I am a sucker for a great salad. If I go out to eat, I tell myself not to order salad because– just like pasta–I feel that I can make one that is equally delicious.
Then I end up ordering the salad.
Also, just like pasta, “salad” is so versatile that it can appear in infinite permutations. Salad with simply lettuce. Warm pumpkin and chickpea salad with no lettuce at all. Classic Greek salad with just perfect fresh ingredients, feta, oregano, and olive oil. Salad for dinner, lunch, and even fruit salad at breakfast. My husband thinks that I am insane for insisting upon a salad with pizza. “Why do you need to have a salad with this?!”
Because, a great salad is the perfect meal. Following this assertion, I think I can name this installment two of the Earnest-but-Inept-Cook series. Most of the earnest-but-inept cooks I know also fall under the following categories:
1. The reformed salad bar person who was under the distinct impression that a well-built salad consisted of pre-shredded carrots, croutons, and (real or fake) bacon bits.
2. The “I only eat one kind of lettuce” person who only refuses to eat anything but iceberg lettuce or spinach if your significant other has shoved it down your throat enough times for you to get used to it. You usually use store-bought dressings.
3. The “I only eat one salad and it’s a Caesar.” (Sorry, I too love a good Caesar salad, but really! You know who you are.)
This post, while not really needing a recipe, provides a guide to making a great salad that is filling, nourishing, balanced, and mouth-watering, yes mouth-watering.
First, roast some beets, cool them, and then shave them paper-thin.
Arrange the beets on a plate. This will be the bed of your salad.
If you already like beets you will love this method. They taste crazy delicious and their sweetness builds a crucial flavor for the salad. If you do not care for beets, think again. I am willing to bet that this method will win you over. Shaving the already roasted beet, changes the texture and presents a nuanced sweetness that is harder to taste were they shaved raw (which I personally love), or cooked and chopped. Think of a good aged cheese like Parmigiano. Most people do not eat massive chunks of this stuff, but instead shave it or grate it thinly. The change in surface area allows you to experience the best of the beet too.
Now, for the manly men out there, to further my case that a great salad can serve as your meal, you do have to get beyond just one type of lettuce and you need to let go of the fake bacon bits and dry, almost-hairy pre-grated carrots.
Try these instead please…
“Real” baby carrots are almost certainly not available at your local supermarket. You need to fork out a little extra dough at Whole Foods, visit your local farmer’s market, or best of all, grow them yourself. When pulled up at this tiny stage, they are incredibly sweet, tender, and need nothing more than a good scrub. No peeling here. If you like your carrots cooked, give them a quick toss in your saute pan until they are just barely cooked. (“Al dente” as if it were pasta…although no Italian refers to vegetables as “al dente”.) My kids prefer them raw. Keep the tiny ones whole, just barely cutting off their stems, but rinsing any grit. Slice the slightly larger ones in half. Without overloading, lay them over each other like the spokes of a wheel on top of the bed of sliced beets.
Next you can lay down your bed of lettuce. Since you have two earthy-sweet root vegetables, try to contrast those flavors. For example, while I adore butter lettuce, I think a spicy arugula, watercress, or peppercress would do best here. Intermix some of your top ingredients, which, in my case, are fresh, paper-thin radishes and snipped chives. You want to just layer a couple of each without overcrowding.
At the very top of your salad place a couple of shaved radishes. Drizzle a generous amount of the very best olive oil you own, sprinkle some sea salt from about a foot above (to better disperse it), and finally shave a really good aged cheese, like Parmigiano.
I could offer copious notes on salad making, and will offer more when I post another salad, but I simply add the following. For crunch and protein, I suggest adding some nuts or seeds. I love pistachios, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds with this salad. If you simply must have a vinegary tang, you could do a fruity vinegar like this one, or just squeeze one of the phenomenal Meyer lemons that are in season right now. I love a good vinaigrette, but this salad has so much going on that I feel the simple rich olive oil and salt complete it.
The big take home points are that you should balance your sweet, salty, spicy, savory, and sour flavors in whatever combination that you like best. Add texture differences. Go beyond lettuce! This salad is also great with absolutely no greens at all.
What is your favorite salad recipe? If you fall in one of the tragic, above-mentioned salad categories please do report back. And, yes, I will do a salad with homemade croutons soon, I promise.
Spring Beet, Carrot, Radish salad with Spicy Lettuce and Parmigiano
(Serves 2 hungry people)
2 large or 3 medium beets, any color
bunch of baby carrots
arugula, watercress, or peppercress
8-12 chive leaves, minced with kitchen shears
1 1/2-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
shaved aged cheese like a Gouda, Pecorino, or Parmigiano
1. Roast the Beets. Chop off scraggly roots and the tops of the beets (don’t throw them away, they taste fantastic cooked). Wash them and wrap them in foil. Cook for about 40 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Take out, let cool in the fridge. When ready, peel off the skin with your fingers.
2. With a very sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the beets paper-thin and arrange on your plate in overlapping circles.
3. Place your carrots (raw or slightly cooked) over the beets as indicated above.
4. Mandoline or cut paper-thin the radishes.
5. Layer your salad of choice with the chives and radishes, building up as you go.
6. Drizzle your best olive oil, sprinkle sea salt from above so it is evenly dispersed, and shave your cheese on to the top and around the sides with a potato peeler.
(See notes above for hints.)