Thursday, March 03, 2011

Secrets to Superlative Salad

My father used to threaten that he would die if he didn’t have Chinese food at least 6 days a week. As a result, we ate a lot of Chinese food every night for dinner: white rice with a meat dish and a vegetable dish. Although my mother is a fabulous cook, I didn’t prefer rice and I didn’t eat much of what I didn’t like, so I ranked among the 3 skinniest girls in my grade for all of my childhood.

When Mama cooked Western food, it wasn’t always that palatable either: watery spaghetti sauce that was more like spaghetti soup; Delmonico steaks cooked so long that they were completely gray and I had to spit unchewable pieces into a napkin, excuse myself and go to the bathroom to dispose of them; cream of mushroom soup as the main sauce for Swiss steaks, meatloaf and pork chops (the latter one coming out delicious as I have blogged earlier, but the former two coming out so dry I also had to resort to the napkin/bathroom trick).

Ragu transformed my experience of spaghetti. Eating a rare steak at a physicist’s home in 6th grade transformed my experience of beef (with Mama almost retching at the sight of the bloody red meat going in my mouth). But my mother-in-law transformed my view of salad.

Growing up, salad was iceberg lettuce with bottled dressing, not even with cucumbers or tomatoes on the side. My two favorite dressings were green goddess and creamy cucumber. We ate salad when we ate steak with baked potatoes, and I gradually came to love that meal. After that seminal dinner with physicists, I asked Mama to cook my steak less. Baba chimed in with “Me too!”

“What?” Mama cried, her eyes bugging out at my father, who had graciously received and eaten everything she’d ever cooked, “you want a bloody steak?”

“I like rare steaks,” he replied. It took me standing up to my mother to give my father the freedom to confess his penchant for red, not gray, meat after 14 years of marriage.

So our steaks went from gray with a little pink, to mostly pink, to rosy pink, to reddish pink, and finally to almost red. Mama wrinkled her nose each time she forked over our steaks, proclaiming we surely couldn’t eat that bloody hunk, but Baba and I dove in. Yet the iceberg lettuce with green goddess never changed. We didn’t know any better.

When I first ate at Scott’s home and bit into the salad his mother had made, I experienced another food conversion. This was no iceberg lettuce with green goddess dressing from the bottle. It was fresh and weightless even with shredded carrots, sliced mushrooms, diced red peppers, and some basil leaves torn into the mix. She lightly dressed it with what the family calls “French dressing,” a recipe a French friend provided. As Scott’s father says, “It’s nothing like that orange glop Americans call French dressing.” Instead, it’s an emulsion of Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, olive oil and canola oil.

Marrying into this New England WASP family, I also learned that they ate salad almost every meal, something I previously never could fathom wanting to do. But with Mom MacLean’s salad, which I gobble up each visit, I think, “I could live like this.”

Alas, I am no longer among the 3 skinniest girls in my grade, and eating a lot of salad is what will prevent me from becoming one of the 3 heaviest girls in my grade. In early January, I experienced an epiphany—a fried egg on salad greens is amazing! The yolk gushes out and becomes part of the creamy dressing—it’s much better than hard-boiled eggs. As proof, when I offered a fried egg salad to my kids (when they had the option to not eat at all), the fried egg made them volunteer to eat salad.

Incorporating some of Mom MacLean’s tips here’s my philosophy of superb leafy green salad: Great salad looks beautiful to the eye with a riot of colors, has an amalgam of all the flavors—salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, and also presents a wide variety of textures—crunchy, creamy, smooth, chewy. To achieve this:

1. Use dark green greens, both for nutrition and taste: arugula, baby spinach, romaine, spring mix. Pre-washed packaged greens in those clamshell boxes or bags make life easier since I really hate washing lettuce. I hope recycling the plastic counters buying plastic in the first place.

2. Make sure the greens are as dry as possible—this lets the salad dressing stick instead of slide off, keeps them from getting slimy, and means you can use less dressing. A salad spinner is a must, or just use them straight from the package without washing

3. Add an allium—something from the onion family to give the salad some bite—scallions, red onions, grilled onions, caramelized onions, Vidalia onions, you choose—I usually do red onions, and in the summer, grilled red onions.

4. Add some supporting veggies, either cooked or raw, the more color contrast the better: red peppers either roasted or raw, grape tomatoes, shredded carrots, sliced mushrooms (or garlicky sautéed ones are extra yummy), fennel, beets.

5. Add a fruit—chopped apple, pear, orange slices, mandarin oranges for an Asian salad, pomegranate seeds, peaches, mango, strawberries, blueberries, anything goes (just have never tried banana and probably never want to)

6. Add something creamy & fatty but be careful! This is where the calories go up. My creamy favorite is avocado, but this is where you can also go with cheese like goat, feta, blue, cheddar, parmesan, romano, etc. I try to go for cheese with maximum flavor because a little goes a long way.

7. Add something chewy—I usually use raisins or craisins

8. Add something crunchy—I usually use nuts, but croutons are the classic in Caesar salad. Once again, this is where excess calories can happen

9. Lightly dress the whole thing with a vinegar and oil based dressing (for ease, I use Good seasons and switch vinegars to make life interesting—balsamic is especially good), tossing thoroughly and gently so a little dressing goes a long way.

10. If it’s a meal, add some protein if you like—grilled chicken, shrimp, leftover steak, pork, tofu, egg, cheese.

Try the fried egg!

French Dressing

1 Tbs. Dijon mustard

1 Tbs. red wine vinegar (or balsamic if you want a sweeter dressing)

2 Tbs. olive oil

2 Tbs. canola oil

Whisk all together. Do not overdress! Lightly drizzle some on, toss, and drizzle more if you need it.

1 comment:

The Hildenbrand Family said...

This is cool! I grew up with Scott's mum's vinaigrette -- don't think my Mum has ever bought salad dressing in her life, and this is cheaper and easier. We usually use balsamic, and I occasionally substitute a bit of crushed garlic for the seeded mustard (it's strong, but it keeps colds away!). I also only recently realised that my favourite American salad (greens, craisins, blue cheese and toasted walnuts with balsamic vinaigrette) is really just a variation on the waldorf salad. That explains the whole U.S. fruit/nut/cheese thing in salads (which I think is an awesome idea). Still can't make the kids eat salad tho... Have to try the fried egg!