California Goat Cheese Salad—for Sancerre!

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In a few days, Cinnamon and I are going to the Loire Valley for the first time, spending the whole trip relaxing in one place: Sancerre. I have been so excited about this trip that I couldn’t wait to get a little taste in advance, and started searching around online for recipes to go with the iconic Sauvignon Blanc from the region. I settled on the salade au crottin de Chavignol as inspiration, and read a number of recipes online. 

After making myself a list, I headed out to the market with a mind to adapt this French recipe to what we have available and in season here in the California summer. Since young, unpasteurized cheese is illegal to import, I gave up on the idea of trying to replicate the recipe, and instead used it as a guideline. Naturally, I picked the wine first—and went with the 2017 Domaine La Clef du Recit, a recommendation from our Loire Valley buyer Keith Mabry. Here are the ingredients for the salad, enough to make two meal size portions:

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4 oz. baby arugula
One baguette (I chose the ACME French)
Two 4-oz pieces of goat cheese (I chose Cypress Grove Purple Haze and Herbs de Humboldt)
4 slices of good bacon
1 large red onion
1 basket cherry tomatoes
4 black mission figs
2 oz. pine nuts
1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
good quality olive oil
rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
fleur de sel
salt
fresh pepper 

The trick to building depth of flavor in this salad is using the same cast iron pan for all of the cooking, without washing it out. This really gives it that extra something that is different from a “weeknight” salad. Another important ingredient is the rice wine vinegar. This type of vinegar does not fight with wine like others, and I suggest that it not be substituted. 

Begin by cooking the 4 slices of bacon in a large cast iron skillet. Just after flipping the bacon, drain most of the fat out of the skillet into a ramekin and save it. 

While the bacon is cooking, slice the onion in half, peel and cut into moons for caramelizing.

Remove the cooked bacon from the skillet and place on a paper towel. I always cover mine with another paper towel to keep myself from eating it. Add the onions into the hot skillet with the remaining bacon fat, adding a pinch of salt, and dropping the heat to low. Stir occasionally, and cook the onions for about an hour. About fifteen minutes in, add the balsamic vinegar. If at any point in the cooking process the onions start to look to dry, add olive oil a teaspoon at a time.

While the onion is caramelizing, prep the rest of the ingredients.

Slice the tomatoes in half first and put them in a bowl, tossing them with a couple pinches of fleur de sel and a few turns of pepper. This will draw a little juice out of them, which will be used when making the dressing later. 

Toast the pine nuts—don’t look away even for a second! They burn very easily, usually as soon as your turn around to wash something. Pull them out when they are golden brown.

Cut the figs in half and set them aside.

Make the dressing in the same salad bowl that you will toss the arugula in. Start with one teaspoon of Dijon mustard, then add three teaspoons of reserved bacon fat and two teaspoons of olive oil. Whip in two teaspoons of rice wine vinegar and the juice that has run out of the tomatoes with a fork.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

After removing the onions from the skillet, add a teaspoon of reserved bacon fat and increase the flame to medium. Once the pan is hot, place your figs face down in the pan, rubbing them in the oniony, bacon juices as you do so. Cook them for about four minutes to caramalize the sugars on the sliced side.

Slice the baguette. Take eight uniform slices of baguette and smear them with the rest of the bacon fat. If you run low, add a little olive oil. Toast them until golden brown.

Remove the figs from the skillet, and place the two goat cheese pieces in the same pan. Place in the oven and bake for eight minutes. While they are cooking, plate the rest of the salad.

If your dressing has coagulated, zap it for 15 seconds in the microwave and whip it again with a fork. Toss the arugula in the dressing until well covered. Divide the arugula onto two large plates. Next, add the tomatoes on top of the arugula. After that, mound the caramelized onions in the center of the salad. Then toss on the pine nuts and crumble over the bacon. Arrange the figs and toast rounds around the outside edge of the plate. I did an every-other pattern to make it a little prettier. Finally, take the cheese out of the cast iron with your sharpest, best spatula and place on the center of the plate.  

Enjoy with your Sancerre!

I found the combination to work very well—goat cheese and Sancerre is not a secret pairing! I thought that the honeyed depth of the Clef mirrored the sweetness in the caramelized onions and the figs. This wine also had the mineral drive and acidity to cut the bacon and the cheese. We can’t wait to do it again!

- Gary Westby