Sunday, August 30, 2015

Texas wildfire salad.

Texas wildfire salad. Arugula and seared zucchini with habanero herb dressing. © Ryan Schierling
We've been running a bit of a hot spell here in Central Texas, and the pepper plants are about the only thing in our garden that are tolerating the heat. Our patch consists mainly of jalapeños and habaneros this year. The jalapeños we use with frequency, but the habaneros are a little tricky because we either need a fresh harvest large enough to make hot sauce, or we have to find ways to use what ripens in a steady trickle. If you're familiar with habaneros, you know that this little orange pepper packs a wallop of heat. While it may not rank at the top of the Scoville scale, it is up there high enough to warrant wearing gloves when cutting them and taking measures to avoid any juices that may aerosolize in the chopping process.

So, I decided to make a habanero salad dressing out of a couple of them. Of course, right? For continuity of color, I chose to include orange bell pepper – well, in addition to the fact that there is nothing meaty about habanero peppers and I wanted to add some substance and body. There is a reason for the popularity of habaneros and it's not all about its spicy reputation. Habs have a wonderfully distinct, almost fruity, flavor that transcends the heat. With the addition of garlic and some fresh Texas tarragon (Mexican mint marigold) leaves from our garden, the resulting dressing is creamy in texture without being heavy and has a boldness that is both tangy and mildly herbacious.

I'm really not much of a meat eater, so making a substantial dinner salad that includes warm sautéed vegetables is something that seems to pour out of me from time to time (see Winter salad with Brussels sprouts). This habanero herb dressing is a substantial "sauce" with unmistakable heat, and it just calls to be paired with zucchini and flavorful greens like peppery arugula and fresh spinach. The finishing touches included some mild little orange cherry tomato halves for a touch of acid (the last from our Spring plants), pepitas for crunch, and a garnish of crumbled cotija.  

The primary adjustment "to taste" for this salad is in the sweetness of the dressing – and based upon what it is being served with, this may warrant a modicum of modulation. It pays to be thoughtful when adding the agave nectar, as it is those subtle sweet notes that help to balance the heat and bring out the flavor of the peppers and herbs.

This salad is a savory wildfire of a dish when eaten alone. Or, it may be conceived of as a "canvas" for another protein. Ryan loves it as a hearty foundation for some grilled, sliced hanger or New York strip steak. My personal favorite is fried tofu for a sweet compliment that works in a manner reminiscent of the spicy Thai curry dishes I love so much. Any which way, it is satisfying enough to serve as a dinner salad, and intriguing enough to serve as a side.

Arugula and zucchini with habanero herb dressing and sliced steak. © Ryan Schierling

Texas wildfire salad

Baby arugula, or a mix of baby spinach and arugula
2 small zucchini, cut in to 3/8" thick half rounds and seared in a lightly oiled skillet until tender
Pepitas, lightly salted
Cherry tomatoes, sliced – orange or yellow are mild and a pretty choice
Habanero herb dressing (below)
Cotija cheese, crumble
Optional protein: sliced steak, or fried tofu

Habanero herb dressing

1 orange bell pepper, stem, membranes and seeds removed
2 habanero peppers, stems removed
1 large clove garlic
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (then to taste)
Leaves of 1 large sprig of Texas tarragon, AKA Mexican mint marigold
1 teaspoon agave nectar (or more – adjust to taste)

Simmer the orange bell pepper in a little bit of water for about 5 minutes, or until soft and tender, adding the habanero peppers for the last minute or two of cooking. Remove from heat and transfer peppers to blender using tongs.

In blender, purée the peppers and garlic. Add the oil to "on" blender in a thin stream to incorporate and emulsify. Add cider vinegar, salt, Texas tarragon leaves and agave. Blend thoroughly.

(Dressing will keep well for about a week in the refrigerator.)

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