Foodie Tuesday: My Salad Days are Not Behind Me

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Is it salad or crudites when it's deconstructed? Do I care, or am I just *really* hungry? Is salad so hard to eat unabashedly that it must be disguised as something else to pass muster? Is Vilma secretly seeing Ernesto at his nightclub El Gallo LlorΓ³n while she thinks Juan Maria is away on vineyard business?

Sometimes I think that Salad has a little bit of a stigma in the popular mind, even though ‘some of my best friends eat salads’. There’s just a hint that if one is too obviously fond of salads one must be (a) stuck in the 1970s–don’t get me started on alfalfa sprouts–(2) trying to lose weight and hopelessly clueless about all of the better miracle diets out there, or (lastly) some sort of chlorophyll-blooded alien. Despite the widespread knowledge that there are endless kinds and combinations of foods that can be classified as salads and that the vast majority of them are both rather tasty and potentially nutritious, there’s always some naysayer out there who thinks that there’s something just a tiny bit off about people who embrace frequent salad-eating.

I would find it seriously boring to eat salad often, too, if all salads were born alike, but that is far from the case. There are all sorts of recipes and inspirations available from every quarter, and definitions galore of what constitutes a salad. The origin of the salad construct is arguably that of a simple collation of a dish or meal, in antique times, consisting simply of raw, fresh vegetal matter seasoned with salt (the ‘sal‘ of salad), and occasionally, with vinegar and oil. The idea has expanded over the centuries gradually to include cheeses, meats, fish, eggs and nuts, and at some point probably around the latter nineteenth to regularly include mixtures of warm ingredients and often grains, legumes, and their offspring of breads and pastas as well. If you can’t figure out how to keep a salad interesting then you are as sadly unimaginative as the average politician and probably deserve to go hungry for a while to contemplate your sins.

All the same, I have no objection to a rather staid and standard sort of salad, a plain bit of greens or greens with a few ‘classic’ add-ins–juicy sweet tomato; a bit of diced avocado, perhaps–and maybe a splash of good dressing, either as a light meal or a side dish. The much-maligned ordinariness of even a wedge of supposedly flavorless iceberg lettuce can sometimes add an exceedingly welcome and refreshing bit of mild crunch and hydration to offset an otherwise heavy or over-the-top sort of meal. There’s a perfectly good reason the ‘Wedge Salad’ has remained wedged onto the menu of virtually every standard American steakhouse for so very long, in between the slabs of highly seasoned beef and the creamed This and butter-slathered That and deep-fried Other, all quite delicious indeed but occasionally in want of one coy kiss of contrast or brightness in some fashion.

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In our hearts, we're all kind of plain, but is being ordinary a *bad* thing? Or is it mostly just comforting? Is a salad comprising only common uncooked vegetables and dressed abstemiously with a squeeze of lemon juice and a slurp of olive oil anathema, or can it be loved for its pure, taste-able simplicity? Honey, do deer eat salad in the woods? (Or just salal?)

I suppose I could be said to be more fond of or partial to salads that take the trouble to stand out from the crowd just a little bit, or at least less likely to become jaded by them since they vary the input on the palate. Why not jazz up the greens with a bit of roasted vegetable or bright fruit, with some shredded or crumbled cheese, some toasted nuts? Give the dressing a little boost of unexpected flavor. Make it a meal by putting some handsome protein in that invitingly verdant nest. But let’s not get crazy here! At some point, a concoction too complicated ceases to be a salad and becomes either a circus sideshow not very enticing as actual sustenance or more about ideas than about taste, and I find that tiresome in any part of a meal. If food is entertaining, great, but if entertainment is inedible, don’t try to tell me it’s dinner.

For that’s what it all means to me, finally: does what I’m serving genuinely satisfy hunger? Does it actually taste good? Does it express hospitality by being sensitive to the tastes and health of guests at the table? If it doesn’t meet those criteria, all of the artful towers of constructivist salad art and all of the impressive molecular gastronomist foams and gels and powders, the foodie-swooning truffles and caviar and smoked duck ravioli and balsamic-martini dressings in the world won’t save it from death-by-silliness. Let’s hear it instead for a thoughtful, pleasurable combination of flavor, texture, color, scent and sensibility that balances the needs of the diners and plays nicely with whatever else is brought to the feast.

