Back in the day, when I worked as a line cook at Spago in Hollywood, there was one item I disliked making more than any other: Chino Farms Chopped Salad. I disliked it for a couple of reasons: 1) it was incredibly prep-intensive to chop and blanch the seemingly endless number of ingredients; 2) it wasn't actually on the menu, but we had to have the prep for it on hand in case the few regulars who knew to ask for it showed up, which they only did when I had let that prep slip; 3) I hated the way it looked; and 4) I had, um, never tried it.
One day, a few months before the end of my tenure at the restaurant (I was on the crew that served the very last chopped salad and the last pizza from that famous brick oven in April of 2001), for some reason I've now forgotten, I broke down and tried THE SALAD, the Chino Farms Chopped Salad. And, oh. Oh, it was good. Ugly, but so good. It' not, itself, an original idea, but it is a salad whose spectacular execution spawned countless imitators. I'd say it's the perfect arrangement of identically-sized vegetable tidbits. Or maybe it's the mustardy, sherry vinegar dressing...all I'm going to say about that is WALNUT OIL.* Or the farm-fresh vegetables for which it is named. Whatever. YUM.
At any rate, I no longer turn my nose up at a good chopped salad, but I've looked for ways to recreate the magic of the Spago specialty with stuff I have lying around and without pesky blanching and concasee-ing. This version features a similar contrast of crunchy-to-squishy but with far less effort and with a somewhat lighter profile. I belong to a community supported agriculture co-op so most of my produce is local and seasonal, though I do cave and buy avocados from time to time, in spite of the fact that I'm pretty sure there's never been a natural born avocado fruit within a 100-mile radius of here. Almost every ingredient is interchangeable for other stuff you might have on hand--if you have a zucchini but no cucumber, by all means, use that. If you have left-over shrimp, chop those up instead of pork or chicken. If you have pumpkin seeds lying around, use them content in the knowledge that I am now, offically, jealous of you.
Tortilla Chopped Salad
1 cucumber, diced
1 tsp salt (really!)
1 tomato, diced
1/2 can black beans, well-drained
1 cup corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1 cup cooked chicken/beef/pork, diced (optional)
1 tsp cumin
2 c mixed greens, washed and well-dried
yellow corn tortilla chips, crumbled
1/4 c slivered almonds
salt and pepper to taste
2 T olive oil
juice of 1 lime
1 oz goat cheese, crumbled
1 avocado, diced
- In the bowl you plan to serve the salad in, combine the cucumbers, 1 tsp of salt, and 1/2 of the lime juice. Let sit for as long as possible, but at least 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato, black beans, corn, cooked pork, and cumin. Toss to coat.
- Add the salad greens, and toss to distribute all the ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste
- Drizzle the olive oil and the remaining lime juice over the greens, add the almonds and crumbled tortilla chips and toss again.
- Top with the goat cheese and avocado, and serve.
If you like a creamier dressing, you can add the avocado and goat cheese earlier, and they will coat the leaves a bit--I just prefer more intact bits. For the record, I decided to make this tortilla salad before realizing I did not have any tortilla chips, but I did have some stale taco shells which I popped into the oven at 350° while I was putting the rest of the salad together--they crisped up perfectly and held up well to the dressing.
*Yes, I have the recipe we used, but I'm pretty sure it appears roughly accurately in any number of Wolfgang's books, so I'm not about to reproduce it here and put myself in front of that juggernaut. The recipe for the Chino Farms Chopped Salad is reproduced here; I'm not saying the vinaigrette recipe is wrong, just not what I was taught. One more time, with feeling: WALNUT OIL. That is all.