With summer in full swing, local salad fixings are everywhere. It’s easy to be enjoying fresh salads, but some folks aren’t making the most of the opportunity. With that in mind, here are a few pointers on salad making.
Let’s start with what a salad should not be. A bowl of iceberg lettuce (and I’m not dissing iceberg; it has its place) in chunks, a ring or two of green pepper, a thick slice of onion, and two of three cherry tomatoes with “your choice of Italian, French, Greek, Ranch, Blue Cheese, or oil & vinegar, etc.,” does not a salad constitute. Oh, and did I mention it’s always served in a dinky little bowl that spills your salad onto the table when you try to eat it? No, no, no.
Greens first. There are tender greens and sturdy ones. How you dress them matters. Tender greens like Butterhead, Bibb, or Oakleaf lettuce should be paired with lighter, less acidic dressings. Too heavy a dressing will weigh down the leaves; one that’s too acidic will wilt them and overwhelm their delicate flavor. A light lemon vinaigrette, for example, will suit them nicely. Don’t use them for salads with ingredients like tomatoes and olives. Sturdy lettuces like Romaine or Iceberg will stand up to those heavier ingredients and are a natural with stronger-flavored dressings like Caesar or Blue Cheese.
Pre-washed and cut-up lettuce is convenient, and so readily available now that it takes up more shelf space at the grocery store than actual heads of lettuce. But whole lettuce is still cheaper, and that’s how it comes from gardens and farmers’ markets anyway, so here’s how to deal with it. Fill a large bowl or a clean sink with tepid water. Remove the individual leaves from the head of lettuce and rinse them thoroughly. Lift them out of the water, leaving any grit and dirt behind. Repeat if necessary – some lettuces hold a lot of grit at the base of their leaves. Spin the leaves dry in a salad spinner and roll up in a lint-free kitchen towel or paper towels, then place in a plastic bag or large covered container. Chill if not using immediately. You can prepare several days’ worth of lettuce this way as long as the lettuce is thoroughly dried.
Cucumbers – unless they’re European cucumbers, peel them, please. If they’re large, cut in half lengthwise and remove the seeds, slice no more than ¼” in thickness, and cut the slices into halves or quarters. Sweet peppers, whether green or colored – those rings look pretty, but are awkward for the diner. Small cubes or slices are easier to deal with. Onions – either very thinly slice them, or put them in the dressing. A big bite of onion will overwhelm the palate.
Carrots are good cut into fine julienne or grated. Regular tomatoes should be halved and seeded before being cut into wedges if small or cubes if larger. Cherry tomatoes should be halved lengthwise. We’ve all had the experience of trying to spear a cherry tomato and shooting it across the table, haven’t we? If using celery from the outside of the bunch, please string it and slice finely. If you have time, mincing it is a nice touch. Slice radishes.
Nuts are much tastier if you take the time to toast them. Make up a large batch when you can, and use as needed; they store well at room temperature. Cheeses like feta or cheddar should be crumbled or cubed and distributed over the top of the salad after it’s dressed.
Dress the amount of salad that you expect will be consumed at one sitting. Use a big bowl, preferably one that’s wide rather than tall. Turn the salad to coat the leaves evenly with the dressing (“tossing” is a misnomer; that would constitute salad abuse.) Use just enough dressing. If you find a pool at the bottom of the bowl when the salad’s served, you used too much.
There are huge amounts of shelf space dedicated to salad dressings in the grocery store, and most aren’t worth the money. I urge you to learn to make your own. It really is simple, it’s cheaper and more healthful, and you can enhance flavor of the salad you’ve composed without making it taste like a generic bottled dressing. Why go to the trouble of preparing all the ingredients nicely and then making it common?