This has become my most favorite salad, whether with the added protein (as the main event) or without it and served as a first course (and it’s beyond amazing, if served with crisp duck confit!) The combination of peppery baby arugula, spicy pecans, salty Gorgonzola and the luscious roasted pears, I’m just in love! I trust that this is a salad you will be making for yourself and for your favorite people forever.
- Large shallow baking sheet
- Parchment paper
- Medium-mesh wire sieve
- Melon ball scoop (to remove seed cavity in pears)
- Nonstick aluminum foil (optional but suggested for the pears)
- Grilling device (indoor grill pan or an outdoor grill)
For the spicy pecans
- 1 egg white
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon fine table salt
- 3 cups (12 ounces) intact pecan halves
- 1/3 cup superfine granulated sugar (if you don’t have this, whirl regular sugar in the food processor and measure out ½ cup)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- Kosher or sea salt, to taste
For the roasted pears
- 4 large firm but ripe, large D’Anjou pears
- About 3 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice, or as needed
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Superfine sugar, as needed, for sprinkling
- Kosher or sea salt, as needed, for sprinkling
- Optional: 1/2 of a large chicken breast per person, skinned, boned and butterflied or 16 to 24 jumbo shrimp, shelled, deveined but tails left intact (allow 4 per person)
- If using the optional chicken or shrimp: 1 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (if not using this added protein, reduce the oil to 2/3 cup)
- ¼ cup strained fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons if not using the protein)
- 1 heaping tablespoon Dijon mustard; preferably the “grainy” style (2 teaspoons if not using the protein)
- 5 cloves garlic, minced (3 cloves, if not using the protein)
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh chives (2 rounded tablespoons, if not using the protein)
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 8 to 12 cups (loosely packed) baby arugula leaves, rinsed and well dried (allow 2 cups per person)
- 2 to 3 cups crumbled gorgonzola cheese (allow a scant ½ cup per person)
For the spicy pecans
Preheat the oven to 300F. Line a large, shallow baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place two bowls on your counter. Place a medium-mesh wire sieve in one bowl and, in the other, combine the egg white, water and salt. Add the nuts to the egg white mixture, and stir to coat them well. Pour the wet nuts into the sieve and allow them to drain fully, for 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the superfine sugar, cumin, cayenne, black pepper and paprika. Wipe out the first bowl so it’s dry and add the drained nuts. Sprinkle the sugar-spice mixture over the nuts and stir to coat them well. Pour the seasoned nuts (which will be sticky) onto the prepared baking sheet and try, as best you can, separate them into a single layer (a few will overlap and that’s fine). Sprinkle the top of the nuts lightly with Kosher or sea salt.
Place the nuts into the preheated oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back, after half the baking. When done, the nuts will still be sticky but will have darkened a bit and will give off a wonderful aroma. Avoid letting the nuts burn which will leave them bitter-tasting. Remove the nuts from the oven and allow them to cool completely on a wire rack, which will allow them to crisp up and get rid of any sticky quality. At this point, break up any larger clusters and store in an airtight tin, at room temperature
For the roasted pears
Preheat the oven to 450F. Line a shallow baking sheet with nonstick aluminum foil (or regular foil) and brush the foil with some of the melted butter, then sprinkle the greased surface, lightly but evenly, with super-fine sugar. Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise and use a melon-scoop to remove the seed cavity and also the tough, rope-like connector between the stem and cavity. Slice each pear-half into 4 wedges (3 if the pears are medium sized) and, one by one, brush each wedge, on both sides, with some of the lemon juice and then with the melted butter (again, on both sides). Place each wedge on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle the top, first, with a dusting of superfine granulated sugar and then with some coarse salt, to taste. At this point, the pears can be covered with plastic wrap and kept at a comfortable room temperature for an hour before roasting. Place the pears, uncovered, into the preheated oven and roast 15 minutes. Remove the pears from the oven and allow them to become “just warm” on a wire rack, still on their original baking sheet.
For the chicken or shrimp
If using the chicken or shrimp, first prepare the seasoning mixture. Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, garlic and chives. Add freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Place either the chicken or shrimp into a nonreactive dish and coat with 2/3 cup of the seasoning mixture, if using 6 large chicken breast halves and ½ cup if using. Reserve 3 tablespoons separately to use to baste while cooking the rest to pass at the table. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook. (If using shrimp, divide between a few long metal skewers.)
To cook the chicken or shrimp
Sprinkle the seasoned chicken or skewered shrimp with coarse salt and grill outside on a gas or charcoal grill (on high or over direct heat) or on an indoor, stove-top grill pan. Either way, turn once during cooking, allowing the flesh to become deeply colored on the outside and just cooked through (avoid overcooking which leaves chicken dry and shrimp tough. After turning, brush the tops with the reserved seasoning mixture. Once cooked, remove from the heat source and allow to settle on a plate so that any residual cooking can take place and the internal juices can centralize (let rest 5 minutes).
To make the dressing
If not using the added protein, combine the reduced amount of the same ingredients and set this aside until ready to use as the dressing, when assembling the salad.
To assemble the salad and serve
Place the arugula in a large bowl and dress with some of the dressing, without going overboard (the leaves should just be coated lightly, but evenly. Mound the dressed leaves in the center of individual serving plates and spicy pecans, roasted pears and gorgonzola either around the greens, each in their own small decorative piles, or scatter these over the top. If serving the grilled chicken or shrimp, either serve these on a separate platter, or slice each breast half and lay these slices (or the grilled shrimp) over the top of the dressed greens. Serve at once, with a reliable peppermill and any remaining dressing, passed at the table.