GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

June 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Locally, our farmers’ markets have opened recently. One of the joys of the earliest farmers’ markets is the availability of fresh, organic greens. Whether I use them in basic salads, or in sandwiches, or in pasta sauces, or in quiches, or any of a number of applications, greens are a delicious source of many nutrients, including beta-carotene, folate and iron.

Not only are greens delicious, but they also require only minimal cooking when they are young. This is important to me because we are getting into a season where I minimize turning on the stove, and I never turn on the oven when the temperature rises above 75°F. I always get a laugh out of people who, when I explain my threshold for turning on my oven, respond with, “Oh? Don’t you have air conditioning?” To be honest, I don’t have AC in my kitchen, but that is beside the point. Think about it for a moment: You are using natural resources to cool your home (and paying for them), and then using other natural resources to heat your home simultaneously (and paying for them), and doing all of this when there are thousands, if not millions, of low-temperature alternatives.

So, please enjoy the following easy recipes, their variations, and their applications.

Salad Greens with Simple Vinaigrette

In previous months’ columns, I have referred to “simple vinaigrettes,” only to be accosted with “Bret, what is a simple vinaigrette?” I apologize for my assumptions, and offer the following guidelines, along with the whine: “Vinaigrette” has only THREE syllables … the word is NOT “vinegar-ette.”

During the growing season, my primary salads are mixed organic baby greens (lettuces, chicories, etc.). I am spending some good money for these mixed greens, so I don’t want to muck them up with heavy, clunky dressings, or with highly seasoned dressings. I simply use a good fruity olive oil, a nice acid (wine [YES, I do mean wine, or champagne … you’ll be amazed by the effect on the overall salad], wine vinegar, balsamico, lemon, lime, orange, etc., solo or in combination), salt and pepper. So many “simple” vinaigrettes also include mustard; mustard is delicious in vinaigrettes, but if you are using baby greens with delicate flavors, mustard will overwhelm them. The same can be said for the addition of chopped shallots. Instead, I reserve my use of mustard and shallots (or onion or scallions) for less interesting greens and lettuces: romaine, leaf, bibb (NOTE: I did NOT mention iceberg lettuce; not only does iceberg not have any flavor, but it also has almost no nutrition, with the exception of some soluble fiber; I use it on sandwiches when romaine or leaf lettuce are too expensive, or when I want some real crunch).

There’s also the issue of cutting versus tearing versus doing nothing at all. I tend to follow Asian philosophy in all types of cooking, where the ease of dining is considered by the chef. I tear my lettuces, even the micro-greens, into bite-sized pieces so that diners won’t have to use knives, and so that I can get several different types of lettuce in one bite. I dined in one upscale restaurant where I ordered a Caesar salad; it arrived as two whole leaves of Romaine lettuce with dressing drizzled on top, and I was NOT impressed (I have not returned to that restaurant).

Here are some guidelines for vinaigrettes:

Per serving:

This will give proportions for 4 servings:

Combine all of the ingredients except the greens in a large bowl that can hold all of the greens loosely (note: if you want just a “whisper” of garlic in your salad, rub the inside of the bowl with half of a clove of fresh garlic). Using a fork or a whisk (I hate cleaning whisks, so I use a fork), vigorously whip the ingredients until the vinegar is emulsified evenly in the oil, as if you were scrambling eggs. Add the greens and toss gently, ideally with your hands (this is how I saw it being done at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where I had one of the best simple salads of my life). Gently lift the dressed greens out of the bowl and onto individual plates; serve immediately, perhaps with some of the accompaniments listed below.

Accompaniments:

Toasted nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, pepitas, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, or your favorite).

Small cubes or pieces of cheese: any bleu, or goat, or your favorite; my current favorite is Chaubier, but that will probably change the next time I make a salad or cheese crackers: when winter comes around again, I’ll share my recipes for cheese crackers [straws] that make great additions to salads.

Fruit, fresh or dried: halved or quartered grapes or cherries, or cubes/slices of peaches, apples, plums, berries or other fresh fruit, or any dried fruit in bite-sized pieces, included figs, dates, apricots, raisins, craisins, or other … I’ve even used cashew fruit, though it isn’t easy to find. A classic spring combo is sliced strawberries atop greens dressed with olive oil and balsamico, with an extra heavy grinding of black pepper on top of the strawberries … can you say, “Yum!”?

Fruit, roasted: Last month, I offered a recipe for roasted strawberries that actually makes a delicious addition to a green salad. Other roasted veggies, like plums or apricots or other, will be fantastic on salads, as well, roasted the same way. Don’t be afraid! Big deal chefs pulling down six- or seven-figure incomes aren’t afraid, and believe me, some of them make mistakes, BIG mistakes!

Tomatoes: technically a fruit, I’ll treat them separately here. Tomatoes make great additions to simple salads, whether you use fresh grape/cherry tomatoes whole or in halves and quarters, or larger fresh tomatoes cut into cubes or wedges (by the way, try to leave the skin on; we all need more fiber in our diets). I also like to rehydrate sun-dried tomatoes (you can use oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, but they tend to be more expensive; incorporate some of the flavored oil into your vinaigrette if you use them, however), and sliver them on the salad. Finally, one of my recent favorites is roasted cherry/grape tomatoes, which freeze amazingly well, and keep me supplied with rich tomato taste throughout the winter. Look for instructions on roasting tomatoes (and other vegetables) in September’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® column.

Vegetables, fresh: grated carrots, sliced avocado (actually, this is also a fruit), cucumbers, scallions, red onion slices, peapods, broccoli or cauliflower fleurets, jicama, or anything else that enters your imagination!

