“To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist – the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know how much oil one must mix with one’s vinegar.”
– Oscar Wilde
Beets were used in the previous citrus and beet salad
What truly makes a good salad anyway? How do you tell if you are in the presence of a good one? More importantly how do you make one that is excellent?
In my opinion, what differentiates a good salad from a passable one is a couple of things; the harmony of tastes and textures you fold together under an unctuous drizzled coating of flavourful liquid and the ratio of the liquid to solid ingredients. These two are key. Get it right and the salad could be sweet, sour, bitter, spicy or any combination thereof and it will still work.
There is then, a secondary tier of things to remember. It is important that you source your greens well. There is a case to be made for pillow packs of greens; if you’re in a hurry, have no access to anything else and more importantly, intend to use the packet within a day or so of buying it, by all means, go ahead and use one. However, if this is what you use all the time, then you’re missing out on one of life’s simple pleasures; the first, cool, crisp bite of leaves that are new to your taste buds. Those convenient vacuum sealed packs only have a set variety of leaves and I don’t know about you, but to me a mixture of three different kinds of lettuce is not much different from just one kind of lettuce. I like a good Caesar salad as much as the next person (well, may be not as much. The next person here and now is my husband. His insane devotion to Caesar salad confounds me) but there is so much more joy to be had in the peppery bite of arugula or the spicy snap of cress or the salty tang of an unusual leaf. Such greens I would never have discovered in pillow packs.
You could certainly choose to have a salad made up of vegetables other than leaves, sort of like the one I’m bringing to you today. They are a fantastic way of eating vegetables and probably one that preserves quite a bit of their goodness. Add some cheese or your favourite protein and you are looking at a satisfying complete meal like no other, or the beginning of one if you should so choose. Make sure the vegetables you are using are as dry as possible. This is the only other unwritten rule. Water dilutes your dressing and throws flavours off. If you like salads, a rudimentary salad spinner is truly one of the best investments you’ll ever make, and a fairly economical one too. If you don’t have one, a wide colander you can shake well would be the next best thing. Less water also means that you will get more flavour without having to douse your ingredients completely in liquid dressing, so they stay crisper.
This brings me to another significant rule, so elementary that you might wonder why I am bringing it up. I am, especially since I realized that this granny, who I mentioned in my earlier post, seemed to be missing that point. If she did, then I wonder what she’s taught the kiddies. There I was, happily reaching for a green leaf, when (I kid you not) I heard this loud yell next to me with grandma glowering at me and brandishing a pair of tongs in her hands. She thrust them into mine as she hissed, “Don’t touch those. It’s unsanitary!” Colour me completely nonplussed. Several thoughts flashed through my head at the same time. Doesn’t she know that these leaves are sitting in open baskets in milling throngs of people who breathe in and out? Does she know of the dust settling on these leaves by the second? Does she know these were from plants in the ground or very near it, close to mud and dirt? Does she think those tongs are sterilized? And most crucially, doesn’t she wash her veggies when she gets home? It’s ridiculous to yell at a perfect stranger who for all you know, just washed their hands. My discomfiture aside, the lesson here, (other than not accosting strangers) is wash your vegetables! Forget the vacuum packed, pre-washed signs on the packaging. Ignore the tongs in the vegetable basket. Whatever you buy needs to be thoroughly washed, no matter where you bought it. Don’t be so germophobic that you forget that mud and dirt isn’t good for you either. A fine example of missing the forest for the leaves, pun intended. Statistics show that vegetables are more responsible for food poisoning than meat and seafood is in this country. The only reason I can imagine for that, is because we buy into tongs and plastic seals and don’t do the necessary work ourselves. There is no substitute for it. On a related note, everyone in countries outside the US touch their vegetables before they buy them. On all counts, their populations seem to be thriving.
This particular salad I made is pays homage to several vegetables and is on all counts, a dish that exudes generosity at the table. It is made up of several different vegetables with nary a green leaf in sight, so it is a bit different from a salad you would ordinarily be confronted with. It is rife with several textures and tones; a soft and comforting potato with crackling skin, the crisp snap of a snow pea, the sweetness of a green nugget of an English pea, the bite of a saffron carrot, all tied together with a refreshingly bright lemon vinaigrette. The toasted pine-nuts and salty-sour Kalamatas meld in surprisingly well in this cornucopia of taste. Acid truly elevates this salad from good to great.
Spring vegetable salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Adapted from Field of Greens by Annie Somerville
Serves 4 to 5
For the salad:
New or fingerling potatoes – 1/2 pound
Bell pepper – 1, medium, cut into strips, then triangles
Shallots – 2, sliced paper thin
Carrot – 1, medium, cut half lengthwise, then sliced on the bias
Asparagus – 1/2 pound, woody part removed, then sliced on the bias into 1 inch pieces
Snap peas – 1/4 pound, strings removed
Snow peas – 1/4 pound, strings removed
English peas – 1/2 pound, shelled
Pine-nuts – 3 tbsp, toasted
Kalamata olives – a hefty handful, de-seeded and halved
Salt and pepper to taste
A few drops of Champagne vinegar
– Toss cleaned potatoes with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and bake in a 400ºF oven for 30 minutes or so, until tender to a fork.
– While the potatoes bake, prep the other vegetables and make the vinaigrette (recipe below).
– Slice the shallots and sprinkle with some Champagne vinegar. This will intensify their pink colour.
– When the potatoes are done, cut them while they are still warm and toss them with the bell peppers, shallots and 3 to 4 tbsps of vinaigrette.
– Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add some salt to it. Add the carrot pieces to it, followed 30 seconds later by the English peas, snap peas and asparagus pieces. Add the snow peas 45 seconds later and then cook everything together for another 45 seconds. Drain the vegetables immediately in a colander, shaking it gingerly to get as much water out as possible.
– Toss with the potato-bell pepper mixture and add the pine-nuts. Add enough vinaigrette to coat the tossed vegetables.
– Add in the olive halves and serve right away.
For the Meyer Lemon (or lemon) vinaigrette:
Makes about 1/2 cup
Meyer Lemon (or ordinary lemon) – 1, zest and 2 tbsp of its juice
Champagne vinegar – 1 tbsp
Honey or sweet mustard – 1/4 tsp
Olive oil – 6 tbsp
A good pinch each of salt and pepper
Mix everything together and whisk to emulsify.
Meyer lemons are a local deal in the Bay area so feel free to use ordinary lemons in their place. Toss the vegetables with just enough vinaigrette to coat them. Use too much and you’ll have soggy veggies with liquid pooling at the bottom of the bowl, not very appetizing. On that note, toss the veggies and bulk of the vinaigrette together just before serving. It’s best not to mix the two and leave them sitting. While the vegetables are best served right away as a warm salad, they will hold pretty well in the fridge for a day or so, as long as they stay separated from the vinaigrette. They can then be served as a cold salad when you’re ready to have them.
Some feta, should you feel so inclined, would be a great addition here. But quite frankly, it is perfect as it is, a fabulous mixture of spring’s presented abundance. Something about this salad is deeply invigorating and refreshing to both body and soul. It also quite fairly shrieks of spring. One bite into the mélange of peas is enough to firmly convince you of its arrival. There’s nothing quite like the crisp snap of it to bring the feeling home.
So there you have it. A few basic rules that will allow you to come up with some fabulous salads of your own, coming from an amateur’s perspective as it were. They can have a few ingredients like the basic Caesar, or several like this one here. Layer textures and flavours until you find something you like. You have a practically infinite palette of ingredients to choose from!