by David Jacobs
Green salad, whether served in its traditional place between entrée and dessert, or in its modern location of first or main course, plays an important part in our diet. The earliest version of salad was an assortment of edible plants and herbs, seasoned solely with salt -- hence the word "salad," from the Latin sal. This appetizing linguistic fact aside, we love our green salad. The expansive nature of modern life means that everything from pasta to potatoes, served in a moist dressing, bears the name salad. This embarrassment of salad riches requires careful planning of meals. Any salad served as a first course should be light and simple, whereas one served as a main course should be a heavier and more complex combination of colors, flavors and textures. Your appetizer salad should never compete with the main course.
Three simple steps can transform an otherwise uninteresting collection of greens into a delightful mixture of flavor and texture:
1. Tear or chop your greens into bite-sized pieces, making sure to handle the delicate leaves gently. Wash greens thoroughly in a colander, removing all dirt and grit. Allow them to drip (or spin in a salad spinner), then wrap lightly in an absorbent towel and chill in the refrigerator until crisp. (You can also buy thin cotton bags to use for storing your greens. Check local cookware stores for availability.)
2. Just before serving, place crisp greens in a large bowl and coat with a vinaigrette. Toss salad by lifting the leaves gently with a large fork and spoon until each leaf is covered. Be sure to use a light hand, though; you can always add more dressing, but an overdressed salad is a dead salad.
3. Now be creative and garnish your salad with sliced meats, cooked or raw vegetables, cheeses or fruit. Remember that the items you choose to put on top of your salad can radically alter its nutritive value. Croutons and ranch dressing can add a huge amount of fat to your salad, but red beets and broccoli can give it a vitamin and mineral boost.
To liven up the green part of your salad, vary the greens you use. Using only iceberg or romaine won't make a very exciting salad. Try using them in equal parts with spinach, red or green leaf lettuce or bibb lettuce. Or you could choose any of those as the main ingredient and mix in a handful or two of mesclun (sometimes called spring mix, baby greens or gourmet salad mix). The greens in mesclun mixes vary, but can include young stems of arugula, frisée, watercress, mizuna, mâché, radicchio, sorrel and Belgian endive. The baby greens are expensive, but they go a long way, so only buy a little bit at a time. Also, they are very delicate, so be extra careful when washing.
Great toppings for salads include asparagus, beets, tomatoes, onions, carrots, radishes, broccoli, jicama, apples, cauliflower, cucumbers, boiled eggs, cheese and meat. Unleash your creativity and select interesting combinations, assembling a salad that suits your taste, as well as the rest of the meal. Ingredients should be thinly sliced, grated or julienned. You shouldn't need a knife to cut up your salad once it's assembled. I also recommend that you use a combination of raw and blanched vegetables. An assortment of colors and textures will make your salad more appealing to both the eye and the palate.
A simple rule of thumb to remember when making a vinaigrette is to use three parts oil to one part sour ingredient. My choice for oil is olive oil, but you can use any that suits you. Use a combination of olive and canola oils for a lighter flavor. The sour ingredient is also a matter of taste. Fresh squeezed lemon juice, wine vinegar, or my favorite, rice vinegar, are all good choices. Keep it simple, but adding small amounts of garlic, chopped fresh herbs or even ground nuts to the vinaigrette can liven up a salad with interesting flavor accents. A dash of Dijon mustard will help bind the oil and vinegar together and add a spark of flavor, too. Try the vinaigrette recipe below for starters and make your own variations.
Be creative and think about interesting flavor combinations. Salad does not have to be boring if you plan ahead. Oh, and don't forget a loaf of crusty bread and bottle of wine. Bon appetit!
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