~ This Spinach Salad with Apple, Cheddar and Smoked Almonds is a perfectly gorgeous combination of creamy-crunchy-smoky-sweet-tangy deliciousness. It’s a true family favorite at our house – and one that I know you’ll be making again and again, too! With just a few simple ingredients (and make-ahead steps), it’s easy enough for weeknights, but effortlessly dresses up for entertaining! ~
This Recipe Is: • Ready in 30 Minutes or Less • Includes Make-Ahead Steps • Vegetarian • Gluten Free •
This time of year, you guys want salads. How do I know this? Numbers don’t lie.
Every fall, our Salad with Goat Cheese just blows up the place, clear through Christmas, with off-the-chart hoards of people happily munching it alongside their holiday feasts.
And, once the holidays are in full swing, our wreath-shaped Christmas Salad goes absolutely bonkers, with around a ba-jillion people (*attention mathematicians: not exactly a precise number*) flocking to make it.
But it’s been three or four years since I created those recipes for you guys, so I figured you’d probably be itching for another salad idea right about now.
And this one’s a doozy!
I threw it together one evening last fall, just based on what I was craving in a salad recipe, and the flavors worked out to be simply gorgeous together. Even though I’ve made this spinach salad so many times since that first night, it needed almost zero tweaking – so perfect, right from the start!
I mean, seriously, spinach has never had it so good! Just look at it gettin’ all sassy and gussied up with:
- Crisp, juicy apples
- Creamy chunks of cheddar cheese
- Crunchy nuggets of smoked almonds (like these)
If you’ve made my salad recipes before, you know I’m alllll about the toppings, so there are lots and lots of them mingling with your spinach leaves here. Boatloads of juicy-creamy-crunchy textures and flavors!
But then there’s the dressing. Oh.My.Goodness. I love this dressing! It’s got …
- Sweet honey
- Tart cider vinegar
- Smoky paprika
- It’s LOW FAT!
Yup! It’s so much lower in fat and calories than typical vinaigrettes!
A Healthier Vinaigrette
Although classic vinaigrette recipes call for a ratio of 3:1 (three parts oil to one part vinegar), I’ve found that you can actually cut way, waaaaay back on the oil, which saves on both calories and added fat (albeit healthy fat).
Try it and see. If you’re used to making more typical vinaigrettes, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
This dressing is luscious and deliciously flavor-forward. It’s exactly perfect cascading over the spinach leaves, mirroring the sweet, savory and smoky flavor profiles from the apples, almonds and cheese.
While we’re talking ingredients, there’s one other thing I want to mention here: the spinach itself. You may wonder: can you really mess with the spinach, if you’re making a spinach salad?!? (Hint: why yes … yes you can! I tried it for you!)
When a Spinach Salad Isn’t a Spinach Salad
To make this recipe extra quick and easy, I normally grab a bag of baby spinach, all pre-washed and ready to go. But just to change things up one day, I tried it with a bag of romaine instead. Also terrific!
Since the trio of toppings and that amazing dressing are really the stars here, you can feel free to riff on the backdrop of greens.
A few things to consider:
1) Health: Nutritionally, there’s just no arguing with superfood spinach. You know we love working spinach into recipes here at THK whenever we get the chance! But nutritionally, romaine has a lot going for it, too, and it’s still a much better choice than, say, iceberg.
2) Texture: The craggy, curled pieces of romaine mingle with the yummy mound of toppings in a way that’s much different from how the smooth spinach leaves sort of float amongst the other ingredients. Both options are great, but they definitely each give a unique character to the salad.
3) Occasion: To me, the spinach salad version seems dressier, fancier. Just as comfortable showing up at a schnazzy dinner party as it is joining your fam for a hurry-up weeknight meal. The romaine version, on the other hand, feels more casual somehow. Like it really wants to go to a picnic or maybe be the fresh, crisp sidekick at a chili cook-off.
4) Personal preference: No matter how nutritious spinach is, if your family prefers romaine, then I say: go for it! Never miss a chance to get your peeps eating more veggies and salads!
