Readers’ Note: This is the 2nd and middle segment (SEASONINGS) of a three-part blog cooking class about making your salad a better place to eat! Click on the red links below to read the other two posts and come chopping with me to make your newest stellar salad. While this class is pretty much do-it-yourself, I welcome comments, emails, photos, etc., to keep us in closer touch — even when we’re all in our own kitchens. Salad on, my friends.
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”― Laurie Colwin
- Read part 1, SUBSTANCE. Ingredients–how and why.
- Read part 3, STYLE! How to make the salad look like you want to eat it. “Wow! That looks good!”
2. SEASONING: IT’S GOTTA TASTE GOOD! (Includes a note on salt-a favorite question from students)
Sounds simple, hmm? Not so. If you’ve got it jumping out of the bowl and into your mouth because it’s so pretty, it then has to live up to its hype. “Pretty is as pretty does,” as my Mom used to say. And though she was talking about behavior, the same sort of thing holds true for a meal and a salad can be a whole meal, right? (Read up on my 20 Main Dish Salads here.)
There are a ton of factors that affect taste, but we’re going to limit ourselves to three manageable ones for our salad exercise.
- FRESH HERBS: I’ll mention them here again because while they’re happy to be part of the green mix (or try an all-herb salad if your garden overflows), they are huge contributors to making anything taste better—even if they’re only sprinkled as a garnish. Using fresh herbs is often named one of the big differences between home and professional cooks. Think spaghetti sauce without basil. Pizza without oregano. They’re pricy if you buy them and cheap if you grow them, but are worth whatever the price is. If you want to begin simply, buy an inexpensive fresh bunch of parsley every week and see what it does chopped up into your greens or sprinkled on your tomatoes or grilled zucchini. (Wash and trim your parsley. Store it with a paper towel in a zip lock bag in the crisper drawer.)
- SALT, PEPPER, AND … The word “salad” actually comes from the word “salt,” as in from the Latin salata (salted), from sal (salt). Salt, then, is critical to salad. In today’s world, we nearly always pair salt with pepper and I’ll go with that idea, too. Each layer and nearly every ingredient can be and should seasoned separately with salt and pepper and sometimes a little crushed red pepper — or its own drizzle of olive oil or vinegar depending on the ingredient. Many cooks like sea salt for greens; I prefer kosher salt. Taste and see what you think. Table salt is way too bitter for me as it’s terribly processed and chemical in nature. Finishing salts such as Fleur de Sel (French) or Maldon (British) are precious flaky grains added at the very end of preparation to add both salt and crunch--often on meat, but also on eggs or salads. If you have one in your cupboard, give it a whirl, especially for textural change. Want different? Make an herb or citrus salt of some sort–-google and see what you come up with. I also like salt mixed with a ground spicy dried pepper, such as the French Piment d’Espelette.
- SALTY TIP: There are different varieties of kosher salt and they contain varying levels of salinity. Example: you’ll use less Morton Kosher Salt than Diamond Crystal as Morton’s grains are larger and therefore taste more “salty.”
- DRESSING: Make your own. A couple of recipes are right below the crouton video. No lurky-murky bottles in the fridge door, right? Nuff said. It needs to be fresh or at least stirred together by you sometime because a simple vinaigrette will keep on the counter for a very long while. If you’ve added garlic or fresh herbs or eggs or….it’ll need to be refrigerated. (If you poach an egg for a minute before adding it to a Caesar dressing, you can actually keep it at least for a couple of weeks in the fridge. I hope you eat more salads than that, though.)
- VINAIGRETTE PROPORTIONS: While the basic old school proportions for vinaigrette are 1 part acid (vinegar) to 3 parts oil (plus spices, alliums, herbs, mustard, +/or honey/sugar) and works, the crux is in the balance. So that depends on the acid itself and on your tastebuds. You might like 2 parts of your white wine vinegar to 3 parts oil, but only 1 part of your red wine vinegar to 3 parts of your oil or…something else. If you use citrus juice (and zest, if you like) for the acid, the proportions can be more equal. Another factor lies in how many other acidic components make up your salad. (Lots of olives, cheese, tomatoes? Maybe you need a less acidic or less vinaigrette as those ingredients are quite acidic. Lots of fatty avocado or sausage and more acid (vinegar) might be key. See?)
- TIP: How much dressing you need is a very personal decision, but I would weigh in on the side of “less is more.” Fresh ingredients will speak for themselves and happily stand out if they’re just barely dressed or coated and enhanced rather than smothered. Try a tablespoon or less of vinaigrette for 2 cups of greens/vegetables and see how you feel. It’s the sleek little black dress set off with a string of pearls and tiny diamond earrings instead of the big fluffy hot pink chiffon gown burdened with boa feathers and a floppy velvet hat kind of idea.
