When I started writing this post, I thought that there wouldn’t be much to say about this simple salad. After all, it’s lettuce, an easy vinaigrette, croutons and Parmesan shavings, but then I started jotting down what I wanted to share and I realized that even the most simple salad has a lot going on behind the scenes.
What a makes a salad extraordinary? High quality ingredients are a good start and here is a list of ten tips, tricks, and tools for making your simple salad great. Happy cooking!
1. Buy a salad spinner. To clean a head of lettuce growing up, we would fill up a clean sink with cold water, add our lettuce leaves, and carefully swish them around to remove dirt. They were then laid across clean towels and left to dry. This took a lot of time. With a salad spinner, I simply add lettuce to the colander insert and fill the bowl with cold water. I swish the leaves around a couple of times, lift the colander to allow the leaves to drain, and discard the water. I do this at least three times and then return the colander with lettuce to the empty bowl and spin it dry for ready to dress salad greens. On a side note, a salad spinner is also great for washing and quickly drying herbs.
2. Use cold water. When washing salad greens always use cold water. Even greens that are looking a little world-weary will perk up when immersed in cold water.
3. Store washed greens properly. I like to wash lettuce and then use it immediately. If not using immediately, place washed AND dried greens in a large ziploc bag with a dry paper towel (it absorbs any leftover dampness that will make your salad greens wilt). I always leave the bag slightly open to allow any more moisture to evaporate.
4. Put down the knife. The best way to prepare salad greens is with your own two hands. Don’t use a knife to chop delicate greens. Instead, gently tear lettuce leaves into smaller pieces with your hands.
5. A good vegetable peeler is a must. Kuhn Rukon straight peelers are my favorite. Modestly priced, they work great and are also handy for shaving Parmesan and chocolate. My only criticism? You can’t put them in the dishwasher as the blade will rust.
6. Make your own dressing. With carefully prepared ingredients, the challenge is pairing them with a dressing that does them justice. With whole sections in the grocery store dedicated to salad dressings, it’s easy to think that dressings are too complicated to make at home. That’s just not the case.
For everyday meals, I dress our salads the way my mother has for years. I combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, season with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and garlic powder, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and finish with balsamic vinaigrette. Everything gets tossed together, I adjust seasonings as needed, and to the table it goes.
If wanting a bit more sophistication, I use a 2:1 ratio of oil to vinegar (use 3:1 for a less acidic and more traditional vinaigrette). I like to add a little Dijon mustard to help emulsify the dressing and minced shallots, garlic, and/or fresh herbs as desired. Don’t forget the salt and freshly ground pepper!
7. A spoonful of sugar… Sugar? In salad? Despite adding sweetness which is nice in some preparations a little sugar can also take the edge off a vinegar that is too sharp. For years, I use to add more olive oil when I felt like my dressing was too acidic and ended up with oily greens; now a pinch of sugar is usually enough to tone everything down.
8. Don’t dress wet greens. You’ve spent money buying the best and most fresh ingredients you can find and you’ve spent time treating each ingredient with care. Before you dress your salad, make sure your salad greens are dry. Nothing ruins a salad like wet greens. Water on your greens not only causes salad greens to darken and wilt, but will also dilute your dressing.
9. Show restraint. There’s fashion advice that suggests that once fully dressed you should take one item off. While much more difficult to take salad dressing off your salad greens (always add a little dressing at a time) an over-dressed salad distracts just as much as a garish bracelet.
10. Wait until the last-minute. And the last, and perhaps, most important advice for making a delicious salad at home is to dress your salad right before serving. The vinegar in a dressing will start breaking down salad greens immediately and a salad dressed too early is a sad thing indeed when it comes time to eat it.
A Simple Salad – Printer Friendly Recipe
Makes 4 first course servings
When a recipe says simple, think high-quality ingredients. As in this recipe, it’s not a matter of fancy techniques or complicated steps that make this salad taste extraordinary, but rather using the best and most fresh ingredients you can find and then treating them with care.
For the salad:
4 cups washed and dried mixed greens (I used a mixture of Bibb and red lettuce)
A small wedge of Parmesan Cheese
2 cups cubed (1/2-inch) bread
2 1/2 tablespoons good quality salted butter, melted
2 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A pinch of sugar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle the melted butter over the bread cubes and toss to coat. Spread the cubes on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and let cool (extra croutons can be saved in an airtight container).
To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, shallot, and Dijon mustard. If time permits, allow these ingredients to sit for a few minutes as the vinegar will mellow the flavor of the shallots. Whisk in the olive oil a little at a time until the vinaigrette thickens. Season it to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. If too acidic, add a pinch of sugar.
Pour a little of the salad dressing in a large bowl and add the mixed greens. Toss the greens to coat them with the dressing. If needed, add more dressing. Place 1 cup of mixed greens on each plate and use a straight-edged vegetable peeler to shave a couple of Parmesan slices over each salad. Top with some croutons and serve immediately.