Salad Theory: No More Excuses, People

Salad. La di freakin’ da, right? Only then how come so many people screw up a salad? I see salads at potlucks, at family reunions, even at friends’ dinner parties, and I’m like “Really?” I don’t really say that. I eat it, slathered in whatever Creamy Chemicals N’ Bits salad dressing that is nearby. But it’s really easy to bring some joy to Saladtown. Trash the Bac-Os. Chuck every salad dressing in your fridge. And pay attention to the Rule of Threes:

The Rule of Threes
Comedy has a rule of threes, tragedy has a rule of threes, and now salad has a rule of threes:

1 Nut + 1 Fruit + 1 Cheese

Think of this as the three wheels of a slot machine, spinning with options. Pretty much anything can be good. We regularly throw together walnuts, dried cranberries and blue cheese over spinach. Swap out the cran for mandarin oranges, and the goat cheese for crumbly feta cheese, and you’ve gone from a wintery hearth to the sunny Mediterranean without so much as a bus ticket.

What I like about the rule of threes is how handy it can be when you want to be creative–strawberries, pinenuts and chunks of Pyrenees cows-milk cheese? I just made that up. How about a white-trash salad bar spin? Cornnuts, pineapples and Gorgonzola. That could be amazing.

But I also like that it works as a simple way to instruct other people without being a dick. You know the other person/people in your house, the one/s who don’t love to cook? This is your way to easily help them along when it’s their turn in the kitchen. “Sure, we have apples, we have sliced almonds, we have goat cheese… coming right up… thanks honey!” You may think the Rule of Threes is super obvious (at least, I do), but it might help your creative process, and will certainly save you from your non-cooking loved ones making weird-ass salads.

Now that I’ve started, I can’t stop. Mango? With… hazelnuts? And maybe… Brie cheese.

Good Tip: I’m not really into croutons per se, but if you have a softer cheese, just toast little bread points and slap it on. Same ultimate end, just different means.

Go ahead, try your own trios, as if this inevitable mental exercise hasn’t already started somewhere deep inside your cerebral cortex. One quick philosophical question, though, before you get too carried away: Do pomegranate seeds count as fruit or nut? I say either, or both.

The Matrix
What about the green stuff? I tend to think of the toppings as a way to jive the salad with the rest of the meal, and the greens I use to determine how much of a course the salad is going to be. During the week, if I put out a spinach salad, it’s basically a confession: “No, there won’t be a green vegetable next to the meat and starch.” Spinach is a vegetable replacement. (Also, a good one to buy large bins of, because you can obviously cook it too, just beware that it takes approximately 47,000 raw spinach leaves to create one 4″x4″ serving.)

Mesclun is the lightest of the salads, with romaine, iceberg and my favorite, red leaf, somewhere slightly closer to the middle, but only just slightly. If you serve any of these as your green leafy matrix, I am pretty sure you are still required by law to cook up some green beans for the main dish.

That said, I have a hard time imagining any trio of fruit, nut and cheese not going well with any particular leafy green. You may grow accustomed to certain combinations, but that’s different than there being absolute rights and wrongs.

You’re Never Fully Dressed Without…
You may start with the Rule of Threes and move on to the greenery, but the most powerful single element in a salad is that dressing, baby. Bottled dressings are salty and xanthan gummy, with unidentifiable bits of this and that and the other. I am not a maniacal foodie, but storebought salad dressings–especially ones in the unrefrigerated aisle–taste like doodoo.

And they cost too much. Add “every salad dressing ever” to my growing list of con-diments, will ya? You have vinegar and olive oil. You have mustard and mayo. You have garlic salt, shallots, salt and pepper. You also have the ability to play with it as it’s going into the jar. Ever tried to doctor up a bottle of Wishbone? Probably not recommended.

So, here’s salad dressing at its simplest (and cheapest):

1 Part Vinegar + 2 Parts Oil + a dash of Sugar + a Tsp or two of Mayo + a pinch of Salt

I make my dressing by eyeballing it, poured into a small baby-food jar. I seal it (as well as I can) and shake the crap out of it, so that for at least half a minute or so, the contents of the jar are a uniform creamy gold.

That mayo business is a tip from Cook’s Illustrated. It’s not a flavoring so much as it is an emulsifying agent. They tried mustard, too, and found it couldn’t hold the oil and vinegar together long enough.

