I love a salad recipe that lets me follow my whims. I love any dish that is so forgiving that I can omit or add vegetables and cheeses according to my mood, or according to what is in my refrigerator at the moment.
This is just such a salad. It is yet another gift from my Missouri friend, Courtney. She sent it to me because a while back I was lamenting how easily Pine nuts go to waste and how I would love some new recipes that use them. The main difference in her preparation and mine is that she uses sun dried tomatoes and uses the oil from the sun dried tomatoes. I used fresh grape tomatoes and olive oil. And I used twice as much fresh spinach as she did. If you like spinach, I think the salad could still easily accommodate more. I have a feeling that the sun dried version would be fabulous, too. I can’t wait to make that one, but I needed to use the grape tomatoes I had on hand.
Now, one caveat. This salad will be only as good as the Balsamic vinegar that you choose. You can get away with a lot in dressings that have spices and sugar and mustard mixed into it. But this is just oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. I used a fantastic vinegar called Aceto Balsamico de Modena by Fattoria Estense which I purchased at Sur La Table. This vinegar is so good that I could easily drink it out of the bottle. But it does cost about 20 bucks. I used about 1/3 of a cup and I used a little more to freshen up the leftovers the next day so you just have to decide if the recipe is worth using $5 worth of vinegar before you make it. This makes a very large bowl of salad and would be a welcome cold dish to take to a picnic or a potluck. So for my money, I say this is a good use of an exceptional ingredient. Most of the other ingredients are relatively inexpensive. If you do take this salad somewhere, take a little of the vinegar to sprinkle on the top before serving it.
Allow me to recommend another Balsamic option. We have a wonderful little shop in Dallas called Flavors From Afar. The proprietors are truly passionate educators when it comes to fine olive oil and Balsamic Vinegar. You may go into their store in Snider Plaza and sample many products and find out for yourself what you like. It is an incredible benefit because I find this to be a very personal and dish-specific decision. I asked Nancy Krabill, who owns the shop with her husband, what she would recommend for this sort of application and she suggested Ariston or Oliviers & Co. because they are sweet and concentrated and the Aristone has a very modest price for the quality of the vinegar. She also recommended one that I like very much and have tried before, Acetaia Leonardi 3 year and 5 year. Nancy very generously offered that any PIE readers can enjoy a 20% discount on a Balsamic Vinegar purchase. Just mention The Meaning of Pie. You should also keep these vinegars in mind for gifts. They really are a treat. Thank you, Nancy.
Someday I need to do an entire post on oils and Balsamic Vinegar. I am so frugal when it comes to so many things. But I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that with oils and Balsamic Vinegar, you get what you pay for and paying for an excellent Balsamic Vinegar can make the difference between a dish being average and being transcendent. So go visit Flavors from Afar or give them a call if you are from out of town. I think we all get fatigued from the monolith companies where you can get a billion products but can’t find a person to help you figure out the direction in which you should go. Well, Flavors From Afar is an antidote for that.
1 pound orzo pasta
6 ounces feta (or more)
¾ cup fresh basil, chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes
2 cups fresh spinach, cut into strips
½ cup chopped red onion (or a little more)
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1/3 cup good Balsamic Vinegar (and more to taste, but start at 1/3)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup olive oil (if using sun dried tomatoes instead of the grape tomatoes, use the oil from the jar)
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
First, toast the pine nuts. You can do this by gently shaking them around in a skillet over medium heat for a minute or you can put them on a cookie sheet in a 325 degree oven for 4 to 5 minutes. But watch them closely and check on them often because burnt nuts smell disgusting. Allow the pine nuts to cool.
You should begin your vegetable preparation before boiling the pasta. But consider preparing the basil and spinach last because they can get a little gross if they sit too long after you chop them. I cut spinach by stacking up the leaves. I then roll them up like a cigar and chop it. It is easier that way. Also, I have a thing about tomato seeds, so after I halve the tomatoes (quartering the larger ones) I set them out on a paper towel to drain and even squish out a lot of the seeds, trying not to actually squish the tomatoes. Obviously, you can skip that time consuming and finicky exercise.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and rinse it with cold water. After the pasta is well drained, add a little of the olive oil and stir it in to keep the pasta from sticking together. The pasta should be at least at room temperature before you add the other ingredients. Add the vegetables to the pasta. Add the remaining oil and the vinegar and stir to combine. Then add the feta and pine nuts and stir again. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate the salad until it is chilled.