may 15, 2021

Spring Salad with Strawberries and Blue Cheese

I discovered cooking classes as a twenty-something telecom worker living in Portland. My boss and first workplace mentor, Kelli, was glamorous and a great cook, so I jumped at the chance when she invited me along. After one session, I was hooked.
Nancy, our no-nonsense instructor, was a slip of a woman with an impeccable manicure. She knew how to command a room. She ran marathons and a fancy catering company in town, and her classes felt like a favor she graciously doled out to her eager fans. As Nancy demonstrated the menu, leaping with ease between the steps of various recipes, we students sat in rows of folding chairs in front of her hulking kitchen island with rapt attention, furiously scribbling notes.
As the cooking of each dish was completed, a trusted assistant took over, plating and garnishing in classic 1990s style (Nancy laughed that her own beautiful hands could only manage to "line things up like soldiers", so she delegated the task). A glorious buffet was the finale, with wine and chitchat flowing freely. I recall each and every menu and my sense of belonging. It seemed cooking people were my people.
I diligently saved my paychecks for those classes and the tools and ingredients I learned about from Nancy—balsamic vinegar, anchovies and capers in salt, cheeses I’d never met before, white peppercorns! I practiced her recipes in my first cramped but light-drenched apartment kitchen. I bought a food processor. I invited guests for dinner and brunch and holiday feasts.
It would be fifteen years before I quit my day job to become a professional baker, and another decade before the opening of The Civic Kitchen. I’m struck by the influence of Nancy’s hospitality and teaching style on my vision for our school. And I see threads of her flavor profiles woven through my collection of recipes, including this one. I’m unsure how much I’ve altered it over the years, but the strange-on-paper ingredient list surely originated with her. There is alchemy in the pairing of sweet/tart strawberries with the briny funk of blue cheese. Toasted sesame and poppy seeds add crunch and visual interest. In classic Nancy fashion, the pretty salad holds up well on a buffet table.
This recipe is one of the first I think of when strawberries come into season.

Spring Salad

with Strawberries and Blue Cheese

Author Jen Nurse

When peak season strawberries lure you in with their intoxicating fragrance and their deep red color has crept all the way up to the green leafy caps, make this salad. Bold blue cheese pairs wonderfully with the bright fruit.

Adapted from: Nancy Ruuhela of Custom Cuisine
Yield   6 generous servings


For the Dressing:

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup cider vinegar

1 small shallot, minced

1 Tbsp poppy seeds

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

½ tsp paprika

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Salad:

2 heads romaine lettuce, leaves separated and trimmed

1 pint strawberries, stemmed and quartered

4 oz blue cheese, such as Pt. Reyes Original Blue, crumbled

2 Tbsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted


Vigorously shake all of the dressing ingredients together in a jar, including ½ teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper. Wrap a strawberry slice and a crumble of blue cheese in a lettuce leaf and dip into the dressing. Take a bite. Adjust the seasonings to suit your taste.
Arrange the lettuce leaves on a platter or individual plates, topping them each with several berry slices and a drizzle of dressing. Sprinkle with the cheese and sesame seeds.