I have a house salad. You know. The one you make just about every time you make a salad. Mine always features mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, avocado, and lettuce. Sometimes I add hearts of palm, kalamata olives, chickpeas, celery, and/or hard boiled egg slices. Once in a great while there is cheese.
But when we have company, I usually shake it up and make another kind of salad. My in-laws were here for the week between Christmas and New Year’s and I made dinner for all of us one night. I was lucky enough to have a small ball of burrata in my possession and I decided to make a take on a panzanella. I toasted up croutons, sliced up fresh basil, and since our tomatoes are ghastly this time of year, I roasted some plum tomatoes with olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar until the flavor concentrated and they were squishy. I poured the croutons into a big bowl, scattered the basil throughout, scraped the tomatoes and their juices on top and tossed everything together with a bit of olive oil and more balsamic. Then I pulled apart the cheese with my hands, added it to the salad, and tossed it again gently.
The result was the kind of salad that can make you forget about dinner. The kind that people return to for seconds. The kind that has stray fingers wandering into the bowl after everyone is stuffed, hoping for one last flavor-soaked crouton. I was pretty proud of myself. And I have been thinking of that salad ever since.
My brother Michael came over for dinner last night. When I invited him, I immediately knew I wanted to re-create the salad. The first time I ever used burrata was for a dinner that he hosted and I know he is a big fan. Unfortunately there are only two places in Seattle that sell the stuff and neither had any. (Seattle people, I’m talking about Calf and Kid and DeLaurenti – do you know of any other place?) I didn’t want to abandon my plan but I had to change things up a bit.
This time I kept the croutons and basil, but I used smaller tomatoes (what is going on with plum tomatoes???) and put a few non-roasted ones in, added some pretty lettuce to fill it out a bit, and used a bit of ricotta salata I found in my cheese drawer. I also made a dressing for a bit more flavor instead of just olive oil and balsamic. The verdict? I missed the burrata but this was still pretty darn good.
I like my salad dressing to have a lot of bite, so I use much less olive oil than the standard 3:1 ratio. Definitely make yours to your taste. The baked tomatoes are a riff on a Barefoot Contessa recipe and this is a great method to make sub-par tomatoes taste good.
For the Dressing
1 small shallot, minced
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. mustard
½ tsp. sugar
Large pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp. olive oil
For the Salad
5 slices good country bread, cut into 1-inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Good balsamic vinegar
12 “strawberry” tomatoes
1 tsp. sugar
12 basil leaves, julienned or torn
2 handfuls lettuce leaves
½ cup ricotta salata, broken into big crumbles
Make the Dressing
Place the shallot, lemon juice, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper in a wide mouth jar. Cover the jar and give it a good shake. Remove the cover and add the olive oil. Cover and shake again. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. (Can be made up to a week ahead.)
Make the Salad
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Place the bread cubes on a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle a large pinch of salt over top and a few grinds of black pepper. Toss well with your hands. Place in the oven and bake until starting to turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Turn the oven up to 425ºF. Slice each tomato in half. Set aside four of them and seed the other eight. Place on small baking tray and drizzle with olive oil along with the sugar, and a large pinch of salt and a couple grinds of pepper. Toss gently with your hands. Carefully drizzle on just a bit of balsamic vinegar. Bake until dark, caramelized and slightly collapsed, about 25 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Place the croutons in a salad bowl. Scrape the tomatoes and any juices over top. Chop up the raw tomatoes and add them to the bowl along with the basil and and the lettuce. Scatter the cheese over top and pour about half the dressing over top. Toss carefully and taste. Add more dressing as needed.