Days like today, I struggle with being an Army wife. I miss my man, Friend. But, I really, really miss him. We’ve just reached the cusp of this deployment and while I’m happy to be at the halfway mark; I realize I still have a lot of days left of missing him. It makes it hard to remember why I chose this life. I tend to create recipes based on my feelings and/or the attitudes I’m experiencing. This Mediterranean Summer Salad is my reminder that Army life, as turbulent as it can be, isn’t always a bad thing.
“A salad puts things into perspective for you?” I’m not crazy. Hear me out.
This is what inspired the salad that puts my life as a military wife into perspective. A horribly unflattering image of me with my beautiful family that was taken atop Mars Hill in Athens, Greece. The Soldier and I decided to take an Easter pilgrimage to the islands of Greece with our two-year-old Twinks.
Best. Trip. Ever.
Walking in the footsteps of some of the pillars of our faith brought a sense of humility over both of us. To this day, we still have trouble verbalizing the experience. It still is hard to grasp the reality that two kids like us were standing in the same place that the Apostle Paul stood. It was the Army made that trip possible.
Truth be told, before I married Hector, I was stuck in a tenement. Like, for real. A legit hovel.
My apartment was so ghetto, it was slanted. I found that out once when I dropped a can of beans in the hallway and it rolled the width of the apartment to the other wall. But, it was mine and it kept me sheltered. I worked hard all of my life and had goals and aspirations, but a trip to Greece was never in the cards for me. Until I met my husband. His assignments have taken us to Sicily, Paris, Rotterdam, and countless more amazing places besides the Mediterranean.
Consequently, the Army, even with all of the tours of duty, the isolated assignments and deployments, has been good to me. The Army has sent us to places that have made pictures like this possible. It has made recipes, like this one that remind me of those warm, bright islands, possible.
And that, my friend, is what puts things into perspective. So, I have many more good memories because of the Army than I do bad ones. Those memories are what make times like this, when I’m missing him something fierce, worthwhile.
Let’s talk a little about the recipe.
I love vinaigrette dressings. Most of all, I love the ease with which you can create a vinaigrette to be unique and appetizing. The simple emulsion can be used to coat salads, marinate proteins, and liven up roasted veggies.
An emulsion reminds me of Hector and I. Two things, here: oil and vinegar, that wouldn’t normally mix, are forced together through whisking (or blending) to create a perfectly cohesive sauce. Just like a laid-back island boy and a neurotic city girl combined to make us us. We’re the ultimate emulsion. Unlike vinaigrette, Hector and I aren’t a temporary emulsion. Have you ever seen a bottle of vinaigrette after it has sat in the fridge for a while? The oil has separated, right? That’s because it’s a temporary emulsion. Mayonnaise is an example of a emulsion that is permanent.
If you have too much oil, the sauce will not come together, or it will break. Too much vinegar and the same thing. It needs to be a ratio of 3 to 1. That’s a hard and fast rule. Three parts oil to one part vinegar. It doesn’t matter what kind of oil, doesn’t matter what kind of vinegar. Remembering and applying this ratio will open up new doors in your dressing-making repertoire.
In this Mediterranean balsamic vinaigrette, I’m combining the flavors that remind me of the region. An aged balsamic combined with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, honey and herbs does just that. Creating the emulsion comes by way of whisk and a Popeye-like forearm- or via the blender. Once you’ve combined the honey and the vinegar, you simply stream in the oil (at a trickle) while whisking away. The vinegar and honey gradually combine with the oil and a smooth dressing unfolds before your eyes! MAGIC!! Not really.
If you haven’t been adding fresh herbs to your salads, may I suggest that you start? I cannot tell you how dramatic a change the simple addition of just one herb can be for your greens. Almost every salad I make now includes one, or more, of the leafy herbs that I have on hand. So many of my guests have eaten a “plain garden salad” at my home and have raved about how, “Good this plain ol’ salad tastes!” They have no idea that I’ve amped it up with basil or cilantro or dill, or all three!
Salads are the perfect way to get the full FDA recommended amount of fruits and veggies (5 servings or more). I, personally, can’t think of a better way to get my daily intake than with a bright, colorful salad. This salad, drawing on it’s Mediterranean inspiration, is not only as vivid as a rainbow, it’s full of nutrient-filled produce.
