Experiment with crunchy spinach salad

Many (many!) years ago, the restaurant in the Agate Beach Hilton Hotel in Newport Beach, Calif., produced a wonderful spinach salad. The two key ingredients were toasted pine nuts and a tangy, caramely dressing. Many excursions to the coast were highlighted with this special offering. It was that good.

Unfortunately, the Hilton packed up its spinach salad recipe and blew town. However, my attempt to clone its specialty was relatively successful — at least as far as my mental palate is concerned. Worth-the-Trip! Spinach Salad is now a Dominguez house specialty.

Another one of my favorites is Spinach Salad With 5-Minute Egg, inspired by "Salad," by Amy Nathan (Chronicle Books). The spinach is dressed in a light vinaigrette, placed on individual serving plates and topped with a carefully peeled soft-cooked egg.

The stark-white egg nestled atop the emerald leaves is a sight to behold, and the flavor combination of the egg, spinach and dressing is heavenly. When a diner breaks into the five-minute egg, the semifirm yolk will run ever so slightly over the rest of the salad.

But I've had mixed reviews with this creation, which brings us to the number one rule of salad construction, be it spinach or a simple mixed green: Know your diners' tastes. Some people are experimenters by nature while others need a more gentle introduction to the world of artful salads. My mother would have to deliver a swift, under-the-table nudge to my father's knee before he would consider eating a soft-cooked ANYTHING on spinach salad.

Well, for those of us who do appreciate the flavor and crunch of a well-turned spinach salad — particularly during these winter months when the quality and price of lettuce is about as predictable as a lottery ticket — I've decided this is a great time to share a few of my favorites.

But first things first: the spinach. Don't just automatically reach for the bagged version. I've found they often contain a higher proportion of stems and damaged leaves.

I've also noticed that bagged spinach leaves tend to be on the wimpy side in texture — less substantial — as opposed to the firm-yet-tender candidates that are sold in bunches.

Secondly, a fine spinach salad begins in a sink full of cool water. Dump in all of the unwashed leaves and vigorously slosh them around. Next, twist away the roots, place the leaves on the drain board, clean out the sink and fill it again with cold water. After a second dunking, most of the grit should be gone; but look closely and, if necessary, run the leaves under the tap.

Finally, spread the leaves out on a clean, absorbent kitchen towel, roll it up jelly-roll fashion and stick it in the refrigerator until you're ready to compose your salad.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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