Among the things I truly love in life—and especially in cooking—is the way I’m constantly discovering new vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. Of course, they’ve been there all along, but because I’m a cook, and have a cook’s eye, they jump out at me at first glance. It should come as no surprise, because nature’s fundamental expression includes a vast diversity. We might see this as entertainment for our eyes and tastes, but it’s also a brilliant strategy for both protecting life and ensuring full nutrition for all the species. If one particular plant with essential nutrients should be overcome by some blight, there are many with similar qualities—but lacking the same vulnerability—that will survive. I suspect that a secondary function of wide diversity is that it also ensures we human animals are kept stimulated and satisfactorily entertained (we don’t do very well when we’re bored).
On a recent shopping trip, I discovered “red spinach” at Trader Joe’s. An heirloom spinach variety of European origin, it turns a gorgeous magenta as it matures. It’s much milder than the familiar green spinach, perhaps due to a lower tannin content. Nearby, I also found a package of very fresh pea shoots. A salad was already forming in my imagination as I put them both in my basket.
Sometimes I throw all kinds of things into a salad—vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, edible flowers—but usually when I’m trying out a new arrival, I’ll keep it pretty simple. This salad began with just two ingredients: red spinach and pea shoots. Then I added thinly sliced red onion and celery hearts (including the inner leaves). For the dressing, I chose a very simple vinaigrette, composed of just five ingredients. First, I whisked a mild white balsamic vinegar, a little Dijon mustard, Celtic salt and freshly ground black pepper together in a bowl until well blended. Then I added blood orange-infused olive oil in a thin stream, whisking until the mixture emulsified. After tossing the salad with the vinaigrette and plating it, I had in mind to add a few pecans, lightly chopped. As it turned out, my wife had put the last of the pecans in a snack mix to munch on at her job. Oh well. Fortunately, I try to keep at least a few handfuls of roasted (and peeled) hazelnuts always on hand in the freezer, and these had survived my beloved’s nut-foraging expedition. I think the hazelnuts were actually better for this salad than the pecans would have been. Crunchier, a little more elegant, and a natural match for the blood orange oil*.
I’m quite partial to anything that includes blood orange in any form, so it was no surprise that I loved the flavors in this salad, but the tender red spinach really was something special. I did cut the bottom third off the pea shoot stems, which I highly recommend, because they tend to be a bit too woody for comfort. I figure most of the nutritional value is in the green tips anyway, and enjoyment is a must, especially when you’re trying something new. Best to give it a fair chance with as little distraction as possible, you understand.
*This blood orange-infused olive oil, by the way, is something well worth seeking out. It’s produced by crushing ripe blood oranges together with the olives, so that the olive oil and the essential citrus oils blend together. The result is called “agrumato,” from the Italian agrume (citrus fruits). “Citrused” extra-virgin olive oils are also made with lemons and limes, but none I’ve tasted are as richly perfumed and flavored as the blood orange version. It might be that although I love all citrus fruits, I absolutely adore blood oranges. I bought this stunning oil at Venice Olive Oil Co., a marvelous supplier of high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars, with stores in Venice (Florida), Sarasota, and in downtown Colorado Springs. It’s a fun shop, because they have dozens of extremely high quality, unique olive oils and balsamics, each on display in the traditional Italian fusti (stainless steel drums), fitted with spouts for dispensing. You can go in and actually taste every single product! I love their 18-year-old balsamic, but I always pick up one or two of their expertly flavored ones—the chocolate and cherry balsamics are spectacular, as are the white balsamic with peach, jalapeño and—well just go there and check it out.