When I was pregnant with Gus, my older son, I drove my husband crazy with my cravings. Or lack thereof: the only thing I ever wanted was a salad of curly endive topped with hunks of bacon, garlicky croutons, and a poached egg. Poor Josh. All he wanted was to run out in the middle of the night for ice cream.
Of course, the contrast of salty pork and sharp greens is a classic, showing up in dishes from Asia to America. It meets an elemental need. After all, the greens are intensely healthy, providing fiber, vitamins, and minerals. But our bodies (especially pregnant bodies!) also crave salt and fat, which a dish like this provides in moderation belied by its bold flavor. So when I picked up some bright-green young mustard leaves at the farmers’ market the other day, I faced a dilemma. By this time of year, I’m a little tired of my usual braised greens with garlic. Besides, these were so little and fresh, I couldn’t help wondering if I could use them in a salad.
Then I remembered I had children. The robust flavor and texture of uncooked, sharp-tasting greens can overwhelm kids’ cautious palates. But what if I tenderized them a bit and swaddled them in flavors they loved?
I got home and shoved the greens in the produce drawer, forming ideas in the back of my mind. Then came Monday, with an early dismissal from school, followed by a busy work day topped by a dentist’s appointment and then, Holy Snow, another school closing. My meal plans for the week got a little muddled. I’m awfully glad I had them in place, though, because I was not going to run to the store and contend with the bread-and-milk maniacs. However, my stubbornness meant I had to improvise with the ingredients I had on hand.
I opened the fridge and found the greens, but how was I going to make them into supper? I found bacon, nuts, and cheese. Then I spied some jelly. In fact, delicious muscadine grape jelly from the Amish farm we visited. A generous dollop of the ambrosial goo scented my salad with a fruity redolence that brought all the other elements together in harmony.
Did the kids go for it? Mixed review. Solly, my picky 3-year-old, struggled to assemble forkfuls that contained all the bits he wanted, so I waived my ban on eating with hands and let him make little wraps of mustard leaf with nuts and bacon tucked inside. Gus was more skeptical; the ruffled texture of the greens bugged him, though he loved the flavors surrounding them. Since my kids hate blue cheese, I held it to the side.
I’m going to appoint this our spring salad, though, and try it with arugula, chard, and dandelion, all sturdy enough to stand up to hot fat, but milder in flavor and smoother in texture. Because I liked it enough to lick the bowl after I scraped out the last fragments of bacon. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was pregnant.
Spring Green Dinner Salad
Serves 2 - 4, depending on appetite and accompaniments
• 2 slices bacon, preferably thick • ¼ cup hazelnuts, almonds or pecans • 6-8 oz. sturdy greens, such as young mustard, dandelion, chard or napa cabbage • 1 tablespoon grape jelly • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste • 1 tablespoon sherry, cider or wine vinegar • a dash or two of hot sauce • salt and pepper to taste • 2 tablespoons olive oil • Optional: blue cheese crumbles, croutons made with crusty bread fried in olive oil
Wash the greens, dry them completely, and tear them into bite-sized pieces. (The greens must be dry for this salad to be at its best.) Place the greens in a good-sized salad bowl, preferably wood or some other heatproof material. Place a good pair of salad tossers next to the bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the jelly, mustard, vinegar, and a generous pinch of salt. Add hot sauce and pepper to taste.
In a small skillet, toast the nuts till they are a shade darker and smell good. Remove from heat and chop coarsely. If you’re using hazelnuts, some of the skins will peel off. Fancy chefs like to take them all off, but we aren’t fancy.
Place the bacon in a larger skillet and turn the heat to medium. Cook, turning a few times, until it’s how you like it. Blot bacon on paper towels or a newspaper you’re done reading, and crumble of slice into small bits. Add olive oil to pan and heat over medium-high until the oil just begins to smoke, then pour the contents of the pan over your greens. Toss immediately, coating the greens with hot oil so that they wilt slightly. (If they don’t, then return them to the pan and toss until wilted and slightly tender, not cooked. You may need to do this in batches.)
Add jelly mixture to the bowl and toss again. Taste for salt and pepper. Top with nuts and bacon and cheese or croutons, if you and the kids like. Serve with crusty bread and cheese.