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A sampling of favorite salads

Many years ago, the restaurant in the Agate Beach Hilton in Newport Beach produced a wonderful spinach salad. Two key ingredients were toasted pine nuts and a tangy, caramely dressing. Many excursions to the coast were highlighted with this special offering. It was that good.

Unfortunately, the Hilton packed up its spinach salad recipe and blew town. However, my attempt to clone their specialty was relatively successful — at least as far as my mental palate is concerned. Worth-The-Trip! Spinach salad is now a Dominguez house specialty.

Another of my favorites is a Spinach Salad with 5-Minute Egg, inspired by “SALADS” by Amy Nathan (Chronicle Books). The spinach is 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 is a sight to behold; and the flavor combination of the egg, spinach and dressing is heavenly. When you break into the 5-minute egg, the semi-firm yolk will run ever-so-slightly over the rest of the salad.

Worth-The-Trip! Spinach Salad

Here’s my attempt at cloning the Agate Beach Hilton’s wonderful spinach salad. As far as the bacon goes, just the other night I substituted finely chopped ham and it was delightful.

About 1 pound fresh spinach, thoroughly washed, dried and chilled

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

10 slices bacon, diced

5 to 6 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon golden brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

About 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup canola oil

6 mushrooms, sliced

1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

2 hard-cooked eggs, diced

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Roll up your washed and dried spinach leaves jelly roll fashion in a large kitchen towel and chill until you’re ready to use the leaves in the salad.

Fry the bacon until crisp, then remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon drippings. Stir in the vinegar, scraping up all of the cooked-on bits of bacon. Whisk in the sugar, salt and black pepper. Add the extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil, then adjust seasonings; set aside.

Tear the spinach into bite-sized pieces, discarding tough stems. For individual servings, divide the spinach between 4 to 6 salad bowls. Over each bowl, layer mushrooms, pine nuts, and some of the dressing. Sprinkle with the egg, crumbled bacon and Parmesan cheese. (Note: For one large bowl to serve “family style,” prepare as above, and toss the salad at the table before serving.)

Spinach Salad with Sauteed Onions

Makes 4 to 6 entree salads; 6 to 8 side salads.

About 1 pound of fresh spinach, thoroughly washed, dried and chilled

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

8 slices bacon, diced

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried and crumbled)

4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 egg

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped

Tear spinach into bite-sized pieces, discarding tough stems. Place spinach and mushrooms in salad bowl; set aside in refrigerator. Saute bacon in skillet until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat, add the onions and garlic to the pan and gently saute over medium to medium-low heat just until softened. Be sure and scrape up all of the cooked-on bits of bacon as you’re sauteeing the onions because this will add a lot of flavor to the dressing.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool about 2 minutes (otherwise, when you add the vinegar it will sizzle and splatter violently, creating quite a mess of your cooktop). Whisk in the vinegar, then add the basil, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Blend well. Whisk in the egg, then return the pan to the heat for just a moment to bring the temperature back up to “very hot,” (about 140 degrees). Remove from heat, but let the mixture sit for at least another 3 to 4 minutes (this second heating and standing process is a way to pasteurize the raw egg, which is an important safeguard against salmonella poisoning, which is a slight risk when dealing with raw egg.)

Whisk in the oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until the dressing has thickened and blended. Adjust seasonings. Let the dressing cool slightly. It should be warm, but not hot. Toss enough of the dressing with the spinach and mushrooms to thoroughly coat the ingredients. Add the bacon, Parmesan and hard-cooked eggs, and toss again. Serve immediately.(Main-course option: you could add cooked chicken and a few other vegetables, such as sliced red and green bell peppers, whole olives or ham).

Mixed Greens with Roasted Walnuts, Gorgonzola and Warm Port Vinaigrette

Makes 8 servings.

1-3/4 cups walnut halves or pieces

1 pound mixed greens (my recommendation: half spinach, 1/4 arugula, and remaining in mixed salad greens)

12 dried figs, halved (see note below)

About 2 cups (12 ounces) Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

Warm Port Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Freshly-ground black pepper

Spread the walnuts out on a baking pan and roast them in a 350 degree oven until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Coarsely chop them and transfer to a small bowl; set aside.

Arrange the spinach mixture on 8 salad plates. Arrange the prepared figs on each plate and divide the Gorgonzola and walnuts among them.

