A couple weeks back, Adri and I had a wonderful meal at Dirty Habit, my old chef Dave Bazirgan's restaurant in San Francisco. As my first real chef, I credit him with a lot of things. Teaching me how to judge my own work (and start over if it's not good enough). Instructing me on the right way to make hollandaise by hand (I've since started using the hand blender). Giving me the tools to be able to tell the difference between good and bad ingredients (and when it's okay to use the latter). Giving me my first taste of a truly excellent warm spinach and bacon salad.
It was this latter—something he threw together for our back-of-the-house family meal one day to prove to the rest of the kitchen staff that it didn't have to just be a random stew of odds and ends—that inspired this dish, a super-simple salad of warm Brussels sprouts leaves in a vinaigrette made from warm bacon fat, shallots, hazelnuts, honey, and sherry vinegar with just a touch of extra-virgin olive oil.
I have to say, it actually works a great deal better than the spinach-based original. Brussels sprouts and bacon fat were born to be together, and hazelnuts are a classic pair with both. The honey in the dressing makes it just sweet enough to temper the bite of sherry vinegar and help it pair up with the bacon fat.
To get the best texture out of the sprouts, I like to peel off as many layers of whole leaves as possible. This gives the dressing, hazelnuts, and bacon bits something to cup into.
Once I get down to the very central core of each sprout, I slice it thin so that it cooks in just about the same time as the whole leaves.
Once I've rendered out the bacon fat and added it to the dressing, I use the remaining fat in the pan to very rapidly sauté the Brussels sprouts leaves. I find that you get the best combination of nutty, lightly charred flavor with crisp texture by adding the leaves in a single layer once the bacon fat starts lightly smoking, then letting it sit to char on the first side for about a minute before rapidly sautéing.
The great part about this particular vinaigrette is that because of the high proportion of emulsifiers (both honey and the small particles created by pounding the hazelnuts will help the bacon fat and vinegar get along nicely), you don't even have to take the typical slowly-drizzle-while-whisking-constantly approach to forming the vinaigrette. You can just dump all the ingredients together and whisk it until it emulsifies naturally.
The end result, with its sweet, crunchy-tender greens, shallots, and bacon is very reminiscent of a classic French frisée aux lardons salad (yet another dish that Baz taught me to make for the first time).
Come to think of it, why don't I take it all the way and put a poached egg on here?
These are the kinds of questions that keep me awake at night.