Sometimes, we tend to overcomplicate things. Like salad. Following some simple salad guidelines lets you turn out good side salads every day. I am reminded of this every time I see the myriad bottled dressings at the grocery store that I mostly manage to live without. I admit to being partial to few, like Brianna’s French Vinaigrette (Amazon) and Hidden Valley Ranch (how pedestrian, but so good!–updated to add that I now make my own Ranch dressing as well!) but they are the exception rather than the rule.
I grew up with a green salad on the table nearly every night and see bottled dressings as a luxury. We didn’t have any dressings other than my Mom’s oil and vinegar, which she mixed with some paprika, dry mustard, a dash of sugar, salt and pepper… I’m not sure what else. She just mixed it up in a teacup and poured it on the salad, then tossed it. There was always lettuce, chopped carrots and celery and then an extra or two, maybe black or green olives, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm after our El Salvador visit, chopped tomatoes or cherry tomatoes in season, green onions… We ate the salad at the end of the meal, after the main course. That’s what we filled up on. Yet somehow I sometimes forget how simple it all can be.
I had bought a copy of How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart a few years back and just pulled it out again recently. I was so re-enthused by what I read that I bought my sister a copy. My original love affair with it started with Anderson’s formulas for soup and lo mein. My sister was down for a visit this weekend and I gave the book to her as a “just because” gift (my favorite kind!). Last night, she sat reading it while I practiced my fiddle before dinner. I had a Cuban pork roast in the oven with some baked potatoes. She decided she wanted to try Anderson’s “Whack and Toss Salad” non-recipe because she likes some variety in her salads but feels like she gets stuck in a rut and buys too many salad dressings as the means to relieve the rut. We settled on a mix of baby greens and romaine lettuces, some hearts of palm, and an orange from my tree, peeled and chopped, along with some shaved Parmesan. The oranges suffered from the freeze but are still okay to eat, just not as juicy and tart as they were prior.
Anderson’s directions are so simple that most of you may laugh, but sometimes some of us need to be reminded that simple is good. I have learned that in soups sometimes less is more and I believe the same to be true of salads. If I’m not sure what I’m doing I tend to keep adding ingredients, but last night we kept it pretty simple and it was one of the best salads! Like my favorite soups of the past, a few good ingredients is better than a mish mash of too many.
Pam Anderson’s Salad Guidelines
The rules of thumb scattered throughout this book are what makes it a real lesson in how to “cook without a book.” So for salads, for example, she suggests 1 1/2 cups of lettuce per person. And each heart of romaine tends to yield about 4 cups so you don’t really need to measure. Supplement with other greens if you like, as we did with the spring mix I’d purchased the other day.
Put the greens in a bowl. Add 2-3 “extras” and toss. Drizzle about 1 Tbs of olive oil per serving, sprinkle salt and pepper on it, then toss. She suggests using spring-loaded tongs which seem to work quite nicely, although I’d never used them for that before. The ingredients should be lightly coated with oil when you’re done and taste like they have as much salt and pepper as you like. If the lettuce is not lightly coated with oil, drizzle a bit more on and toss again. Add more salt or pepper as needed. At this point, you can be done if it tastes good to you. If you’ve used some acidic extras like in-season tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, or beets you may already have enough acidity. If not, drizzle some vinegar onto the salad and toss again. We used balsamic vinegar last night but you could use red wine or white wine vinegar or even lemon juice. Toss again and taste. Adjust as needed.
Her list of extras is inspiring. I’ll list a few of my favorites:
- dried sweetened cranberries
- toasted nuts (walnuts or sunflower seeds being my favorites)
- cheese (blue cheese, feta, Parmesan, goat cheese, even small cubes of Cheddar)
- chickpeas or kidney beans
- olives of your favorite variety
and of course the usual vegetables:
- sliced mushrooms
- bell peppers
- red onion (especially good with oranges!)
And of course if you have a bit of leftover bacon or a hard boiled egg, those make great extras!
Remember though, just pick two or three and keep it simple!