Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, made salad cool. Stories about her tend these days to legend, and one of my favorite is an image of her along a roadside in Berkeley foraging for greens. I have no idea where I read that, or if it's even true, but what is clear is that she has had a huge impact on one of the elements central to California cuisine: the green salad. Later, the blogger David Lebovitz wrote that his 13-year stint at Chez Panisse hinged on his reply that salad was his favorite meal.
They are following in a long line of green salad appreciators. Salad has been cultivated for at least 7000 years. The cultivation neatly follows the arc of a high school Western civilization class: First grown in Persia where it spread both east and west (though there were native cultivars in China as well). Through the west across the mediterranean basin and in Columbus's ship to be spread in the Americas. What is it about salad?
First, it's easy to grow. Second, people like it. Strangely though, it's one of the few crops that resist processing or preservation. Only darker greens like kale, chard, cabbage and spinach hold up to freezing, canning or pickling. Salad greens just can't take it. Though the food processing industry have found a way to use more plastic and create ready-to-eat greens in bags. Of course, large-scale agriculture has recently had trouble keeping out food-born illnesses. Don't get me wrong; these problems can also occur on small, organic farms who are also held fast to food safety rules. The advantage: their reach is limited. Large-scale, long-distance food processors touch millions of people and the impact can be scary. Small farms are better able to quality control and when there is a problem it doesn't spread.
Food politics aside, salad is just good. Unlike my influences above, I don't remember having a Eureka moment. As a child we ate iceberg with "italian dressing." I think I liked it fine. In 80s California, I remember being crazy about sprouts. We grew them on the kitchen counter. I have only a vague memory of salads. We had a wooden salad bowl that sometimes doubled a chip bowl for gatherings. Later, in the 90s, I along with everybody else discovered mesculn (Thanks, Alice). I went to school at UC Davis (english major) and was heavily influenced by the Farmer's market and the co-op. At the millennium I started making my own vinaigrette and mayonnaise - and haven't turned back. Single, I started cooking for parties and co-workers and most nights eating food I made instead of eating out. Some eat ice cream straight from the box (I've done it) but during this period I watched my "must see tv" with the salad bowl in my lap.
After I moved to France, for the first time, I ate fresh-picked salad. first, from my father-in-law's vegetable garden. Later, on a regular basis, from the CSA 4 miles from my house. In both cases, I noticed something - the salad had flavor, not just texture and crunch. The earth was there, distilled and transformed in my mouth.
This year, I decided to give a go for myself and planted 6. Mostly salad is planted here in the fall, when temperatures drop and there is more rain and less sun. Lamely, I was seduced by the idea when buying my herbs and bought a box of 12, giving away half to a friend. So far I've been lucky - there has been a lot of rain this spring. I just hope they make it to growth and don't turn to seed too quickly. If my experiment fails I'll definitely try again in the fall.
The main trick with salads greens is that they thrive in mild temperate weather with plenty of both water and sunshine. Salads have been bred to fight off pests in some regions; you can check at your local garden center or seed supplier.
Salads also grow well in containers. A friend of mine had no garden space whatsoever and planted them in holes punched directly in a bag of potting soil; they were great.
A couple of vinaigrettes I use all the time:
A note on emulsification. You can certainly make vinaigrette by hand. I find that individual style varies. My vinaigrette is always thicker than my husband's. We just do things different ways. They are both fine. For mayonnaise (and this would work with vinaigrette as well) I use the whisk attachment of my stick blender. It's awesome.
This one is an all-purpose, go-with-everything vinaigrette. If you eat in any of the local restaurants and there is a side of salad greens, this is most likely the dressing.
This is enough for a salad for 4.
- 1 tsp. dijon mustard
- 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 c olive oil
- optional: chopped herbs (such as thyme/sage/marjoram or tarragon/chive)
Blend the mustard and vinegar until uniform.
Stirring quickly, add a few drops of olive oil and mix until completely incorporated
Always stirring, add oil in a thin stream (use a liquid measuring cup or olive oil bottle with the little spout) and incorporate until completely emulsified.
This one is great with greens that have a really strong flavor or have some bitterness.
Same method above with the following ingredients
- 1 tsp. dijon mustard
- 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
- 1/2 tsp. honey
- 1/4 c olive oil
When olive oil is nearly all incorporated taste for balance of the sharp/sweet and adjust accordingly. Add the rest of the olive oil.