For a lot of hotshot cooks, getting stuck on the salad station of a restaurant can feel like a punishment. Kitchen folk in San Francisco's great Zuni Café, for instance, have to make so many of their super-famous Caesar salads that they can only talk gingerly, even years after the fact, about their time served in "Caesar's Palace." But I had a different experience when I spent five months making salad: I learned about how to be a cook.
The restaurant where I was a salad knave, Higgins in Portland, Ore., is the kind of place where a single carrot can be good enough to make you cry, so the bulk of their salad-making game tends toward the simple. I mean, when you have vegetables that good, often the best thing you can do is give them a pinch of salt, a touch of good oil and great vinegar, and stay the hell out of the way.
But it's not to say we didn't play. I remember in particular a totally weird and excellent dish where we boiled spinach, seasoned it with a little salt, and drained it for hours before rolling it into tight tubes, slicing it into coins, and topping it with a sweet, rich lemon vinaigrette. It looked as cute as hell on the plate, but a bite revealed that there was much more than novel presentation going on. The spinach, still moist despite the careful draining, held its chill from the fridge. It was a bracing, refreshing effect, but one that bent toward silkiness, almost richness, as the tender cooked vegetable nearly melted as you chewed it. Both of these textural characteristics were mirrored in the flavor of the dressing, which was made by reducing lemon juice with sugar until it was a tart half-syrup, then whisking oil in until it emulsified into a thick, pale yellow.
It was a dish that opened my eyes to what we might call a salad, that freed my thinking on how to construct and compose and create salads (and all food) — the relationships between flavor, texture, temperature, taste.
Of course, this is one of those disciplines that are just going to be a lifelong learning process, so I don't have a Grand Unified Theory of Salad Making. But think of the following as a guide to help jump-start your own thinking on salad, from abstract ideas to specific tips on particular ingredients.
CONCEIVING YOUR SALAD
So much of interesting food is about contrasts — think of the difference between a crisp crust and a tender inside; the heat of hot fudge on ice cream; the sweet, sour, spicy and salty tastes of a great pad thai. Sometimes bliss comes from a delicate and complete balance of those contrasts, and sometimes it comes from an occasional spark of one in a sea of the other.
As you choose ingredients for your salad, think about these characteristics, and try to have two or three elements from each list to keep things interesting:
Textures (with some examples of what I mean)
- Tender: light spring greens, cooked beets, boiled potato slices
- Crunchy: There are lots of kinds of "crunchy" — a crouton versus a thick chunk of carrot, for instance, so don't be afraid to mix them up, but make sure the salad doesn't end up being too hard to eat.
- Crisp: Similarly, there's what I like to call "fried crisp" versus "fresh crisp," — the difference between potato chips and celery slices
- Juicy / "bursty": Tomato is of course the king, but why not, say, peaches or watermelon? And then there are things like grapes and corn kernels, which have a tender, popping quality when you bite into them
- Chewy: "Chewy" can mean lots of things, too, from bacon bits to chicken to, say, kale that's young enough to eat raw but still thick enough to have some resistance to the bite.
- Rich or creamy (cheese, this means you)
- Room temperature
- Warm (Why not pack some nuts onto a piece of goat cheese and toast it up?)
STRUCTURING YOUR SALAD
The "base as star" approach: This is what I do when I'm in love with a head of lettuce or a sack of tomatoes. Yes, it happens, and no, my ladyfriend doesn't get jealous. You season and dress them lightly and maybe add one or two other elements for intrigue — a handful of toasted nuts on the greens, say, or a few thin slices of onion on the tomatoes. Restraint is the game here.
The "base as foundation" approach: I'd bet that for the past 10 years, the single dish most made fun of by food writers is the grilled chicken Caesar salad. (I'm as guilty as anyone else.) But you know what? There's a reason why everyone loves them, and my theory is that it's all about texture, and for me, a big part of the textural pleasure is the perfect balance in "weight" of the main ingredients — the romaine lettuce is hearty and crisp and crunchy enough to hold up a big slab of chicken breast. Imagine if the salad were made with a soft lettuce, like a generic mesclun mix. It'd be too light, too flimsy to make sense; the base would buckle under the heartiness of the chicken. Similarly, when you're putting together a salad where there will be one main ingredient, be it a lettuce, fruit, or some other vegetable, think of the garnishes as being of equal or less "weight," — or use them very sparingly.