MAIN POINT, MAIN POINT!!! Season, taste; season, taste. Every layer. For instance, if you’re sautéing a summer vegetable that will later go into a salad, do that in a tasty oil, add salt, pepper, heat, and herbs as you like, and taste it. Is it good on its own? It should be or it won’t be good in your salad either. If you’re cooking a pot of green beans and they’re going to be in vinaigrette or served as part as a Salade Nicoise, they can’t be bland. Season the cooking water with salt just as you would pasta. Add pepper, too. Lots. Toss in fresh herbs or even the stems of fresh herbs or some onion (even the end of an onion) and make those beans stand up and salute. Anyway, the best dressing in the world can’t fix under-seasoned ingredients and that’s a sad fact. You’ll also still need to dip a leaf of greens into your vinaigrette to see what’s what at the very end. Trust your tongue then and trot to the table like a happy camper. If you’re really interested in learning more about this sort of thing and how to cook in general, check out Samin Nostrat’s 2017 award-winning and fun book, SALT, FAT, ACID, HEAT and knock yourself out.
Jamie Oliver’s Easy Balsamic Vinaigrette in a Jar and Everyday Chopped Salad Made on a Cutting Board — a fun lesson on you tube and a lovely salad on which to practice. I’ve used this in classes and it continues to remain a favorite. (Watercress is hard to find sometimes, but a tasty sharp addition to salads when available.)
Many American cooks like REDMOND REAL SALT (Ancient Fine Sea Salt) from Utah, which comes finely ground in ready-to-use shakers or in bulk.
below: homemade croutons in a New York minute (Save that stale bread for salad!)
Alyce’s Basic Vinaigrette and Green Salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or half Sherry vinegar), a minced clove of garlic (or a tablespoon minced shallot), a generous pinch each salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Let rest a few minutes to dissolve the salt. Whisk in a big tablespoon — or more to taste — Dijon-style mustard. Whisk in slowly 4 tablespoons extra virign olive oil until emulsified or thickened. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add about 6 cups mixed fresh salad greens, herbs, and other desired salad ingredients on top of the vinaigrette; sprinkling with salt and pepper as you go. (Toss the greens alone with s/p before adding the other ingredients.) Toss gently, but thoroughly so that greens are just coated, not dripping. Taste and adjust seasonings. My favorite additions for nightly salad are fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, thinly sliced cucumbers, sliced kalamata olives or peperoncini peppers, diced cheese of some sort, and freshly-made croutons–see above. I often include chopped cooked vegetables that need using such as beans, zucchini, mushrooms, and so on from another meal. I sometimes make this 30-60 minutes ahead and stick it in the fridge while I cook the main course or Dave makes pizza.
Truth in blogging: I never measure when I make vinaigrette (or salad), but will try and do it tonight! I just know how it looks in my bowl and what it tastes like. I taste it before and after adding the greens and vegetables. The before tasting should be fairly spicy and puckery because the vegetables will dumb it down. If I toss/taste and the salad feels a little dull, I might sprinkle on a bit more vinegar or fresh lemon juice or maybe salt and pepper and taste again.
STORAGE of the vinaigrette from above recipe: You could store this for a week in the fridge if really necessary. I typically make it each time I need it as I think the garlic or shallots are better fresh.
TIPS: 1. Occasionally, for a simple greens-only salad, I’ll chop the shallots or a red onion (if that’s what I have) and fresh herbs into larger pieces to add a bit more eye appeal to the finished dish. (see below) The whisk pictured is my favorite for making vinaigrette in small batches. 2. You need a big old, deep-sided bowl to toss salad–even for just two people. I have 6-quart and 12-quart inexpensive stainless, dishwasher-safe bowls. Get some salad tongs you like so you’ll be a happy tosser. I bought mine in Bergen, Norway as a souvenir and use them nearly every day–great memory!! You may need larger ones for that humongo salad when company comes. Those would be nice Christmas gifts.
Alyce’s Lemon (or other citrus) Vinaigrette: To a small bowl, add 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and season it with a generous pinch each of salt and pepper and a drop of Tabasco sauce. Let it rest 5 minutes. Whisk in a teaspoon of whole grain mustard. Slowly drizzle in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, whisking all the time, until well-mixed. Set aside at room temperature until needed. STORAGE: Make just what you need. While you could store this in the fridge, it’s so much better fresh and is made in just a few minutes. OPTIONAL: add 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest. Note: Try orange or lime vinaigrette when you’re feeling bold. For the orange, you should be able to use a greater amount of orange juice as it’s sweeter. Taste it like you mean it; the orange version may need a splash of white wine vinegar to make it perk, depending on the salad ingredients. (A poached or grilled plain white fish on spinach could use a little more lifting than a plate of heavy, ripe, well-seasoned tomatoes and basil with raw shallots.)
