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Garden's bounty inspires an unusual pairing

Every year, my husband plants spring vegetables. And every year, he insists that we eat, day in and day out, whatever it is he's grown, until the season ends.

I admire his pioneer spirit, but you can eat only so much spinach. And snow peas. And arugula. Plus, the kids won't touch any of this, so that means more for us. Oh, joy.

There are times my soul cries out for the good old spinach my mom used to make — it came frozen from a box, and had more leaves than stems. But I bite my tongue and keep on the lookout for original recipes that use whatever the current crop is.

That's how I found this spinach-and-strawberry salad. It came from Cooking Light magazine and it has the unusual combination of spinach and feta cheese.

I know, that's not exactly up there with, say, peanut butter and jelly as far as classic food pairings go. In fact, feta isn't even something that comes to mind when strawberries are mentioned. Cream cheese? Yes. Feta? No.

But, as goofy as the combination sounds, it's actually quite good. There's something about the saltiness of the cheese and the sweetness of the strawberries that makes the recipe a keeper.

Another reason I chose it: the strawberries. At the moment, our daughters — ages 3 and 5 — are addicted to strawberries. They rate better than Girl Scout cookies in an informal survey of popular snacks in the Holland-McCray household. We go through about a carton a day.

I thought maybe, just maybe, if I covered spinach with strawberries and strawberry-flavored dressing, the kids would actually consume a leaf or two.

We had most of the ingredients already, so shopping was easy. I did have to buy feta, though, and there's half a tub left over in the fridge. So, now I'm on the lookout for feta recipes.

Making the dressing was a breeze. When I dipped a spoon into the blender to test it, I was surprised. I had been worried about it being overly sweet, but it was light, and not at all cloying.

The rest of the preparation went easily. The result was gorgeous: bright-green spinach doused with pink dressing, and topped with red strawberries and white cheese.

The salad tasted great, too. The only thing I didn't like about it was the fennel. The crunch of the vegetable seemed out of place in such an elegant dish.

Of course, the kids wouldn't eat it. Still, I'll make it again. And again.

Until spinach season is over.

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at kmccray@modbee.com or 578-2358.

What the testers had to say

Only five out of eight guests at my table wanted to try this salad. Of those five, only three finished it, but all three enjoyed it. Perhaps the combining of spinach with strawberries is just too bizarre. The actual flavors — strawberry, vinegar, fennel — were nicely blended for a salad dressing and married nicely with the spinach. My only criticism is that the spinach should be baby spinach (for ease of handling) and the fennel should be finely chopped so as to mingle with the spinach when the mixture is tossed. My diced fennel just sank to the bottom of the bowl and had to be fished for and spooned onto the salad plate.

— Ralph Moore, Modesto
    

We had a lot of leftovers! I opted to try this salad for Easter dinner. The dressing was time-consuming to make and very tangy. The flavor would improve with sweeter strawberries, but the results of this batch were less than favorable. I liked buying fennel bulb, having had little experience with this vegetable, but couldn't taste it in the salad. The dressing overpowered the other ingredients. My guests had more suggestions than compliments, leaving me to think that this recipe won't be my "go to" spinach salad.

— Ann Griffith, Modesto
    

I was really looking forward to making this salad. I thought the sweet strawberries, spicy fennel and tart feta would be a wonderful combination but, unfortunately, it didn't work for me. The dressing was more like strawberry purée and hid the flavor of the actual strawberries on top; the fennel competed with the spinach and lost; and though the feta and berries were good, my kids thought it was "wrong" and "weird" and I was just altogether disappointed.

I bought one fennel bulb, which gave me enough diced fennel; I used a 9-ounce bag for four salads; and I don't know what to do with the extra 2½ cups strawberry dressing as the nine ingredients together made close to 3 cups, and you only use less than a ½ cup! I was highly suspicious of the quantity when I read the recipe and was not surprised with the leftover amount. So I don't know ... perhaps it would work over chicken, or maybe ice cream!

— Karin Reenstierna, Modesto
    

I am always up for a new and interesting salad recipe. This recipe came in handy for Easter dinner. I made it according to the directions but used frozen strawberries (I freeze them while in season — in late spring — to use throughout the year) in the dressing and fresh strawberries to top the spinach greens. Overall, we liked the salad. I had never had fresh fennel in a salad. It is always fun to discover a new use for a food. I found the dressing to be a bit tart even though the strawberry flavor in the dressing was great. Often spinach salads are dressed with a slightly sweet dressing. Next time, I will try adding a little more sugar just to take the edge off the tartness, and then top off with the fresh, sweet-tart strawberries and the salty feta cheese. Note: This recipe made much more dressing than needed for four servings. Next time I will make less. But for now, the leftovers will come in handy as I make this salad again for a potluck this weekend.

— Sandra Cadra, Oakdale
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