Vegetables, roasted (other than tomatoes): I admit it! I am a roasted-vegetable addict, and I use them everywhere! On their own, with meat or seafood, in quiches, in omelets, on sandwiches, on bruschetta, tossed with pasta, and on salads. Whether root veggies (potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, etc), or more tender veggies (like the asparagus presented last month, or the ubiquitous roasted red peppers), roasted veggies can raise the mundane to the sublime.

Meats and Seafood: Turn a salad course into an entrée by topping the salad few sautéed or stir-fried shrimp or squid/calamari slices or lump crab or lobster tail, or thinly-sliced rare pan-seared beef (or ahi tuna), or thinly sliced pan-fried pork, or thinly-sliced duck, or slices/pieces of leftover chicken or turkey, or crispy fried bacon or pancetta, or strips of prosciutto or other ham, or your favorite salami or other luncheon meat, strips or cubes.

“Bread” or other “starch”: I usually serve slices of some sort of artisanal bread (soudough, or French, or Italian, or multi-grain, or some of the Georgian bread I find in my neighborhood, or your favorite). Above, I mentioned the homemade cheese crackers/straws that go so well with simple salads. You may like croutons, or toast or bread sticks; be my guest! Try grilling or baking slices of baguette for bruschetta, and topping them with your favorite cheeses or sauces, and serving this alongside a salad! Or, I like to make patties from leftover mashed potatoes, colcannon, champ, and similar smashed root vegetable dishes, and either pan fry them or bake them for a great salad side (add some goat cheese, and you are on a new plateau). Check out a previous column for my Bean Blinis that are delicious next to a salad (or just toss some Basic Beans on your salad).

Other Toppings: Sliced/chopped hard cooked eggs; marinated artichoke hearts (save the marinade from the jar and use this as a sensational salad dressing, perhaps with a bit more olive oil added); capers; slivered or sliced olives (black or green); canned tuna (see last month’s recipe for Salade Niçoise); leftover veggies and meat form last night’s dinner (try it; you’ll like it!); sliced fresh mushrooms; marinated mushrooms; sautéed mushrooms; rehydrated wild mushrooms (morels, chanterelles, porcini, etc.).

Variations:

Garlicky Salad: For each individual portion of salad, add up to ½ t finely minced fresh garlic to the vinaigrette along with the other ingredients. Alternatively, add up to 1 t of roasted garlic per portion.

Asian Salad: Substitute toasted sesame oil for HALF of the olive oil, and use rice wine vinegar or lime juice for the acid. A squeeze or two of fish sauce also makes a delicious addition. For Asian salads, I tend to use cashews and/or almonds, and omit the cheese, but a few sautéed shrimp or squid/calamari slices or thinly-sliced rare pan-seared beef, or thinly sliced pan-fried pork, or thinly-sliced duck, or slices/pieces of leftover chicken.

Mexican Salad: ubiquitous alongside most Mexican meals, this salad uses only Romaine lettuce cut into fine slivers (chiffonade), about ¼” to 3/8” wide, and the full width of the leaf. The dressing, per 2 c serving, is 1 T olive oil, 2 t lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss and serve topped with queso fresco next to your favorite Mexican recipe, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner (this salad often accompanies various huevos recipes for breakfast, so don’t be intimidated to allow the tang of the lime juice brighten your morning!).

Applications:

I’ve seen salads placed on top of grilled or pan-seared meats, but this just strikes me as silly. Essentially, you have to scrape the salad off before cutting into the meat, so I’m not going to recommend this version of “tall” food even if it is initially esthetically-pleasing. The point in applying salads is to remember they generally provide a “sour” element to the palate. If your menu is balanced with sweet, salty and bitter elements, add some vinegar- or citrus-rich salad to round out everything. Or, if other dishes have “sour” already, make sure that your salad contributes other flavors, along with some additional “sour” to tie it into the rest of the menu. One cannot really “apply” salads otherwise, because the lettuces are so delicate that they will just wilt.

Wilted Greens: In the American South, wilted greens are quite delicious, and have made their into upscale restaurants where this dish may be called, “Baby Spinach with Warm Fancy-Pants Bacon Vinaigrette.” Begin with ¼ lb of bacon (cut in ¼” strips, or in 3/8” squares) fried in a large (12”) skillet until crisp, then removed, leaving about 1 or 2 T of bacon fat. One pound of well-washed greens (about 6 c; spinach is traditional, but sturdy lettuces, such as romaine, and other greens, like kale, will work) should be torn or sliced into large pieces (maybe 2” square on average) and added to the hot bacon fat with the moisture from washing still clinging. Add 1 t salt, about 20 grinds of black pepper, ¼ c to ½ c of vinegar, and about 2 T sugar to the greens, and stir, steam and turn the greens until they begin to wilt, becoming dressed with the fat, vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar (covering the skillet is useful to speed the wilting). For additional flavor, add about ¼ c finely chopped onion to the bacon fat and cook until translucent before adding the greens; about 1 T of finely minced garlic can be added to the bacon fat just 30 seconds before the greens are added. Instead of vinegar, consider using lemon or orange juice, and then enhancing that flavor by adding the finely minced zest (1 to 2 T). Serve hot as a side dish or draped over pan-seared meat or fish, with the fried bacon crumbled on top for flavor and texture. If you prefer to avoid the saturated fat of the bacon, either eliminate it completely and use olive oil, or sauté some lean prosciutto in olive oil. As yet another alternative, delicate greens can be gently warmed (not wilted) in a vinaigrette and then added at the last minute to a meat or shellfish or fish dish, or added to a risotto for extra texture and flavor.

If you add a salad or side dish of mixed or single greens with a simple vinaigrette to your daily diet, your overall health will increase, I assure you. I know mine has! Call or e-mail me if you think you need a helping hand.

 

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