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In college, my roommate Josh once had an epiphany about salads: “It’s not the salad. It’s the stuff. It’s the stuff that makes it good.”

fig salad
(Clearly, I need a larger cutting board.)

By stuff he meant (as far as I can tell, by the cavalcade of salads that passed over our dinner table for the next two years): shaved carrots, raisins, nuts, various cheeses, various bits of charcuterie, olives, and, on one inspired night, wasabi peas… basically anything that wasn’t green and leafy that could conceivably go on top of a salad. A son of two doctors, Josh was extremely health-conscious but wasn’t fond of leafy greens. His epiphany helped him get through his self-inflicted mandatory salad four nights a week.

A confession: I was never overly fold of leafy greens myself until recently. As with tomatoes (which I hated until I took a bite of a black brandywine tomato proffered to me at a farmer’s market, which I ate to be polite, then bought two pounds of, because it was a revelation), I had only grown up with the limp, anemic specimens of lettuce available at the grocery store. Even when I did find arugula, and frisée, and endive, I tended to like them more for their visual appeal than for their sometimes bitter, sometimes peppery taste.

But no more! Either my palate has matured or I have, over the years, learned how to compose a salad properly. I like to think that this summer salad would have been just what Josh liked: the bitter, crunchy greens; the honey and figs for sweetness; the lemon and balsamic for tang; the cheese and ham for salt. Balance and harmony on a plate.

fig salad with balsamic reduction

Fig Salad

This salad is based on Angela’s beautiful Fig (Nothing-But-Goodies) Salad, tweaked to work with what I could find at the greenmarkets and what I had in the kitchen. I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw the first figs of the season displayed next to the strawberries and apricots at Halles St. Antoine, my favorite stand for fruit. Not as rosy red and succulent as the ones I found at the farmer’s markets at home, and almost big enough to eat as hand fruits, these figs aren’t as knee-weakening as Angela’s, but they’ll do.

A word on balsamic reduction: I don’t see any reason not to just reduce an entire bottle and keep the ensuing tar-black but deeply delicious goo in a jar in the fridge. If you end up needing non-reduced balsamic for something, just thin it with a little water.

2 heads endive, leaves separated and washed
2-3 big, loose handfuls of mesclun, arugula, or whatever other greens you prefer
2-4 large figs, cut into eighths
2 oz cheese (manchego, parmesan, comté… I used a crumbly, tangy cow’s milk cheese that the fromager recommended), grated, shaved, or crumbled
2 slices (about 2 oz) jambon de Savoie
1 handful of roasted hazelnuts
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp chestnut honey
1/2 lemon
1 tsp balsamic reduction, recipe below

Wash and dry greens and split between two plates. Arrange the cheese, jambon, figs, and hazelnuts evenly over the greens. Drizzle with chestnut honey, olive oil, and balsamic reduction, and squeeze the half-lemon evenly over everything. Salt and pepper.

Balsamic Reduction

16 fl oz balsamic vinegar
2 tsp sugar

In a non-reactive pan, heat balsamic and sugar over low heat until reduced by 1/2. Store in a jar or squeeze bottle in the refrigerator.

Music to cook by: Piano Man [Billy Joel // Piano Man]