In the backyard, the slow-bolt cilantro is bolting and insects have discovered the baby lettuce. In a week, my harvest has increased from two handfuls to a basketful of greens and thinnings. In one bed in which I scattered several packets of flower seeds, I can’t tell the sprouts apart. This morning, I tasted something that tasted like radish leaves but I didn’t plant any radishes. The season has finally arrived to review our salad making skills, especially vinaigrette basics, so that we can leave recipes behind and fully participate in summer’s bounty.
Two, or maybe three, equipment notes before we launch into the actual food assembly: In my work as a kitchen coach, I’ve noticed several important kitchen omissions that are easy to rectify and will speed and improve your cooking enormously: Make sure your knives are sharp! Let them do the work, not you. If you feel comfortable with one, invest in a small, inexpensive, hand-held mandoline. These make amazingly quick work of slicing anything from strawberries to cabbage. If you do not have a peppermill, buy one ASAP and keep it on the counter to use all the time. Oh yes, one more equipment tip: During this season, if you have one, move your mini-prep food processor to the counter top from whatever corner it has been occupying. Use it to chop shallots, garlic, ginger, or herbs for your salad dressings. Make more than you need and store it in a glass bottle in the fridge. Homemade convenience food.
Okay. The secret(s) to creating delicious salads is variety, a result of investing in a wide range of the highest quality fruits, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, and such. That means buying local, organic (or biodynamic or at least pesticide-free), seasonal produce from local shops or farmers’ markets that are blooming all over now. Check out MapMuse.com to find a market near you.
The second most important way to build variety into your salads is your dressing. You do not need to buy bottle after bottle of dressing. Nope. It takes how long to make your own, thirty seconds? Despite the gazillions of “recipes” for salad dressings you can find on the Internet, in magazines, and newspapers, you don’t need one. All you need to know is this: one part acid (vinegar/lemon and/or citrus juice) and two to three parts oil. Salt and freshly ground pepper. Mix. Taste. Adjust balance with more oil or vinegar. Use your salad spoon as a measure and your salad bowl as your mixing bowl. Pile your salad ingredients on top. Cover with a dish towel and store in the refrigerator until serving time. Toss. Bingo.
Refinements: Add salt and pepper to the vinegar and stir before you add the oil. Oil makes it harder for the salt to dissolve. Add a spoonful of prepared Dijon mustard (flavored with herbs, perhaps tarragon, is an easy way to add a different taste) to the vinegar and stir well. Then when you stir in the oil (vigorously!) the mustard creates an emulsion that keeps the oil in suspension and prevents your vinaigrette from separating. Vary your vinaigrette with different vinegars—apple cider, unseasoned rice vinegar (seasoned only means sugar has been added), balsamic, sherry vinegar, white and red wine vinegar, lemon, orange and grapefruit juice. Or use a combination. To intensify citrus flavors, you can simmer the juice until reduced by half. Or roast or grill the fruit before squeezing it. Add a teaspoon or so of mayonnaise for a touch of creaminess.
Using various oils singly or in combination also creates variety. When my French godmother taught me to make vinaigrette, she used vegetable oil. You can, too, but health-wise, canola oil might be a better choice. Try extra-virgin olive oil made from different olive varieties and/or those made in different parts of the world. Add a small splash of nut oils such has hazelnut and walnut, and then sprinkle your salad with some toasted nuts. Or add a half teaspoon of toasted sesame oil. (But not truffle oil. Save that to drizzle straight on fish or polenta.)
While we discuss nut oils, let’s also talk about nuts and seeds. Lightly toasted or raw, sesame and sunflower seeds, pepitas, almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios! They add crunch and savor to salads. That they boost nutrition as well is almost too good to be true. Toast a supply of several types—shaking and stirring them in a dry pan over medium heat until fragrant and lightly browned or roasting them in a medium, 375°F oven. Store your nuts and seeds in the freezer to maintain their freshness. When toasted, they can turn rancid quickly. If you don’t plan on serving them within a week or so, freeze them as well.
When I first learned about salad making, we used wooden bowls and never washed them with soap. For a subtle garlic flavor, we rubbed the bowl with a cut garlic clove. Old tricks still work. A tablespoon, more or less, of very finely chopped shallot makes a wonderful addition to salad dressing, and some minced or grated fresh ginger adds a clean, spicy note.
If you love Caesar salad, crush some anchovies into the dressing and/or use the oil the anchovies were packed in. I sometimes add a bit of soy and fish sauce to my vinaigrettes. These add an undertone of savory pungency. You could also add a splash of Worcestershire for the same effect. To cut calories, you can add some good chicken stock or yogurt. I’m not one to suggest adding water to salad dressing. To me that just seems to dilute the flavor.
Fresh herbs and flowers: Remember to use fresh herbs in your salads. Coarsely chop them: Biting into a whole mint leaf, for instance, can overwhelm any other flavor. And add flowers! As long as they are garden grown away from pesticides, etc, many flowers are edible and make salads look so pretty. Incorrigible and invasive borage is in my garden but I forgive it because I love the cucumber taste of its bright blue flowers. The brilliant orange and yellow-gold nasturtiums also run wild (they are climbing the jasmine right now and trying to get onto the deck); I tear the flowers into my salads to add a spicy bite. You can eat fuchsia, forget-me-nots, violets, bachelor buttons, calendulas, and many more.
Ah, let’s not forget cheese. I tend to prefer cheese grated or crumbled into salads versus blended into the dressing. Use a fine grater for light dustings of hard cheeses or use a vegetable peeler for thin curls. And crumble feta, goat, and blue cheeses.
In spring, add thinly sliced radishes and fennel. Later in the season, add cucumber and chunks of ripe tomatoes. And grains. Now the salad is turning into a main dish sort of salad—add a handful of leftover brown rice, quinoa, or bulghur and/or cooked beans such as edamame, white beans, and garbanzos. And then there’s crumbled bacon, prosciutto slivers, crispy pancetta, maybe even leftover salmon skin or duck skin crisped in a skillet. . .
Got the idea?