Lately, my salads have been fairly basic again, combining the wonderfully homely base of romaine lettuce leaves or shredded cabbage with whatever array of old-fashioned but still tasty partners I happen to have on hand and be hungry to devour and topped with a lick of some complementary dressing for the big, if unsurprising, finish. I’ll be hungry soon enough for a hit of pizzazz in some part of the salad equation, whether it’s a whole new salad or just a garnish I’ve not enjoyed in a while. Because I’d hate for the old-familiar to become dull and unappealing. That is the very definition of being too far gone to recapture one’s salad days.

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A salad certainly needn't be fussy, only friendly, to enhance the dining experience; it's more important to balance the other characteristics of the meal than to show off what wild and weird tricks a salad can be made to perform. Unless you happen to know how to, say, make yellow tomatoes turn into red tomatoes when you put the dressing on the salad or how to make origami swans out of butter lettuce leaves.

Being beautiful, after all, is more about attitude than pedigree, so I’m more concerned that my salads be composed of flavorful fresh ingredients, play a proper supporting role to the stars of the meal (the people, first, and then the entrΓ©e), and in true Coco Chanel style, always be appropriately dressed. Even Coco, I feel certain, would admit that certain occasions require tasteful nudity, but she would know better than anyone that most events are best served by a well-designed and appropriate ensemble and careful accessorizing. With that, I scratch out here a couple of my thoughts about salad dressings, which like salads themselves seldom require an actual recipe–if they need one, they may have gotten too complicated for their own good.

I think of salad dressing as a marvelous way to distinguish the beauties of a particular salad. Something astringent works better with salad than with nearly any other course of the typical meal, so if the meal needs a little flash, that’s a great place to create it. For milder needs, despite my love affair with heavy cream, I know that creaminess in salad dressings is rarely best accomplished by incorporating actual dairy cream. A better partner with salads is an emulsion, generally two liquids that want to hate each other being brought into dΓ©tente by mechanical means. Typical examples would be an acid ingredient like vinegar or citrus juice and a fat-centric goodie like oil or egg yolk, the two ingredients being beaten into submission by gradually incorporating the fat into the acid with a vigorous, airy, steady whisking. Sort of like a cranky teacher putting the harsh reality of thoughts into my fat head by forceful means. Not that any of my own teachers was ever like that. (Cough! Mrs. Finley!) Once I have (or a persnickety teacher-like person has) made the dressing’s basic parts behave properly together, there are endless sorts of herbal, spicy or other flavors that can be invited to play along with them for individuation and to better suit all of the dinner’s other ingredients.

Here’s a little combination to try: 1 part ginger juice (freshly grated ginger root will do, if you don’t have bottled juice), 1 part soy sauce, 2 parts maple syrup or raw honey, 2-3 parts lime juice, 2-4 parts macadamia or coconut oil (or any mild flavored oil you like). Put them all together in a tightly lidded jar or bottle and shake vigorously. Adjust to taste. Dress the salad just before serving or let guests dress their own salads. Fitting add-ins or add-ons for this sort of dressing are toasted or black sesame seeds, ground black pepper, toasted sliced almonds or pine nuts. Well suited to mixed green salads with sweet orange segments, diced dried apricot, ripe avocado, grated myzithra cheese, kale, thinly sliced jicama or daikon or sweet radish, or . . .

What? You can’t hear me over the crunching? Well, then, grab your salad fork and join me. I won’t tell anyone you’re one of those, you know, salad eaters.

54 thoughts on “Foodie Tuesday: My Salad Days are Not Behind Me

  1. Alas! My salad days were few and they are behind me. I was never much of a salad eater, always eating a lettuce and tomato salad dry (without any dressing). Then, one night at a Red Lobster, after I had told the waiter how I’d take the salad I really didn’t want, he asked if I’d like to have some lemon to squeeze on it. I tried it and that was great. Unfortunately, I learned after only a time or two of this delightful discovery that lettuce no longer agreed with my acid reflux stomach and I had to give it all up, regretfully. Salads, I barely knew you. 😦

    • Since I haven’t the skills or knowledge of any of you actual foodies, I just have to invent things as I go along. πŸ™‚ I’m glad you enjoy my odd point of view! πŸ™‚

  2. What a beautiful post! Salads are very popular in my country, and I have loved them all my life… but I realize now that I have experienced only a part of the menu. And the pictures are a great pleasure… this is all a sensory delight.