Mustard is certainly welcome in my salad dressing as a flavoring, though. Other favorites are garlic powder, truffle oil, lemon juice, raspberry preserves, even pomegranate juice, which I got by pressing pomegranate seeds against the inside of a tiny strainer. Don’t dump it all in at once, mind you. The real key to awesome dressing is simplicity. Make the basic dressing, and then add in a little bit. Always shake the hell out of it before you taste, or you might not be getting a full sampling.

Another key is sugar. It’s in every restaurant salad. It’s in every storebought salad. It’s what makes it easier to enjoy mesclun and radicchio and all those other bitter greens, and it softens the bitter aftertastes of many nuts, too. Obviously, if you are using raspberry preserves or something else that’s intensely sweet by nature, you don’t have to add any sugar beyond that.

Better than sugar is honey, but heed this advice: Add the honey in with the vinegar first, shake it up till it dissolves, and then pour in the oil. Otherwise you will have a gooey foundation at the bottom of your jar, and a not-so-sweet dressing.

I got a secret for you. Are you ready? White balsamic vinegar. Yeah, you heard me. It’s got a balsamic zing to it, but it doesn’t have the heaviness or the tarry look. I don’t like the darkness of regular balsamic in a nice springy tossed salad. I save that for a honey-infused syrupy drizzle over mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. My absolute favorite green-salad dressing combo: White balsamic and extra virgin olive oil with honey, mayo, truffle oil and a tiny dash of garlic powder. It’s pretty much the best dressing there is.

A Word About Shallots
No matter what you’ve done to this point, there’s still room for shallots. Finely minced shallots, ideally pre-soaked in the dressing itself. Cut up half a shallot and leave it in the dressing. If you don’t finish the dressing, the leftover will keep just fine, and you can add more as necessary.

Shallots are a kitchen addiction. Once you start cooking with them–stirring them into butter for a sauce to go with chicken, or tossing them with green beans Asian style in a super hot frying pan–you get a panicky sweat when they’re not around. When I see that there’s like half a shallot in the fridge, I not only beg Jenny to pick some up on her way home, but I hastily use up that last half, like a chainsmoker with one broken ciggie left in the softpack.

I have mentioned our dear Uncle Gerald before, but I should also mention Aunt Laurie, without whom we would now have the pleasure of knowing Gerald. Because without either of them, we would not have the pleasure of knowing the importance of shallots in salads. I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t intentionally served a single salad without minced shallots since 2006, when Laurie shared the secret of purple gold with me. You will feel the same soon, I guarantee it.

Good Tip: You know how tomatoes in winter can be mushy and unpleasant? My solution is to cut them up into little pieces then stick them in a bowl, covering them with salad dressing. Just like the shallots, these benefit from a little pre-pickling. Pour all the dressing you’re intending to use for the salad itself, and then when you’re ready to serve dinner, just dump the tomato bowl over the salad and toss as needed.

Let’s Go Bowling
You’ve heard it many times, but hear it again: Your greens should not be swimming in dressing. As long as you’ve emulsified it through and through, pour it in a few tablespoons at a time, and toss fully. Check the bottom of the salad bowl. If there’s no dressing at all down there, you can add a little more, but if all the leaves are coated and there’s a puddle forming at the bottom, you are done.

Plate each salad (we use bowls, so I guess you can “bowl each salad” if you prefer). Next, top with your predetermined fruit, nut and cheese trio. If you toss it all together, it will just hit the bottom, and be hard to parcel out, and good cheese can get really messed up by tossing. The stickier the cheese, the later and more carefully it goes on.

Finally, do as the restaurants do, and grind some pepper over the thing. I don’t know why pepper is so omnipresent in our galaxy of foods, but I’ll be damned if I eat a salad without any ground pepper. The end result should be happy people who finish their salad, ask for seconds, and maybe, if you’re lucky, remember it in the morning.

Note: I realize there are a million other salads out there, tricolore, Mexican chopped, caprese, cole slaw, and don’t get me started on potato salad, pasta salad or white bean salad. I love them all, and make them frequently. The above guidelines don’t apply, at least not universally, to them, though some of the thinking certainly does.

3 responses to “Salad Theory: No More Excuses, People

  1. Hey Wilson!

    Great tips on the salad! You can’t go wrong with cheesy fruits and nuts.

    You have a way with words and I am enjoying your sense of humor greatly.

  2. What you said about the corn nuts was pretty damn funny, but now I am going to TRY IT!

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