Have you ever retraced steps of your life via food or had memories revolve around things you eat? I sure have, and since every human everywhere, eats every day, I know I”m not alone.
This salad has followed me for a while, subconsciously. Yes it’s a spinach salad, yes the ingredients (minus the hen of the woods) are not new in any way, shape or form, since every Perkins and Applebee’s probably has a spinach salad with bacon dressing. At the same time, it’s a completely new salad that represents my growth as a cook, in three particular stages from when I was 17, until now.
The first time I made a spinach salad with “hot bacon” dressing it was at a steakhouse around my hometown of Willmar Minnesota called Melvin’s on the Lake, an independent restaurant and at the time the “nicest” restaurant in the area. At Melvin’s, everything for the salad came out of a bag or a jug, including the dressing: an opaque substance from Sysco that looked like wallboard paste with something only distantly resembling bacon in it. As you can expect, it tasted like the ingredients sound.
The second time I made the salad was working for a chef from Rome at Trattoria Da Vinci in St. Paul (closed for a few years now) it was a little better this time. Imported pancetta took the place of the jugged dressing, and the spinach was actually tossed with the dressing, as opposed to the dressing just being glugged on top. Instead of topping it with sliced hard boiled eggs like I did at Melvin’s, we grated the yolks like cheese, which I always thought was a fun touch. We used red wine vinegar to de-glaze the pan too, part of what makes the salad taste so good. This time I ate the salad, and remembered it, because it was good.
At the Salt Cellar I made the version I’m sharing with you here, with hen of the woods. The difference from the other two salads from the past is that all of the ingredients are the best that I can find: good spinach, high quality red wine vinegar, homemade bacon, local eggs, and or course the hens.
It’s the best version of the old bacon-spinach salad I’ve had, and we regularly had people tell us it was not only the best spinach salad they’d had, but the best salad, period. Well, except for one time a guy said it wasn’t “wilted enough”, but he was a crochety old asshole that complained about everything from the size of his coffee cup to the way the server described the dessert menu.
Hen of the Woods-Spinach Salad, With Bacon Vinaigrette
- Cast iron skillet
- 3 ounces fresh hen of the woods mushrooms broken into small clusters roughly the size of your thumb or larger
- 4 ounces fresh spinach washed and cleaned
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons high quality red wine vinegar
- 2 hard boiled eggs: whites sliced yolks reserved for grating
- 2 ounces high quality slab bacon diced 1/2 inch
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Heat the bacon and the butter in a cast iron skillet or saute pan and render slowly until lightly browned.
- Push the bacon to one side of the pan, then add the hen of the woods and cook until caramelized, about 5 minutes.
- Season the mushrooms to taste with salt and pepper, deglaze the pan with the red wine vinegar and stir to release the bacon drippings.
- Pour the hot mixture over the spinach in a salad bowl, add the egg whites, toss, taste the seasoning and adjust as needed.
- Divide the mixture evenly between two room temperature salad plates, grate the yolks with a cheese or microplane grater over each plate (they may crumble a bit, that's ok) and serve immediately.