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GOOD COOKING

Who Will Speak for Balsamic?

February 23, 1995|ABBY MANDEL

Dinner salads provide a unique option for some meals. Well-flavored and fresh looking, they can introduce a meal as the first course or pair up with soup, sandwiches, cold cuts or grilled meats for an enticing light supper.

Often we take dinner salads for granted, serving up the same reliable mix with the same standard dressing, not understanding the important role that they can play in a menu.

Consider the following recipes that take advantage of the a garden's bounty, guaranteeing a fresh taste and lively appearance. The spinach salad with goat cheese and spiced walnuts depends on tender young spinach leaves for its satisfying texture. The Italian specialty--prosciutto and melon--ends up in a flavorful sweet-sour watercress salad that is both refreshing to eat and appealing to look at. Sun-ripened tomatoes form the base of a robust vinaigrette that flavors a perky mix of herbs and lettuce.

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These recipes share a common ingredient--balsamic vinegar. This Italian vinegar heightens the excitement of salads with its pungent sweetness. Its rich dark color and flavor result from years of aging in wood barrels. Balsamic vinegar can become too dominant in a salad when it is used in excessive amounts so it is best to add the vinegar a teaspoon at a time and taste the vinaigrette as it is coming together. If needed, a little water can lighten the effect.

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Here, the spinach salad is worked into a more interesting and sophisticated mix. This salad is best served as a first course or as a salad following the main course. Most of the bacon fat is replaced with olive oil, giving it a more subtle bacon flavor.

WILTED SPINACH SALAD WITH GOAT CHEESE AND SPICED WALNUTS

1 large sweet red pepper, roasted, cut into thin strips

1/2 pound young spinach, stems removed, leaves rinsed and gently spun dry

1/2 cup Spiced Walnuts

1 (3-ounce) log soft goat cheese, crumbled

Dressing

Salt, pepper

In large bowl, combine sweet red pepper, spinach, half of Spiced Walnuts and goat cheese.

Pour hot Dressing over salad and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide among 4 salad plates. Garnish with reserved bacon and walnuts. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

344 calories; 486 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 32 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.33 grams fiber.

Note: To roast sweet red peppers, place broiler rack 6 inches from heat. Line jelly roll pan with foil. Stand peppers on board and cut off sides in 4 slices, following natural contours. Arrange on pan, skin side up. Broil until skin is blackened. Transfer peppers to paper bag, seal tightly, and let stand at least 10 minutes. Slip off skins. Can be refrigerated overnight or frozen up to 1 month.

Dressing

2 thick slices bacon, preferably apple-wood smoked, diced

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

Saute bacon in non-stick skillet until crisp. Use slotted spoon to transfer to paper towels. Pour off fat but do not wipe pan. Add vinegar, water, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil. Remove from heat.

Spiced Walnuts

1/2 cup walnut halves

1/2 teaspoon olive oil

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

In bowl toss walnuts in olive oil until well coated. Toss with salt, rosemary and chili powder.

Spread walnuts in single layer on baking sheet. Toast in 350-degree oven until light brown, being careful to avoid burning, about 12 minutes. Cool on wire rack. Makes 1/2 cup.

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This Italian duo--melon and prosciutto--is the answer to many a cool supper. Here, they're julienned and tossed into a most refreshing first - course salad.

MELON AND PROSCIUTTO WATERCRESS SALAD

1/2 pound watercress, leaves only

1 large Belgian endive, cut up

1 cup ripe cantaloupe, sliced thin

1 cup prosciutto, sliced thin

1/4 cup diced red onion

Dressing

Combine watercress, endive, cantaloupe, prosciutto and onion in large bowl. Toss to combine. Chill. Can be refrigerated up to 3 hours.

To serve, pour Dressing over salad and toss. Adjust seasonings to taste. Divide between 4 chilled salad plates. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

177 calories; 664 mg sodium; 19 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 2.34 grams fiber.

Dressing

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

Whisk vinegar, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper to taste in small bowl. Can be mixed several hours ahead and kept at room temperature.

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The Mediterranean aspect of this salad is the vinaigrette, laden with diced tomatoes, Kalamata olives, garlic and red onion. A wonderfully robust salad, it goes well with grilled meats or fish and serves as a most satisfying main - dish salad also.

MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN SALAD

3 cups mixed herb leaves of basil, thyme and mint

7 cups romaine leaves torn into small pieces

2 cups arugula leaves, stems removed

Vinaigrette

Parmesan cheese

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