This recipe started with an obsession over the nuovo cavalo salad at a favorite Manhattan trattoria that shall remain unnamed — try as I might, the chef would not give up the recipe.
I was on a post-holiday offensive to drop a few pounds and at the time flirting with the ketogenic diet, which made dining out problematic. The menu description — “crispy kale, arugula, poached egg, pine nuts, pork belly, Parmigiano dressing” — checked all the right boxes.
Admittedly, a plate of greens garnished with ham and topped with a poached egg is not particularly exotic, and any bistro worth its fleur de sel has le salade frisée aux lardons — curly endive dressed with a Dijon vinaigrette and garnished with bite-sized pieces of thick, crisp salt pork.
But that begs the question: How far removed is such a thing from that classic mid-American menu essential, the iceberg wedge doused in a mayonnaise-based, blue-cheesy dressing and topped with that abomination known as bacon bits?
I see it as evidence that, as with any meaningful human endeavor, intention, execution and raw materials are what makes the difference between dining and feeding.
The appeal of my original inspiration was a mess of fresh, hearty greens. Fortunately, even in the dead of winter, in the Hudson Valley we have access to bitter, leafy staples such as arugula and kale (particularly Lacinto or cavalo nero) and peppery mizuna or watercress, which seems to be making a market comeback.
Tender “baby” versions of any of the above are the fundamental grounds for this composition, modulated by the creamy and savory Parmesan dressing, the star of the dish. It is crowned by warm, salty-crispy pork; an oozy, unctuous soft-cooked egg; and toasted pine nuts that add a finishing woody crunch to this standalone lunch or dinner, diet or not.
This is comfort food of a different stripe and I daresay it would even make a nontraditional but satisfying breakfast.
Salad with Parmigiano Cream Dressing, Bacon and Egg
Makes 2 entrees
For the dressing:
1 cup mayonnaise*
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese, finely grated
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 teaspoons freshly cracked pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt to taste
For the salad:
¼ cup pignolis, toasted
4 cups lightly packed small, tender greens (kale, arugula, mizuna, watercress or spinach)
1 thick (3/8- to ½-inch) slice of good bacon (or precooked pork belly), cut into ¾- to 1-inch-wide strips
2 eggs (at room temperature)
Place all ingredients for the dressing in the bowl of a small food processor or blender and process until smooth. If the final dressing is too thick, thin it with a tablespoon or two of heavy cream or milk whisked in by hand at the end. Put aside 3 to 4 tablespoons of the dressing at room temperature. (You will have much more than you need. Refrigerate the remainder.)
Toast pignolis in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until they just begin to color. Remove from heat and reserve. In a large saucepan add water to a depth of 4 inches and bring to a boil for the eggs. While the water is heating, heat a skillet over medium. Add bacon or precooked pork belly slices and cook, stirring occasionally, until some of the fat has rendered and bacon is just starting to brown, about 5 to 8 minutes.
When water for the eggs boils, reduce heat to a gentle simmer and add 2 tablespoons white vinegar. (This will help the egg whites stay together.) Crack an egg into a small bowl, then gently slide it into the simmering water. Repeat with remaining egg, waiting until the whites are starting to set before adding the next one, or about 30 seconds apart. Cook eggs until whites are just set and yolks are still runny (about 3 minutes for each egg). Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer eggs to paper towels to drain and reserve.
Place greens in a large bowl and top with the reserved dressing; toss gently until evenly dressed and divide between two plates. Garnish each plate with half of the warm bacon and top with a cooked egg. Scatter toasted pignolis over all. Finish with a sprinkling of salt, freshly ground black pepper and a grating of more cheese if desired.
* Sure, make your own mayonnaise, or buy a quality commercial brand made from well-sourced ingredients, and no additives that you can’t easily identify or justify. I like Sir Kensington’s (in particular, its avocado-oil recipe) available at Foodtown in Cold Spring or Nature’s Pantry in Fishkill.