Alyce’s Blue Cheese Dressing: Stir/mash together well 1/4 cup EACH crumbled blue cheese (1.5 ounces), sour cream, and mayonnaise. Stir in 1 teaspoon of grated horseradish, a shake or two of hot sauce, and a good pinch each salt and pepper. Too thick? Add a little milk and stir well. Taste and adjust seasonings. (optional, but good: add a small splash of red wine vinegar) STORAGE: Store in fridge no more than 3 days or so. Works well for veggie dip or, if thinned out with more milk, even for chip dip.
A WORD ABOUT WINE AND VINAIGRETTES: They can easily fight. You get it. Wine. Vinegar. A perky salad can just ruin a nice glass of wine and it’s not the wine’s fault. There are a few ways to avoid the argument, but here are two I use: 1. CHANGE THE DRESSING. Use a lot less vinaigrette on the salad or use a less acidic vinaigrette–say lemon juice or white wine, rather than red wine vinegar. You can even try to make a dressing tempered with a bit of honey or maple syrup. A creamy dressing is another way to go and is a great choice. 2. CHANGE THE WINE: Serve a wine that is not totally dry. In other words, there’s an edge of sweetness to it that will be more likely to compliment the vinaigrette rather than make it mad. You might try an off-dry riesling, a Chenin-Blanc, a not too dry sparkling wine or rosé, or a Gruner Veltliner. That said, many a green salad arrives with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and people seem quite content. As always with wine, you must do as you please, but think twice before pouring a big glass of high alcohol, big tannin Cab Sauv to go with a frisky hot spinach salad with a vinegary bacon dressing! My very own golden line is, “Pair the prep, not the protein.” Or, in this case, “Pair the prep and not the vegetable.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT QUESTIONS:
- How would you most like to change your salad? What can you do to try that out?
- If your salad could taste three different ways, they would be ___________________, _____________________, and ________________________.
- You can make one salad dressing from scratch; it would be ___________________________________________________.
below: The salad I made with the seasoned beets up top. I used the fond from the beet roasting pan to make the vinaigrette–hence the bright red dressing.
below: “Garlicky Two-Potato Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette” Two different grilled potatoes add texture and form, while a mix of fresh and cooked vegetables provide mouth-candy color. An herby tarragon vinaigrette finishes the dish with a summer flourish. For a salad like this, it’s not easy to say what is a seasoning and what is an ingredient, though tarragon must come first as it’s both in the vinaigrette and a garnish. Salt and pepper, naturally. Garlic and red onion, of course. By the way, I made this using a stovetop grill pan!
TIP: This salad could certainly serve as a main course, but if you make enough, you might have it …. say on Monday with grilled salmon and then on Wednesday with grilled chops. It’s an all-in-one side and is therefore both accessible and versatile. Or just have the extra portion(s) for lunch on Tuesday! Cooking once and eating twice; it’s a thing. Do re-season and add a little more vinaigrette before serving the second time. By the way, the flavors here are best at room temperature. While lots of cooks favor the cold salad, cold plate maxim, I’m more likely to go with room temp.
As this post comes to an end–another little Asian-style twist in a vinaigrette. Note the addition of fresh cilantro and chopped peanuts on the salad, as well as the Christmas-colored garnishes. My Air Fryer (keeps the kitchen cool) has been a fun toy lately and a big head of cauliflower led me to this easy, but filling meal. The Ginger Vinaigrette is also a different way to season steamed asparagus or carrots or even to drizzle on a lackluster grain bowl. Try it, too, to ramp up a simple chicken or grilled fish salad.
Life goes on:
Young man off our back deck. Never a dull moment.
Last year my son Sean, his wife Jami, and my beautiful grandchildren, Piper and Rhyan gave me this orchid plant. After a year of neglect in a corner, it bloomed. I moved it, kept watering it, lo and behold, it’s blooming again–with four more flowers to come!
These chops came from RANCH FOODS DIRECT, a beautiful Colorado Springs locally-sourced meat shop on Fillmore. The other place we’ve shopped lately and really liked is CORNER POST MEATS, out in Black Forest. While they raise their own hogs and cattle, they also sell some wonderful things like fish (see photo below) directly from Alaska and so on. Friend Corner Post on fb to learn more or see their fun videos of herding pigs or enjoying the cattle graze on green-green grass.
TIP: You can pick up meat right at Corner Post, but must order ahead and pick up is only on Saturdays between 10 am and noon. Otherwise, they ship almost anywhere.