Salad gets a bad rap. At best, it’s viewed as a perfunctory and pedestrian part of the meal, highlighted only during hot weather. Or as a course for dieters and dainty appetites. Go to a restaurant and order only a salad, maybe accompanied by an appetizer, maybe not. And you’ll get that look that says “Is that all you’re having?”
When was the last time someone asked for a second helping of salad?
Lettuce, tomato, maybe a slice of avocado, a touch of grated carrot doused in some glutinous slop masquerading as French, Italian, Ranch, or Thousand Island masquerading as dressing that just tasted like food-grade Drano, that’s the kind of salad my mother made every night, always served on the same wooden salad plates or bowls. Or chopped cabbage drowning in mayonnaise.
Could there be anything worse than Waldorf, a gooey mixture of apples, celery, grapes, and walnuts, in some kind of creamy mortar? Only Caesar gets that touch of theater.
There may be only 2,493 ways to make a meat loaf, but there are a gazillion ways to make a salad, none of them evoking sour, limp greens, dripping in oil.
Restaurants that would never think of serving tainted chicken or over-the-hill fish don’t give a second thought to charging customers for wilted greens, brown at the edges, ingredients better suited for the compost pile.
My favorite go-to restaurant serves up the best beef between here and Chicago, mastering creations of potato and conjuring up fabulous desserts, but it’s still serving the same three ho-hum salads since its opening a decade ago. Most restaurants just give salads short shrift.
And that’s why I took to making salads at home, lavishing the kind of attention that some might give to beef Wellington or a chocolate cake. Before long and before I started sharing the salad of the day on Facebook, I became known as the designated salad person, the one people would ask to bring a salad to any guest-sourced food gathering. What a score! You see, before then, any self-respecting potluck host would ask me to bring something store-bought instead of anything I might’ve made myself.
Netflix-famous cooking queen Samin Nosrat tells us that it’s all Salt Fat Acid Heat, but she doesn’t always get salad. She’s compelled to add cheese to nearly everything, which just ruins it for this cheese-hater. Don’t get me wrong: I still worship her. To the Samin’s holy quartet of salt, fat, acid, and heat, I’d add sweet, crunch, and surprise.
Start your salad by settling upon the two or three ingredients that will be the base of your salad. There isn’t an item on the produce aisle of the local supermarket or greengrocer that can’t find its way into a salad. Maybe shredded beef or chicken will be the salad’s focal point. Use vegetables not usually associated with salad: zucchini, okra, grilled peppers, roasted radishes, cooked winter squash and sweet potatoes, chayote, or raw corn. Berries, cherries, mango, melon, pineapple, and jicama are all fair game.
We all love carbs, and you can’t go keto or paleo all the time. Add a spoonful of bulgur, quinoa, farro, barley, Israeli couscous, wild rice, brown rice, garbanzos, white and other beans, roasted corn for a change of texture, to sate that carb craving, and to provide an interesting contrast.
Everyone knows that the probability of a pistachio, macadamia, or cashew ending up on your fork makes each bite of salad exciting. One thing that Samin never mentions is the importance of some sweet nugget in salad: hard candy in Xmas salad, praline pecans, raisins, dried fruit, candied ginger, silver dragées. A handful of pomegranate arils. Add something interesting and unexpected to salad – nasturtium seed pods can double as capers, green or unripe coriander or cilantro seeds, bougainvillea, marigold, rose petals, squash flowers.
Zhuzh it up with horseradish leaves, radish leaves, mint, fennel fronds, nasturtium flowers, or fresh pea tendrils. A few toasted pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or sesame add excitement and crunch.
Let’s move on to the acid and fat. Be miserly with both.
Living in Dorothy Lynch country can drive a person to desperate measures, so about a half century ago, I became a fan of Girard’s Champagne Vinaigrette, thinking that it was a sign I’d arrived, given that it was just about the fanciest offered up on the shelves of Dahl’s in Des Moines. And then I realized I was paying $5 and more for canola and soy oil, water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and seasoning, all of which I could conjure up easily from my own pantry.
The fat doesn’t have to be EVOO or even poured out of a bottle. Nuts, bacon, cheese, tahini, avocado, anchovies, and tuna are all sources of fat. Keep that in mind when you reach for a bottle of oil. I prefer to spray or sprinkle the oil lightly and directly on the salad.
Acid doesn’t have to be vinegar. Citrus juice is acid. A splash of wine is acid, and so is pickle juice. Tomatoes, nopal, pickled ginger, and other vegetables are acid. So are honey, pomegranate molasses, crema balsámica, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, rose water, and dairy. You get the picture. You can drop the acid, or you can microdose. The decision is yours.
A little garnish always makes a salad special, whether it’s freshly zested citrus, gomashio (a Japanese seasoning of slowly-toasted sesame seeds ground with sea salt, sending forth a buttery, oily, salty sweet flavor), toasted nori, or even the crumbles and dust from the bottom of a bag of barbecue potato chips or Fritos.
Make your salads interesting and exciting, and become the person known for your salads. Experiment with your salad. Play with your food. Get creative. Make others crave your salads. And remember that you can also order in Chinese food or Domino’s if you fail.
But since all food pieces are supposed to include a recipe, here are three, each yielding enough salad dressing for a small army:
by Victoria Challancin
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons unflavored rice vinegar
1 tablespoon agave nectar or honey
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground sumac
Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste
2 tablespoons mustard, either dijon or champagne
2 tablespoons good vinegar (I really like Noble’s Tonic No. 4)
1 small shallot, minced evenly
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 medium cloves garlic
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 tsp. pepper
3 tablespoon sugar
2 cups oil
3/4 cup apple or cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon celery, chopped
Put all ingredients in a blender and stir until well blended. Makes 1 quart.
Note: this recipe was created in the 1950s, when oil was oil, and vinegar was vinegar.