This salad (and dressing) is one of the simplest things I make on a regular basis and also one of the most requested, especially for big get-togethers with family or friends. I love that. Easy, fresh, nutritious and beautiful. I did happen to make this salad for Christmas dinner, but the real reason it’s called “Christmas salad” is because of the colors – red, green and white (with a little toasty brown thrown in, too). I love the balance of the varied flavors but the thing that really makes this salad spectacular to me is the textures: crisp apples, crunchy pecans, chewy cranberries, creamy cheese and fresh spinach, all lightly dressed.
One of the perks of this salad, unlike some others, is that there are only one or two things to chop – the apples or pears and, if you’re using them, the avocados. Otherwise, you just sprinkle the layers on. Seriously, you can make this huge salad and the dressing in less than 15 minutes. If that isn’t a good reason to take this to the next gathering you need a dish for, I don’t know what is.
The balsamic vinaigrette for this salad is so simple: vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. Because of that, it’s extremely versatile and can be used not only for many types of salads but also for dipping crusty bread (and I’m sure plenty of other things). The garlic makes it almost spicy, and the high vinegar-to-oil ratio (compared to many dressings) adds an extra kick, too. If it’s too strong for you, just add in a little extra olive oil or decrease the vinegar a bit. My sister recommended the option of adding a teaspoon or two of maple syrup if you want a tamer (and sweeter) flavor. Also, I sometimes leave out the garlic when I’m using this recipe for bread-dipping or other things.
In the recipe below, I specifically call for “high-quality” balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil. That doesn’t mean it has to be super-expensive-top-of-the-line; it just means that if you get the cheapest, most generic kind possible, you’re really going to notice in the flavor and quality of the dressing. I personally love Trader Joe’s least expensive balsamic vinegar and their medium-priced Spanish extra-virgin olive oil (as seen in the photos). Also, this dressing will be significantly different if you use jarred garlic – tamer but probably a little bitter and just all-around not as good. I highly recommend fresh garlic, both for its flavor and for its immune-boosting properties.
And finally a note about the cheese: if you’re not a fan of mouldy cheese (I am a fairly recent convert myself), you can choose another sharp-flavored, soft cheese instead. We tried the salad with chevre (goat cheese) yesterday since that’s what we had on hand, and it was good, though I still prefer gorgonzola personally. I’m not well-versed enough in fancy types of cheese to recommend any others, but if you have any ideas, let me know in the comments!
You might be wondering what the blue thing is in the above picture. It’s my garlic peeler. I love it. I eat more garlic and get less irritated in the process because of it. It wasn’t super cheap (about $7, though the link is to the red one on Amazon for $4.50 right now) but, next to my garlic press, it might be the most-used small kitchen gadget I have. You simply place a clove of garlic inside, roll on the counter with your hand, and out come peeled garlic cloves like the ones shown above.
This is such a beautiful salad, especially served in a bright red bowl at Christmas time. These photos don’t include the avocado or the gorgonzola/bleu cheese, but they just add to the loveliness. The whole time I was making this, the baby was eyeing me, the salad, and the camera equipment, wondering what was going on. We let her check it out afterwards and then picked spinach and cranberries off the floor when she was done. I think she was a fan.
Christmas Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
1 pound (about 10 cups) fresh baby spinach or combination of spinach and chopped romaine lettuce
2 to 3 medium crisp apples or pears, diced
about 1 1/2 cups salted pecan halves or pieces, or to taste
about 1 cup sweetened dried cranberries, or to taste
4 to 8 ounces gorgonzola or bleu cheese, crumbled (optional but highly recommended)
2 to 3 medium avocados, diced (optional)
1/2 cup high-quality balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
Layer spinach, apples, avocado (if using), pecans, cranberries and cheese in a large serving bowl or on individual serving plates. (I find that this layering order makes the most beautiful presentation.) Whisk or shake together dressing ingredients in a separate container, such as a bowl, dressing bottle or something with a tight-fitting lid. For a large salad as shown in the photos, serve immediately with dressing on the side for guests to add individually. If serving on individual salad plates, drizzle a small amount of dressing over the top (this stuff is potent!).
Full disclosure: Any purchases you make through the garlic peeler link above may provide me with a small percentage of the sale. However, I will only link to products that I whole-heartedly love and promise not to spam you with product reviews! Thanks for supporting my site.