A Few More Tips for the Very Best Salad
Layer It Up! – As I mentioned before, this salad is specifically designed to be all about the toppings. But, to avoid having most of them disappear off the top, as the first person digs into the salad bowl to serve some up, I recommend layering a few of the apples, cheese cubes and nuts throughout the greens as you build the salad.
Dig Deep! – Also, if you’re tossing the entire salad with the dressing before serving, you may find that those heavy chunks of toppings fall to the bottom as you toss – be sure to scoop down to the bottom and rescue them back to the top when you’re done tossing.
Dressing Amounts – The precise amount of dressing you’ll need may vary depending on if you’re tossing the whole salad together (in which case, you probably won’t need quite all the dressing) or allowing people to drizzle on their own dressing as they serve themselves (in which case, I find that people tend to use a bit more).
Picking Perfect Apples – I definitely think Honeycrisp apples (or other similar varieties) are the way to go for this salad. You want an apple that’s refreshingly crisp yet very juicy, and that’s also a lovely combination of both sweet and tart.
An Apple a Day – I call for 1 cup of apple chunks on the recipe card, but I actually often use a bit more, sometimes up to maybe 1 1/2 cups. Mostly, I just hate to waste food, and I like to use up the entire apple while I’m at it. The Honeycrisp apples I find at my store are often pretty big guys – frequently in the 7-ounce to 8-ounce range. Apples that size will yield more than just one cup of chunks, so you can either munch on the extra apple wedges while you work (bonus for the cook!), or turbo-load your salad with even more apple cubes.
Ahhhh … even with a recipe this ridiculously simple, it’s always so great to get ahead of the game! You know I love make-ahead steps!
Although Honeycrisps resist browning better than many other apple varieties, I don’t recommend chopping your apples more than an hour or so in advance.
But, you can definitely chop your almonds, cube your cheese, and whisk together your dressing even two or three days ahead. Just stash the cheese and dressing in the fridge until you need them (and somehow keep yourself from nibbling all those yummy almond bits).
This dressing typically doesn’t separate much, but you can always give it a quick whisk (or a shake in its container) if needed before serving.
Alrighty! Off you go to make your new-favorite salad!
If you and your family love fall apple-picking adventures, your timing’s perfect to make this recipe now! (You know … before you and a ba-jillion of your friends move on to making that Goat Cheese Salad for Thanksgiving and the Salad Wreath for the holidays …)
- 5-ounce bag baby spinach (or 9-ounce bag hearts of romaine, see note)
- 1 cup chopped Honeycrisp apple (about 1/2" pieces), or other similarly crisp, juicy, sweet-tart apple variety
- 3 ounces (about 1/2 cup) smoked almonds, coarsely chopped if desired (see note)
- 3 ounces sharp cheddar cheese (preferably reduced-fat), cut into 1/2" cubes to yield about 2/3 cup
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon smooth dijon mustard
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
Pile spinach in a large serving bowl, layering in a little bit of the apple, almonds, and cheese as you build the salad. Sprinkle the remaining apple, almonds, and cheese on top.
For the dressing, whisk vinegar, honey, oil, mustard, salt, and paprika in a small bowl until thoroughly combined.
Dress salad immediately before serving, or pass dressing separately.
Spinach or romaine: We've tested this recipe with both types of greens. Although the weights of the bags differ (5 ounces of spinach vs. 9 ounces of romaine hearts), the yield is roughly the same: approximately 9-10 cups. I typically remove the largest spinach stems or the biggest chunks of romaine stems, though, so I actually make my salad with slightly less – and once the toppings and dressing have been added, they actually compact the leaves a bit so that the yield on the final salad is only about 8 or 8 1/2 cups total.
Chopping almonds: If you choose to "chop" your nuts, you'll still want them in relatively big pieces, not finely chopped. My favorite way to do this is to place the whole nuts into a zipper bag and use my rolling pin to gently break the nuts into big pieces.
Make-ahead steps: You can make the dressing, cube the cheese, and chop the nuts a few days ahead. Store the dressing and the cheese in the fridge until finishing the salad.