Warm, gooey goat cheese is not an overrated snack, and in fact, makes eating a salad seem so much more appealing. (Well, to me at least.) And when you pair the crunchy, melty nuggets with buttery pecans and bright greens, tossed in a thick walnut vinaigrette...then salad nirvana awaits.
Breaded goat cheese salads may have had their heyday back in the nineties, but I happen to think some pretty awesome foods came out of that particular decade. Call me crazy, but I still have a soft spot for barbecue chicken pizza and chocolate molten lava cake. There may have been a few duds in the bunch (remember "fusion" food?), but I don't think warm goat cheese was one of them.
Since I am always on a mission to improve "retro" recipes (although fried goat cheese might not exactly be considered nostalgic), I figured I'd take a stab at it. What I got was a really solid, tasty salad. The crisp disks of goat cheese and the buttery pecans really speak for themselves—amazing. But it's the creamy (no cream!) walnut vinaigrette that sends this salad over the top. The nutty, tangy, and slightly sweet flavors of each ingredient balance out perfectly, and the egg yolks give it some much needed "oomph." To tell you the truth, I think this might be my new "house" dressing!
While this goat cheese salad isn't exactly lunch-in-a-hurry material, it is definitely worthy of a dinner party appearance (for two or twenty.) Heck, you could even declare it a nineties flashback. Just add chocolatinis!
Baked Goat Cheese Salad with Walnut Vinaigrette
For the buttered pecans:
2 cups (8 ounces) pecan halves
3 tablespoons melted butter, divided
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the vinaigrette:
1/2 cup walnut oil
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 egg yolks, preferably from organic or free-range bird (See Recipe Note)
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
6 ounces goat cheese
2 egg whites
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried fruit, such as cherries or cranberries
For the buttered pecans, preheat oven to 325°F. Toss the pecans and two tablespoons melted butter in a mixing bowl until combined. Spread in a baking dish and cook, stirring occasionally, for 21 - 24 minutes, until toasted and browned, watching carefully at the end so they don't burn.
Pour the pecans back into the mixing bowl along with the remaining tablespoon of melted butter and toss to coat. Season generously with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and continue to stir until the pecans are seasoned to taste. (Pecans can be made a few days in advance and stored in an airtight container.)
For the vinaigrette, combine the walnut oil, red wine vinegar, egg yolks, honey, and Dijon mustard in a blender and puree on high until a thick emulsion forms. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate while the goat cheese rounds are baking in the next step. (I find the dressing thickens up to the perfect consistency after it chills for a few minutes.)
To make the goat cheese rounds, preheat oven to 375°F. Use your hands to shape the goat cheese into 1-inch round balls and arrange on a plate. You should have 10-12 balls. Refrigerate for 15-20 minutes to allow to firm up. Whisk egg whites in a small bowl. In another small bowl combine the bread crumbs, salt, and pepper. (Finely chopped herbs can be added, if desired.)
Remove the cheese balls from the refrigerator. Gently but firmly press each ball into a thick disk, smoothing the sides your finger. Dip one disk into the egg whites, allowing excess to drip off, then coat in the bread crumb mixture. Place on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and continue with remaining discs. Bake for 13 - 15 minutes until golden brown and cheese is warmed through (a minute or two under the broiler will brown them more if needed.) Cool for about 5 minutes before serving. Use a small spatula to gently reshape the discs, if necessary.
Remove the dressing from the fridge and whisk gently to emulsify the ingredients again. Toss greens with desired amount of salad dressing. Arrange warm goat cheese rounds on top. Sprinkle with pecans and dried berries. Serve immediately.
• Substitute pasteurized egg yolks in the salad dressing if you are concerned about using raw eggs.
• The goat cheese rounds are also great by themselves, dunked into warm marinara.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)