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Guest Chef Benjamin Udave

New crop Asian pears have been available since July, but the varieties that are harvested in the fall months are especially sweet after a whole summer of sun.
Image of Chef Benjamin Udave
For his Ingredient Challenge, Chef Benjamin Udave, executive chef of the private Jonathan Club at the Beach in Santa Monica, California, uses this juicy, sweet fruit to create a succulent Asian Pear & Medjool Date Vinaigrette that is definitely the star of the chef’s Roasted Sweet Pepper Salad.

While Chef Benjamin’s dish has many other flavorful components, his creamy pear dressing elevates this dish to a flavor level that is truly special. I served this at my own table and in seconds there was only the silence of good food being consumed as each guest fell under the flavor spell of this luscious dressing that had been drizzled over the chef’s thoroughly tasty arugula salad. That silence was eventually broken by a friend who looked down at his spotlessly cleaned salad plate and exclaimed that this dressing would make concrete taste good!

I could suggest several better options than concrete, but ripe Asian pears puréed into a thick liquid along with medjool dates, shallots and white balsamic, then poured over baby arugula tossed with roasted mini sweet peppers and pistachios tastes as enjoyably decadent as it sounds. The velvet smooth vinaigrette offers a delicate blend of creamy sweetness from the fruit that is held in check by a pleasing hint of acidity from the balsamic. The reader really must try this recipe to appreciate the rich flavors that Chef Benjamin’s culinary genius manages to produce from a few compatible ingredients.

In China, Japan, and Korea, thousands of different varieties of Asian pears are cultivated; even in this country, a few dozen varieties are commercially available. They may all look similar on a retail produce display to the general consumer; to the Asian pear aficionado, each variety has a distinctive bouquet, texture and flavor. Asian pears can have a smooth, thin skin or a slightly rough exterior. Skin colors range from a yellow-green to glowing yellow or caramel as well as many shades of brownish-orange. They are exceedingly juicy, with a delicate sugar water sweetness and crunchy texture.

Unlike European pears, Asian pears must be tree-ripened to achieve peak flavor. Once picked, the fruit will not ripen further, though some varieties can be kept in deep storage for several months without losing their just-picked taste and crunch. Growers believe that the lower night temperatures that come with the late harvest season contribute to the sugar content of the fruit. Chef Benjamin certainly optimizes these fresh harvest flavors in both his dressing and the slices of pear that he uses in the plating of this dish.

Another interesting ingredient that greatly adds flavor to this salad is the roasted mini sweet peppers. Mini sweet peppers have very few seeds and retain their vibrant colors even when roasted and peeled. Because of their small size, it took a couple of attempts to get the firing right, but the additional smoky tang that the process infused into these tasty little nuggets was well worth it. One useful tip, prick each pepper with a tooth pick before exposing it to flame. I did this high on the “shoulder” of the pepper because it would be cut off with the calyx after being roasted and peeled. The toothpick hole prevents these little guys for splitting from within as air pressure builds up when they are fired. This way the flavor explodes on the palate and not on the grill!

Arugula, one of my favorite words, rolls off the tongue with the gusto of its Mediterranean provenance. Chef Benjamin uses the green’s peppery zest to play off both the dressing and the sweet peppers with a master’s touch. If arugula is not available in your local market, substitute watercress as it has a similar, though slightly milder, taste.

Since the preparation of the dish for this article, I should confess that Chef Benjamin’s Asian Pear & Date Dressing has been tried on two other salad dishes with great success. In fact, I have adopted this versatile condiment as my own house dressing as it has continued to generate unsolicited praise whenever it is served. So thank you, Chef, your recipe just keeps on giving!

Roasted Sweet Pepper Salad w/ Asian Pear and Date Vinaigrette
Serves 4
Image of Roasted Sweet Pepper Salad w/ Asian Pear and Date Vinaigrette
8 assorted Vine Sweet Mini Peppers, roasted, peeled, sliced lengthwise
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
2 oz fresh thyme, fine chop
2 oz chives, fine chop
¼ cup Italian flat parsley, fine chop
2 cups wild baby arugula
1 torpedo onion, sliced very thin lengthwise
½ cup pistachios roasted, rough chop
4 Asian pears
1 cup salad oil
4 oz white balsamic vinegar
4 medjool dates, rough chop
1 small shallot, rough chop
Pink peppercorns
Salt & pepper (to taste)

Toss the peppers with one-half of the olive oil, and then roast over fire on a small grate grill until charred all around. Place in a container with lid sealed for about 10 min so the skins become easy to peel. Peel with towel but not under running water; it may be easier using water, but the roasted flavor is lost. Once peeled and sliced lengthwise, toss well in container with the fresh herbs and set aside until ready to plate. Peel, core and chop three of the pears, place in blender with the shallot, dates and white balsamic. Blend slowly while adding the salad oil. Then liquefy on high speed. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer contents to a large cruet. In a bowl, toss the baby arugula, thin sliced torpedo onion, pistachios, and a splash of the pear purée. Slice the remaining pear into thin rounds. Place and overlap several of the pear rounds on each plate. Stack the arugula mixture on the pear slices, add the sweet peppers liberally on the greens. Drizzle the dressing over the salad stack, garnishing with peppers and a sprinkle of the pistachios.
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