How to Brag About (Green) Salad
Eating is an Agricultural Act
When you eat locally, seasonally, you gain a new (different?) perspective and appreciation for Wendell Berry’s most famous quote. For instance, you learn how closely religious rites and restrictions are tied to the earthly balance. There were very good reasons to avoid butter and eggs at the end of winter, and very good reasons to feature them so abundantly on the Easter table. On a more mundane front, seeking local foods has taught me a lot about what really grows when. I know that lettuces thrives best in cool weather, and I know that at this time of year, area hoop-houses put out some delicious greens. I relish making green salads now, not the least because I am very good at making green salads.
Do you brag about your salad making prowess. Do you actually make great salad? A great green salad is both easy and complex. You cannot achieve greatness if you dump a bag of greens and toss with Kraft Catalina. In fact, you will turn off you kids from wanting to be a local family that way. Yet, if you follow the steps laid out below, you too can make a great green salad.
Good dirt makes for great salad only until harvest. Once the lettuce is cut from the ground, we do not need to taste the soil. Washing lettuce is vital. Drying lettuce more so. Wet salad tastes wet, that is flaccid and weak. More importantly, you cannot properly dress a wet salad as the water fights off the dressing (you know all that oil and water not mixing thing). A salad spinner works well IF you do not over-fill it. The best thing I can tell you is plan ahead. If you wash and dry your lettuce earlier than your meal, you can let it air dry as well.
You need a big enough bowl. This may be my best lesson to you. The thing that matters most to me. You want to make your salad in a bowl bigger than you think. By having a big bowl, you can toss your salad well. This gets the dressing everywhere, and it integrates whatever other ingredients you use.
Lettuce loves company. Don’t get ahead of yourself. The point of a green salad is the green, i.e., the lettuce, the point of eating local is the ability to find lettuce that tastes a lot better than lettuce you’ve had, and the point of eating seasonally is to have that lettuce at its best moment. Step 3, find some good lettuce, but don’t present it alone. Take the Greeks. The classic “Greek salad” or “Village salad” is one of onions, cucumbers, and especially tomatoes. Even Greece, however, does not have tomatoes year-round. This time of year, they eat a lot of lettuce salads, and they are invariably complemented with scallions and a few sharp herbs like borage or dill. Just enough to push up the flavors; not enough to over-power the leaves. As my picture above kinda shows, I like to use radishes as the side to the salad. They add color, bite and crunch. Find something to go with your greens.
Don’t you love Thai salads. Thai salads are expressions of sweet, salty, and spicy on one plate, emphasis on the spicy. I am telling you, there is nothing that will improve your salad more than the inclusion of a fiery element. You can do this several ways. Add drops of bottled hot sauce to your dressing or strong mustard. Do as the Thai’s (or the Koreans) and sprinkle dried chili all over your salad–these are good alternatives when fresh peppers are out of season. Related, a pickled element serves about the same purpose, waking up the palate at various bites. Using pickled peppers, as I did above, serves both purposes.
You must season your salad. Salt goes on the lettuce not just in the dressing. It makes all the difference in what you taste, as the salt brings out all the flavors and nuances of your lettuce. As noted above with the Thai’s, don’t be afraid to push your saline limits. This is as good a time as any to tell you that fish sauce, worstershire sauce, and anchovies are all excellent inclusions in green salads.
Must and should, think also about adding what you should, other seasonings to your salads. The Greeks have to include dried oregano in any salad, and they’re on to something there. I also very much like to include slices of fresh garlic. The salad above had garlic and dried oregano for that red-sauce joint flavor.
You cannot screw up the dressing. For one thing, if you’re nervous or inexperienced you can create dressing in a glass jar. When you add your oil and vinegar, they will nicely line up so you can see their ratio’s. See what works for you. Traditional French vinegrettes went up to 4:1 oil to vinegar; modern takes tend to even things out a bit more. After a few tries, you will know how much oil and vinegar to use not matter how much dressing you make just by seeing where the line stands between oil and acid in your jar. Then, seal your jar and shake hard. Your dressing will emulsify and be ready to pour.
Or don’t. Do you need to stick to the same ratio all the time. Is it vital? I will tell you firstly, that it’s hard to screw up if you mix the oil and vinegar free-hand into your bowl; secondly there’s a certain pleasure in having each round of salad taste a bit different. Just remember to pour the vinegar first and it works without the emulsification. I swear. I go like, dab, dab, dab, with the vinegar and then like one or two good swirls of olive oil.
Here’s the thing however you do it, do it. Yes this is about great local lettuce, but it also about great local salad. Salad is the alchemy of lettuce, dressing and seasoning. Dressing balances the flavors of lettuce. This only happens when you use dressing. Those chefs misting dressing, waving a jar of dressing near their salad in the same disdain some treat vermouth in a martini are wrong. OK, don’t drench your greens, but be generous. You will appreciate it.
Like a lot of cooking, things are easier than you think if you think things through. Don’t just unload a bag of Costco greens on your family. Seek out the real flavors of local greens. Since it won’t be triple washed, do a good job yourself. Add a few key ingredients. Season. Whip up your dressing. Pour it on with gusto. You too can brag about your salad making.