A Relic of the Seventies

When I think of Spinach Salad with mushrooms and bacon, I think of the 1970s and patchwork granny skirts, and those really short tennis dresses women wore. I think of Harvey Wallbanger cake and fondue and Mark Spitz.

    Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing was at every potluck or dinner gathering my family attended. Sometimes it had hard-boiled eggs in it, and sometimes not, but that’s about all the variation I remember. It always had a warm dressing made with bacon grease, sugar and ketchup and vinegar. If it was freshly made, the vinegary fumes would get in your nose, which was not entirely unpleasant.

In the early 1980s, I began noticing that people were using Russian dressing, and thereby depriving the salad of the very important temperature contrast between cold crisp greens and warm oily dressing, not to mention the whole bacon-sugar-vinegar combination.

    I found myself with bacon, mushrooms, and spinach a few years back and was inspired to make it from an old Southern Living recipe using balsamic vinegar in place of white vinegar but retaining the ketchup. I gave it a topping of toasted sesame seeds. Divine. It was like tasting it all over again.

This time around I tried a few innovations. I wanted it to be a main dish, so I doubled the mushrooms and used really good center-cut bacon. I don’t love raw mushrooms, so they got a turn in the hot bacon grease with the lid on so they began cooking but retained some firmness. I caramelized shallots and red onions then added a little blueberry-pomegranate syrup, and a spoonful of sugar, then the vinegar. I topped it with two generous handfuls of deeply toasted almonds.
“Sometimes I think you should open a restaurant,” said Big Fella. “But then I think it’d be too risky.”

    I’ll say. The salad only works if the onions are caramelized just right, the dressing cooked down to a syrup. That’s the kind of work that’s hard to replicate in big batches, in a busy kitchen. And even if you could find people to do it right, every time, breaking a wonderful dish into a process might somehow take the magic out of it. And when the magic is gone, the food falls flat.

Because the real joy of cooking is that extraordinary moment when you put that first bite in your mouth, and it’s even better than you expected and you aren’t sure why, but whatever you did must have worked.

Seventies Spinach Salad with Bacon Dressing

10 ounces good quality bacon
2 8-ounce packages fresh button mushrooms
1 red onion, sliced into rings
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup, fruit syrup or jelly
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 to 8 ounces fresh spinach (depending on how many you’re feeding)
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Cook the bacon in a skillet until it reaches your preferred doneness. Drain and chop. Cook the mushrooms in the bacon grease, covered, until they release some liquid. Remove them with a slotted spoon.
Cook the onions in the mushroom liquid and about 2 tablespoons of the vegetable the oil until they are tender. Add the fruit syrup and sugar and cook, covered, until the onions and shallots are fully caramelized, tender all the way though, and a deep color. Add the vinegar and cook, stirring, until well blended. Add the remaining vegetable oil and mix well.
Pile the spinach in the bowl. Top with the almonds, then the mushrooms. Pour (or spoon — it may be too thick to pour) the dressing and onions over the salad. Toss