The art of the salad

I eat a lot of salad, and think no dinner party is really complete without a salad course. I’m indifferent as to whether the salad comes before or after the main course, though I prefer after if there’s a soup course as well.

Unfortunately, restaurant salads generally disappoint me. Someone somewhere along the way decided that by piling dozens of ingredients together, it creates the perception of value. And at what point in culinary history did chicken become a mandatory addition to restaurant salads?

But for a salad to be really satisfying, simplicity is key. Salad is architectural; it has structure. It needs balance in flavor and texture yet must allow each ingredient to express itself fully. This is exemplified, I think, by the Very Nice Salad Indeed recipe I posted a little while ago, and which I’ll deconstruct now. A salad should have, in ascending order:

Greens. This is the foundation, the very ground upon which a salad is built. I used to be heavily into spring and mesclun greens, and still enjoy them, but like them best on their own. If I’m going to continue layering flavors and ingredients, butter (aka Boston), romaine, green or red leaf or even iceberg do the trick.

Crunch. Radishes are my favorite, but carrot, jicama or cabbage work as well, as do nuts. This gives substance and texture.

Chew. I love olives for their toothy texture. Cheese or meat does the trick too. This creates contrast in texture.

Sweet and/or tart. Yes, I’ve been on a grapefruit kick lately, which satisfies both requirements. Fruit generally makes for a great contribution and can sometimes, as with Asian pears, do double-duty for the crunch category.

Herb. Nothing brightens up the flavor of a salad like fresh herbs. I prefer bright, pungent flavors like tarragon or basil. Parsley of course plays very well with lettuce, but sometimes gets lost in the mix.

Lubrication. Yes, dressing is low on the list, not because it is not important but because it should be added in such small quantity. For my money, a simple vinaigrette achieves the greates effect for lubrication and flavor enhancement without overpowering or drowning out the other players. Our house standard recipe to follow after the jump.

Salt and pepper. A sprinkle of coarse salt enhances flavors and adds extra crunch. A final crack of black pepper lends bouquet and brings out the herbs.

That’s it! This simple equation delivers simple, elegant and satisfying salads every time. Maybe not super innovative, but always delicious.

That is not to say there is not room in the world for other salads, but they are different creatures. I love composed salads (ni├žoise, cobb), bread salads (panzanella), chopped salads (of the Italian paradigm) and fruit salads — not to mention more exotic concoctions like the Salad of Pain. Each of them has its own equation and composition, and perhaps I’ll do some deconstruction of them at a later date.

Easy Vinaigrette
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 c. olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
1/4 c. vinegar — sherry, cider or red wine
1 shallot or clove garlic, minced very finely
1 tsp tarragon or other herb, chopped finely
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Pinch of sugar
Salt & pepper to taste

Combine vinegar, shallot/garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, lemon juice and tarragon in a bowl and whisk briskly to dissolve salt and sugar. Add mustard and whisk to emulsify. Add olive oil in a stream, whisking constantly, until integrated. Alternatively, add ingredients in same order in a jar and shake together for each step. Will keep refrigerated for a week or two.

  • Jen

    Exactly like mine except I don’t use sugar. Why do you add it? I also cheat and shake in a jar for easier emulsifying.

  • I find a pinch of sugar cuts the edge of the vinegar, which allows for a higher proportion of vinegar to oil. Both Paul and I like it a little more vingary.