  3. I was brought up on those dreadful British salads of limp lettuce, under-ripe tomatoes, thise huge tasteless cucumbers.. It was when I started to travel as a teenager or a twenty-something (whether it was France, Greece, or Amsterdam) that I realised the joy that can be a salad. So you have managed for me to capture the essence of a salad. And now I want to try your dressing, I’m imagining it with raw cabbage, winter lettuce, grated carrots and mooli topped off with toasted sesame seeds πŸ™‚ Vive le CRUNCH !

    • I do adore a great CRUNCH! *Except* for the one when my favorite ski-bunny breaks her arm!!! Remember that salads often have ingredients that aren’t too hard to prep one-handed, too. πŸ˜€

  4. Your salad dressing sounds really tasty. I’ve not seen ginger juice but would love to find some. We were raised that a salad was a part of every supper and it’s a habit I’m glad to have acquired. As much as I love one that’s a veritable treasure trove of all things crisp & crunchy, a simple bed of leaf lettuce or romaine with a little onion, tomato, and a drizzle of oil & vinegar works just fine, too. If I want to get all fancy-shmancy, I’ll sprinkle a little pecorino romano on top. Of course, this could all change if I find that ginger juice.

    • Sir, I will readily admit that one of my all-time favorite salads is what I consider the Queen of Italian salads (despite there being so many great ones): Insalata Caprese. Sighhhhhhh . . .

      The company ‘Ginger People’ produces the ginger juice I use, and it’s not available in a huge number of places but I’ve seen it fairly regularly. I think I might have bought it at World Market. Maybe . . . but grated fresh ginger will do, too. πŸ™‚

  5. Your post reminds me that I don’t eat salads often enough so I think I will try to add a few to my culinary cannon. Thanks for introducing me to the idea of using coconut oil in a salad dressing. I use it to cook with but had never thought of if as a salad dressing oil. In these parts it is not often hot enough for my coconut oil to be anything other than solid. Do you melt yours before using it or does the Texan weather usually ensure it is liquid?

    • In summertime coconut oil is water-thin here all the time if it’s not refrigerated. But yes, it’s best to microwave it to that state for dressings. Definitely have to serve it *un*-chilled, or you’ll end up with something entirely new and not necessarily entirely nice! πŸ˜‰

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  7. Bad Tourist Story –
    We were in Cluny two years ago, in the spring. There’s a giant outdoor restaurant on the square where locals and tourists eat. We were having lunch, when I overheard the (American) woman at the next table moaning about the salad…”There’s no CHOICE of dressing anywhere. It’s just *this*. And, you can’t get it on the side…” Blah, blah, blah. I cringed. I’ve spent years trying to make that mustard vinegrette at home!
    Salads are a regular part of our diet, from fancy Cobbs to plain ol’ greens and maters…is that pickled okra I see? Is there enough to share?

    • I pretty much always keep around some pickled okra, so come on over!!

      Oh, yes, the Ugly American rears its head. Yikes. I was *so* grateful when I first traveled overseas to discover that northwesterners’ accent is unfamiliar enough to Europeans that they couldn’t place me as American. Mostly I got asked if I was from Canada, or occasionally, Ireland or Cornwall. Any being preferable, as Americans were particularly disliked in much of Europe back then. And I couldn’t bear hearing people asking US visitors ‘what’s it like in America?’ and the tourists blithely spouting off generalizations as though they really applied to all of their own state, let alone the entire country. Eeeewwwww!

      However, your mustard-vinaigrette dream reminds me of a happier thing: when my younger sister returned stateside after 9 months working in France, one of the foods she made for us was a fabulous warm salad of layered rice, sweet corn, tuna and a lovely, simple mustard vinaigrette. Heavenly! I’d completely forgotten it.

