Winter is the time for heavy, meaty, fatty food. Like a fire in the bones, this stuff keeps me going in the cold, dark days. But when spring comes, I find myself no longer in need of such dense energy, hungering instead for fresh, raw, new growth, things that are light, lean, leafy and green. Thus I enter the season of salad.
I have a book called Larousse Gastronomique: the Encyclopedia of Food, Wine, and Cookery, by Prosper Montagné. It’s written in a deliciously snooty, Euro-crusty tone, with lots of references to things and people you’ve never heard of and recipes that can take weeks to prepare. Here, we find salad defined as a dish “made up of herbs, plants, vegetables, eggs, fish, and meat, seasoned with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, with or without other ingredients.”
While Montagné confirms that you can make a salad out of practically anything, there is a huge difference between raw things and cooked things. Today, I’m talking about salad that is raw and green, whose ingredients are in-season and alive, right here, right now. Montagné addresses this type of salad by quoting one of the aforementioned people we’ve never heard of, a gastronaut named Brillat-Savarin, who declared that a leafy salad “freshens without enfeebling, and fortifies without irritating.”
These words resonate profoundly in my belly as I sit here digesting the aftermath of another rite of spring: “freezerburn chowder,” a creamed combination of things I find while cleaning out my freezer—smoked salmon, corn, basil—cooked with bacon, potatoes, garlic and onions. It sure tasted good at the time, but now I feel like I could sleep for 100 years.
Food is about much more than how it tastes—it’s about how you feel after you swallow. In this respect, it’s tough to beat raw foods. And interestingly, what really brought the flavor together in my freezerburn chowder was the garnish of cilantro and red onion, the raw, living vigor of which cut through the heavy cream of winter like the first dandelion sprouts of spring.
Speaking of which, dandelion greens can add nicely to a salad, if picked early, in the pre-bitter state before they flower, and preferably from a very shady spot—say, under an abandoned car on the north side of a building. Indeed, wild edibles abound this time of year: watercress can be found in the creeks, wild onions in the hills, and lambs quarters and purslane grow unbidden like weeds in your garden. Just be careful that you know what you’re eating, and seek out expert advice if you’re unsure.
I used to think that salad was a good thing to eat at the end of a meal, when I’m too full to keep eating but I don’t want to stop chewing. Indeed, a key challenge in making a full meal of salad is finding a way to fill my belly with it. But with enough extras on top, a salad can deliver complete satisfaction and leave you fresh and fortified, without any irritation or enfeeblement.
When my dad makes a salad, the whole world stops and he enters a blissfully meditative state that would make the Buddha blush green. When Dad makes a salad, people rearrange their schedules to partake, waiting patiently as he carefully prepares and assembles the ingredients.
Dad’s formula includes romaine and green leaf lettuce, endive (sparingly), chopped onion, tomato wedges, garlic, feta and olives.
While I always look forward to eating Dad’s salad when I go home, when I make it myself I personalize the mixture. I like to combine romaine lettuce with a mixture of young greens, including lettuce, mustard, arugula and mizuna. I like smoked salmon on top, along with olives and feta. When tomatoes are not in season, I forsake them altogether rather than buy tomatoes imported from Chile, or California, or Mars, or wherever they come from these days. Dried cherries are a good, tangy substitute. Whatever else you do, here are the salient points that make Dad’s salad so great.
1) The leaves should be dry (spinning them after washing is ideal) and cut into pieces.
2) Before you dress the salad, toss in a pulverized or pressed clove (or two) of raw garlic to coat the leaves.
3) Dress and toss the salad before adding the extra goodies, like olives, feta and smoked salmon. Put these things on top—if you toss them in, they will end up swimming in vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl.
4) Dad’s dressing is a high-acid vinaigrette, two parts oil to one part vinegar. He uses a mixture of olive, safflower and canola oils, mixed with balsamic vinegar and a little salt. I like a mixture of olive and grapeseed oil, with other oils as well, mixed with a combination of vinegars, such as sherry vinegar, balsamic, white balsamic and red wine vinegar, with a little soy sauce. This diverse mix of oils and fats gives the dressing a more complex flavor—just make sure the total oil to vinegar ratio is 2 to1.