I wanted the focal point of the salad to be the watermelon. This melon is rich in Vitamin-A and antioxidants like lycopene (both are great for skin), but potassium as well, which not only helps aching bones, but assists in lowering blood pressure as well. Watermelon is also a good source of B Vitamins (good for those who, like me, have central-nervous issues) and manganese.
Another pop of color comes from the julienned bell pepper that I toss in. I’ve used an orange bell pepper in this particular salad, but I’m not exclusive. Whichever color I have, and that will contrast nicely, works (you do, after all, eat with your eyes first). Sweet mini peppers also work well, and green bell peppers- although not recommended because of their pungency- may also be used. Bell peppers are an excellent source of Vitamin-C, which most of us know helps stave off colds and supports the immune system. But, peppers are also a great source of Vitamin-K (supports bone health); and Folate, which is beneficial for pregnant and nursing moms- which I am not!
Red onions are also a great source of Vitamin C which, to me, makes me feel better about them giving me funky breath. If you have an aversion to red onions, use less pungent green onions or even chives.
Cucumbers are an excellent source of Vitamin K, B-Vitamins and Iron. They also are a great source of silica which has amazing benefits for joint health.
Once we’ve added all of our amazingly nutritious fruits and veggies, it’s time to add the marcona almonds and the gorgonzola cheese.
Marconas are simply almonds that are a product of Spain. Usually, because of their sweeter flavor, I enjoy them with my meat and cheese plates. A simply salted marcona almond is all you need, however, if you are able to locate herbed varieties, try them out. Typically, you can find them here or at a major whole foods/organic grocery stores.
Finally, the pièce de résistance: gorgonzola. Italian bleu cheese; cow’s milk which has had a bacteria introduced into it. This veining creates the ubiquitous bite known and loved by so many bleu connoisseurs. Aim to find a whole wedge of bleu cheese and crumble it yourself. Since you can never be certain of when it was crumbled (and subsequently on its way to drying out), crumbling it yourself will ensure the freshest taste of cheese.
Now, all that’s left is to dress the salad with half of the vinaigrette and toss. Because dressings tend to weigh down the greens and the overall taste of a fresh salad; I prefer to start with a light hand when adding them. After I have added the first quantity of dressing, I sample and adjust to taste accordingly; adding more dressing as needed.
Finally, we give one final toss and serve it up! Now, we have our taste of the Mediterranean region, and I can transport myself back to the times of joy the Army has afforded me. As much as it seems that this deployment has dragged on, I know that it will, one day, come to an end. A triumphant, tear-filled, “you’ve-got-laundry-duty-for-the-next-year” end; but, an end nonetheless. And I, most certainly, can’t wait. But, until then I’ll have the memories of better military experiences to reflect upon.
Since this is such a versatile salad, feel free to pin it so you can find it later. Share this recipe and those below with your friends and family.
Mediterranean Summer Salad
Yield 6 servings
Try a variation on the salad! Use a flavored balsamic or olive oil, different nuts and cheese, or switch up the greens! Best when served immediately after dressing.
1 cup marcona almonds (or sliced almonds)
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp honey
1 clove garlic, grated or minced
1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped and divided
1/4 cup (each) fresh basil, parsley, cilantro leaves, chopped and divided
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 oz (each) arugula and baby spinach*
3 cups seedless watermelon, cubed
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 orange (or yellow) bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 small English cucumber, diced
4-6 oz gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and lay out the marcona almonds in a single layer (spread out evenly). Place in the hot oven and toast for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Prepare the balsamic vinaigrette in a small bowl by combining the vinegar, honey, garlic and 1 tsp of each of the chopped herbs. Whisk to combine. While whisking, slowly pour the olive oil into the vinegar in a stream. Whisking vigorously and continuously, add the oil slowly to create an emulsion. The oil should not separate if this is done correctly. Alternatively, you can use the blender to create the dressing in the same manner. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In a large salad bowl, add the remaining herbs, the greens, watermelon, onion, pepper, cucumber, cheese and the cooled nuts. Toss well to combine.
Just before serving, pour half of the dressing* over the salad and toss to coat. Add more vinaigrette if desired. Serve immediately and enjoy.
*alternatively, use a 5-10 oz package of an arugula/spinach blend
* this vinaigrette can be made a day ahead. Leftover dressing can be used as a delicious marinade for chicken, shrimp or pork.