HISTORICALLY, salads have been the most disrespected of dishes. They’re an afterthought on the table, overshadowed by a grilled steak, a golden roast chicken, a big bowl of pasta. Even a platter of roasted vegetables outshines “rabbit food.”
Yet, salads have been marching up the culinary hierarchy ladder. They have provoked a war in the world of fast-casual food as such chains as Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, and Chopt expand around the United States of America. A change in the salad emoji can provoke internet hysteria. Even at McDonalds, salads now rank among the all-time top 10 sellers, ahead of the Double Cheeseburger, according to howstuffworks.com.
As people pay more attention to produce, and as high-priced oils and vinegars become the norm, showing respect to salad has become increasingly important.
Enter Gayle Pirie and John Clark, chefs and owners of San Francisco’s cult favorite restaurant, Foreign Cinema. Pirie and Clark are veterans of the kitchens at Chez Panisse and Zuni Café and are skilled at crafting extraordinary salads. In fact, their new cookbook The Foreign Cinema Cookbook: Recipes and Stories Under the Stars dedicates serious space to the subject. Here are Pirie’s tips for making a salad the best part of your meal this summer.
1. Forget Vinaigrettes
“No disrespect, but they can be too heavy, especially with small, delicate summer greens. All you really need is a favorite extra-virgin olive oil, your choice of fruity vinegar — such as red wine, aged sherry, or Champagne — kosher salt, and cracked black pepper. I like a 3:1 ratio of oil to salt. Of course, there are extras that come in handy. The trick is how you toss it all together: Always lightly drizzle greens with the olive oil first; this protects them from getting overly wilted when they’re hit with the vinegar.”
2. Or, If You Must, Then Make Extra
“If you insist of having a dressing or vinaigrette, it certainly speeds up the salad-making process if you have a stash in the fridge. In fact, at parties, it’s nice to offer a couple different options. Be sure to taste a premade vinaigrette before serving — the best way is to dunk in a lettuce leaf — since vinegars and citrus juice have a tendency to dull over a couple of days. Always store your extra vinaigrette in a jar so you can shake to re-emulsify everything. (A drop of Dijon mustard also helps emulsification.)
3: Chill Your Bowl Ahead of Time…
“Make sure to chill your bowl before tossing greens and salad components in it. This ensures that the greens stay fresh and crisp. Also, make sure you use a big bowl, that the salad comes two-thirds up the sides. If the bowl is too small, you can’t toss evenly, and bits and pieces go overboard.”
4. …Or Better Yet, Don’t Use a Bowl At All
“Don’t automatically serve a salad in a deep bowl, where it’s hidden from sight. You can set lightly dressed greens — from mesclun or small head lettuces to spears of Belgian endive or little gems — on a long, wooden board, so it becomes a communal, picnic-styled dish. Add some quartered hard-boiled eggs, cheese, charcuterie, warm bread, and a chilled bottle of rosé. But leave a little space around the side, both for visual appeal and tidiness. And keep cocktail napkins handy.”
5. Double Up on Oil
“Yes, a simple vinaigrette of oil and vinegar is all you need. But you can enrich salad by adding another flavored oil — like garlic, chili, or lemon — to deliver additional flavor and a silky mouth-feel. For summer, I like to drizzle basil oil over tomato salad for an unexpected herbaceous kick.”
6. EVOO Is VIP
“If you have a high-quality, pricey bottle of oil in your pantry, this is the place to use it. A salad showcases the opulence of an extra-virgin oil better than almost anything. Of course, keep those bottles stored in dark, cool places to protect the fragile oil from light and heat — or they will turn rancid, and you’ll have to toss them.”
7. Make Sure Your Salt Is Kosher
“Sea salt and iodized salt are too strong; they literally make lettuces wilt. Kosher salt comes from the earth, so it has a milder flavor and delicate texture. If the grains are big, crush them between your fingers to ensure even distribution.”
8. Use Your Hands
“Don’t be afraid to eat lettuce salads with your hands. There are, of course, basic rules of etiquette to observe: It’s best to use sturdier greens, like little gems, hearts of romaine, or baby romaine leaves, since it’s easier to pick up and since they can cradle add-ins (like cheese and nuts). It’s also an opportunity to serve an un-dressed salad, with various shaped leaves and small ramekins of dressing, so it’s as much a dip as a salad.” — Kate Krader, Bloomberg