Lettuce Talk Salads
Is it really a salad if there are no greens or ranch dressing?
That was a culinary conundrum I was forced to confront when I was summoned to a table by a cantankerous customer. The offending offering was a Caprese salad of bright red slices of early August Jersey tomatoes layered with pillowy mozzarella slices, a razor-thin chiffonade of basil drizzled with extra virgin olive and a slight dusting of freshly ground pepper. For me that is a perfect mid-summer evening meal. Add a glass of wine: simple and fulfilling.
There are endless variations of ingredients that can be turned into a salad. Salads should consist of vegetables and/or greens as the body, and a dressing, either vinegar and oil-based favored by the health conscious or mayonnaise-based preferred by the “ranch dressing is a food group” crowd. Garnish or accompaniments also enhance a salad; cheese, meats, nuts, olives, tomatoes, and croutons can all be used in a salad. When selecting garnish, think in terms of how it can add texture, color, and flavor contrast to the plate.
Selecting the greens is an important step in building a good salad. Many people love iceberg lettuce; after 40 years in the kitchen, I still don’t know why. The only redeeming qualities are its texture and low caloric value. Romaine lettuce gives a similar texture while providing actual nutrients and a mild to slightly bitter flavor profile. Arugula, also known as rocket, is a soft textured green that provides a sharp peppery bite. Bibb or butter lettuce is another soft green with a sweet clover-like flavor profile. Its light texture is good for layering, and a small amount can appear larger than it is – great for presentation.
Spinach is another great salad green. Baby spinach is ubiquitous in most bag salad mixes and does not require as much cleaning and preparation as its full-grown brethren, which has a more pronounced flavor and fibrous texture. A blend of greens can give a more layered flavor effect than using a single variety; blends are a perfect spot to utilize iceberg lettuce, where its crunch can give textural support to soft, limp greens.
For a salad without lettuce, the first of my two personal favorites is Tuna Niçoise, which contains a base of cooked green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, olives, and eggs in a light vinaigrette. This is a standalone lunch, or a light dinner traditionally served with canned tuna; before refrigeration canned, smoked, or salted were really the only options for landlocked fish lovers. Fresh tuna is now easily accessible, and grilled tuna is a great update for this classic salad.
My other favorite non-greens-based salad is caprese. Do not skimp on the quality mozzarella for this dish; fresh mozzarella is the only type to use. I recently ordered one that was served with dry low-moisture pizza mozzarella—it was a tragedy on a plate. Lots of people love to drown their caprese salads with thick syrupy sweet balsamic reduction. Please don’t, especially when using Jersey tomatoes. The only accompaniment a ripe Jersey tomato requires is good olive oil, flaky kosher or sea salt, and freshly ground pepper.
When seasoning or flavoring dishes, remember which ingredient is the star. Let that item stand out and choose supporting ingredients to achieve that goal. Peter Lorre and Claude Rains steal scenes in Casablanca, but in the end it’s all about Bogart and Bergman.
To begin a beautiful and healthy relationship with salads, try these recipes: Grilled Tuna Nicoise, Avocado and Bacon Bibb with Chipotle Ranch, Classic Caprese, Fried Tomato and Crab Spinach Salad with Old Bay Vinaigrette, and Lemongrass Chicken and Rice Noodle Salad with Curry Vinaigrette. Until the next issue, here’s looking at you, kids.