Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lettuce Play

My biggest culinary complaint is when people cook vegetables beyond recognition.

A dear friend of mine agreed.

"If you can't cook vegetables properly," she said. "MAKE A F*CKING SALAD!"

Not only are salads easy to prepare, but they're good for you and take almost no time to make. All they take is a basic knowledge of what goes in them to begin with.

There are many types of salad out there: lettuce based, fruit based, potato based, grain based i.e. rice or quinoa, noodle based, and cabbage based i.e. slaws (though to be fair, a slaw can also consist of fennel or radishes instead of cabbage).

Having taught you how to make a basic salad dressing in my previous article,  I'm going to start you off with the principles of lettuce-based salads, and then, for those who want specific recipes, I'll be tackling both classic salads and my own versions in the next entries.

Freestyle Lettuce Play

Salad doesn't take long to master. All you need to know is what the common elements are.

I'm going to break it down for you as simply as I can.

Ingredients for a Lettuce Based Salad

1 type of Lettuce or a Mix of a few - washed, pulled apart, and if the leaves are large, chopped up or torn by hand into bite sized pieces - this could be Romaine, Iceberg (a popular favorite), Boston, Endive - which is pale and has a slightly bitter taste, see the image below, Radicchio - that reddish lettuce you often find in fancy salads, see the second image below, Arugula aka Rocket Lettuce - which has a peppery taste that often varies in intensity depending on which batch you get, Spinach or Baby Spinach, Baby Beet Greens, or A boxed salad mix - but they're pricier than buying whole heads of lettuce, PLEASE DO NOT BUY BAGGED LETTUCE MIXES UNLESS YOU PLAN TO USE 'EM SAME DAY - They tend to spoil quicker!



Another Fruit or Vegetable of Choice or 3 - Washed, and Chopped or Grated - Cucumbers and Tomatoes are popular choices, but you could also use berries - one type or mixed (Blueberries and Raspberries are hot in salads right now), Oranges or Grapefruit - just remember to take the seeds out, Carrots, Avocados, pitted, peeled, tossed in a little lemon or lime juice so they stay green, and chopped, Radishes - Daikon, a large Japanese radish is also coming into favor these days, apples, and even beets - you can clean and grate these raw  or peel them, chop 'em up, boil them until they're tender, and then add them to the salad, but I prefer them raw and grated meself.

IF YOU WANT TO ADD AN ONION - use it sparingly, as in a couple of thin slices, sliced in half and broken up so the rings separate - and try to stick to a sweet onion, like a red one for example, as onion flavor is VERY strong.

1 or 2 Crunchy Elements - Optional - This doesn't have to be croutons - You could use sliced Almonds of any kind, Pine Nuts, Cashews, Peanuts - flavored ones would be awesome, Pumpkin or Sunflower Seeds, fried and crumbled Bacon or fake Bacon bits (I call them "Fakin' Bacon"), Fried crispy rice noodles (available in most grocery stores and all Asian Markets), dry instant Ramen noodles (throw out that nasty packet of instant broth they come with), or even Parmesan Chips (press heaping spoonfuls of grated parmesan cheese onto a silicon baking mat or parchment paper on a cookie sheet, bake at 400 F until brownish around the edges (about 5 minutes) wait for them to cool, and then eat as is or put 'em in your salad)!

1 Protein of Choice - Optional - This turns a salad from a side dish or appetizer into a meal, and the type is really up to you - Chicken -  the breast grilled, roasted, or cooked in a pan, or even pulled off a store bought rotisserie chicken would work well (a good way to use leftovers), as would steak - cooked in a pan or on the grill and then sliced  - another great way to use leftovers, you could also use Roast Beef, chopped up, Firm Tofu (the soft stuff will just fall apart) cut into cubes, Tuna from a can or Tuna Salad, any kind of cooked fish filet - once again, another good way to use leftovers, Any sliced Cold Cuts, Canned Beans of any kind, rinsed and drained, or even Hard Boiled Eggs or egg salad!

1 Cheese - Grated, Crumbled if it's a soft-ish cheese like Goat or Blue, or even cut into small cubes - Optional - Parmesan, Blue cheese - try to get something firm like Castello brand Danish Blue, or Le Bleu d'Elizabeth, a pungent blue cheese from Quebec, Cheddar, Asiago (a Spanish cheese that was trendy for a while), Swiss, Gruyere, or Feta - a Greek cheese that's usually used in Greek salad.  Please note that if you're using cheese, stick to only 1 and use only a little, as cheeses tend to be quite strong in flavor and you don't want them all fighting dominance in your salad. Furthermore, remember that something really soft like ricotta, mascarpone, or cottage cheese won't work that well, as they're too runny.

How to Assemble Your Salad

This will vary depending on whether you're serving yourself or a crowd.

For crowds, I like to make something pretty to get some oohs and ahs when I bring it to the table. Salad for guests often doesn't get eaten right away so I like to layer ingredients a bit so my cheese doesn't fall apart, and my crunchy element doesn't get soggy (not an issue if you're using nuts or seeds or bacon).

While you can prep the individual ingredients beforehand, ALWAYS WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE TO DRESS AND ASSEMBLE THE SALAD ITSELF. There are exceptions to this rule i.e. potato salads and slaws, but for lettuce based salads especially, you need to dress the salad as close to the projected time of consumption as possible, as a salad left to sit in its own dressing for too long gets soggy and unpleasant.

Regardless of whether you're serving yourself or guests, always put your protein on top, as it tends to be heavy and sink to the bottom and you don't want to lose it in your salad.

For serving to guests

Toss the vegetables and, if using, fruit, together with your salad dressing in a bowl, and then top with your crunchy elements, cheese and/or protein.

You can now bring it to the table and await the compliments!

For Serving to Yourself 

Toss all but the protein together in a bowl with your dressing, and then top with your protein, if using, or put it on your plate with the rest of your meal.

You can now eat your salad.

Grilled Chicken Salad with Parmesan Chips

Bon Appetit!

And stay tuned for next time when I'll be tackling classic salads!

-Samantha R. Gold

 Questions? Comments? Requests?

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