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Can you really make salad sexy?

(above: pear with salami, chevre, rocket, and roasted maple and smoked paprika walnuts)
I once asked Tom what he loved the most about my cooking. To my surprise, his reply was “your salads”. Say again? Out of all the nights I had experimented with flavour profiles and cooking techniques, salads were what won him over?
When I think of dishes that demonstrate culinary prowess, salads are not at the top of my list. But why not? Why is it that tsukemono will never receive as much press as Waygu beef? Would David Chang still have built his fusion empire on a pork “salad”? And why is it that people will queue two hours for a cupcake but not for chard?
It isn’t cool to order salad. It’s boring and healthy. It usually means you’re dieting or worse -you have no palette or interest in food. I admit I won’t order salad when I’m out. However, over the years I’ve discovered that if restaurants would pay attention to three things, they could make their offerings a hell of alot more interesting.
1) Ingredients:
At a restaurant, usually the combination of ingredients has been given as much thought and attention as Michael Moore’s wardrobe. And usually the good stuff is always masked by way too many greens. Here are the rules I live by when creating a salad. Feature a vegetable other than greens. Only use the leaves as an accent. Next, think about adding something sweet, salty, and crunchy, e.g. fruit, cheese, nuts, and meat. Think of how much more interesting spinach becomes with the addition of thinly sliced apples, crispy fried pancetta, blue cheese, and walnuts. After more practice, get more inventive. What about cubed watermelon with crispy pancetta, basil, and goat cheese?
2) Dressing
Now probably the biggest crime committed by restaurants everywhere is the mess they choose to dress their salads with. It’s either pre-made from a jar or over dressed in oil. When I actually learned how easy (as well as cheap) it is to dress a salad, I was shocked. Why was everyone getting it wrong? Now you’ll read about the “proper” ratios for a vinaigrette calling for more oil than acid. My advice is to do the opposite. I find what works is 2 parts acid, 1 part oil, salt and pepper. It’ll keep things light and let the ingredients shine through. The acid can be anything from citrus juice to balsamic to rice wine vinegar. Try oils other than olive such as walnut or hazelnut. If you want an Asian flavour go for rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, soy, and some bird’s eye chili flakes. My goto dressing for most things is the juice of one lemon, a good drizzle of olive oil, season and you’re done.
3) Execution
Finally, another simple way to make salads more interesting is to think about the execution. Cut the fruit and veg in an interesting way to vary the textures. Instead of dicing apples, why not slice them into thin matchsticks? Or try roasting nuts tossed in a little olive oil and spices. Or if you really want to get crazy, dredge some goat cheese in some flour, egg, and bread crumbs and then fry until crispy.
It might take a little more effort, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

4 Comments

  1. The Grubworm

    You're spot on with your three elements of a good salad. it's amazing the difference between grated, crumbled and cubed cheese for example, while roast ground peanut is totally different to whole raw nuts. They all work when thought about carefully.

    Something I love to play with is rice vinegar, sweet chilli and miso to dress a cold noodle salad with spring onions and crisp carrots. Or sesame seeds, oil and crispy cabbage. The possibilities are endless. A timely blog post.

  2. Tess

    Dude, restaurant salads are always such a disappointment. The only good one I've ever had was from Clyde Commons in Portland, Oregon. Super-simple, with lettuce so fresh & bouncy I could have eaten a giant bowl-full. Salads at home are much more satisfying & cheap: right now I'm really into tossing lettuce & scallions with still-warm roasted tiny baby potatoes.

    When you've found a boy who loves your salads best, well, you've really got something.

  3. Tess

    P.S. I just read that the key to fantastic dressing, no matter how simple, is to thoroughly whisk/emulsify the ingredients. I like to just squeeze/drizzle them on the salad, 'cuz I'm lazy.

    Thoughts?

  4. Jen

    Grubworm -I am really into roasting nuts at the moment. Toss some cashews with honey, dry mustard, and Marmite -delicious. And I also feel a week of Asian experimentation is in order. Although with the HK move coming up, something tells me to hold on to European ingredients as long as I can.

    Tess -I loved Clyde Common when I went there several years ago. The cocktails were winners too. When it comes to dressing, I definitely think the whisking technique is unnecessary. I also just squeeze/drizzle and the result is always spot on.

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