cucina bene; mangia bene (the lost art of fresh garden salads)
Over the past 20 years, Pati and I have visited many fine dining restaurants only to find out that the serving of a fresh garden salad packed full of flavor is becoming a lost culinary art form. While it takes a little effort to make a fresh salad, the benefits gained are immense not to mention the health properties received from eating raw greens and garden vegetables. With a little planning, you can resurrect this culinary art form to integrate into any menu plan as a refreshing side salad or taking the center stage as a main entrée.
The key to making a fantastic salad is in the quality of the greens and herbs used. A little attention to detail when shopping for fresh ingredients pays off in a big way. Farmers’ markets are a great resource for procuring a wide variety of salad greens and garden vegetables during the spring and summer months. During the other months, you can still find acceptable ingredients available at indoor farmers’ markets, natural foods stores and local grocery stores.
In order to make a great salad, a few things in your kitchen can help make the creation process much easier. First and foremost is to use a high quality knife that maintains a sharp edge. A sharp knife (chef’s knife) can make all the difference in preparing the salad ingredients and will help to reduce your time spent in prepping the salad. Also, a nice pair of salad tongs will make serving the salad a pleasure. I like tongs made with softer material like molded plastic to avoid bruising the salad greens when serving.
One of the challenges in salad preparation is to keep the greens dry and to avoid excessive water accumulation. Too much water on the greens and the herbs can ruin a salad quickly. Therefore, a full sized salad spinner can help remove the excess water after cleaning the greens and herbs. I have been using a salad spinner made by Copco (A Wilton Industries Company) for many years. The spinner is very durable and the company has an amazing customer service department!
In making a great salad, I have found two approaches that work well. The first approach is to use one salad green like Arugula or Butter Lettuce to form the base of the flavor profile. With one lettuce green, a simple salad works best with a few accompanying ingredients. For example, wintertime Arugula with its sturdy nature is complimented well with parmesan cheese, black pepper and a lemon-based vinaigrette.
The second approach is to create a mixed salad base with at least seven types of fresh greens and herbs. This approach creates a flavor profile that is unique with each bite as the various ingredients excite the palate. You can combine various lettuces and herbs into a base, and then tailor the salad to a particular ethnic cuisine with the addition of a few other ingredients.
Here are a few tips to improve your salad making efforts:
1) When buying the lettuces or herbs, make sure they look vibrant and are fully hydrated. Avoid any ones that are limp, showing brown spots or wind blown.
2) When storing the lettuces and some of the herbs (see our post dated August 29th), use a green veggie bag designed to extend storage life. I like to wrap the greens in a paper towel to help absorb any excess moisture trapped inside the veggie bag when stored in the refrigerator.
3) Once I get home from shopping, I immediately sort through the greens and store them away in the refrigerator. With lettuces, I remove the some of the outer leaves that will not keep as long in storage. I use the outer leaves to create a salad base for later use that evening. The rest of the lettuce head will store nicely in the refrigerator. Also, any other greens already past its peak form can be incorporated into the evening’s salad base.
4) When establishing a salad base. I like to balance soft greens with ones that have more rigidity and structure. During the summer months, our farmers’ markets feature a type of Arugula that is leafy and very pliable. I add the inner leaves of Butter Lettuce or Romaine Lettuce to add a sense of crunchiness to the softer greens. During the winter, our farmers’ markets offer a hardier version of Arugula which marries nicely with tender baby lettuces.
5) Depending on your taste preferences, you can build a salad base preferable to your audience. If you prefer a mild taste, you can concentrate on lettuces like Butter or Green Leaf. For more bitter or peppery finishes, you can use Radicchio, Escarole, Arugula, Dandelion Greens, Watercress or Endive.
6) Fresh herbs can enhance any taste profile. There are many types of mint that can be used as well as Basil, Parsley, Tarragon, Dill, Cilantro, and Chives.
7) When creating your salad base, look to use different lettuces and herbs featuring different color palettes. I like to use Red Lettuces, Radicchio, light green Butter Lettuce, and white Endive to compliment the natural colors of Green Leaf Lettuce or Arugula.
8) For adding color and depth, I like to include peeled vegetables like Carrots, Radishes, and Turnips to compliment the greens. Also, thinly sliced Green Onions and Fennel can enhance the salad. Changing the way you slice the ingredients can add more color or shapes to enhance the appeal of the salad presentation.
9) Preparing the greens all at once can be time consuming. Staging the cleaning and preparation of the various greens into separate phases can be a great way to approach salad creation. For example, when I watch television or a movie, I can clean and pick greens for future use. During a three hour football game, I can prepare a large bunch of Arugula while enjoying the game. I bag the greens in a veggie bag for later use.
10) If you have a little time available, you can prepare a subset of the ingredients and store them in the refrigerator. You might have 20 minutes and you can use this short amount of time to peel some Carrots and Radishes during the day and store them in the refrigerator for later use. By breaking up the components, you can build a nice salad spaced over time.
The photos showcased include the following:
The first photo highlights the bounty of ingredients available at our coastal local farmers’ markets including different varieties of fresh lettuces and garden vegetables.
The second photo captures the start of building a salad base using picked Arugula.
The third photo shows the balance of the various greens mixed with peeled and thinly sliced vegetables before adding any dressing.
The fourth photo shows the finished salad made with the salad base. Additional ingredients added to the salad include chicken mixed with pesto, blanched yellow beans and black/green cured olives. The salad base includes Arugula, Red Butter Lettuce, Red Leaf Lettuce, Romaine Lettuce, Sorrel, Spearmint, Basil, and Parsley.
More details on the Art of Salad Making to follow in upcoming posts.