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Stark restaurants’ chef shares salads to lighten up summer suppers

Most people who live in California take fresh salads for granted. But if you spend much time outside of the Golden State, you may soon be craving the spicy arugula, bitter endive and earthy kale that grow in the sun-kissed fields.

As summer creeps in this month, home cooks are turning to fast and easy dinner options — veggies and meats kissed by the quick heat of the grill or stovetop — and welcoming back hearty, California salads as the stars of the lunch and dinner plates.

At the seven Stark Reality restaurants in Sonoma County owned by Mark and Terri Stark — including their latest, Grossman’s Noshery & Bar in Railroad Square — the salads created by the chefs provide a tempting array of flavors and textures that go beyond your basic “garden salad.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with the garden salad. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Food and Drink in America, the first salad was just that: a simple dish of raw, leafy vegetables splashed with oil and sprinkled with salt back in the day of the Roman Empire (the word salad actually comes from the Latin word for salt, sal).

Since then, salad has come a long way, including that ’70s invention the salad bar, which allows you to customize your own salad plate with watery iceberg lettuce and “healthy” toppings like croutons, blue cheese dressing and bacon bits. No thank you.

At Stark Reality Restaurants, Executive Chef de Cuisine David Zimmerman oversees an array of more sophisticated salads made with interesting lettuces and truly healthy toppings, like avocado. One of his personal favorites is the Fattoush Salad with Watermelon and Feta from Bird + the Bottle in Santa Rosa.

“If you’re talking summer salads, that’s what I think about,” said Zimmerman, who started working for the Starks as the sous chef of Stark’s Steakhouse back in 2009.

With winter and spring in the rearview mirror but the summer-fall harvest still a ways off, the chef settled on three perennially popular salads to share from three of the most popular Stark restaurants: the Arugula and Endive Salad from Willi’s Wine Bar, the classic Israeli Salad from Grossman’s and the Tuscan Kale & Quinoa Chopped Salad from Monti’s, all of Santa Rosa.

Whether garnished with creamy labneh and nutty dukkah or studded with proteins like quinoa and shredded chicken, these hearty meals in a bowl are vastly different from each other yet share the same dressing: a complex, acid-forward Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette.

“We just like the fermentation on the lemon,” Zimmerman said. “It brings out the umami flavor.”

Zimmerman said he likes to order the Arugula and Endive Salad from Willi’s either for lunch or as a starter, if he is having dinner there. That salad has been on the Willi’s Wine Bar menu since the restaurant first opened in its original location in 2002.

The secret to the salad’s success? It’s tossed together with creamy avocado, shaved Manchego cheese and a hint of truffle oil.

“It’s bright and acid-forward,” he said. “The arugula is peppery and bright, but there’s nothing overpowering. It’s a nice palate cleanser.”

The recipe calls for a good-quality black truffle oil, but it’s used judiciously to allow the other flavors in the salad to come through.

“You get the richness and fat of the avocado, and the truffle is a side note,” he said. “Then it’s got the sliced almonds for texture.”

At Grossman’s, the Israeli Salad features chopped tomato, cucumber and onions dressed with the preserved lemon vinaigrette and herbs, then topped with housemade labneh and dukkah.

“This is a great salad, for breakfast, lunch or as a side accompaniment for dinner,” Zimmerman said of the Grossman’s creation. “We have the Chicken Shwarma Kebabs (as a dinner plate) with a side of Israeli Salad.”

At Monti’s, the Tuscan Kale Quinoa Chopped Salad is a favorite for those looking for an entree salad to fill them up. It includes shredded chicken, a six-minute egg, Parmesan cheese, cucumbers, capers and pine nuts.

“It’s got protein and protein plus lots of fiber,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a big salad.”

Even though the chefs slice the kale into thin strips, it helps to dress the salad ahead to soften the kale.

“We fry the capers so they are a little crunchy,” he said. “They add a little texture to the salad as well.”

Most of the Stark Reality restaurants have extended their hours to 9 p.m. seven days a week, so diners can take advantage of the spring weather. Stark’s Steakhouse is open 4-9 p.m.; Grossman’s is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and all the others are open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The team of mixologists are busy whipping up new spring cocktails, and Willi’s Wine Bar is now serving housemade cocktails as well.

Eventually, Grossman’s will also be open to 9 p.m., Zimmerman said, once they build out the dinner menu a bit more.

For more information, go to starkrealityrestaurants.com

You can find good-quality black truffle oil at specialty markets and Italian markets.

Willi’s Wine Bar Arugula and Endive Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 16-ounce container organic baby arugula

1 large Hass avocado

½ cup toasted, sliced almonds with skin

2 red endives

½ cup shaved Manchego cheese

½ cup Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe below)

3 tablespoons black truffle oil

Wash and rinse baby arugula and let dry.

