By Wolfgang Puck
Tribune Content Agency
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.
ASIAN PEAR SALAD WITH YUZU-MISO DRESSING
- 7 tablespoons white, or sweet, miso
- 1/3 cup (85 ml) bottled yuzu juice
- 3 tablespoons Asian-style toasted sesame oil
- 1 cup (250 ml) canola oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground white pepper
ASIAN PEAR SALAD
- 1 large ripe Asian pear
1 bunch curly endive or frisÈe, large stems removed, leaves torn into small bite-sized pieces
- 1 bunch watercress, rinsed and dried, large stems discarded, leaves separated into small bite-sized clusters
- 1 head radicchio, leaves separated and trimmed, cut diagonally into thin julienne strips
- 2 large scallions, trimmed, white and light-green parts cut diagonally into thin slices, dark-green parts cut lengthwise into very thin strips resembling grass
- 2 purple or green shiso leaves or fresh Thai basil or regular basil, rolled up and cut crosswise to make thin strips
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) fresh cilantro leaves
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) bottled Asian crispy fried shallots, or crispy fried onions
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) whole roasted cashews
- 1 tablespoon toasted black sesame seeds, coarsely ground in a clean spice mill or with a mortar and pestle
- First, make the Yuzu-Miso Dressing. In a nonreactive mixing bowl, whisk together the miso and yuzu juice. Whisking continuously, drizzle in the sesame oil until fully incorporated. Continue whisking and drizzle in the canola oil to form a thick, smooth dressing. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Set the dressing aside.
- For the salad, cut the Asian pear lengthwise into quarters and stem, core, and seed them. With a paring knife, carefully peel each quarter. Insert the medium julienne blade on a mandoline and, carefully moving one quarter at a time lengthwise across the blade, cut the Asian pear into julienne strips. (Keep your fingers away from the cutting surface.) Spread the strips of Asian pear on a double layer of paper towels to absorb excess liquid, but do not press on them.
- Transfer the Asian pear julienne to a large mixing bowl. Add the curly endive, watercress, radicchio, scallions, shiso or basil, and cilantro leaves. Toss all the ingredients thoroughly. Then, drizzle and toss in enough of the Yuzu-Miso Dressing to coat the ingredients lightly but evenly.
- To serve the salad, divide the mixture evenly among 4 large chilled serving plates, mounding the salad neatly in the center. Divide the crispy salads evenly among the tops of the salad mounds. Drizzle the remaining dressing evenly over and around the salads. Distribute toasted cashews around the salads. Sprinkle ground black sesame seeds over the salads and around the plates. Serve immediately.