A Well-dressed Salad
I’ve made this salad for myself for lunch two days in a row now, and I suspect I could eat it every day for the next month with, perhaps, a slight variation here and there. I like it that much. I like salad that much, which, I figure, is a good reason to write about it.
I remember the first time I saw someone make a salad dressing from ‘scratch.’ It was the summer after my sophomore year of college. I was 20, and I was visiting my friend Rachel in France. She was teaching English at a high school in a suburb of Paris as part of her own French language study. I was watching her prepare our lunch in the dusky little kitchen that was shared by the several resident foreigners who were teaching their own languages to French students. An entire leg of cured pork was hanging on the closet door behind her; the Spanish teacher’s family had just visited from Spain and brought their daughter a gift.
Rachel was pouring olive oil and apple cider vinegar into a little bowl. Then a dollop of Dijon mustard, then a bit of honey, a pinch of herbs de provence, salt and pepper. Whisk, whisk. It was a delicious salad, and I would now call that experience a turning point in my own culinary journey…or at least a benchmark in learning how to make a real salad. Since learning to make my own vinaigrettes, I’ve never looked back.*
One of my favourite words of Italian kitchen wisdom discovered in this past year of Italian cooking has to do with salads: “…it takes four persons to make a salad properly: a wise man to season it, a miser to put in the vinegar, a spendthrift for the oil, and a madman to mix and toss it…” (from The Food of Italy by Waverly Root, p.88). My friend Amanda used to say, “Dress to coat not float” when we catered together, and I would say that’s a pretty good translation of the Italian proverb. I would add my own salad imperatives:
1. Wash your greens well–there’s no excuse for a gritty salad.
2. Dry your greens well–there’s no excuse for a soggy salad (a salad spinner is my most frequently used kitchen gadget).
3. Dress your salad in a bowl large enough to accommodate real tossing before you bring it to the table–I loathe trying to properly toss my little portion of salad on a plate full of other foods, or in a bowl far too small to get the job down properly. If you fear your eaters will not do their part in partaking of salad (resulting in leftover, already-dressed salad which will wilt toward oblivion by the next meal), then toss a portion of what you’ve prepared and return to the kitchen later to dress a refill if it is needed.
As for this particular salad…
A mixture of green leaf lettuce (torn or chopped) and red kale, stemmed and chopped into rather small pieces
Toasted almonds, chopped
A few Black Mission figs, chopped
A modest crumbling of goat feta (or chevre)
A Hard boiled egg (1 per eater), quartered
(I will say here that bacon or pancetta would be a delicious addition for the omnivores out there)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4-1/3 cup balsamic vinegar (depending on how tangy you like your dressing)
1 TBSP Dijon mustard
1-2 TBSP honey (depending on how sweet you like your dressing, or how bitter your greens are)
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
a few cranks of freshly cracked pepper
a dash of sea salt
This is a great vinaigrette “template”–try it with different vinegars (I recently did part balsamic and part apple cider) and different sweeteners (maple syrup is very nice), or with the addition of herbs (a pinch of herbs de provence is lovely).
*With the possible exception of Annie’s Goddess Dressing which is straight-up delicious. And the occasional plunge of a slice of pizza into good ol’ Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.