Late September, sung in the key of salad
Only a few weeks ago, when August gave way to September, I wasn’t sure that I was ready. With the exception of one—okay, maybe two—heat waves, Seattle had a pretty mild summer, and though I did whine a bit about the heat when it actually came, I wasn’t convinced that I’d gotten my fill. But apparently, bossy Mother Nature had gotten hers, and so while Brandon and I were away in Oklahoma and safely out of range, she bought fall a first-class ticket to Seattle. Last week, it rained, it rained, and it rained some more. It was gray and gloomy. I even got out a coat. And though it surprised the heck out of me, I sort of liked it.
It’s only natural, I guess. We humans seem to crave variety in nearly everything, from our meals to the color of our underwear, so the seasons should be no exception. Summer was nice, but so, in its own way, is September. I’m hard-wired to think so. Either that, or this Rainy City has really sunk its teeth into me. Whatever the reason, I kind of like sleeping with socks on, and waking up to a chilly room. I like turning on the heat and hearing the furnace whirr and thrum. The evenings are perfect for taking walks right now, in the few weeks before night comes at five o’clock sharp. I love the smell of smoke from a chimney nearby—the ne plus ultra of seasonal scents—and the way that the dim, grayish daylight makes everything look brighter: the leaves, the last few flowers, even signs and billboards. I’m a total sap, I know. I’m a real sucker for this fall stuff. But tell me this: who doesn’t love sweaters and scarves and boots and layers? He who denies the lure of fall is a big, fat liar.
So, even if the sun does happen to be shining today in Seattle, it is with pleasure that I swoon a little in the direction of fall, and that I make in its honor my favorite salad of the season.
In my kitchen, every climatic change calls for its own signature salad: a sliced one for spring, with endive, cilantro, radishes, and feta; a cooling one for summer, with lime and garlic; and for winter, a festive red cabbage slaw. As for fall, it wants warm flavors, I think: a cool-weather green, some olives, pine nuts, and peppers, and a few homemade croutons rubbed with plenty of garlic. And since any girl worth her salt knows that roasted chicken is a good way to show affection—whether for a season or a someone—it’s an obvious addition. Tossed together in an oven-warmed bowl, the elements melt softly into each other: the arugula around the chicken, the pine nuts into the olives, the oil and vinegar over it all. Eaten by the window, and maybe with slippers on, it is late September sung in the key of salad. I could eat this every night. For now, at least.
Warm Chicken Salad with Arugula, Olives, and Pine Nuts
Inspired by The Zuni Café Cookbook
I first made this salad two years ago, and I have never forgotten it. Every time I roast a chicken, it is in the back of my mind, and now, with any luck, it will be in the back of yours too. It’s a delicious way to dispose of leftover chicken, but it’s also tasty enough to warrant roasting one to begin with. In fact, that’s exactly what I did this weekend: I roasted the bird on Friday, ate a couple of pieces, and then socked away the rest for salads on Saturday and Sunday. It was heaven, and since Brandon doesn’t eat meat, I got to hog it all for myself. [Oink, oink!] Something tells me that, so long as arugula is available, there will be several more weekends like this.
Before you begin, a couple of notes. First, I have left the quantities somewhat vague. This salad is very malleable, so feel free to play with ratios of various ingredients. But be sure, if you can, to start with all ingredients at room temperature. (If you’re a cheater like me, you can warm the chicken for a few seconds in the microwave.) As for the arugula, it is quite fragile, so make sure that it is very fresh and free of wilty leaves. I used baby arugula, but if you can find the more sturdy, wild-looking, mature type—which seems to be more common in Europe, I’ve noticed—use that. I wish I could find it more often around here.
1 crusty chunk of country bread or baguette
1 large garlic clove, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 handful of coarsely shredded meat from a roasted chicken
Red wine-mustard vinaigrette
1 Tbs pine nuts
6 Niçoise olives, pitted and halved
1 generous handful of arugula
1 small handful of very thin slices from a yellow or red bell pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tear the bread into a handful of irregular croutons. Brush them with olive oil to coat, spread them on a sheet pan, and toast until golden at the edges, about 6 minutes. Cool the croutons slightly; then rub them the garlic while still warm. Be as thorough as you are fond of garlic. Turn off the oven.
Meanwhile, toss the chicken with a bit of the vinaigrette—just a touch, for moisture and flavor—and set aside.
Place the pine nuts and olives in an ovenproof serving bowl—I use my favorite round, vintage Pyrex bowl—and place it in the turned-off oven for about 2 minutes to warm through. Carefully remove the bowl from the oven—it may be hotter than you think—and add to it the arugula and the peppers. Toss with vinaigrette to coat lightly but thoroughly. Add the chicken and the croutons, crumbling some of the latter over the bowl to let garlicky crumbs fall into the salad. Add a little more vinaigrette, and toss gently to coat. Taste, and add more vinaigrette or salt if necessary.
Serve promptly—straight from the bowl, if you like.
Yield: 1 serving