Everyone tends to crave comfort foods when the weather turns cold. You know, meals like meatloaf, lasagna, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, Mom's hotdish, and ... salad?

We usually crave comfort food during the winter months as a way to warm ourselves and salad is, well, cold. But add a little bacon to fresh spinach in the form of a warm dressing, and suddenly a salad becomes more than just a way to get our vitamins. It becomes comfort.

We first encountered Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing back in the early 1990s when Tony and I were working aboard cruise ships. We served it to our passengers every week, and know of no other salad capable of creating such a favorable response. Fortunately, our cruise line had a generous policy of sharing its recipes because our passengers were eager to

re-create the experience at home.

Like the Cobb or Caesar salads, Spinach with Warm Bacon Dressing is a time-tested favorite. But our recipe endeavors to give this classic salad a modern makeover. Traditionally served with hard-boiled egg, mushrooms, red onions and bacon bits, the inspiration for our recipe comes from the desire to create a balance not only of flavors but also of textures.

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Our salad features fresh spinach leaves with crumbled blue cheese, whole pecans and thin slices of fresh pear, but several ingredients in the dressing work together to promote an overall comforting experience.

We use Marsala, a fortified wine from Sicily, to bring sweetness and flavor to the dressing. This sweet wine, similar to Madeira or sweet sherry, brings out the creamy tang of the blue cheese and tartness of the pear, creating a wonderful blend of sweet and sour. The addition of brown sugar in the vinaigrette complements the pecans so that their full, nutty flavor shines through.

But the real star of this show is the warm bacon dressing, which must be served when hot. While flavored with bacon, this dressing isn't heavy. The acid from a generous dose of red wine vinegar in the dressing helps cut the richness of the bacon fat, and the cold slurry mixture acts as a thickening agent, thus ensuring a lush consistency. The heat from the dressing causes the spinach to wilt, which adds to the balance of textures while allowing the full flavor of the greens to come forth.

When preparing the salad, remove the stems from the spinach leaves for a more refined presentation.

While only the flavor of bacon is represented in our version of this salad, you can certainly add some fresh bacon bits if desired. Bacon has the ability to elevate our mood and reach all our senses, thus creating a feeling of comfort, even in a salad.

Spinach and Pear Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

Serves: 4 to 6

Dressing Ingredients:

½ red onion, sliced (¼-inch thick)

4 slices of bacon

1 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup red wine

¼ cup Marsala wine

1 cup water

½ cup brown sugar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Slurry mixture:

2 level tablespoons corn starch

2 tablespoons cold water

Directions:

Cook the bacon in a sauce pot over medium heat for three to five minutes until lightly browned. Add the onions and sauté with the bacon for another three minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, except the slurry, and simmer over medium heat until reduced by half.

Season with salt to taste, then prepare the cold slurry mixture. Add the slurry to the simmering dressing; the mixture should thicken immediately. Remove from heat. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a medium-sized bowl and use the back of a ladle to gently press the mixture through until all the liquid has been extracted. Discard all bacon and onion bits left in the strainer. Serve immediately or store for later use.

To store, place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to one week. Reheat just before serving.

Salad Ingredients

1 bag fresh spinach leaves

1 cup bleu cheese, crumbled

3 Bartlett pears, thinly sliced length-wise with peel on, no more than ¼-inch thick

1 cup whole pecans

Directions

Toss all ingredients together. Serve on individual plates and drizzle with warm bacon dressing, or pass in a large salad bowl with dressing on the side.

This column was written

exclusively for The Forum.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello.

The couple own Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and live in Fargo with their

8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com or http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com