When I was a kid, “salad” meant one thing to me: iceberg lettuce drenched in fluorescent orange Kraft Creamy French Dressing. Catalina, a red French and my mother’s favorite, would do in a pinch, or maybe Italian. But I was devoted to the slightly chemical tang of my orange dressing. In restaurants, before choosing between soup and salad, I displayed my discriminating taste by solemnly inquiring of the waiter, “Is that a red French or an orange French?” If it was red French, I’d take the soup.
Even my grandmother – a good cook in her day, but hardly a culinary sophisticate – mocked my salad. “That’s not salad,” she would say, “that’s just lettuce.”
No, Grandma, that was an excuse to eat as much bottled salad dressing as I could get away with. THIS salad is “just lettuce.” Just beautiful lettuce, slicked lightly with olive oil, perked up with lemon, and enhanced with salt and a tiny bit of pepper. If you’re lucky enough to have perfect baby lettuces from the farmer’s market or thinned from your own garden, this is what you want to do with them.
|Straight from my front-yard garden boxes!|
The method I use for this extremely simple salad is, once again, borrowed from Crescent Dragonwagon. “The Salad” appears in both Soup & Bread, where it is written up in traditional recipe format, and The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, where it appears as a seven-page treatise on perfect salad making titled “The Salad: The Most Important Recipe in This Book.”
When I first encountered this recipe/method, I was still wedded to bottled dressing. I had branched out to the exotic Blue Cheese and dallied occasionally with Ranch, but hadn’t advanced to Goddess yet, much less Green Goddess, and was well over a decade from my current stance of homemade dressing whenever possible. (I confess, I have backslid from “only homemade dressing” – my fridge usually holds a bottle of Annie’s Goddess, or Greek or Ranch from Dion’s, a local pizza chain.)
But as my tastes changed and my salad making grew more sophisticated, I remembered that salad treatise. Its first “secret” is this: Only the Best Ingredients. Do I always have the very best ingredients? Of course not. Less-than-ideal lettuce I still throw in a bowl with whatever other vegetables, nuts, etc I have on hand, and top with dressing. But when I have gorgeous lettuce to showcase, this is what I do with it.
This salad is all about making the lettuce as alive, as perfectly glowingly itself, as possible. You’re not covering up the lettuce, but enhancing it. Eat it mindfully; appreciate the beautiful colors (shades and veins of green and purple and yellow and rose), textures (crisp, soft, delicate), and flavors (sweet, bitter, tangy). This kind of perfection doesn’t last long; prepare the salad immediately before carrying it to the table.
Baby Lettuce Salad with Lemon and Olive Oil
A cup or two of perfectly fresh baby lettuce per person
About 1/2 teaspoon excellent olive oil per cup of lettuce (lemon-infused oil is lovely)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon, halved
Chilled plates or bowls
Optional: small clove garlic, dash Worcestershire sauce, small amount of cheese, thinly sliced radishes or other fresh seasonal ingredients
Wash your lettuce very well. I usually leave it to soak in cool water for 15 minutes or so – it can soak for quite a while as you prepare other things – then lift it from the water into the perforated bowl of a salad spinner, leaving any dirt and grit in the soaking bowl.
Dry the lettuce scrupulously. If you don’t have a salad spinner, you can use one of Dragonwagon’s inspirations: place the lettuce in a clean pillowcase, go outside, and whirl it around your head. The neighbors may think you’re crazy, but they likely do already, and it’s fun and effective. If you have a spinner, spin the lettuce, drain the bowl, fluff the leaves with your hands, and spin again.
Get out a bowl that seems excessively large, so you have lots of tossing room. If you like and your greens are sturdy enough to take it, add a small clove of garlic, minced or pressed, or rub the bowl with half a clove of garlic. Put the lettuce in the bowl. Drizzle with the oil, starting with a little bit less than you think you’ll need.
I’m not one of those cooks who wants her hands in every mixture, but for both pleasure and delicacy, it’s important to toss this salad with your hands. Gently do so until each leaf glistens with oil. You want them just slicked, fully sealed with oil so the vinegar and salt won’t wilt the lettuce, but not dripping.
Sprinkle in some coarse salt and grind in a little pepper, to taste. Toss again. Squeeze in some lemon juice – about half the quantity of oil – through a strainer to catch the seeds. (Or just squeeze the lemon straight in and pick out the seeds with your fingers.) Toss again. Taste. Add more salt, pepper, oil, or lemon, if it needs it, and a drop or two of Worcestershire sauce if you want. Toss again.
Portion your perfect salad onto chilled plates (if you remembered to chill them – I often forget, darn it!) and top with just a little bit of feta or other cheese, a few thinly sliced radishes or pea pods or cherry tomatoes, or just another little sprinkle of salt and pepper. Rush to the table and enjoy right away.