Recently I had dinner with a friend who grumbled and then wondered out loud why “every restaurant has to serve a salad like this.” It was a radicchio and arugula salad he’d ordered per my request for a vegetable, since I’d been eating a lot of meat — specifically a lot of Italian beef sandwiches; I was visiting family in Chicago last week. The “this” to which he was referring wasn’t necessarily the particular combination of radicchio and arugula, but to all the salads with similar bold leaves and bite. Those types of greens can be peppery and bitter, and I love them. But unless you’ve trained your taste buds by eating a lot of them, winter chicories and even arugula — which ranges from mild to very spicy — can be jarring next to a slice of sausage and cheese pizza.
As an ex-restaurant chef, I believe that the chef meant for that salad to be somewhat jarring, to be a bold expression of winter chicories against the cooler temperatures that have arrived; with salty shaves of pecorino cheese on top, of course. It was a good salad, but it got me wondering about balance and the salad’s self-expression. Did that salad need to be so pure and aggressive? Maybe not, maybe yes. Whatever the answer is, it got me in the mood to experiment with more salads, specifically chopped salads with chicories and arugula. I’ve been seeing a lot of chicories at the markets, so I decided to see if I could make a more “balanced” chopped salad at home.
In general, balanced sounds boring to me. But in food it really can make a difference between wanting to take just one or two bites of something versus being a member of the clean plate club. And chopped salads are inherently easier to make taste balanced — there’s that word again! — because it’s basically a free-spirited salad: it does what feels right and loves to mix texture and flavor.
What exactly do I mean by chopped salad? You’ve had some version of one. Maybe it had cucumbers and tomatoes and chunks of feta, or romaine lettuce and blue cheese. Perhaps it was “Italian inspired,” with chunks of salami and pepperoncini? That’s part of the beauty of a chopped salad: whoever invented it knew that it can be almost anything. If there’s something missing, just chop that up and add it in. And substitutions are welcome. If you don’t have salami for your Ital-inspired chop, no problema! Add something else fatty, like avocado or chunks of that neglected cheese, or slices of mortadella like I do with this recipe for Chopped Chicory and Lemon Salad with Crispy Mortadella.
It’s also fun to go to choptown with this salad. Besides the few ingredients in the dressing such as garlic, Meyer lemon, and anchovy that I specify to chop finely (arguably the Meyer lemon can be chopped less so), it doesn’t really matter how small or large you chop the chicories or other ingredients.
Most of the salads I prefer have a salty and rich element to complement the acidic citrus and sharp greens. That’s why I add crispy mortadella to the mix here. Mortadella is delicious as is, but when crisped in a pan with hot olive oil, the umami-sweetness concentrates for a big flavor. It also helps temper the bitter qualities of the chicories.
As far as chicories, I found that I like a mix. Tender Castelfranco, with its maroon-streaked leaves, and escarole are easy enough to find, as is the more hearty radicchio. I would also use endive or even a little frisée. But not a lot, because this salad tastes better with wide-leafed chicories that can hold the other chopped ingredients like chives, arugula, and radishes.
If you’ve never used the entirety of a Meyer lemon, you’re in for a treat. Unlike regular lemons, the fruity peel and pith are usually not very bitter, and the juicy membrane and fruit inside taste like sweet lemony-orange bursts against the bitter chicory chorus and bacon-like mortadella.
To me, this is a lunch salad. However, I’d serve it for dinner with hearty garlic bread or accompanied by roast chicken, probably not with beef and absolutely not with a slice of sausage and cheese pizza. But maybe I would. Print
Chopped Chicory and Lemon Salad with Crispy Mortadella
This is a chopped salad that feels winter-y but works for spring, too. It’s got a real balance of flavor: bitter-sweet-bright from the chicories and Meyer lemon, and a salty-umami kick from the crisped mortadella.
1/2 pound sliced mortadella
7 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 of a small Meyer lemon (or 1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 anchovy filets, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
3 small heads of chicory lettuces, preferably a mix of radicchio and escarole, chopped
2 cups arugula, chopped
1/4 cup chives, chopped
1/4 cup raw pistachios, very lightly toasted then chopped
Chop the mortadella into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once warm, add all the mortadella, scattering the pieces throughout the pan. Stir and toss to coat the pieces with oil, then let the pieces sit, sizzle, and crisp up. Keep repeating this until you have an equal mix of crisp and still-soft pieces (variation in texture is a good thing in chopped salads!). Transfer the mortadella pieces to a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve the warm mortadella oil (should be about 2 tablespoons left).
Slice the Meyer lemon into thin rings, discard any seeds, and finely chop the lemon into pea-size pieces or smaller (skip this part if you’re using preserved lemon). Add the chopped lemon, garlic, anchovy, fennel seeds, and lemon juice to a large bowl. Whisk in the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the 2 tablespoons reserved mortadella oil, and season with salt.
When you’re ready to serve, add the chicories, arugula, chives and half of the crispy mortadella to the large bowl, toss well, taste and adjust seasoning (e.g. salt, lemon juice).Top with the remaining mortadella and pistachios.