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Composing a gourmet salad is an art form

Salad as an art form is alive and well. Not a new concept, simply revisited every few years. Its precurser was the plain old chef’s salad — in its day a dramatic departure from the plain, tossed green or wedge of iceberg with Russian dressing.

Then came salad bars and the salad-bar mentality: pile it on but leave room for the cheese bread. Not a pretty sight. When a few creative and influential chefs bucked the mainstream by re-emphasizing salad architecture, others followed. Now we have designer greens, evolved vinaigrettes, clever crouton concepts and a plethora of toppings from grilled scallops, golden beets and rainbow carrots to poached eggs, creamy mozzarella and smokey bacon. Creating masterpieces from such ingredients that please the eye as much as the palate is part of the fun.

Long before poached eggs became an acceptable salad topper, I was making a spinach salad with a 5-minute egg. The spinach was dressed in a light vinaigrette, placed on individual serving plates and topped with a carefully peeled, soft-cooked egg. The stark-white egg nestled atop the emerald leaves, punctuated by crispy bits of smokey bacon, toasted pine nuts and ebony-colored olives is a sight to behold; and the flavor combination is heavenly. When the diner breaks into the egg, the semi-firm yolk will run ever-so-slightly down through the salad.

Then there’s Papa Haydn West’s masterpiece from the late 1980s. This popular Portland eatery has always been at the front of the curve when it comes to culinary creations. And that includes producing fantastic salads back when much of the world hadn’t really figured it out yet. This one achieved a perfect merging of flavors, textures and color, and is so simple to assemble that it has become a classic favorite around the Dominguez household.

It features a wonderful melange of sun-dried tomatoes, fine-quality ham, chunks of mesquite-grilled chicken, capers and grated Gruyere. The vinaigrette is subtle but perfect, and then the whole affair is crowned with a dollop of pesto-laced mayonnaise. It’s a salad that will please daring and reticent diners alike, and I offer it to you now, along with my rendition of the spinach salad with 5-minute egg.

Spinach Salad with 5-Minute Egg

Makes 6 servings.

6 large eggs at room temperature (see note below)

1 pound fresh, young spinach leaves, washed, dried and tough stems removed; break larger pieces into bite-size

1 cup pitted black olives

3 strips crisp-fried bacon, crumbled

1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms that have been gently sauteed in a bit of the bacon grease

1/3 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

Tarragon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Garlic Butter Croutons (recipe follows)

Shredded Parmigiano Regiano cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Using a slotted spoon, gently place the eggs into the pan and cook them for 5 minutes. Do not let the water stop simmering. Remove the pan from heat, then using a slotted spoon, remove each egg to a pan filled with ice water to cool the eggs quickly and completely.

When cold, gently peel the eggs. I find the most success by gently tapping the eggs in numerous places before attempting to peel them. Place the spinach leaves into a large salad bowl, along with the olives, bacon, mushrooms and pine nuts. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to evenly coat the greens, then divide the mixture between six dinner plates. Place several of the croutons off to the side. Lay each of the eggs on top of the salad, in the center, then add a bit of the vinaigrette and sprinkle with the Parmigiano shreds. Serve.

NOTE: To make sure you end up with beautifully peeled eggs, avoid just-purchased eggs (or eggs with a “use-by” date longer than 2 weeks, which would be an indication of very fresh). If eggs are extremely fresh, the white tends to stick to the shell when peeled.

TARRAGON VINAIGRETTE: In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard, 1 egg yolk, 3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, 1½ teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon (or ½ teaspoon dried), ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon savory. Blend well with a wire whisk. Add 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a slow steady stream, until the dressing is thickened slightly. Adjust seasonings and set aside. If you’re making the dressing ahead of time, refrigerate, up to several days. Makes about 1 cup.

GARLIC BUTTER CROUTONS: Slice half a baguette into ¼-inch thick slices and spread them on a baking sheet. In a small cup combine 1/3 cup melted butter, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, ½ teaspoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard and ¼ teaspoon salt. With a spoon or pastry brush, spread the butter mixture over each slice. Sprinkle the bread slices with a bit of shredded Parmesan.

Bake in a 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until golden and slightly crunchy. Store unused croutons in a plastic bag up to several days, or freeze for several months.

Papa Haydn West's Mesquite Broiled Chicken, Gruyere & Sun Dried Tomato Salad

Makes 4 entree salads, or 6 first-course salads.

3 chicken breast halves

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 ounces Black Forest ham Julienne-cut to measure 1 cup

1½ cups grated Gruyere cheese

1 sweet red bell pepper, roasted and peeled as directed below, then diced

½ cup sun-dried tomatoes (reserve oil for dressing), diced

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Mixed greens (romaine lettuce, combined with some green leaf lettuce), broken into bite-size pieces

Pesto Mayonnaise (recipe follows)

Coat the chicken breasts with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Grill chicken over mesquite coals; chill until cool enough to handle.

Dice the chicken breasts into 3/8- to ½-inch pieces. In a large bowl, combine the cut-up chicken, ham, 1 cup of the cheese, bell pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. Toss with enough of the vinaigrette to make sure all ingredients are well coasted; chill for at least 30 minutes to blend flavors. Mixture can be made up to 3 hours ahead.

When ready to serve, arrange greens on individual plates. Distribute the chicken mixture evenly among the salads, arranging it attractively on top of the bed of greens; garnish with a sprinkling of the remaining ½-cup of Gruyere. The Pesto Mayonnaise may be served on the side (in individual ramekins), or you may place a dollop of it on each serving and pass the rest.

VINAIGRETTE: In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice with ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon Dijon-style mustard, freshly ground black pepper (to taste) and several dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Blend well with wire whisk. Continue whisking as you add ½ cup of olive oil. Be sure and incorporate the olive oil that was packed with the sun-dried tomatoes. Adjust seasonings. Can be made 2 or 3 days ahead, covered and stored in the refrigerator. Makes about 2/3 cup.

PESTO MAYONNAISE: This basil-flavored dressing is 4 parts mayonnaise to 1 part pesto. For this recipe, combine ½ cup fine-quality mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons pesto. Commercially prepared pesto is fine; to make a small batch at home: Combine 1 cup of packed basil leaves in blender jar with 2 cloves garlic and 1 tablespoon chopped parsley; chop fine. Add 2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts, 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, and ¼ teaspoon salt; blend. With machine running, slowly add ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil and blend until it forms a smooth paste.

TO ROAST SWEET RED BELL PEPPER: Cut a slit in the pepper to allow steam to escape. If you have a gas burner, you can skewer the pepper and roast it over the flame, turning it frequently until it is evenly blistered and darkly scorched. Or place pepper on a cookie sheet and broil under the upper heating element, turning as the surface blisters and darkens. Place the roasted pepper in a plastic bag and chill in the freezer for up to 10 minutes, or until cool enough to handle. Remove from freezer; peel, then slice open the pepper, remove the seeds and dice.

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. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.