Sweet, soft pears and pine nuts complement a mix of buttery, nutty and bitter lettuces dressed in a simple balsamic vinaigrette.
Summer isn't over yet and I'm trying to squeeze out every last drop, but... fall has undeniably started creeping into my thoughts. Maybe it's just from spending the majority of my life in school and teaching, but once August hits everything goes into overdrive, hurtling toward September like a defensive end on a pass rush.
I truly love fall. I love the start of school and football. I love the foliage and wearing sleeves again. I love pumpkins and bold spices. But it still feels like everything summer is ending way too fast. Pools are closing and I'm seeing school buses everywhere. Didn't we just do the Fourth of July?
Luckily, I've got the perfect dish if you're also struggling to accept all that comes with the inevitable shift from summer nights to autumn evenings.
This Tricolore Pear Salad is incredibly simple from the short ingredient list to the simple dressing, but trust me, it has an undeniable wow factor.
It's based on the classic Italian insalata tricolore, which uses a mix of dark and light lettuces brilliantly to balance bitterness and sweetness as well as softness and crunch. It also happens to feature the three colors of the Italian flag, green, red and white.
Some also call caprese salads insalata tricolore, which makes sense with the color theme, but we'll leave that in its own pedestal where it belongs.
I do a little catering as a side job, mostly for small events, but sometimes I do personal catering too. I developed this Tricolore Pear Salad for a client whose family wanted to eat a version of the paleo diet, in an effort to keep the choices from getting stale and, oh boy, I could not have predicted what happened.
He told me the first time he picked up the salad that he had never had a fresh pear before—which is actually something I hear pretty frequently about peaches and pears—so nobody here really knew what to expect.
They LOVED it. Like ordered it multiple times a week from there on out. It got to the point where I was visiting multiple grocery stores a multiple times a week because I was buying out all the ingredients for it. Once we got into the later fall and fresh pears got harder to find, I had to limit the amount of times they could order just because I literally could not find enough ingredients.
It was a problem, but you know, a nice one. If you guys are reading this, know I love you and your pear madness!
I recommend using green d'anjou pears for this salad, though I've also used green and red bartletts with great results. There's just something special about a d'anjou pear—it's sweet and buttery with just enough crispness. Red ones are nice later in the fall as they're a little more robust.
Whatever you do, use a good one! If all the d'anjous are rock hard? Move on to the next kind. If it's so soft it falls apart in your hand?
You got a million ways to get it. Choose one.
I've actually been putting pears on salad for years now, usually in an arugula salad with goat cheese and a sweeter dressing, but I think using no cheese, a more acidic dressing and bitter chicory takes this salad up several notches.
It's pretty common to serve a tricolore salad with shaved parmesan, but I actually really like this salad without the cheese. The softness of the pears and the nuttiness of the pine nuts and arugula pretty well takes care of that desire for me in this case.
Speaking of simplifying the dressing, HOLY COW is this EASY. Just combine three ingredients and shake. If you want, you can switch it up with other vinegars or add other things (I might add a garlic clove and let it sit for a different salad), but there's no need, and you probably have balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt on hand already if you cook often.
I can't say enough about how much I love this aspect of Italian cooking. I'm a person who tends to make things much more complicated than they need to be, which is sometimes good, and sometimes makes my life a living hell.
Maybe that's why I go back to Italian food so often. Or maybe it's that my husband is Italian, I'm coastal Croatian, and Italian food is TASTY.
One piece of advice I do have is that when you're making something so simple, use the best quality ingredients you can find. That's one of the reasons simplicity works so well in Italy: pretty much everything they use is grown nearby and freshness is key (with exceptions, of course, because they clearly know how to preserve tomatoes and cheese like wow).
I'm not telling you to break the bank here, but I am saying you can uplevel your kitchen game approximately 100 notches just by investing in a good extra virgin olive oil for cold foods like salads. I typically buy an okay brand in bulk for cooking, but I keep a big bottle of my one of my favorites on hand for dressings and drizzle.
What are my favorites? I love going to an olive oil specialty store and doing a tasting to figure that out. My favorite is Oil & Vinegar in Greenville, South Carolina. Their products are all high-quality, their staff is super knowledgable (but not snobby!) and they're so friendly and enthusiastic that it's tough to want to buy anywhere else.
My most recent buy, pictured in the background above, was their extra virgin olive oil from Puglia , and it is SO good—robust, peppery and a little sweet. It's got low acidity and high polyphenols (antioxidants), making the flavor more intense and the oil better for you.
That being said, if you just wanna pick some up from the grocery store or order some from Amazon, that's totally cool too. In that case I encourage you to experiment, but I recommend California Olive Ranch EVOO as a good starting point.
Here are a few things to pay attention to if you're picking one up on your own:
How to choose a grocery store olive oil:
- Is it fresh? Most good olive oil brands will have a harvest date somewhere on the bottle, as olive oil doesn't necessarily age well.
