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Stumped no more: Healthful salad is the answer

This colorful salad can be served alone for lunch or as a first course of an elegant dinner. Photo by Sue Doeden

Sometimes we just don't realize what we have in our own backyard - or refrigerator. It was two days before my deadline and I had a big problem. I had absolutely no idea what to write about.

My food creativity was blocked. Maybe it was my stomach that was still full of holiday food. Or maybe my mind was fuzzy from all the sugary treats I had ingested during the last several weeks of holiday celebrations. I was feeling sluggish and very fluffy.

I read one of my new food magazines in bed that night, hoping that with sleep, an inspiring dream would save me. No such luck.

The next day, with a deadline hanging over my head, I visited every grocery store in town, hoping something would arouse my creative juices. It didn't work.

I went home and started reading cookbooks. Nothing happened.

Finally, with mealtime drawing near, I began rummaging through my refrigerator, still laden with food left over from holiday cooking and baking. And there it was. Everything I needed had been sitting right in my own fridge.

Ziptop bags of clean, fresh greens. Apples. A round of Brie that I thought I was going to turn into a holiday appetizer. Some apple cider. Walnuts I purchased for a cookie recipe that I never got around to trying. I felt like Lynne Rossetto Kasper playing her refrigerator game, Stump the Cook, on her weekly public radio show, "The Splendid Table."

Five ingredients from my refrigerator, plus water, salt and pepper and some fat. Kasper is also allowed 3 extra ingredients that the caller has in her home. I chose walnut oil for the fat. Apple cider vinegar, hot pepper sauce and brown sugar were my choices for extra ingredients.

I had an open bottle of walnut oil in my refrigerator. With its neutral flavor and loads of healthful omega-3 fatty acids, it's an ingredient I often use in baking and in vinaigrettes. I poured the oil into a glass measuring cup - exactly 3/4 cup. Into the blender it went with some apple cider and vinegar and a bit of seasoning. I whirled it up with some boiling water to lighten the finished product while helping the mixture to emulsify.

At room temperature, Brie cheese is soft and creamy. Once baked with brown sugar and walnuts covering its top, the cheese becomes elegant with a nutty, earthy flavor blending with undertones of fruit. Walnut-Topped Baked Brie can easily be turned into an appetizer by leaving the round whole and serving it right from the oven with slices of fresh apples and pears and some water crackers.

Amazingly, all the ingredients turned into my very exquisite and satisfying lunch and a unique recipe to share with readers. I tossed fresh baby spinach leaves and butter lettuce with apple cider vinaigrette, sprinkled them with broken toasted walnuts and transferred some of the mixture onto a good-sized salad plate. Sliced apples and a warm wedge of Walnut-Topped Brie settled comfortably on the salad plate. Move over, Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

Fresh Greens with Apple Cider Vinaigrette and Walnut-Topped Baked Brie is a salad that dreams are made of. Serve it alone for lunch. Serve it as a first course of an elegant dinner. It's versatile and it's delectable.

And to think it was all right there in my refrigerator.

Fresh Greens with Apple Cider Vinaigrette and Walnut-Topped Baked Brie

3/4 cup walnut oil or any neutral-flavored oil such as canola

1/4 cup apple cider

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Dash of hot pepper sauce

1/4 cup boiling water

Salt and pepper to taste

1 1/4 cups toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped, divided

1 (8-ounce) round Brie cheese, chilled

2 tablespoons brown sugar

6 cups of fresh mixed greens, washed and torn

3 tart, crispy apples, cores removed, sliced thin

For vinaigrette, put oil, apple cider, apple cider vinegar and hot sauce into blender container. With blender running, add boiling water in a steady stream, processing until mixture is emulsified. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow mixture to cool.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove top rind from Brie. Cut the round of cheese into six wedges. Place the wedges on an oven-proof plate or baking sheet. Sprinkle each wedge with brown sugar and then 1/4 cup of the chopped walnuts, pressing lightly onto the cheese. Bake the wedges at 450 degrees for about 3 minutes, just until the cheese begins to look soft and melty.

In a large bowl, toss greens with just enough of the prepared vinaigrette to make the greens glisten. Too much vinaigrette will drown the greens. Divide the salad mixture evenly among 6 salad plates. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup of chopped walnuts. Arrange 1 wedge of baked Brie on each salad along with apple slices. Makes 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--I use my cheese plane to remove the rind from Brie. It is easiest to do when the Brie is chilled.

--Toast walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes, until fragrant.

--Fresh, ripe pears would also be delicious with this salad.

--Any remaining vinaigrette can be stored in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator.