Can a salad get you excited? With beautiful roasted oils like hazelnut and avocado. Small crop lettuces. Spices. Fragrant small batch vinegars. Delicate, shaved vegetables. Got your attention?
Good. There are so many ingredients that can take a salad from mainstream.. you know, the usual…to exotic and surprising. Take a break from Romaine. Boycott iceberg forever. Extra virgin olive oil is a darling, but roasted walnut oil is a deeply sensual mistress. And she’s not alone.
This guide to salads that you could call, um, sexy will wake you up to alternate ideas for your next green leafy creation. Three recipes to use as templates. Professional techniques for taking any salad to the next level of yum. And tons of fresh ideas for ingredients.
GREEN LEAFY STUFF
To begin: a huge plug for your local farmers’ market. There’s no better place on Earth where you will find such a fascinating variety of lettuces along with a person who will gladly talk hours with you about every nuance of each one. Ask questions. Small farmers have the freedom to grow unique varieties you will rarely find in a grocery. And they often pick the lettuces at a young age; gifting you with a delicate, melt in the mouth texture that’s lost as time passes in the field.
Back in the produce aisle, check out lettuces you might usually overlook. We gravitate towards the pre-rinsed, packaged lettuces, ignoring the unwashed, full curly heads of red and green leaf lettuces, arugula or little bunches of watercress and mache. Pay attention to seasonal varieties and give them a try.
Choose a lettuce the way you would a wine. Think about the weight of the dressing you are planning. Can your lettuce stand up to it? A heavier vinaigrette, especially one with mayo, will weigh down a delicate lettuce like green oak and most baby lettuces. Save those greens for a lighter vinaigrette with little acid or for just a drizzle of a splurge oil.
Making a vinaigrette is not difficult, but does the thought of it sometimes keep you from having salad with your dinner? The solution: indulge in a higher quality (higher priced) bottle of roasted hazelnut or walnut or avocado oil. Just a drizzle will take your salad to a whole other level of simplicity. These oils are handcrafted and have a rich, deep flavor that coat a salad elegantly. Follow with a squeeze of fresh citrus. Walnut oil with fresh grapefruit juice is a favorite. Play with endless combinations.
Note: be sure to refrigerate these oils and never to heat them.
The same goes for the crazy diversity of high quality vinegars in stores today. Champagne, white balsamic and countless ones infused with fruits: raspberry, pear and so on. An aged balsamic is non negotiable for any pleasure seeker. A hand crafted or aged vinegar is balanced in acidity and thick, almost like syrup. You will frantically search for other uses for it: splashed on a piece of grilled fish, vanilla ice cream. Then you know: that’s a good vinegar.
OKAY, SO VINAIGRETTE
There is a time for simplicity. And a time for complexity. That doesn’t mean that a vinaigrette has to be complicated. You can whisk up a quick salad dressing with just three ingredients. Lighting fast. You’re done. No problem. But a vinaigrette is also an opportunity to play with various aromatics, emulsifiers and even spices. It can be as complex as you desire. You can make your dressing creamy with fresh eggs: the Caesar, for example.
Aromatics, the flavor foundation: A beautiful word for the vegetables that form the bottom layer of flavor, not just for vinaigrettes but for soups, sauces, etc. Onions, shallots, garlic and ginger are the main players. Finely minced, a tablespoon of one or more aromatics of choice is where a good vinaigrette starts.
Emulsifier, the match maker: Oil and vinegar have sort of a love hate relationship dynamic. They complement each other so well. But they have a hard time sticking together. An emulsifier is the chemistry that brings them together. Dijon mustard is the best choice. Raw eggs and store bought mayo work well too.
Even with a mediator, oil and vinegar will always go back to their own corners, over time. An emulsifier delays this reaction while adding another layer of flavor as well as body to the vinaigrette. Any vinaigrette will need a little shake or whisk after it sits for a while.
Spice: Consider opening your spice cabinet for your next vinaigrette. You don’t have to go crazy. Just a pinch or two of a ground spice will add a subtle dimension that make your guests ask: what’s in this? Think cayenne for your Caesar dressing. Curry powder for a honey mustard. Be adventurous here.
Salt: Most recipes call for a bit of salt at this stage of the vinaigrette and it is a necessary element for exalting all the flavors. But holding back a little on the salt in the vinaigrette will free you to salt the greens right before serving with one of the many exotic salts available to us these days, like Himalayan or Hawaiian Alaea. Each of these salts have different colors and textures and flavor nuances. They look beautiful in little bowls on your counter and have endless uses.
Sugar, for balance: A teaspoon or so of sugar will round out a strongly tart vinegar or citrus juice. You will decide in the final tasting phase. Whisk in a little table sugar for balance, if you like. Honey, agave and maple syrup are excellent too; they definitely blend into a vinaigrette with ease and add their own subtleties.
The Tools: Brilliant engineering took place to craft a round mixing bowl and a round whisk to work together for a common purpose: to merge and then aerate ingredients to perfection. Don’t mix in a square bowl. Just don’t.
Many people like to shake their vinaigrettes up in little mason jars. And that is a fine technique that results in a nice little storage container as well.
Putting it together: The standard proportion is 1 part vinegar to 3 or 4 parts of oil. This is just a guideline. So after the aromatics, emulsifier, salt and spice have been whisked together, add about one quarter cup of vinegar. Then slowly start to add in a half cup of oil a bit at a time, whisking as you go. A towel under your mixing bowl will free up both hands. Now taste. Continue adding more oil and tasting, until you get where you want to be. And don’t forget, if the vinegar is still overwhelming, a bit of sugar may be what you need, instead of more oil.
