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An Improvisational Salad Journey

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Salad culture in this country has changed so much since I was a young. Back then iceberg wedges and Julienne Salads reigned the day. I rarely see them anymore except at a steakhouse, diner or deli which I enjoy but rarely frequent.

Now, it seems to me almost every casual American restaurant dishes out slightly altered versions of the same two or three salads - and they've just been done to death. You know the ones I'm talking about. And more often than not they're mediocre and mediocre isn't satisfying.

Perhaps we're in a salad rut and maybe it's time to re-think what salad could be. This is potentially promising for people who think they don't like salad.

And when I speak of an improvisational journey I'm not talking about glow sticks and Ecstasy and a long, slow death by musical masturbation - no - this is a journey that begins by letting go of our tired, old salad dogma such as, " a salad has got to have lettuce" or "when I see a sneeze guard, that's the time for a salad."

This journey is about you in your kitchen without the safety net of a formal recipe, throwing together ingredients you might not ordinarily consider using or combining and seasoning them to your taste. The sky's the limit.

Perhaps it might also be a creative and refreshing exercise to take a break from bottled salad dressings and whip up your own with great oils, vinegars, mustards and citrus. It's easy, fast and makes a HUGE difference in taste.

In my experience, the best tasting and most beautiful salads are made from the best ingredients. It's that simple. So before you go to the grocery store to buy the same old goober-y bag of mesclun lettuce and three month old carrots, let me stop you right here. I'm going to keep saying this over and over so just amuse me: Right now, farmers' markets and road-side farm stands all over this fine country of ours are brimming with the most amazing, colorful, succulent produce you will ever sink your teeth into. And especially if you live in the Midwest where the growing season is only six months long - now is the time, people. Now is the time.

Below I've provided a list of salads that move me; perhaps it might inspire you to create your own. Make these to taste, adjusting quantities and seasonings as you go. It goes without saying you use great vinegars and extra virgin olive oil. To slice vegetables quickly and super thin, look into buying one of these.

Arugula, Radicchio, Feta & Dates tossed in lemon juice, olive oil

Arugula, Avocado, Grapefruit, Red Onion, champagne vinegar, olive oil

Chopped Celery, Blue Cheese & Tabasco, olive oil, a touch of lemon juice*

Watercress, Pear & Fennel, lime juice, olive oil, toasted hazelnuts**

Celery, Dates, Toasted Walnuts, shaved Pecorino, sherry vinegar, olive oil

Shredded Carrots, Harissa, touch of cayenne, chopped cilantro, raisins, olive oil, lemon juice*

Cantaloupe, Prosciutto, Buffalo Mozzarella, Parsley, Arugula, olive oil, lemon juice**

Tomatoes, Cucumber, Parsley, Kalamatas, Radish, Red Onion, Lemon Tahini dressing (see below)

Celery, Carrots, Cucumber, Radishes, Parsley, Basil, Red Onion, Radicchio, Boiled Egg, Homemade Croutons, garlicky red wine vinaigrette

Radish, Apple, Fennel, dressing of apple cider vinegar, whole grain mustard, touch of honey, olive or walnut oil

New Potatoes, Parsley, Capers, Chopped Garlic, tossed warm with red wine vinegar, olive oil*

Cucumber, Daikon Radish, Red Radish, Scallion, Celery, Avocado, Toasted Sesame Seeds, dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and a touch of honey, topped with sprouts and a side of brown rice

Arugula, Bacon or Prosciutto, Peaches, Ricotta, Mint, dressing of fresh peach juice, sherry vinegar, olive oil, pinch cayenne

Pristine Greens of any kind be they arugula, watercress or the tender leaves of a young Bibb - simply tossed with a classic vinaigrette and maybe some shaved Parmesan is perfection.

Dressing a Salad

To make a simple dressing, the typical ratio is 3 tablespoons oil to 1 tablespoon vinegar or citrus such as lemon juice and then season with salt and pepper. Feel free to riff on this to your taste. You can also try adding a half teaspoon finely chopped garlic or shallot and a small amount of dijon and fresh herbs as well.

The pros mix the dressing right in the bowl, whisk it until it thickens, then toss the ingredients gently on top with their hands. If you want, make double or triple batches in a non-reactive jar or container and save in the fridge - simply whisk it well before you use it.

Here's the Lemon Tahini Dressing recipe as promised. This is from the great food blog 101 Cookbooks. Simply blend in a food processor.

1 garlic clove, smashed and chopped
1/4 cup tahini - a sesame seed paste found at Whole Foods, and middle east grocers
Zest of one lemon
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons hot water
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

* recipe adapted from the awesome Melissa Clark
** recipe adapted fromThe Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater

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