Mar 25, 2009

garden salad

one version
another version
last night's dinner

i love salad. it is a great, fresh tasting dish you can eat all year long. when i go to a restaurant for the first time. i always want to know, can they make a good salad? it is a real test of a dining establishment. for years, i was terrible at salad. i couldn't have loved salads more or had less success at making them. too much or too little dressing. slightly bitter dressing. or too tart. or too vinegary. too gloppy. wrong mix of lettuces and vegetables.  you get the picture.

one day a friend of mine invited me to lunch. this woman is an extremely stylish, gorgeous and talented person, and salad cook. a genius really. she could throw anything in salad and make it taste fantastic. and she often did, persimmons, leeks, beets, leftover pork chops. eggs. anything at all. i watched her make her salads with wide eyes. she is amazing. anyway. i grokked it. salad in elisabeth's california kitchen. my salad mentor. now when we have people over and they eat salad they always comment that the dressing is delicious. and a little while later they usually ask for seconds, but they've got to be quick. we all want seconds too.

our garden salad is our most common variety. it is always a little different and a lot the same. a salad is really a composition. with layers, colors and textures, give and take.

garden salad
first you need a good mix of lettuces
my favorites are mache, green or red oak leaf. peppery arugula. i'm not so fond of radicchio, but it looks pretty. a little frisee is can be nice for texture sometimes, a little spinach thrown in can be nice, but not too much.
then add some vegetables, for flavor and textural interest. i don't usually use cheese in my salads unless i am making a caesar or goat cheese salad. i usually prefer the cheese on the side on a little toast. but not always.

for flavor/texture influence
i always use some combination of these. whatever is on hand that i have time to wash and chop.
super thinly sliced carrots
japanese or european hothouse cucumbers
sliced leeks
cherry tomatoes, halved
red cabbage, finely shredded

ah now for the dressing. the thing that ties it all together. i like a tart/tangy/sweet/fresh tasting dressing. a dressing that brings the salad to life. a favorable balance of sour salty and sweet. i look to my favorite cuisines to borrow their ideas for dressing. in japan they don't have salads so much but they do have vinegared dishes, like sunomono, cucumbers with crab or shrimp or octopus. delicious. vietnamese and thai salads are amazing. green papaya, grilled shrimp, beef salads. the french and their wonderful vinaigrettes. mmm. i love them all. now my salad dressing doesn't follow the guidelines. they say you must be a miser with the vinegar and a spendthrift with the oil, for the perfect vinaigrette. i am neither of those things. and some insist on the mustard. but my dressings are free forming, renegades, that don't follow these rules. i would describe them as a little new world asian i guess, with a bit of california thrown in.

everyday salad dressing
i vary the dressing based on the ingredients on hand. sometimes lemon. sometimes dijon mustard. there are variations. but the fastest, easiest and most common around here has only 3 ingredients. salt and pepper on top of the whole thing is often nice, but not at all essential for us.

seasoned rice vinegar
pomegranate cherry juice
olive oil

i don't usually measure with salad dressings, unless i have company over, but i would guess the proportions are about 3 TBSP seasoned rice vinegar, 1 TBSP pomegranate cherry juice, 3-4 TBSP good organic extra virgin olive oil. the seasoned rice vinegar, originally made for sushi rice and available in most grocery stores these days, has an excellent salty sweet sour balance already. it is the secret ingredient and a great base to start with. the pomegranate cherry juice has a heavy, rich acidic sweet complexity and the olive oil is the top layer that enhances the other two and makes the whole thing float together. literally. sometimes i just do lemon juice and olive oil with salt and pepper, if the salad is kind of greek, like maybe has olives and or feta. and i add a bit of dijon mustard and some minced shallots if there is cheese involved or red cabbage, or heavier tastes. it's all delicious. and fresh tasting. for other asian salads i use soy sauce or fish sauce, garlic or shallots, lime or lemon juice, or maybe orange juice if there are oranges or grapefruits in it. every single salad i make is kind of an original and we never eat the same exact salad twice.

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