Adding finely chopped herbs at the finish is another way to layer flavors. Whisk those in when the vinaigrette is finished. A tablespoon or so is good for this quantity. Bonus: vitamins, minerals and floral notes.
FRUITS AND VEGGIES
The other produce components of a salad should complement the season; warm, roasted fruits and vegetables are great for colder months; raw and crunchy when the weather warms up. Rethink your habits. Do you go for raw diced carrots, onions, tomatoes, those kind of traditional vegetables, all year long? In the winter, roast them with a little grape seed oil at 350 until caramelized. The same goes for fruits. Roasted apples, pears, figs provide the heartiness you crave in the winter.
In the spring and summer, lighten up with thinly shaved produce. A mandoline is the tool for producing paper thin shreds of raw vegetables and fruits. Cut does matter. The mouth feel and flavor of a delicate wisp of a radish or carrot is inspiring.
Be unpredictable and toss in something unheard of. Crunchy wasabi peas. Candied ginger. Spicy roasted pumpkin seeds. Cacoa nibs. These mysterious ingredients add crunch or sweetness or unpredictable spice.
Rethink the common: instead of wimpy little croutons, why not make them huge? Let them take over the salad. Everyone loves croutons. Even gluten free bread will work here.
Explore the hundreds of cheeses available to us now. Your salad is a perfect opportunity to step out on a limb and try a different cheese.
PRESENTATION IS EVERYTHING
Assembly is the moment where food becomes art. A sexy salad is, above all, a pretty salad. Taking a few moments to plate up a salad for each guest is an act of love. Think of building up the greens in a pyramid with an inch or so of white space around the border of the plate. Then place your garnishes with care on top. Or sprinkle with wild abandon.
And finally, experiment with the many peppercorns from around the world. Pink peppercorns are so beautiful on a plate and have sweet spicy vibe. Long peppers, too, have a bite. There are so many varieties. A dusting of freshly ground peppercorns is the crowning glory.
Grapefruit Salsa in Avocado
Make the Grapefruit salsa:
This makes enough salsa for 4 salads:
2 large grapefruit, cut into clean segments
or 2 x 7 ounce containers of segmented grapefruits packed in water
2 limes, juiced
One half red bell pepper finely diced
1 fresh jalapeno, finely diced
One quarter bunch cilantro, finely chopped
1 teaspoon srirachi
1 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoons honey
One half teaspoon of cumin
2 ripe avocados
4 cups of lettuce, like green or red oak, or green or red leaf
Roasted walnut oil
Toasted hazelnuts, chopped rough
Pink peppercorns, or another variety of your choice
Cut each segment of grapefruit in half or thirds. For a chunkier salsa, in half. If you are using the packaged grapefruit, drain and discard the water. Carefully fold all of the ingredients together. Taste and adjust. Set aside.
Make a pile of lettuce on each plate. For each serving, cut a ripe avocado in half and carefully scoop out one half, leaving it intact. Sit on top of the greens and carefully spoon about 2 tablespoons of the Grapefruit Salsa on top of the avocado. Drizzle walnut oil around the greens. Garnish with toasted hazelnuts, fresh ground pink peppercorns and a squeeze of fresh grapefruit or the juice from the salsa.
Autumn Moroccan Salad
Many of the vegetables or fruits we enjoy raw in the summer months can be roasted in the winter to answer our cold weather craving for heartier foods, a warm companion to raw greens. Roast carrots, apples, pears or onions and toss in with lettuce. A bit of spice in the vinaigrette adds even more warmth.
1 lb. Carrots, peeled and julienned lengthwise
4 whole, pitted dates, sliced
1 leek or one quarter red onion, sliced thin
One half cup Marcona almonds, fried in olive oil until light brown, with sea salt
4 cups of arugula or mache
One half bunch of fresh cilantro, leaves picked but left whole
To Roast the carrots:
Toss with 1 or 2 tablespoons of grape seed oil and roast at 350 until they are fork tender and caramelized on the edges. Shuffle them around the pan a couple of times during cooking for even caramelizing. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with sea salt.
Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette:
In a metal mixing bowl, whisk together:
1 teaspoon of finely processed garlic
1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
pinch of salt
1 and a half teaspoons of Ras El Hanout, a traditional Moroccan spice blend
1 teaspoon of honey
One quarter cup of champagne vinegar
Slowly whisk in three quarters cup of hazelnut oil. Taste and adjust.
Thinly slice 1 leek or one quarter of red onion and 1 whole, pitted date per person
To plate: In a large bowl, toss the arugula and fresh cilantro leaves, roasted carrots, sliced dates and leeks in the vinaigrette.
Arrange on a plate and garnish with Marcona almond and fresh ground long pepper or peppercorn of your choice.
Delicate Raw Shaved Salad
The use of a mandoline will transform raw vegetables into something wispy and delicate, creating a lighter mouth feel than diced.
Carefully shave an assortment of fresh crunchy vegetables: radishes, cucumbers, red onions or leeks, carrots and fennel. Toss the vegetables with a red leaf lettuce like Lollo Rosso. Pile the salad on each plate and lay a thinly sliced super ripe avocado on top. A quarter of an avocado per person is good. Drizzle with avocado oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Garnish with the fresh ground peppercorns of your choice.