Cut red endive in half, remove heart and slice lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick pieces.

Cut avocado in half and remove pit and skin. Slice into ¼-inch-thick pieces.

In large mixing bowl, add arugula, endive, half the toasted almonds, half the avocado and the Manchego cheese.

Toss salad together with preserved vinaigrette and truffle oil, then transfer to serving bowl or platter.

Garnish the top of the salad with the remaining sliced avocado and toasted almonds.

The Stark restaurants and catering company use the local hydroponic tomatoes from Parsons Homegrown Tomatoes of Fulton, which picks their tomatoes ripe and sells them year-round at farmers markets.

Labneh is a strained yogurt cheese. At Grossman’s, they make it by draining the yogurt in a cheesecloth, then add some preserved lemons. Dukkah is a Middle Eastern spice blend, which they make with pine nuts instead of the usual almonds and walnuts. You can also buy labneh and dukkah at specialty markets, although it probably won’t be as good as the housemade versions below.

Grossman’s Israeli Salad

Serves 2 to 4 as a side dish

For salad:

1 pint cherry tomatoes

1 medium cucumber

½ red onion

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped dill

½ cup Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette (see recipe below)

Salt and pepper, to taste

For Preserved Lemon Labneh:

1 500-gram tub of Fage 5% Greek yogurt

½ preserved lemon (or zest and juice from two lemons)

For Pine Nut Dukkah:

½ cup toasted pine nuts

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground

½ cup toasted sesame seeds

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon brown sugar

Salt, to taste

For salad: Cut cherry tomatoes in half. Peel cucumber and cut into ½-inch chunks.

Toss tomatoes and cucumbers together with a teaspoon of salt and let marinate 30 minutes, then drain excess liquid.

Cut red onion into medium dice and add to tomatoes and cucumbers. Toss vegetables together with herbs and vinaigrette in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

For Preserved Lemon Labneh: Roughly chop preserved lemon, then puree in blender. Mix together with yogurt. (If using fresh lemons, simply mix the juice and zest with the yogurt.)

For Pine Nut Dukkah: Roughly chop pine nuts. Thoroughly mix all ingredients together in a mixing bowl.

To plate: Place the salad on a plate, top with a scoop of labneh and garnish with the dukkah.

“You can roast your own chicken at home with any recipe you desire for more control of the flavor profile you would like for the final dish,” Zimmerman said. “Or you can buy any rotisserie chicken from your local grocery store and save yourself a few extra steps. At Monti’s, we have the luxury of our own rotisserie that we use for our chicken.”

Monti’s Tuscan Kale & Quinoa Chopped Salad

Makes 4 servings

½ cup tricolor quinoa

4 eggs

½ roasted chicken (leg, thigh and breast)

4 bunches lacinato kale, pulled from the rib and chopped thin

2 ribs celery, sliced

1 Persian cucumber, sliced into thin rounds

10 to 15 heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half (depending on size)

2 red radishes, thinly sliced

¼ cup capers, drained and rinsed

¼ cup pine nuts

¼ cup feta cheese

3 tablespoons Parmesan Reggiano, grated

½ cup Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe below)

Fresh cracked black pepper

For the quinoa: Boil the quinoa in 2 quarts salted water until you notice the individual grains begin to break down and it’s soft to the bite (about 20-30 minutes). Drain and let cool.

For the eggs: In a medium saucepot, bring enough water to cover the eggs to a boil. Gently place the eggs in the water, taking care not to let them crack. Boil them for 10 minutes, then shock in ice water to arrest the cooking process. Once cool, peel and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

For the chicken: Remove the skin from the chicken and pick all the meat off the bones. Shred the meat by hand by pulling it apart.

For the salad: Place all of the ingredients except the eggs into a mixing bowl and toss liberally with lemon vinaigrette. Place tossed salad into a serving bowl, cut the eggs into quarters and garnish the salad with them. Finish with fresh cracked pepper.

When you make your own preserved lemons — a simple blend of lemon, salt and lemon juice — the process takes about a month, Zimmerman said. If you want to skip that step, you can find preserved lemons at specialty markets.

This large batch of dressing can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks and used on all of the salads above or another salad of your choice. To refresh, shake vigorously before using. If you don’t need that much dressing, you can cut the recipe in half.

Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette

Makes about 8 cups

2 shallots

2 tablespoons salt

¼ cup honey

2 cups lemon juice

2 preserved lemons

½ cup champagne vinegar

6 cups blended olive oil (75% canola and 25% extra-virgin olive oil)

2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

Clean and roughly chop shallots. Clean rind from preserved lemons and discard pulp.

Combine all ingredients except oil and pepper in the base of a blender or food processor. Mix well until fully blended.

Emulsify oil into mixture by slowly adding oil in a stream.

Mix coarsely ground black pepper in by hand after emulsifying oil.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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