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Salads to dazzle your Thanksgiving guests

It was one of those memo-to-self moments, generated by the lovely salad that Dan and Pam brought to our house a few weeks ago — a genuine seasonal offering of mixed greens punctuated with roasted chunks of butternut squash, sweet slender slices of red onion, sugar-glazed pecans and a zesty cranberry vinaigrette.

This, I told myself, would make the perfect Thanksgiving salad.

Reflecting back on my own successful crunchy sidekicks for holidays meals, they all tend to follow the same basic blueprint incorporating five components: a green, a fruit (or slightly sweet vegetable), a crumbly cheese, a toasty nut, and a tangy yet slightly sweet dressing.

My favorite fruits include juicy comice pears, zesty oranges and grapefruits, crisp fuyu persimmons, crunchy new-crop apples and ruby-toned pomegranates.

Two regional nuts to consider are hazelnuts and walnuts, but if you cast your net a bit farther, some lightly roasted almonds, pistachios and pecans also work well.

My three go-to crumbly cheeses are feta, goat cheese and blue cheese.

To get you started, I’m including Dan and Pam’s salad recipe, the Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Cranberries, Caramelized Pecans, Feta and Cranberry Vinaigrette. Dan found it on a blog called Carlsbad Cravings (carlsbadcravings.com). Plus, here are two recipes of my own that have tantalized a fair number of not easily impressed palates over the years.

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Cranberries, Caramelized Pecans, Feta and Cranberry Vinaigrette

Roasted Butternut Squash (recipe follows)

About 1 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 fuji or Granny Smith apple, cored and coarsely chopped

1 cup dried cranberries

12 ounces salad mix (including spinach, baby arugula and other greens)

4 ounces crumbled feta or goat cheese

1 recipe Five Minute Perfect Caramelized Pecans (recipe follows)

Cranberry Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

To assemble the salad, place the Roasted Butternut Squash, red onion, apple and dried cranberries in the bottom of a salad bowl. Cover with the salad greens. Refrigerate until ready to serve, then add the feta and Caramelized Pecans and toss. Drizzle on the Cranberry Vinaigrette and toss again. Alternatively, you can assemble individual salads by creating a bed of greens on each salad plate then making an attractive arrangement of the remaining ingredients, and topping each salad with some of the vinaigrette. In either case, serve immediately.

Note on advance preparation: You can prepare all of the salad ingredients days in advance (except the apple) and keep them separate in airtight containers in the refrigerator (except the nuts — keep them at room temperature in an airtight container) until ready to assemble and serve your salad. It will come together in minutes.

Roasted Butternut Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. While oven is preheating, peel and seed a 1-1/2 pound butternut squash and chop into chunks measuring approximately 1/2 to 3/4 inches. Line a baking pan with foil (for easy clean-up) and lightly oil. Add the chunks of squash, then drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and pinch of cayenne. Toss to evenly coat the squash pieces. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, turning once, until tender. Remove from oven and let cool.

Five Minute Perfect Caramelized Pecans: Prepare a cooling surface for the nuts by lining a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat and add 1 cup of pecan pieces, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, and 1 tablespoon butter. Stir constantly with a heat-proof spatula for approximately 5 minutes (less time if your nuts are in relatively small pieces) until the nuts are evenly coated in the melted sugar/butter and browning lightly. Immediately transfer the nuts onto the parchment paper and separate them using two forks. Alternatively, let the nuts harden together and break them apart with your fingers once cooled. The nuts and coating will harden in 5 to 7 minutes.

Cranberry Vinaigrette: Put 1/2 cup fresh cranberries, 1 clove peeled garlic, 1 small shallot (peeled and coarsely chopped) into a food processor and chop very fine. Add 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar (more or less to taste), 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Process until smooth and scrape into a container. Whisk in 2/3 cup olive or canola oil. For best flavor, chill at least one hour before using. May be prepared and refrigerated for several days.

Spinach and Pears with Candied Hazelnuts and Raspberry-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

8 to 10 cups of baby spinach, stems removed and a mixture of other salad greens

1 sweet onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

Raspberry-Poppy Seed Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

About 1/2 cup of crumbled blue cheese (or feta)

Candied Hazelnuts (recipe follows)

Optional: 1/2 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries

To assemble the salad, place the spinach and other salad greens in a large bowl, along with the sweet onion slices. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to evenly coat the leaves. Place an appropriate single serving amount onto each salad plate. Divide the sliced pears among the plates, arranging them attractively on one edge of the greens. Sprinkle each serving with a portion of the blue cheese, then the Candied Hazelnuts and (if using) dried cherries or cranberries. Drizzle an extra bit of the vinaigrette over everyone’s serving of pears. Serve.

Candied Hazelnuts: In a medium to small skillet (nonstick coated is OK), melt 1 tablespoon of butter with 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar. Add 3/4 cup of toasted and chopped hazelnuts and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring fairly constantly, until the sugar caramelizes and the nuts are a rich golden-brown. Remove to waxed paper or aluminum foil and separate the nuts so they won’t stick together when they are cooled. May be prepared several days ahead and stored in a covered container. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Raspberry Vinaigrette: In a bowl or pint-sized jar with lid, whisk together 1/4 cup raspberry vinegar, 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar, 2 teaspoons poppy seeds, 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 finely minced garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a scant 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Whisk in 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Whisk (or shake) again just before using. May be prepared ahead and refrigerated until needed (the olive oil may thicken in the cool temperature, so remove from refrigerator ahead of serving time to allow it to become liquid again).

Apple Salad with Hearts of Romaine and Toasted Hazelnuts

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

5 to 6 cups of hearts of romaine leaves

2 to 3 flavorful apples (such as Braeburn, fuji or honeycrisp), peeled and cored, then sliced as described below

Scant 1 cup of crumbled blue cheese

1 cup coarsely chopped toasted hazelnuts

Balsamic Vinaigrette with Sweet Honey Mustard (recipe follows)

Arrange the romaine on individual salad plates.

To prepare the peeled and cored apples, cut each half into 1/4-inch thick slices, then cut each slice into thirds. Place the apples in a small bowl and toss with enough of the vinaigrette to coat the pieces. You can prepare the apple mixture up to an hour ahead. If you coat the apples with the dressing any longer than that they will absorb too much of the vinaigrette, which overwhelms the apple flavor. Divide the apple mixture among the salads. Top each serving with a portion of the cheese and then a portion of the hazelnuts. Drizzle an extra bit of the vinaigrette over the greens and around the edges of the salad. Serve.

Alternative: Instead of hearts of romaine lettuce, consider a mixture of baby spinach, hearts of romaine, and/or other mixed young greens. You could also substitute feta or cheddar cheese for the blue cheese. Another serving option would be to assemble the entire salad on a large platter instead of individual salad plates.

Balsamic Vinaigrette with Sweet Honey Mustard: In a container, whisk together 1/2 cup red or white wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon sweet honey mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk in 2/3 cup canola oil.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email at janrd@proaxis.com or see her blog at www.janrd.com.

This Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Cranberries, Caramelized Pecans, Feta and Cranberry Vinaigrette would do any Thanksgiving feast proud. Photo by Jan Roberts-Dominguez