Today at work, we were doing some serious spring cleaning. I was purging the walk-in refrigerator and the pantry, and concocted a salad. I was utterly non-discriminating about its contents: everything and anything went in. As my coworkers ate, they each remarked specifically on how well the cheeses brought everything together. One of them suggested I write a column on it. I snapped a photo of the remnants. I'm not sure that all of the components made it into the shot.
There were a lot of tasty elements: Parsley leaves, pistachios, toasted sunflower seeds, peppadews, artichoke hearts, kumquats, green cerignola olives, and celery hearts and leaves. I tore both curly and lacinato kale into bite-sized pieces to act as the lettuce. Kale is the best green around for a cheese-heavy salad. Even if you dress the salad with just olive oil and lemon juice, as I did, the dressing is bound to turn into a creamy one when you toss it with cheese. Kale can stand up to this, and won't wilt under the weight of this inevitable heft.
And then there was the cheese. I used a lot of it, much more than I'd use if I was being more thoughtful, frankly, but my heavy-handedness turned out to be tasty. I almost feel that the term "cheese salad" is more appropriate than just plain old "salad." I didn't hold back.
But it was an odd combination of cheese, and I used three of them together that I'd have never really thought to choose had they not needed to be used up. The lineup:
- Fresh mozzarella, which I ripped, rather than sliced or cubed. There's something about the way that this cheese shreds naturally that makes for a most excellent texture. Mozzarella added a fresh, mild creaminess to the salad, and went especially well with the olives.
- Queso fresco, crumbled. This addition added a really great, salty kick to the salad, and because the cheese is so crumbly, all of the components of the salad became coated with little specks of the stuff.
- Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved. I'd never think, really, to put parm in a salad with two fresh cheeses. But the contrast was pretty delicious. Imagine a sharp, mature cheese, crystalline and lingering, aside two creamy, relatively mild cheeses like mozzarella and queso fresco. A really great combination, and the parm complemented the nuts in the salad really nicely, too.
Perhaps it was because the cheeses hit so many flavor and textural zones — salty, saline, sharp, creamy, punchy, earthy, hard, soft — that it was able to unify the bizarre combinations within the salad. Artichoke hearts next to kumquats next to peppadews? It worked. Next time you make a salad that includes everything but the kitchen sink, try this unique combination of cheeses. Just be sure to keep them on hand. And don't hold back.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Image: Nora Singley)