Ask a Chef: Building a Better Salad

mj-618_348_ask-a-chef-building-a-better-salad
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For a long time, I thought the only "salad” worth having was iceberg lettuce drenched in ranch dressing. I'll still eat that if you put it in front of me, but my palate has expanded to to appreciate just about anything you can throw in a salad. The problem is, a lot of people never want to make salads. Making a great salad is never as impressive as a great roast, a great pie, or even a colorful vegetable stir fry. For some reason throwing a bunch of stuff in a bowl and pouring oil and vinegar on it never seems good enough, even though we’re all constantly trying to find ways to make cooking faster and easier. Guess what? Salad is how you do that.

The other problem with salad is that it's only as good as what you put in it. "I think the biggest challenge in making a salad at home is finding good, in season ingredients," says Chef Brad Spence of The Vetri Family of restaurants, including Amis in Philadelphia. Perhaps that's why it's easy to be reluctant about making them at home–chopped up hothouse tomatoes and wilted arugula just isn't appealing, no matter how much dressing you pour on it.

The other challenge is figuring out how to come up with interesting combinations you'll actually want to eat, instead of lettuce and whatever else you found at the farmer’s market. Some of Amis' offerings include a cucumber salad with ricotta and toasted sesame seeds, and escarole with radishes and apples. "When I think of interesting combinations I think of things that grow in the same season," says Spence. "Plums & tomatoes, fennel with citrus & pomegranate, sliced raw pumpkin with apples & nuts, and berries with asparagus" are all great pairings, and you can also use a combination of raw and cooked ingredients, like pairing berries with grilled asparagus, or toasting nuts before tossing them with raw apples.

You also want the right dressing…and the right amount of it. "The biggest mistake I see is home cooks make is not seasoning and tossing their salad before serving. Everything should be lightly coated in dressing and seasoned properly," says Spence, the key word being lightly coated. All that beautiful produce will drown under too much dressing, not to mention any health benefits of eating a lot of vegetables will be washed away under a ton of oil and cream. Things like buttermilk, caesar or ranch dressings are best in salads with fewer ingredients, whereas a good vinaigrette can be used almost any time. Spence’s favorite dressing uses citrus in place of vinegar, a simple and clean dressing that can be used almost anywhere. Just whisk together one part citrus juice (lemon, grapefruit, bitter orange, or any combination of citrus) with three parts extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Be sure to use good quality olive oil, since you’ll really be tasting it. The Kitchn also has a roundup of six dressings they think you should know by heart. 

The one downside of salad is that it doesn't store well. You can keep it in a tupperware, but if you don’t get to it the very next day, it’ll probably be a wilted, sad mess. The good news is that if you start making great salads, there probably won’t be leftovers.

Tomato, Ricotta, and Toasted Sesame Seed Salad

Ingredients

1 1/2 lb. ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
One 6-inch piece English cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 sweet onion cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup crumbled ricotta salata cheese
2 Tbs. sliced, pitted Kalamata olives
2 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds 
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Directions 

  1. In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, basil, olive oil, garlic and salt and toss gently to mix. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the cucumber, onion, cheese sesame seeds, and olives to the tomato mixture, then sprinkle with the vinegar and toss to mix. Season with pepper and stir to blend. Serve the salad at room temperature.