In my experience with keen home cooks, there seems to be more than a little confusion on how to select, prepare and marry salad ingredients. Many will simply make a favourite salad dish regardless of its seasonal suitability or ability to accompany any other dishes on offer. My aim in this brief dissertation is to halt that kind of thinking in its tracks. I would like to encourage cooks to go to market without a shopping list and be inspired by what is on offer, seasonal and fresh, then have the confidence to match those purchases appropriately with ingredients from your larder. Also remember that these are not hard and fast rules, just merely suggestions and observations of mine after a few years cookery experience. Let's get to it.
When you go shopping for lettuce, do you know before you arrive at the greengrocer that you will buy an iceberg or cos (romaine) lettuce? Well, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, especially if the romaine is top quality and you are preparing Caesar salad. However, lets for just a moment get a little more abstract. Toss away the shopping list (good advice for many a food shopping adventure) and let your purchases be guided by your senses. It should not be to hard, just search for ingredients that are singing with vibrant seasonality. If it is crisp, fresh and looks irresistibly tasty, buy it.
For the purposes we are dealing with here, leafy greens (and sometimes reds) can be broken down into two main sub-groups. Texture and flavour. This will help you refine you purchase to suit the rest of your meal. To keep it simple, think in terms of opposites for texture, to provide contrast, and similarities in terms of flavour, for harmony. An example; if you are making a goat's cheese salad with ripe slices of pear, there will be bold and strong flavours, but little in the way of texture. Choose a crisp salad green with a lot of turgor and bite, perhaps a mixture of witlof (Belgian endive), radicchio and rocket.
Preparation and washing
All salad needs to be washed. It is that simple. Even if you are prepared to ingest any chemicals or organic matter that is still adhering to the greens, remember that a good bath can revitalize the lettuce, counteracting just a little any softening of the cell structure that has occurred since the lettuce was harvested.
Trim any roots, stems or hard bases and separate the salad into individual leaves. Fill you largest sink with cold fresh water and then add the leaves. Never pour water directly onto salad, as this will damage it. Gently run your hands through the sink and stir the lettuce, loosening any grit. Let the salad soak for a few minutes and repeat the stirring. The salad must now be dried and here you have two options.
There is nothing worse than wet salad. Not only will it water down the final result of your dish, any oil based dressing will simply not adhere to the leaves. A sad experience indeed. The simplest method of drying is to use a salad spinner. If you own one of these just remember not to spin too much salad at any one time and empty the main bowl out after each spin. Unless you make a lot of salad, there is no real need to buy a spinner. Here is an alternative method that I use all the time. Gently lift out a small amount of salad from the sink and place it in a large sieve or colander, plastic is preferable from a weight point of view, but in the end it's not that important. Place a clean, dry tea towel or kitchen towel onto a clean workbench. Place the sieve or colander into the centre of the towel, then gather up all four edges of the tea towel holding them all together above the colander so as to make a tight parcel, the towel wrapping all. Pop outside and with your good arm give the bundle a few vigorous, full circumference spins. Water will fly out everywhere and people will give you odd looks, but hey, you have dry salad, so give them stink eye back.
If need be, the salad can be stored for a day or two at this stage. Place into a clean bowl and cover with a lightly dampened cloth, then store in the refrigerator.
Ok, I can do little more here than scratch the surface. You will most likely have a favourite salad dressing and E2 already has a few, try balsamic vinaigrette or Caesar dressing. Often I find additional dressing ingredients a little superfluous, such as mustard and honey. If you want just one general purpose dressing under your belt, learn this one.
Olive oil (the best you can afford, it must be cold pressed extra virgin)
Balsamic vinegar (Once again, the best you can afford)
Garlic oil (or rub the salad bowl with a cut clove of garlic)
Freshly ground black pepper
The simple rule here and with almost all salad dressings is 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. Remember this mantra and you are well on your way to salad enlightenment. Place 125 ml (1/2 cup) olive oil into a screw top jar with 40 ml (2 Tbs) balsamic vinegar, a small dash of garlic oil and the seasonings. Screw the lid back on tightly and shake well. Store in the refrigerator for weeks and weeks.
That said, don't be afraid to experiment. Try nut oils where appropriate, walnut oil in a salad that contains walnuts is sublime. Try different acidulants, red or white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, verjuice or even lemon juice. Just don't use raspberry vinegar please.
The seventies are long gone.
To dress your salad, place the leaves in a large, clean bowl. Add a small amount of dressing to the leaves, then gently but thoroughly toss together so that each individual leaf has its fair share. Pick up a leaf and taste. If tastes like a tree, not enough dressing, if you are coughing and retching, then you have used too much. You will know when a harmonious balance has been struck, the leaf will have a divine balance of lettuce, oil and vinegar, or test No. 2, you will want to eat more.
First of all, don't be afraid to serve a simple salad of just leaves tossed with a delicious dressing. It is the perfect accompaniment to so many dishes. I make just such a salad all the time. Many people don't think it is a salad until the entire pantry has been included. Avoid this line of thinking at all costs. The "keep it simple" adage most definitely applies here.
Secondly, if at all possible and with a couple of notable exceptions (such as anchovies and olives), avoid opening cans and jars for your salad. If it can be found fresh, go to the extra effort, your guests and sense of self-satisfaction will thank you.
Some yummy things that I like to include in salads are;
Cheeses. Try goats cheese, romano, parmesan, haloumi, feta or ricotta (fresh and baked).
Croutons and sippets. Croutons are small discs of bread that are rubbed with garlic and oil then crisped in the oven. They are a perfect base for a poached egg or slice of grilled goat's cheese. Sippets are little cubes of bread that have been crisped in a frying pan with a little oil, that provide a crunchy textural counterpoint.
Eggs. Poached or soft boiled
Fruits. Pears and apples have a nice affinity with strongly flavoured cheeses, olives provide a salty contrast.
Nuts. Pinenuts (pine kernels), walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts (filberts).
Vegetables. Roasted capsicum (bell pepper), grilled asparagus, artichokes, oven dried tomatoes, green beans and sauteed mushrooms.
Right then, that about covers it. Go make a salad!