- How is it bottled? Olive oil should be stored in a cold dark place, so a dark, glass bottle is the best packaging. You don't want the oil deteriorating as it sits in the truck.
- Where is it from? Check the country or region of origin. First of all, it should only have one. Second, foreign isn't always best, as the further away it is, the longer it probably took to ship and the harder it is to find out about the source. This is why I recommend California Ranch Olive Oil. Now if you're buying imported oil from a specialty store, you can probably go for it safely as they will be more discerning about the source.
- How long is the ingredient list? Hint: it should only list one thing. Extra virgin olive oil.
- Is it cold-pressed? Good olive oil is processed with olives that are crushed and pressed without help from heat or chemicals, so the bottle should say cold-pressed. According to Larousse Gastronomique, this designation doesn't necessarily tell us much anymore as processors now have machines that are temperature-controlled, even if they don't use traditional extraction methods. First-pressed means virtually nothing as modern methods don't typically require a second press. Still, if a bottle doesn't even bother saying it? I'd steer clear unless you know the person who made it.
- Other factors? Higher polyphenols means more antioxidants and a bolder flavor. The lower the acidity, the better (extra virgin olive oil must have less than 1 percent acidity). You might not be able to find this information on bottles of grocery store olive oil, which is okay, but it's a good sign if you can.
If all else fails, try out Google University! Here's a great article from The Kitchn that does the work for you with recommendations from Italian cooks.
I tend to give balsamic vinegar a bit more of a pass, for better or for worse. Don't get me wrong, really good balsamic vinegar makes a huge difference, and you should get an aged vinegar marked Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale with a D.O.P. certification if possible. The thing is... a lot of grocery store brands are pretty good in their own right, and purity is less of an issue.
That being said, if you live near a specialty store, go in for a tasting! A top-quality balsamic isn't as necessary to me as top-quality olive oil, but it is undoubtedly one of my favorite special occasion splurges. Especially a cherry-flavored one. Mmmmmm.
Now let's talk about that green. And red. And white.
You can make many variations of this salad depending on what's available (my local grocery stores don't always make it easy to find good greens), but here are the leafy ingredients I like to use:
- Arugula (rocket) - A soft, nutty green and situation where stems are okay. You don't have to use it, but I highly recommend it.
- Baby kale and baby Swiss chard - Soft versions of the big leafy bunches you know. Earthy and lightly bitter, but much more subtle than their later stage selves. You can often find a mix of these (sometimes along with arugula, spinach and other young greens) marketed as "super greens". Bonus: baby swiss kale adds a nice aesthetic touch with its bright pink stems.
- Radicchio - It looks like thin red cabbage, but it's not! Radicchio is an Italian chicory with a mildly spicy, slightly bitter flavor. It's not thick and woody like cabbage (and doesn't have the same side effects), but it does still have a crunchy bite. Don't sub in red cabbage. Just don't.
- Belgian endive - Another chicory plant with delicate, buttery leaves and a nice crunch. This one is a little bitter too, but it's subtle and it works with the dressing and pears. Embrace the bitterness. I typically peel off the outer leaves and then cut off the hard bottom as needed to pull the rest off easily, but you can also cut a cone into the bottom to get all the leaves off at once.
- Substitutions - Some of these can be a little hard to find, I'll admit. I don't know if I'd made this unless I can find at least two of them or else it's a different salad, but here are some recommendations. In a pinch, I've used baby romaine instead of endive. It's not the same, but it has a similar texture. If you can't find radicchio, seriously, don't use red cabbage. My grocery stores typically have a box of four "artisan lettuce" varieties that typically include chicories you could use instead. If it's curly and spindly, it's probably a chicory or something with similar flavor. For the darker greens you could use spring mix if you have to.
- Red Cabbage - Just don't! I'm warning you.
The last, but definitely not least important element of my Tricolore Pear Salad is the toasted pine nuts, and yes, I do think toasting them makes a big difference when you're eating them raw. Pine nuts are earthy little tree nuts that give pesto its nutty flavor.
They're much milder than pecans and softer than almonds, which you might typically put in a sweeter salad. I would almost call them creamy based on the feeling of chewing them.
Toasting them may feel like one more step, but it's super easy and fast. The one skill you need to have is vigilance.
How to toast pine nuts:
- Heat a pan over medium heat.
- Pour in the pine nuts and stir frequently for 2-3 minutes, or until you start to smell them and they leave grease trails on the bottom of the pan, and remove them to a plate to cool. Watch them closely and if they start to brown or smoke, remove them to a plate immediately so they don't burn.
- That's it!
This Tricolore Pear Salad is far from rabbit food, and I have family/friends/happy customers to back me up on that if you don't believe me. BUT I hope you'll make it to find out for yourself! You could even make it into an entire meal instead of a side dish by adding a little chicken or even sliced steak, which I sometimes do when I pack up the leftovers for lunch the next day.
If you do make it, let me know by sharing a photo with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen and tagging me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. You can also use the "tried it" feature on Pinterest to help out others looking for a salad they don't have to force themselves to eat!
Let's get this pear party started!