I call it Awesome Autumn Salad, not only because it’s impressively tasty but also given the stupendous quantity of it I’m capable of consuming when in the mood.
Fear not! I neither dine with nor on monsters if I can help it. But I will happily prepare and feast on a salad that’s big enough for any monster since I am willfully delusional about salads being lower-calorie options than most other sorts of meals. You will see from my photos and comments that this is clearly a lie: I love to add cheese, nuts, eggs, bacon, leftover casserole hunks, and endless other ingredients that give salads just as much artery-busting potential as any other dish. And don’t get me started ranting about how if a salad dressing’s supposed to be worthy of my salad, it might as well be worth eating (or drinking) on its own, since I will likely use enough of it to make it an actual menu item too.
Given all the disclaimers, you might think I mistook the very concept of Salad for another thing entirely, and perhaps you are right, if we’re going to be all strict about it. But that’s just the point, for me. I like to think of salad as the perfect opportunity for improvisation and combining as many of my favorite edibles in one dish as I like. And if you think I also mistook pulling up a chair to write a post on the blog for walking into a confessional, then you clearly haven’t read around here much before, because that’s no mistake, it’s just the way I always operate.
Enough asides. To food! Salad, or an approximation thereof, to be specific.
The Awesome Autumn Salad above is, like most around our house, Romaine-based. Typically, I like to add an assortment from the following: chopped celery and cucumbers, shredded carrots, sliced yellow or red capsicums, sliced black olives, raw or lightly cooked sweet corn kernels, chopped sugar snap peas, salted sunflower seeds, sprouted pumpkin seeds, and sometimes a bit of chopped boiled egg or grated cheddar cheese. The dressing is really what makes this one for me. It’s a combination of thick, sweet balsamic vinegar and Styrian toasted pumpkinseed oil. Sheer heaven! I usually blend mine with thyme, dill, mustard seeds, and coarsely ground black pepper. I’ll throw a big pinch of Maldon sea salt over the salad and toss it all lightly before eating, and I can put away an astonishing amount of this crunchy madness when I’m good and hungry for it.
This one gets the moniker Bit-Part Salad; greens play only a supporting role in it, and there are bits and pieces of innumerable other goodies piled on it.
While I am worlds away from believing that to be a salad, a dish must have fresh greens in it, I do like the leafy sort. Especially when it’s piled to the skies with all manner of crunchy and flavorful goodness in the range of added ingredients. And particularly-specifically-especially when it contains a refreshing element of contrast.
The Bit-Part Salad here was a room-temperature conglomeration of grainy goodness with veg, fruit, cheeses, nuts, and more. I broth-cooked wild rice in some of my slow cooker broth, the latter made with both marrow bones and chicken wings as a winning combo that came together incredibly richly. And made a monstrous mess of the cooker, the counter, the floor, and my nerves in the process, all during only the second time I used that brand new cooker. Perhaps there was a monster in the kitchen after all. No matter. I made the wild rice, then steamed a batch of quinoa with lemon and orange zests, cinnamon and cardamom and roasted coriander, and then I combined the two with beurre noisette, in case they weren’t already ridiculously tasty. Instead of mashing every other ingredient to an unrecognizable pulp or plating everything together tediously for every eater, I opted for my preferred mise-en-place mode of putting out a counter-full of ingredients and letting each person customize his or her salad.
My Bit-Part Salad was thus: a bed of lettuce and wild rice-quinoa mix. Heaps on top of it. Chopped Bosc pear marinated in elderflower syrup and cardamom; suprêmes of blood orange; pomegranate arils. Toasted walnuts and piñons. Celery, snap peas, cucumber, and a squeeze of lime juice. Minced fresh mint and basil. Grated Reggiano and myzithra cheeses. Coarsely ground black pepper and salt. Triple orange dressing. Enough bits of surprise and pleasure to keep even me guessing, each bite having a different little confluence of flavors and textures and perfumes.
This, perhaps, is the defining character I love most in a salad: that it should offer the ideal counterpoint to the other parts of the meal, or—if it is itself the whole meal—that the salad should be filled with delightful contrasts. Opposites in texture, yes…crumbly, soft, crackling and crisp or smooth or juicy. Contrasting flavor types, from at least a couple of the Five Tastes if not more. I will draw the line at combining things that seem to compete with each other. If one element is overpowering all the others then I’d just say Serve it by itself, let it shine, and don’t waste any other good stuff! If the salad has a noticeable leaning in style or ethnicity, save the alien invasions for another dish, another meal.
I’ve posted about salads plenty of times before and listed for you a number of my preferred inclusions, so this is perhaps only an update. If I say I’m boiling it down to a few choice currencies, fear not; I will undoubtedly be happy to throw actual boiled ingredients in with any others, as well as blanched, fried, steamed, toasted, or smoked ones. But it’s hard to beat the beauty of starting with a lovely heap of raw, fresh vegetables and/or fruits and never a bad idea to do that whether there are add-ins, throw-ons, and other edible accessories and decorations or not.
Or keep it super-simple…flash-fried fresh spinach and basil leaves, topped with a bit of Shichi-mi tōgarashi or plain toasted sesame seeds—or nothing.