On Christmas Eve of last year, because we didn't have any relatives or friends coming over and it didn't make sense for me to spend hours in the kitchen whipping up some elaborate meal for just the three of us (the dog is always included in the head count), Eric and I decided that we would have dinner at one of our favorite special occasion restaurants on the strip. Well, to quote Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, "BIG mistake--HUGE!" Due to the holiday and the high volume of expected reservations, the restaurant had decided to change almost everything that we loved about it. Gone was the imaginative, hard-to-choose-from menu, and in its place was a fixed price, no options version. Eric had been looking forward to selecting the chef's food and wine pairing option and to finishing his meal with the decadent cheese cart, neither of which was available. Gone too was the attentive, well-paced service and relaxed atmosphere. Ironically, with so much eliminated from the dining experience, they still managed to raise the prices! Suddenly, a few hours in the kitchen for our small party of three didn't seem so crazy....
Needless to say, for Valentine's Day, we will not be venturing out to try the hottest new restaurant that Las Vegas Boulevard has to offer (word on the foodie street is that this distinct honor goes to Carnevino, Mario Batali's new place in Palazzo). I think that we are done with major holiday dinner spent at restaurants--much better on the wallet and the palate to celebrate a day late. Instead, I am going to prepare a simple dinner at home, with three place settings of course. Although I won't be wheeling out the cheese cart for dessert, hopefully Eric's "cheese tooth" will be satisfied by this simple salad, my own version of a salad that I once tried at a restaurant and absolutely fell in love with. The small, crispy round of tangy goat cheese becomes nice and soft when warmed, but it is not so rich that you can't enjoy the rest of your meal. Pair it with a nice crisp white wine, or for Valentine's Day, a special glass of Champagne. Here are some tips for this elegant salad:
- The goat cheese rounds can be coated with the breadcrumbs up to 8 hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate.
- If you don't have panko breadcrumbs, feel free to use regular breadcrumbs. To save time and ingredients, you can even use the Italian-seasoned variety and then omit the thyme and parsley from the recipe.
- For the vinaigrette, if you don't have sherry vinegar on hand, you may substitute red wine, champagne, or white wine vinegar.
- It is important that the olive oil in the skillet is very hot prior to adding the coated goat cheese rounds to the pan. This helps to prevent them from sticking.
- Instead of using dried cranberries, try using dried sour cherries, halved red grapes, or even sliced Granny Smith apples. Candied pecans, toasted walnuts, or slivered almonds would all make nice substitutions for the toasted pine nuts.
- When choosing a goat cheese for this recipe, look for one that is semi-firm and creamy on the inside. If you are shopping at a store with a cheese counter, ask for help. Cheeses can be confusing!
Warm Goat Cheese Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, minced
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Goat cheese salad
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 rounds of soft, fresh goat cheese, 1/2 inch thick (about 2 ounces each)
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten until foamy
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
6 cups arugula or mixed baby greens
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Make the dressing: Whisk together the Dijon, vinegar, and garlic in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until well blended. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Mix the panko, thyme, parsley, pepper, and salt in a medium shallow bowl to blend. Dip each goat cheese round into the egg whites, turning to coat. Coat each with the breadcrumb mixture. Transfer the coated cheese rounds to a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cheese rounds and cook until crisp and golden, 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
Toast the pine nuts in a shallow baking pan until just golden brown and fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Toss the pine nuts and mixed greens with the Garlic Vinaigrette and distribute evenly on 4 salad plates. Sprinkle each salad with 2 tablespoons dried cranberries and top each with a goat cheese round. Serve immediately.