North Fork Chef: The art of a great salad

Give me the lettuce that has cooled
Its heart in the rich earth,
Till every joyous leaf is schooled
To crisply crinkled mirth;

Give me the mustard and the cress,
Whose glistening stalklets stand
As silver white as nymphs by night
Upon the coral strand;

The wayward tomato’s glorious head,
Cool cucumber sliced small;
And let the imperial beetroot spread
Her crimson over all.

excerpts from ‘A Ballad of Salad’
by Dylan Thomas

In the beginning of the 20th century, America began a long experience with what is now referred to as “scientific cooking.” The study of nutrition and how foods affected the body was emerging and the home economics movement introduced the notion of control over menus and ingredients that led to a new way of thinking about food. The calorie, the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree centigrade, became a popular way of measuring food intake. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates became part of the conversation. Slowly we came to the realization that greens and raw vegetables contributed to a healthy diet, but they had to be presented in an orderly fashion.

“The object of scientific salad-making was to subdue the raw greens until they bore as little resemblance as possible to their natural state.” (“Perfection Salad,” by Laura Shapiro, 1986)

Salads became popular among the upper and middle classes during the 1900s. “Any preparation that could be served on a lettuce leaf was a salad, and dishes that once would have been treated as savories or desserts took on new importance and dignity as salads; hard boiled egg yolks mashed with mayonnaise, formed into balls and rolled in cottage cheese were called a Golf Salad. …” (“Perfection Salad”).

As the century progressed, we discovered that iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges and sliced cucumber coated with a processed bottled dressing were both convenient and satisfactory to most people. In restaurants we graduated to the salad bar with its many choices of toppings and dressings. Today we realize that eating fresh greens, vegetables and fruits with as little processing as possible and as close to harvest (and home) as possible is not only good nutrition, but an important part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. The role of the chef is to turn these ingredients into modern art, not contrived or forced, but appealing to the senses of taste, texture, color and enjoyment.

Sarah Miller’s Tossed Green Salad
Place one package of pre-washed mesclun greens in a salad bowl to chill. Peel and slice 1 cucumber, scraping out the seeds with a teaspoon and slicing into quarter-inch pieces. Peel, core and cut into pieces 1 Granny Smith apple. Trim and slice 1 bunch of scallions and cut in half 1 container of grape tomatoes. Cut 1 ripe avocado in half, remove the pit, scoop out the flesh with a tablespoon and dice into small pieces. Sprinkle these with a teaspoon of lemon juice.
Set all garnishes aside and make the dressing as follows: Combine in a food processor 3/4 cup grapeseed oil, 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon chile oil, 3 tablespoons roasted pappitas and 1/4 teaspoon each of sea salt and pepper. Process until smooth and pour into a glass container. At service time add the garnishes to the mesclun along with about half the dressing. Toss and serve.
Serves 4-6.

Boston Lettuce, Raspberries
and Almonds
Remove the leaves from the core of 1 head of Boston lettuce. Rinse under cold water and dry in a salad spinner. Wrap the leaves in paper towels and refrigerate.
Place 1/2 cup sliced almonds in a dry sauté pan and cook on medium heat for 4 minutes and set aside. Rinse 1/2 pint of raspberries and set aside.
Combine in a small mason jar 2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons walnut oil, 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon each of sea salt and pepper. Close the jar and shake vigorously.
At service time, tear the lettuce leaves and place them in a bowl. Add half of the dressing and toss the salad before placing on serving dishes. Garnish with berries and almonds. Sprinkle with a little more dressing.
Serves 4.

Roasted Beets, Oranges
and Arugula
Trim off the stem and root from 1 bunch of red or mixed-color beets. Wash thoroughly and brush with canola oil. Place in a casserole and cover with foil. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until just cooked. Set aside to cool.
Make the dressing by combining in a Mason jar 1/2 cup walnut oil, 1/4 cup canola oil, the juice and zest from 1 orange, 1/4 cup sherry vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon minced shallots and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Place the lid on the jar and shake vigorously to blend.
Peel and slice 2 oranges into segments and set aside. Prepare roasted walnuts by placing 1/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder and 2 tablespoons honey in a saucepan along with 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil, add 1 cup walnut halves and cook until most of the liquid evaporates. Put the mixture on a small sheet pan and roast in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes.
Put 1 package of baby arugula in a salad bowl and add 1/4 cup of the dressing. Toss the salad and place on 4 individual salad plates. Toss 1/4 cup of the dressing with the beets and arrange on top of the arugula. Garnish with the orange segments and the candied walnuts.
Serves 4.
This recipe was adapted from a recipe in “Food to Live By” by Myra Goodman.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].