At the heart of the praline is its caramel, which is nothing more or less than sugar cooked until it turns golden. The challenge is how to cook it. Typically, we're advised to combine sugar and water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves. The process requires using a brush dipped in water to wash any sugar stuck to the sides of the pan into the mixture on the bottom. Doing so is meant to prevent the mixture from crystalizing and becoming cloudy and soft when you want it to end up clear and hard. My best efforts notwithstanding, I've found that the sugar often crystalizes anyway.
The Brits have figured out a better to make caramel (aka burnt sugar): put the sugar in a dry pan over medium heat until it melts, then continue cooking until it becomes golden. Simple and foolproof. If you're a caramel maker, or you want to be one, this is the best method for you.
As for the other ingredients, you're welcome to swap in different greens, dried fruits or cheeses. And if you're no fan of pecans, substitute walnuts, pistachios or even peanuts. Whatever the combo, the praline will put it over the top.
Arugula Salad with Spicy Pecan Praline, Dried Cranberries and Aged Gouda
Start to finish: 35 minutes
For the praline:
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
1/4 cup sugar
For the dressing:
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
8 cups loosely packed arugula
3/4 cup coarsely grated aged gouda
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Make the praline: Lightly oil a baking sheet. In a small bowl toss the pecans with the salt and cayenne. Place the sugar in a heavy skillet or saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar starts to melt. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the sugar turns a golden caramel. Add the pecan mixture and, using a heatproof spatula or spoon, stir to combine well.
Carefully pour the pecan praline onto the sheet pan (the mixture will be very hot) and spread evenly with an oiled offset spatula. Let cool completely. Crack the praline into pieces and medium-chop it.
Make the dressing: In a bowl whisk together the mustard, vinegar and salt to taste, until the salt is dissolved. Add the oil in a stream, whisking, until all the oil is incorporated. Taste and add additional salt, if necessary, and black pepper to taste.
Make the salad: In a large bowl combine the arugula, gouda, cranberries and praline. Add the dressing and toss well.
Nutritional information per serving: 245 calories; 168 calories from fat; 19 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 14 mg cholesterol; 275 mg sodium; 17 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 15 g sugar; 5 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "HomeCooking 101."