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The Perfect Green Salad

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

the-perfect-green-salad

Once Upon a Time

I was a child of the 1950s. Meat and potatoes (heavier on the latter) were the star of the show. The three vegetables whose existence we acknowledged (carrots, peas, and green beans) were an occasional guest. But there was always a green salad.

Green salad = iceberg lettuce and sliced radishes. (Insert eye roll emoji here.)

I don't blame my mom. Iceberg lettuce was the standard. It was readily available, cheap, and it lasted f-o-r-e-v-e-r in the refrigerator.

But was it a healthy substitute as a vegetable? Here are the cold hard facts.

One cup of shredded or chopped iceberg lettuce has:

A green salad should be a nutritious part of your meal, not an afterthought. It should have contrasting tastes and textures. Crisp, clean, bright, and light.

But there are also things that a green salad is not. If you want to toss in bacon crumbles, hard-cooked egg, shredded rotisserie chicken, fruits and veggies, and chopped nuts... those all sound wonderful. But now you have a main dish meal, not a green salad.

It's time to hit the reset button on the green salad.

Equipment You Will Need

  • Cutting board
  • Chef's knife
  • Salad spinner (not mandatory, but it will tremendously improve the quality of your life in the kitchen)

I personally own the OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner and use it at least 4 times a week. It has served me faithfully for over 10 years, and it is one of my favorite kitchen tools. Admittedly, it is a tad pricey, but I think it is well worth the money. But if you can't afford the OXO, please don't deny yourself a salad spinner for your meal prep. I think any salad spinner would be preferable to having none at all.

the-perfect-green-salad

The Salad Greens

Many of us have fallen victim to the allure of convenience, and our salads have suffered for it. Cellophane bags and plastic clamshell boxes of pre-sliced, pre-diced, thrice-washed greens are a godsend when trying to put together a quick dinner for the starving masses (aka your family), but those convenient green nibbles are old and tired before they ever reach your salad bowl.

If you want the best salad greens, look for a full head. No, put down the iceberg. I'm talking about romaine, endive, bibb lettuce, napa cabbage, or baby bok choy to name a few.

Does breaking down a full head of lettuce seem overwhelming to you? Not sure where to begin? Watch this video and see how easy it can be.

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These are not mandatory, but the addition of any of these goodies will add more color, texture, and flavor to your bowl of greens. Typically, greens that are light in color are milder in flavor. The darker, more colorful greens are more assertive, with bitter, peppery, bold flavors so plan on adding just a little.

the-perfect-green-salad

To Be or Not to Be (Tomato or Not Tomato)?

Should the tomato be a fundamental part of every "green salad?" Many people would say yes, but I disagree.

Gertrude Stein wrote that "a rose is a rose is a rose," but a tomato is not always a tomato. Looks aren't everything, and sadly that is certainly true of the grocery store tomato. Yes, they are available 365 days of the year but do they always taste like a tomato? Are they sweet but with a bit of tang or is there as much flavor as a hunk of styrofoam? Are they meaty, or soft and mushy? Is the texture firm or mealy?

In my humble opinion, the only tomatoes that are worthy of placement on your perfect green salad are those that you have plucked from your backyard or purchased at your local farmers market. If those are not available, then I would suggest grape (aka cherry) tomatoes (sliced in half so that they will not zing across your plate as you attempt to catch them with your fork)...or nothing at all.

the-perfect-green-salad

The Dressing

My dearly beloved insists on creamy French dressing for his salad, and it doesn't matter what type of salad he is eating. (The emoji eye-roll is starting to get weary.) Some people swear by a creamy ranch, blue cheese, or mayonnaise-based dressings.

But what are you really tasting when you place a heavy, assertive dressing on simple salad greens? To my provincial way of thinking (and you are free to disagree), it's like dousing French fries with ketchup, covering everything on your breakfast with maple syrup, or insisting on salt-and-peppering your plate before taking a bite.

Do you want to taste the seasonings, or do you want to taste the food?

Rather than "cover up" the subtle flavors of your perfect salad greens, I'm suggesting that you add a gentle dressing that will enhance and elevate, not blanket and deflate, your perfect salad.

And this is why God created the vinaigrette.

Ingredients for the Perfect Dressing

You don't need a recipe for the perfect vinaigrette. Just remember 3:1. Three parts of oil to 1 part of acid. It's those simple folks. But, there's still room for a bit of fun and inventiveness here.

the-perfect-green-salad

The Oil

Anything labeled "salad oil" could work. This is the place for a neutral-tasting oil. (Save the sesame, walnut, or avocado oils for another time and place).

The Acid

Here's where we can be creative. I wouldn't recommend a white vinegar. If there is nothing else, apple cider could work in a pinch. But consider one of these, and the subtle flavors their origins provide:

  • balsamic
  • sherry
  • rice wine
  • raspberry

Part of the acid could be replaced with a citrus juice (orange, lemon, lime). Note that not all vinegars have the same intensity. Some have more "sour power" than others. Experiment to find exactly what proportion of oil plus acid works for you.

Seasonings

Salt and pepper are a natural choice. Want to liven it up a bit? I won't mind if you introduce some finely minced garlic or chives. A drop of honey might be the perfect high note to counterbalance a bold vinegar.

Mixing That Vinaigrette

You've no doubt heard the expression "oil and water don't mix" and when you are creating a vinaigrette, that is exactly what you are doing—mixing oil and water. But it can be done, with a process called emulsion.

A blender can certainly do the job. A food processor could handle the task as well. But I think the simplest method is to simply place your room temperature oil, acid(s), and seasonings in a jar with a good sealing lid. And then shake-shake-shake. Let it sit for a while (an hour or more is ideal), but don't refrigerate.

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Tossing the Salad

This is the final step and, did you know that you've probably been doing it wrong?

Do not pour the salad dressing on top of your greens and then toss. Instead, pour the dressing into the bottom of the bowl, place the greens on top, and then toss gently but thoroughly. To properly dress a salad you should plan on tossing (and tossing and tossing) for one minute. A salad fork and spoon work great, but impeccably clean hands will work too.

© 2018 Linda Lum

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