Whatever happened to warm spinach salads?

When I was heading the kitchen at Ma Maison in the early 1980s, before I opened my first Spago, spinach salad was one of the most popular dishes on menus everywhere. We made it in the preferred style, tableside, preparing a warm vinaigrette with crispy bacon pieces and their drippings, then tossing the salad moments before serving so the fresh spinach leaves would retain an edge of crispness while also wilting slightly.

The results were delicious. But the salad became so widespread that people burned out on it. You practically have to send out a search party to find one in fine restaurants these days.

So, why not call off the search and make it at home? It's easy to prepare, and a perfect way to bring a taste of coming springtime to your table while it's still winter outside. Come to think of it, that makes the salad a perfectly dish to celebrate Groundhog Day (Tuesday, Feb. 2)!

Start with tender, small, fresh baby spinach leaves, widely available sealed in bags in supermarkets everywhere. Even though they come prewashed, I suggest that you remove them from the bag about 30 minutes in advance and soak the leaves in a large bowl of ice water. Not only will doing this make them more crisp and attractive, but it will also eliminate any trace of plastic flavor from the bag they came in.

Sort through the leaves, too, removing any unattractive, wilted, or otherwise less than perfect pieces. One tiny, bad leaf can ruin the looks, texture, and taste of your whole salad. Then, dry the leaves quickly in a salad spinner or roll them up in a clean kitchen towel or in a double layer of paper towels to blot up every last droplet that might dilute the dressing.

Once the leaves are ready, all that's really left to do is prepare the warm dressing. Mine starts with sauteing bacon pieces, which become a crispy garnish for the final presentation, and a little of its fat is then used as a foundation for the dressing. If you don't want to use bacon, substitute some crunchy pine nuts or walnuts, or some meaty sliced mushrooms, sauteing them in a little olive oil before proceeding with the recipe. Most of the spinach salads back in the 1980s included chopped egg, too; instead, I like to include slices of creamy goat cheese, which melt slightly on contact with the warm dressing, and add a luscious richness to the salad.

I don't know about you, but just describing that alone makes my mouth water. Try this salad soon, and you'll see why it was a favorite decades ago and why it still deserves to be one.

Warm Spinach Salad with Goat Cheese & Sweet Onions

Serves 6

8 strips lean bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 large sweet onion such as Vidalia, Maui, or Walla Walla, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise into rings

1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar


Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 prepacked bag ready-to-serve fresh organic baby spinach leaves, about 10 ounces, soaked in ice water for 30 minutes and thoroughly dried

1 log fresh creamy organic goat cheese, about 6 ounces, cut into slices 1/2 inch thick


Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and add the bacon pieces. Cook, stirring frequently, until browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the skillet and transfer to paper towels to drain.

Pour off most of the bacon fat, leaving a thin coating in the skillet. Add the onion slices, separating them into rings, and saute over medium heat until they begin to turn a caramel brown color, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until it turns translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in both the vinegars, add salt and pepper to taste, and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan.

Add the sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil and continue to cook, stirring continuously, just until the ingredients are heated through and thoroughly combined. Turn off the heat.

Arrange the spinach in a bed on a serving platter or individual salad plates. Arrange the goat cheese on top and sprinkle with the bacon pieces. With a fork, remove the onion rings from the skillet and arrange them all over the salad. Finally, spoon the warm dressing from the skillet, drizzling it all over the salad. Serve immediately.


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