Let’s get two things straight: I love green salads, and I loathe iceberg lettuce. While this in and of itself does not separate me from most other people, what does is that I am relentless in my search for strange and unusual greens to build these salads. I can thank both Euell Gibbons and my ex-wife for that.
Euell’s books (the various “Stalking” series) were my first guides to what I had done since I could walk: Locate and find yummy things outside my back door. Later, I learned that my ex-wife, a nutritionist, didn’t like oil on her salads. This presented a problem, because I do. Olive oil marries flavors while adding its own flavor as a sort of bridge between bitter, sweet and pungent. How to make a delicious salad, then, with no oil? Answer: Make the greens the flavor, and vary that flavor as much as possible.
Over time, I have developed Hank’s Law of Salad:
- A salad must be easy to eat. No large pieces of leaf, and nothing other than greens. Pomegranate seeds look lovely in a salad, but they scurry this way and that on your plate when you try to catch them with your fork.
- A salad must be well-dressed. And not with a cream dressing; save the cream dressing for wedges of iceberg or a cabbage salad. A proper salad is dressed only with oil, salt and an acid of some sort. Sometimes a simple vinaigrette is nice. In winter, when my greens are at their peak (a side benefit of living in California) my choice is most often Meyer lemon juice. And this is where you break out the really good olive oil.
- A salad must have balance. Think about color. Think about shape. Most of all, think about flavor. Anything can go into a green salad, but if it is too bitter, some of your guests will shrink from it in terror. If it is too herby, only the Middle Easterners will like it; they are accustomed to salads made of mounds of mint and parsley and other strong-tasting herbs. There is a recipe for such a salad below.
So where to start? If you are bound by supermarket produce, look for things like watercress and colored lettuce and those little herb packets they sell. Also look for red radicchio and white Belgian endive. Belgian endive is one of the few things I still buy in a supermarket produce aisle.
If, however, you have a garden, or access to a superior farmer’s market, look to balance a quartet of chicories, cresses, lettuces and oniony things. These are my current favorites:
- Dandelions and their cousins. All are good (except in hot weather), but I am in love with the red one you see at right. It adds color as well as flavor.
- Erba Stella. Long, spiky leaves that are vaguely succulent and only slightly bitter. Also known as minutina.
- Stridolo. Looks like a weed, tastes mild and spicy. Also known as Sculpit.
- Radicchio and Treviso. Both the same thing, really, these are red, heading chicories that add bitterness, color and crunch to a salad. Round-head radicchio looks like a little red cabbage and is available in most supermarkets.
CRESSES: These are mustardy and can be quite sharp. This is excellent in balance or with lots of fat. An arugula salad with a warm duck fat dressing is divine!
- Arugula. There are lots of varieties, but I prefer the unaltered variety that grows wild everywhere once you plant it once. It looks cool, too.
- Upland Cress. Like watercress, only easier to grow. Smaller, too.
- I also use a number of wild cresses that grow in my yard. I think most are Pennsylvania bittercress, but I am not sure. Basically anything that looks like cress is a cress, so there is no danger of picking the wrong thing. When in doubt, taste a teeny bit: If it tastes like mustard, it’s a cress.
LETTUCES: Go wild here. Anything goes, even iceberg in moderation. Lettuces are the “potatoes” of your salad. They will be its bulk and sweet component. Shape and color here are critical. What I am using these days…
- Lolla Rossa. Crinkly and red. Nice accent.
- Deer Tongue. Cool shape. Comes in red and green. I use green.
- Frisee. I use it as lettuce, without plunking a plate on it to get that white center.
- Mache. Not actually a lettuce, this cold-weather green grows low to the ground in smallish rosettes. It is my mainstay in the winter salad, and I love its nutty flavor.
- Miner’s Lettuce, also known as claytonia. This grows all over the place in North America — it is a small, spreading ground cover and the leaves are pierced through the center by their stems; it almost looks like the plant is wearing one of those Elizabethan collars you put on dogs.
ONIONY THINGS: Every salad needs this. Trust me. My go-to onion is typically chives or green onion tops. But I have been known to slice leek tops thin, or use Chinese garlic chives. In spring, garlic tops are excellent, too.
MISCELLANEOUS: Depending on my whims, I will add other stuff to spice up a salad. Some, like flat-leaf parsley, can be included in large amounts, while others, such as rue or mint, are so strong they need to be added in small quantities. Some of my stand-bys:
- Rue. It’s bitter but beautiful, the aging leading lady of your salad plate. Gorgeous leaves and a warm, spicy taste bring you in, but this herb is so bitter you need to balance it with something sweet, like…
- Mint. Mint is a pick-me-up in a salad. Use sparingly or it will take over.
- Lovage. Kinda like celery, kinda like parsley. Again, a prima donna.
- Oregano. Only do this in winter or spring, when Oregano is feeling charitable. In summer, she’s too busy taking over tomato sauces…
- Fennel fronds. Gotta love the anise flavor, and the fronds look like the faeries made your salad.
- Sorrel. Lemonade in a leaf. It’s like adding lemon juice or vinegar without actually doing so. Thank the oxalic acid for that, but don’t eat it every day. Too much oxalic acid can mess with your kidneys.
There are other green things I add from time to time, but this should get you started. Remember to balance flavors — you’ll figure out how much of this or that you’ll need in time — and when dressing, do oil first, mix. Then salt, mix. Then, right when you serve, squirt acid on top.
For an interesting starter, click over to my recipe for a Persian all-herb salad with walnut dressing.