Salad days start when the lettuce and tomatoes at the supermarket begin to resemble actual vegetables. They still will not have the flavour of our own locally grown produce — that doesn’t start until June or July — but they at least have a real taste and texture and the arugula won’t go limp on the way home from the market.
I should make my position clear, right from the beginning: First of all, when I say salad, I mean a dish that contains, as its primary ingredient some sort of leafy green vegetable. Yes, I know that Waldorf salad and fruit salad and bean salad and even potato salad are all delicious and worthy dishes, however, I am really in need of crisp, leafy greens at this time of year.
But I fear that I am also something of a salad fanatic and will even order salad in restaurants in February. I think salads suffer from a bad press. Often, the salad is thrown in as a sort of addition to a main course or treated as a side dish that doesn’t really matter. When, in fact, a properly dressed, stylishly composed salad with perfect, simple ingredients is as much a delight to eat as the most labour intensive stew or terrine. I often feel the urge to order just an appetizer and a salad in tony restaurants and then have room left (in my stomach and my pocket book) for a completely irresponsible dessert. It’s an interesting and enlightening test of a restaurant’s true dedication to hospitality to try this occasionally. Some servers are completely befuddled by the idea. Others, who receive a generous tip, are more than happy to give me exactly what I want and ask me how I want it served.
I am happy to eat just a simple tossed salad, but my very favorite salad must be a Caesar. The classic Caesar salad is found on all menus and I find that a proper Caesar salad is one of the criteria on which I weigh the merits of a restaurant. There must be homemade, crispy, garlicky croutons, of course, and salty, zesty anchovies in the dressing, along with a coddled egg yolk to make it creamy. (To coddle an egg, you simply drop it into boiling water and let it boil for one full minute. Remove it, separate the yolk and — no salmonella worries.) You do know immediately with a Caesar when all is not going well. For instance, the romaine has been cut up in little pieces instead of being left in small, whole leaves. Wrong! The dressing reeks of cheap olive oil and there’s not a slice of lemon for those who prefer a bit more citrus. Wrong! And that most hideous of insults — grated “Parmesan” cheese from one of those “shake on” thingies instead of long curls of real cheese sliced with a vegetable peeler. Ugh!!! And no, not even the most enormously phallic peppermill will make up for these affronts to the palate.
The other salad that I eat continuously as soon as the local tomatoes get ripe is the Greek salad and it’s nice to know that Greek salad is actually eaten in Greece where there seems to be no lettuce. (I have no idea why.) Anyway, real Greek salad is a mixture of cut up tomatoes (the absolute sweetest, ripest best), fresh cucumber, feta cheese (I like the Macedonian feta from The Cheeseman at the Burlington Mall market, if you can get it) sliced red onion rings, Kalamata olives and a dressing that contains oregano, olive oil and lemon juice. If you must — I have known some who add cut up romaine; but it’s better without. (A light sprinkle of crunchy Maldon salt is extra good but not necessary.) Serve icy cold out of the refrigerator with some kind of warm flatbread dripping with melted butter (Greek pita bread is good but sliced Italian ciabatta buns are simply splendid.)
The really classic summer salad is, I suppose, the Cobb salad. The Cobb salad is definitely a main dish salad. It can include a variety of greens from iceberg lettuce to romaine to watercress, or whatever you have hanging around in the refrigerator. It needs cut up tomatoes, crisp bits of bacon, slivers of chicken breast, hard boiled eggs, avocado chunks, Roquefort cheese and red wine vinaigrette. There are many stories told about the origin of the salad, the most popular being that someone named Cobb owned the Hollywood Brown Derby and his chef invented the dish. Anyway the bacon and avocado combination is made in heaven — love it on a toasted BLT. And I wouldn’t sneer at iceberg lettuce. In fact, sometimes, on a hot summer eve, the most perfect thing in the world is a simple wedge of chilled iceberg lettuce drizzled with bottled blue cheese dressing.
Here’s a recipe for spinach salad. I don’t know what the “classic” recipe is — my mom always made it with bacon bits and mushrooms and a dressing that had bacon fat in it. But I prefer this lighter version with dried fruit and nuts.
Jamie’s Cranberry Spinach Salad
1 tbsp butter
3/4 cup almonds, blanched and slivered
1 lb spinach, rinsed and torn into bite-size pieces
1 cup dried cranberries
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 tbsp poppy seeds
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp minced onion
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1) In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Cook and stir almonds in butter until lightly toasted. Remove from heat and let cool.
2) In a medium bowl, whisk together the sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sugar, onion, paprika, white wine vinegar, cider vinegar and vegetable oil. Toss with the spinach just before serving.
3) Add toasted almonds and cranberries to the spinach mixture. Serves eight.
It goes without saying that the spinach should be the freshest, sweetest baby spinach that you can find. And you can substitute dried cherries or strawberries for the cranberries, or pecans for the almonds, with no fear of discord.