In this case, it was the birthday that was big, but the salad could be, too.
You have to admire a woman who insists on making the salad herself at her own catered birthday party, as my friend Lisa did. Especially when she also chooses to use our dressing!
The salad can be any size you want, it’s just that easy. If there’s one particular ingredient you like a lot – heap it in. You don’t like another – leave it out.
But the key here is the combination of the flavors – the aromatic fennel, the sweet oranges – and all the while the spinach provides a mellow base, the perfect canvas on which all the other ingredients can shine. It’s also beyond easy, so great for a party where you can keep making more as it is gobbled up (which is exactly what happened at Lisa’s party).
This salad was originally made to serve a big crowd. I’ve scaled it down in size to feed a family of four. Even though it’s a smaller version of what Lisa served at her party, this is forever known as the BIG Birthday Salad.
(Whether she was celebrating her 21st, 30th, 40th or 50th birthday, I’ll never tell!)
On its own, the salad is lovely, and a nice beginner to any summer entree. Piling it on top of toasted bread transforms it from an appetizer to a substantial main course. Perfect for lunch or a light, but filling, dinner.
Good quality bread is key here. Think sturdy, too, along the lines of country bread, something that can hold the topping when you pick it up. (And not to add to your To Do List, but either one of these recipes is perfect for this recipe, or any other recipe you might be considering!) Grilling the bread adds a nice charred flavor to the tartine. If you don’t have an outdoor grill, toasting it in a cast iron skillet is a great alternative.
Pecorino-Romano cheese is what I usually have on hand, but Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano would be equally lovely. Use a cheese slicer or a vegetable peeler to shave paper-thin slices, and use as much or as little as you like, or leave it out if you want to keep this dairy-free.
One last note to share. I realize it sounds a bit fussy to peel the outer skin from the chickpeas. Trust me, it’s so worth the extra few minutes.
Okay, time to get down to the business at hand. Here’s the recipe.