While you could use commercial caramelized nuts and bottled balsamic vinaigrette dressing, making these two ingredients from scratch is surprisingly quick and easy, tastes even better than store-bought, and also ensures that there are no artificial ingredients or preservatives. Plus, you'll have some extra nuts left over for snacking or using in other recipes, and enough vinaigrette for other salads or dishes (it's nice on steamed or roasted vegetables).
If you don't have raspberry vinegar, you can substitute regular balsamic vinegar. Feel free to substitute raw almonds (whole, sliced or slivered), walnut halves or pecan halves for the cashews, or crumbled goat cheese for the feta, if you prefer. You can also substitute dried cherries for the dried cranberries, or use baby Romaine or other tender lettuces. Regular Romaine is a good choice if you are making the salad "in bulk" (you can multiply the recipe) rather than serving individually.
My recipe serves 6 to 8, with enough maple-glazed nuts and vinaigrette dressing left over for other uses. You can multiply or halve the recipe to suit your needs.
1 head green or red leaf lettuce, OR 10 oz. (approx.) bagged mesclun or mixed baby lettuces
1 cup coarsely chopped raw cashews
1/8 tsp Kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbs raspberry vinegar
2 Tbs balsamic vinegar
1/2 to 1 tsp Kosher or sea salt (to taste, start with lesser amount)
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/3 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Nuts: Spread the cashews or other nuts in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat, stirring regularly, until fragrant and just starting to toast. Stir in maple syrup and cook, stirring frequently, until the syrup has caramelized (no more liquid) and the nuts are evenly coated & lightly toasted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pan from heat and immediately sprinkle salt over the nuts while stirring, then transfer the nuts onto wax or parchment paper to cool, spreading in a single layer.
Vinaigrette: Combine the oil, vinegar(s), salt & pepper in a small lidded jar (I use a 1/2 pint mason jar), close lid tightly and shake well to mix and dissolve salt. Taste for balance and add salt if desired. Shake again and set aside or pour into a salad dressing cruet. Makes approx. 3/4 cup vinaigrette.
If serving individually: Divide the dressed lettuce among the salad plates, then sprinkle each with crumbled feta, dried cranberries, and half of the maple-glazed nuts (reserve the remainder for another use). Pour remaining dressing into a cruet for the table, in case anyone wants to add more to their plate.
If serving "in bulk" for a party or buffet service: Immediately before serving, add half of the dried cranberries and crumbled feta plus 1/4 cup nuts to the dressed lettuce in the bowl and toss to combine, trying to keep these "toppings" from settling at the bottom of the bowl. Top the salad with remaining cranberries, feta and an additional 1/4 cup of the nuts (reserve remaining nuts for later use). Serve with leftover dressing available in a cruet for those who wish to add more to their salad.