spinach salad with chicken, asparagus and feta + pita croutons
I dunno about you guys, but even in a seemingly endless stretch of rainy days I’m starting to feel spring setting in. I can’t entirely put my finger on it, but all I know is that for me, the time for slow cookers and soups and roasts is passed, and all I really crave are GREEN THINGS. Asparagus. Peas. Spinach. And let’s not forget the aforementioned delicious pea shoots. I can’t get enough, even though the farmer’s market hasn’t quite started up yet and the grocery stores are still a bit spotty in this early spring time with the price and quality of spring veggies.
As I wait for the markets to catch up with my veg cravings, I’ve found myself drawn to main dish salads as a way to ease into spring. They make heavy use of easy-to-access greens like spinach, pea shoots, and other lettuces, but can be bejeweled and adorned with any number of delicious additions in smaller quantities, which is easy on my pocketbook and makes “cooking” dinner a simple matter of chopping and or cooking just a few lovely supplements and then tossing them in with the more salady bits. This latest salad, a loose adaptation of something I saw in Sunset magazine this month, takes a hefty dose of spinach and supplements it with smaller quantities of fresh asparagus, chicken, feta, tomatoes, a tangy lemon vinaigrette, and the best part: homemade pita croutons!
Let’s take a minute to talk about the pita croutons. Sunset suggests using a grill to cook the chicken and pita (or simply buying pita chips), but excuse me, we live in Oregon, and it is March. We happen to have an indoor grill thingey, but again, I’m sorry, I’m not taking it out just to cook one chicken breast and then grill my pita bread. I was going to just crisp the pitas in the oven, but then I thought I might be able to jazz them up a bit by really giving them the crouton treatment– saute in butter and olive oil with garlic and herbs, then bake them until crispy.
OH MAN. These were sooo much better than croutons, so much better than pita chips you can buy at the store, so much better than a grilled chunk of flatbread on the side of your salad. We ate them with gusto on our salad, fought over who got more, and then…well, then we made more at midnight to eat plain. I will definitely make these again to top a salad, and I will definitely make them again just for snacking. We gave ours a hint of oregano to complement the salad flavors, but I think they would be equally good with a variety of other flavors and can’t wait to give that a try. Using olive oil in the initial saute gives a nice distinct olive oil flavor to the finished chips, so if by chance you have crappy olive oil or don’t like the taste that much I’d use something milder like grapeseed or even canola oil and focus on bringing out the other flavors in the chips. I’m thinking next time more garlic, a little hit of fresh thyme and then a sprinkle of parmesan before we bake them? Mmmm.
Spinach Salad with Chicken, Asparagus, Feta, and Pita Croutons
Adapted from Sunset Magazine, April 2010
1 bunch spinach (or 1 bag baby spinach), well washed and torn
1 boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into bite sized chunks
1 roma tomato or a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup feta crumbles
1 bunch asparagus(or a half bunch, if that’s what you’ve got), trimmed and halved lengthwise, then cut in half again if they are long
Juice of 1 medium lemon or 2 small (about 2 T)
1/3 cup grapeseed or olive oil
1 tsp fresh oregano (or other herb– if you use oregano on the pita chips, oregano would be ideal here, but we only had thyme on hand so go with what you have and what you like)
A good crank of black pepper
1 recipe pita croutons (follows)
2 pita pockets, roughly cut into bite size chip pieces
1 T olive oil + 1 T butter
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Dash of dried (or fresh if you have it!) oregano
Start by getting your pita croutons going. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the pita into wedges or chunks, and get the oil and butter warming in a pan over medium heat. Toss the pita chunks into the skillet with the garlic and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and oregano (or try another herb instead!), and saute until they start getting some color. Then dump them onto your baking sheet in a single layer and bake for 8-10 minutes, until they are golden brown and crisp to your liking. Then remove from oven and allow to cool.
Next, bring a pot of water to boil for your asparagus, and get the spears sliced and washed. When the water is boiling, blanche asparagus until it’s bright green and fork tender, about five minutes, then rinse with cold water and leave to cool. Put the pita skillet back on the stove over medium high heat (add a little more oil if it’s too dry), add your chunks of chicken breast, and saute until they are golden brown, then remove to a plate while you assemble your salad.
In a large bowl, whisk together lemon juice, oil, oregano and pepper. Add cooked asparagus and chicken, tomatoes, feta, spinach, and pita chips and toss well to combine. Serve immediately, or if you will be waiting awhile, keep your pita croutons aside until it’s time to serve so they don’t get soggy.