Drizzle a portion of the Port Vinaigrette over each salad, and if desired, lightly season each serving with freshly ground black pepper.

Warm Port Vinaigrette: In a small saucepan, reduce 1 cup Ruby port wine by half over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon sugar, and stir to dissolve. Remove from heat, then whisk in 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar. Slowly whisk in 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Use while the vinaigrette is still slightly warm, or at room temperature.

About The Figs: If possible, use either Mission figs or Calimyrna figs. To prepare figs for use, halve lengthwise, then poach in a small amount of port wine until plumped, which will only take about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool in liquid.

Recipe adapted from The California Walnut Commission.

Spinach Salad with 5-minute Egg

Makes 6 servings

6 eggs, at room temperature

1 pound fresh spinach, washed, dried and tough stems removed; broken into bite-sized pieces

1 cup pitted black olives

3 strips crisp-fried bacon, crumbled

Tarragon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Garlic Butter Croutons (recipe follows)

Grated Parmesan cheese

Gently place eggs into a pan of simmering water and cook for exactly 5 minutes (do not let the water stop simmering). Remove from heat, drain carefully so you don’t crack the eggs, then fill the pan with very cold water and let the eggs cool completely. When cold, gently peel the eggs (TIP: very fresh eggs are difficult to peel, so use eggs that have been purchased a few days prior to cooking).

Place the spinach leaves in a large salad bowl, along with the olives and bacon. Toss with some of the vinaigrette, then arrange on six dinner plates. Place a handful of homemade croutons in the center of each salad, then place an egg on top of the croutons. Drizzle a small amount of the vinaigrette over each egg and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Tarragon Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard, 1 egg yolk, 3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon, 1/8 teaspoon powdered savory and 1/8 teaspoon white pepper; blend well with wire whisk. Add 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly, until the dressing has thickened and blended. Adjust seasonings and set the dressing aside. If you’re making the dressing ahead of time, refrigerate it. Makes 1-1/4 cups dressing.

Garlic Butter Croutons: Split 4 to 6 sourdough English muffins in half and cut into 3/4-inch cubes; spread the cubes on a baking sheet. In a small cup, combine 1/3 cup melted butter, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard and 1/4 teaspoon salt. With a spoon, drizzle the butter mixture over the cubes of bread, making sure each cube gets a healthy dose of the butter. Bake in a 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until golden and slightly crunchy. Store unused croutons in plastic bag for up to several days at room temperature, or freeze.

Food Safety Note: If you want to avoid serving the raw egg in the vinaigrette, you can replace it with 1 tablespoon of commercially made mayonnaise and increase the olive oil to 1 cup.

Spinach Salad with Grilled Chicken in Toasted Sesame and Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

Makes 4 entree servings

4 skinned and boned chicken breast halves, grilled and cooled

1/2 cup Sesame and Poppy Seed Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

6 cups shredded fresh, young spinach leaves

2 Roma-style tomatoes, diced

1/2 cup Sugar-Glazed Almonds (recipe follows)

1/4 cup minced red onion

2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

Several leaves of Romaine lettuce

Additional wedges of Roma-style tomatoes for garnish

Cut the cooled pieces of chicken into 1/4-inch pieces and combine with the vinaigrette, spinach leaves, tomatoes, almonds and onion. Add more vinaigrette as necessary to reach the desired level of coating. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss again.

To serve, arrange Romaine lettuce leaves on four plates, then divide the salad mixture between them. Garnish with additional tomato wedges, if desired, and serve.

Sesame And Poppy Seed Vinaigrette: Place 4 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar into a blender or food processor. Add 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons lightly toasted sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon poppy seeds, 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped onion, 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend until most of the sesame seeds are ground (stop the motor a couple of times and scrape down the sides of the container). Scrape the contents into a small bowl, then whisk in 1/3 cup canola oil. Makes 3/4 cup dressing.

Sugar-Glazed Almonds: Place a sheet of waxed (or parchment) paper on the counter. In a nonstick skillet, roast 1/2 cup of sliced almonds over medium-high heat until golden, shaking and tossing the pan to evenly toast the almonds and prevent scorching. As the nuts turn golden, sprinkle on about 2 tablespoons of sugar, and stirring and tossing as necessary, cook until the sugar melts around the almonds. Remove from heat and quickly scrape the almonds onto the sheet of waxed paper to cool. Makes 1/2 cup of almonds.

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. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com, or see her blog at www.janrd.com.