Monday, June 11, 2012

the rules of salad

As soon as the weather turns warm, my mind turns to salads. (And cute sandals.)

You might not think a salad is special or substantial enough for a dinner party, but I want to change your mind about that. Look at this salad, it served four people generously and isn't it pretty? It made a beautiful centerpiece. Which was handy because I was lazy and didn't buy flowers at the bodega.

A big salad is an excellent thing to serve company, if you keep a few things in mind. After the jump: Lisa's Dinner Party Salad Recommendations. (Aren't you curious?)

1. Make it Interesting
This goes without saying, but you can't serve a bowl of lettuce and call it a day. Go crazy and put all kinds of things in your salad -- vegetables, fruits, olives, cooked grains, rustic croutons, fried capers, pickled onions. Just maybe not all at once. That would be gross. I think five to six ingredients keep things interesting without going overboard.

2. Add a Protein
This is key. Even if you're serving vegetarians, you need to get some protein in there. Some ideas: toasted walnuts, feta cheese, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, fried chickpeas, anchovies, lentils, leftover roasted chicken, canned salmon, prosciutto, grilled steak. Bonus points for including two or more proteins. The recipe for the salad above called for fried almonds and hard-boiled eggs, but I wanted to make sure everyone left the table feeling full, so I added some sauteed shrimp. I also made a cheese plate to round out the meal.
3. Skip the Lettuce (or Don't)
Salads don't have to include lettuce. Think about replacing leafy greens with a starch like big croutons (as in a panzanella) or a cooked and cooled grain like rice, Israeli couscous or farro. Or just double up on the other vegetables. Or add a hard or semi-soft cheese. Everyone loves cheese!

4. No Raw Onions
I hate raw onions and you probably do too. But onions, especially red onions, add flavor and color, so you don't want to forget them completely. To remove their sting and smell, do a quick pickle by placing your chopped onions in a little bowl of vinegar (10 minutes is all you need), or soak them in ice water for 10 minutes.

5. Color, Taste and Texture
Interesting colors, flavors and textures are what make a salad memorable. Think about ingredients that complement each other and others that provide contrast. In my salad, we've got crunchy fried almonds and raw bell peppers, sweet shrimp, grassy parsley and an acidic viniagrette. Mouth watering? Good.

6. Make Your Dressing from Scratch
Not to be snobby, but salad dressing from a bottle is never as good as homemade. And homemade takes two whole minutes (or less) to make. You really only need three ingredients: an acid, some oil and a pinch of salt. I am partial to red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, but sometimes I use lemon juice. A good ratio is one part acid to two to three parts oil, depending on how assertive you like your dressing.

7. Dress At the Last Minute
The salad, not your clothes. Nobody likes a soggy salad so toss your ingredients at the very last minute. Your guests have drinks in their hands (or they should, anyway), they can wait.

8. Serve On a Platter
A salad in a bowl just isn't as appealing as one presented on a big platter. A platter lets you see all of the components easily, so you know what you're eating, and it also makes the salad seem like the main event, rather than a side dish. Place it in the middle of the table and let that salad sell itself.

Pepper and Green Bean Salad with Fried Almonds and Shrimp
Very slightly adapted from Salad for Dinner, a great new cookbook by Tasha DeSerio. Highly recommended.
(Serves 4)

Kosher salt
3/4 pound thin green beans, stem ends trimmed
2 1/2 tablespoons sherry or red-wine vinegar, or a combination, more as needed
1/2 cup, plus 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup blanched slivered almonds
3/4 pound sweet red or orange Gypsy or bell peppers, halved, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
1/4 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
ground pepper
4 large handfuls frisee (pale center leaves) washed and dried
1 1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half.

Bring a pot of water to boil and season generously with salt; it should taste almost like seawater. Add the beans to the boiling water and cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Drain the beans, and rinse with cold water until they are cool. Set aside.

Put the red onion in a small bowl and cover with ice water to crisp and remove some of its hot gassy flavor. Set aside.

To make the vinaigrette, combine the vinegar and a pinch of salt in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup olive oil. Taste and adjust with more vinegar or salt if needed. Set aside.

To cook the shrimp, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil to a medium saute pan. Sprinkle the shrimp with salt and pepper and when the oil is hot, add them to the pan. Cook for about two to three minutes on each side, or until the shrimp are pink and cooked through. Set the shrimp aside.

Wipe the pan clean and heat to medium high. Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil and the slivered almonds. Fry the almonds, tossing or stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and season with salt.

Drain the onion well. Put the green beans, peppers, onion and parsley in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Gently but thoroughly toss the salad with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the vegetables. Taste and add more salt or vinegar if necessary. Add the frisee and almonds to the bowl, seasoning lightly with salt, and lightly toss again, adding just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Taste once more for salt and acid.

Plate the salad on a big platter and top with the hard-boiled eggs and shrimp. Serve immediately.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

I love all these tips - I use and abuse them often (especially the lettuce one; why do I prefer lettuce-free salads?) but to see them all bundled together really gets the point home.

Anonymous said...

Guilty as charged: #6, #7 and #8.
I need to go to Salad Reform School.

Lisa said...

Thanks, Case!

Daniel said...

Salad rules are made to be broken, Donna! Don't let the Salad Man run your life!

(That said, this recipe makes a mean salad.)

Anonymous said...

Ok,watch out for your bare foot server, Carmine Miranda!

Anonymous said...

Lisa said: Dan, Don't encourage her!


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