A light, crisp salad that also hints at autumn
When people think about "autumn cooking," what comes to mind most often are ingredients that seem to offer the warmth and comfort we crave during the season: earthy, meaty-tasting mushrooms, savory-sweet mellow squashes, juicy-crisp apples combining spiciness and tanginess with their sweetness, and so on.
And all that produce I mentioned also abounds in what we think of as fall colors: golds, oranges, yellows, reds, and browns.
But seasonal cooking right now doesn't always have to focus on such qualities. You can also create dishes filled with the essence of autumn that are as light, bright, fresh, crisp, and flavorful as anything you'd find on a springtime or summer table. It's all a matter of choosing the right ingredients.
For a perfect example, I'm happy to share a recipe for Asian Pear Salad from John Lechleidner, chef de cuisine at WP24, my modern Asian restaurant high atop the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The title ingredient is a species of the autumn fruit prized for its subtly sweet flavor coupled with a texture that combines crispness with abundant juiciness, making the now widely available fruit especially refreshing.
John's recipe combines Asian pear with seasonal greens that perfectly complement its flavor and texture: tender, peppery fresh watercress; bracingly bitter radicchio and curly endive; and the bright bite of scallions.
To add an herbaceous element, the recipe also includes fresh cilantro and the fresh Asian herb called shiso, sometimes also known as perilla, a member of the mint family found in both purple-red and green forms and known for its pungent, grassy, slightly minty flavor.
You can find fresh shiso leaves in many Asian markets, or even grow it yourself; or substitute Thai or regular basil. Asian markets and many well-stocked supermarkets are also good sources for the distinctive dressing and garnish ingredients: white miso paste, also known as sweet miso; the bottled juice of yuzu, a bright-tasting citrus fruit found in Japanese and Korean kitchens; toasted Asian-style sesame oil; nutty-tasting black sesame seeds; and crispy fried shallots, a popular garnish in many Asian kitchens. You can also find all these ingredients online.
The salad itself comes together in very short order. There's no cooking involved: just stir together the dressing and then cut up the salad ingredients.
To prep the pear with ease, I highly recommend a mandoline, the indispensable kitchen tool that cuts uniform slices or strips with a simple strumming motion across one of its super-sharp blades. (But always take great care to use the finger guard that comes with many mandolines.)
I hope you enjoy how much this salad brightens any autumn meal, regardless of whether the dishes that follow it are inspired by Asian cooking or other cuisines.