obviously needed. Where not much of anything got done for nearly a week.

That winter. This one. The one that needs to leave. Right away. Spit-spot, out-the-door, and be done with it. That one. Now.

Like wishing is going to make any difference, right?

So when I finally did make it out the door to get groceries, it was just to our local market, more a convenience store than anything else, where you are more likely to find the fixings for pigs in a blanket than you are to find an apple or lettuce still in its prime, so I felt lucky to walk out with anything fresh at all, much less the usual list of exotic ingredients called for in most of the recipes in Plenty.

So, yeah. A salad.

But don’t yawn yet. Ottolenghi really knows what he’s doing when he puts together greens, and this one proves to be a lovely combination as well.

Building from a bed of spicy arugula leaves, he adds mixed leaves of basil and red chard leaves, slivers of sweet Medjool dates, toasted almonds, and some “lightly salted Turkish sheep’s cheese.” If that’s not available, Ottolenghi recommends buffalo ricotta or buffalo mozzarella, but nothing remotely like that was available, so I opted instead for something posing as Camembert. It worked. Topped with a dressing made from pomegranate molasses*– a reduction of pomegranate juice and sugar that you can find in the sweetener section of your natural foods store — and olive oil, it was that perfect mixture of sweetness, crunch, herbal notes, and creamy deliciousness that seems to define every Ottolenghi salad.

A couple of notes:

I’m constantly surprised by the apparently dissonant flavors that Ottolenghi uses in his recipes: here it’s the arugula and basil, two strong personalities that I wouldn’t have expected to work well together, but somehow do, no doubt thanks to the fruity dressing and the creamy cheese.

Herbs. Ottolenghi uses them generously and brilliantly. Makes me wish I could somehow keep my herb garden going through winter. We do OK with rosemary and occasionally chives, but I’ve never had much luck getting basil or parsley to stick around throughout the winter, at least not in enough quantity to be worth cultivating.

Dressings. I’ve always been a vinegar & oil kind of girl, with the occasional smashed garlic or minced shallot thrown in for variety; when I’m feeling truly adventurous, I might substitute lemon juice for the vinegar. Ottolenghi hasn’t yet lured me to the dark side of creamy dressings, but he has shown me the virtues of playing with the acidic components of a dressing. He frequently turns to citrus — lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit — as a base, toning their stridency with a generous amount of sugar, and sometimes even cooking the juice down into a syrup before adding the rest of the ingredients. It’s a great technique for creating vibrant and exciting dressings, and even though I’m not a huge advocate of added sugar, I’ve got to admit that his dressings have made “that green stuff” an appealing part of the meal. Even for the carnivores in the house. So maybe it’s true: a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.

Next week: Honestly, I don’t know. I’m still kind of dragging here. Let me play it by ear for another week or so. Things will get better. I promise.

*BTW I am not advocating this store; just wanted to show you what it looks like — I paid half this price for it at Whole Foods, and I suspect you could find it for even less at your local co-op or grocery store.

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