The "committee of equals" approach: One of the classic salads is of big chunks of tomato and cucumber, tossed with a little salt, some rough herbs, a splash of red wine vinegar and a smoothing shot of olive oil. It's perfect stuff, and if you're using ingredients of roughly equal density and cutting everything roughly the same size, you can usually achieve both contrast and balance naturally.
A SOMEWHAT RANDOM ASSORTMENT OF IDEAS, TIPS AND PREJUDICES (and we'd love to hear yours in the comments!)
Salt: The word "salad" comes from "salt." Really. I defer to history and tradition in certain matters, and seasoning my salads with salt is absolutely one of them; just a touch brightens all the flavors, like vegetables in HD.
Lettuces and lettuce substitutions: It used to be that iceberg was the only lettuce you could ever find. Then romaine. Then the ubiquitous "mesclun" or "spring mix." Nothing wrong with any of these, but venture beyond: Butter (or Boston or bibb) lettuces are beautiful, velvet-smooth leaves with a sweet flavor and soft texture; red-and-green leaf lettuces are a little heartier than butter but with a touch of pleasant bitterness; beautiful, refreshing frisée, has frilly leaves just asking to grab on to a nice mustardy vinaigrette; and of course there's the liberal elitist arugula, with its exciting pepperiness. There are literally hundreds of varieties of lettuces. Mix it up!
And how about using thinly sliced cucumbers as a base, preferably left to sit for 30 minutes with some salt (then drained) so they soften? Or cabbage? Cabbage — salted the same way as the cucumbers — makes such a lovely, hearty but refreshing salad that I start making cabbage salads and don't stop for days on end. (In part because it's not very easy to eat an entire head the size and weight of a bowling ball all at once, but still.)
Varying textures with different cuts: You can get lots of textures and effects out of the same ingredients if you simply cut them differently. One of my favorite unexpected things to do with a carrot, for instance, is to grate it on a microplane or another very fine grater. Most people expect hard crunch with carrot flavor; this way you get it with a soft featheriness, perfect if your lettuces are delicate.
Some crunchy things you may not have thought of:
- Fried beans — cook 'em, air-dry 'em, then deep fry 'em (you can't believe how good these are)
- Nuts — Toasted, roasted or fried
- Croutons made from other than standard bread — pita or tortillas; angel food cake for fruit salads
Dressing lightly: I was taught that dressing was meant to be a dressing, not the main event of a salad. It's certainly a matter of taste, but I tend to dress very lightly and almost always toss the salad in the dressing — just enough to give the slightest sheen, so that you taste it upon contact, but then the flavor of the vegetables takes over as you chew. Give it a try. You can always add more dressing later.
The raw and the cooked: Salad doesn't have to be rabbit food, and I love cooked elements in my salads. But a lovely thing to do is to vary the cooking methods — roast the cauliflower but boil the green beans, and toss them altogether with raw tomatoes, for instance. This way you also get different textures and flavors — smokiness from the roasting, mildness from the boiling, etc. Another interesting thing is to use raw and cooked versions of the same item in the salad, to get a sense of the different flavors and textures locked inside a single vegetable.
Herbs: Often, a rough chop of an herb — thyme, basil, tarragon, chives, mint, take your pick — tossed into the greens gives a bright, unexpected splash of flavor. Another way to introduce herbs, of course, is to let them steep in your dressing, where their flavors will be mellowed and made more subtle.
Finally, a word on raw onions: I love onions as much as the next guy, but munching happily along in a salad and suddenly getting walloped by a huge chunk of raw onion is a little like a chapter of "The Divine Comedy" that Dante forgot. Of course there are red onions, which tend to be somewhat milder, or green onions, or sweet onions. All these are great, but I like to "deflame" raw onion to let me keep its flavor without the brutality.
Mexican cooks do this (the term, so lovely, I took from the term "desflemar") by soaking the raw onion in lime juice or cold water with a splash of vinegar for 10 or 20 minutes; the acid neutralizes the more bothersome compounds.
Deflamed onion, sliced very thin and applied sparingly, makes it seem more as a seasoning than a vegetable and, strangely, you can taste it more, not less.