      • I solved my issue by sumuggling some fresh, unpasturized Maile mustard home in the suitcase…and learned the hard way that one should always bring Ziploc bags, if one is going to bring home potentially messy, smelly things!

      • Ha! Tell me about it! Our brother-in-law came stateside to play a concerto and brought an “order” (ordure?) of stinky cheese along for a friend. Too bad it came into contact with his tux en route!! πŸ˜‰

  8. Some of my best friends are salads! πŸ˜‰ And salads (in one form or another) accompany almost every dinner and half my lunches. Never tried for breakfast, but I’m not averse to the idea either. But those molecular gastronomical creations like *foam* on a plate make me very squeamish. To my mind they belong in a sink, to be followed quickly by water! Great post Kathryn, beautiful photos and I love the Asian soy-ginger dressing!

    • As I mentioned to Mandy above, I whipped up a little bit of that dressing and glazed some pseudo-Asian beef with it and sprinkled some sesame seeds on it. Tasty! It happened that I had some leftover almond-black sesame coleslaw handy, so there was still salad involved. πŸ™‚ None of this being as glamorous as the things you prepare and photograph so beautifully! But it *was* tasty, so for me that’s about as high-end as I can manage. πŸ™‚

  9. Oh… to join in, if I could I would be there, right beside you, fork in hand, napkin tucked dutifully in.. I shall have to live vicariously or join you by making my own version of this. Not tonight (duty calls) but tomorrow… This dressing sounds so chic (would Coco says that?) and I love the inspiring veggie photos that go along for the walk down the runway… xo Smidge

    • I already know what a salad queen you are, since you’ve shared some dazzlers with us! Mine aren’t so pretty or so perfectly presented, but I do what I can!! Once you show up here, you can teach me how to improve my style *and* grab the nearest fork to dig in as well.

  10. I will forever now remember your post when I eat my next salad. This was so well written with lots of food for thought! I’m a huge salad eater, of all kinds. I actually like to incorporate my leftovers into salads. The first photo is gorgeous and has given me inspiration for tonight’s salad feast!!

    • Leftovers are the ideal place to shop for a starting point for salads!! I hope dinner was delicious! What am I saying! I’ve been to ‘your place’–dinner is *always* fabulous at your place. πŸ™‚

  11. Ah, yes! I was one of those salad nay-sayer, but thankfully have become and aye-sayer! Finding the versatility of vegetables was truely an eye (and mouth) opening experience. My palate (and paunch) have been very grateful. Thanks for the dressing recipe! πŸ™‚

    • I hope you’ll like the dressing, too, which is also a handy marinade for fish or meat, and is highly tweak-able; it’s just the old thing of sweet + salty + sour + spicy with a bit of fat for balance and mouth-feel, so any substitution in any category might play!

  12. Such tasty words, such tasty pictures. You never disappoint. I love a simple salad and especially like romaine lettuce, chicken, grapes, and pecans with just olive oil and salt. I can eat it over and over and never get tired of it. I will have to try your dressing recipe.

    • You can see from my notes to commenters above that I mess around with the dressing contents constantly *and* I use it for things other than salads. It’s essentially similar to vinaigrettes in versatility and flexibility. But then salads are mighty versatile and flexible in general, aren’t they! I like your blend too. πŸ™‚

    • As with so many other things, it’s mostly about the quality of ingredients–if they taste great on their own, ‘style points’ are less important, and you can get away with a whole lot more! πŸ˜‰

  13. MMmmmmm, salad! Salad is one of my favorite things to eat. You are right – so many combinations, the possibilities are endless!
    I haven’t been here in a while – I’ve missed you!

  14. I never thought I’d say this–but you have made me very hungry for salad. (I do like salad a lot, but rarely as a meal, more as an accompaniment. But I believe this has changed for me now…)

    Just your descriptions and photographs made the salads spectacular!

    • I wouldn’t want to have salads for my entrees every day by any means, but there are two advantages when I *do* go that way: a one-dish meal, and some nice variation in my mealtime experience, so I *don’t* get bored with salad dinners (lunches) *or* no-salad meals.

  15. Pingback: Foodie Tuesday: Yummy Bugs | Art-Colored Glasses

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