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According to The Joy of Cooking, the culinary bible of modern America, the term “salad” originally referred to the edible parts of various herbs and plants dressed solely with salt. Although leafy salad greens have been a part of the world’s great cuisines for centuries, the modern salad—as we know it—was virtually unheard of in the United States until the early 1900s, and uninspired until the second half of the 20th century.
Thanks to the health-food craze of the ’60s, spa cuisine in the ’70s, nouvelle cuisine in the ’80s and the organic movement in the ’90s, salads have come of age. The legacy of iceberg lettuce, cucumber and tomato salads has been replaced with far more exotic and diverse options.
Aromatic mesclun greens—salad mixes made from young, tender arugula, chicory, assorted chard and mustard greens, endive, frisée, kale, sorrel, radicchio and other exotic leaves—add nutrients and brighten the salad bowl.
To add interest to your salad greens, consider using yellow pear tomatoes, orange cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes or a purple heirloom variety. For a sweeter flavor, add seasonal fresh berries, sectioned and sliced citrus fruits, cored and sliced apples, pears or dried fruits, or sun-dried tomatoes. For a deliciously crunchy texture, add thinly sliced or grated radishes, shaved slices of fennel bulb, or a sprinkle of lightly toasted nuts or seeds. Garnish with fragrant fresh herbs or edible flowers, minced scallions, chives or parsley and you’ll have a tantalizing blend of bold flavors and textures.
Who says salads have to be raw? You can add substance and staying power to a simple side salad by adding roasted or grilled onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, parsnips, beets, broccoli, cauliflower or potatoes. Or take your salad to the next level by adding cooked fish, poultry, lean meat, seasoned tofu or beans to transform a side dish into a wholesome and satisfying meal.
Clean Those Greens!
Nothing spoils a salad faster than grit. Neglect thorough cleaning and you’ll leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. First, strip away any wilted or shaggy outer leaves. Next, separate the leaves and toss them into a large bowl or sink filled with cold water. Swish for 30 to 60 seconds, then swish and remove the leaves one at a time, placing in a colander—don’t pour them into the colander or the dirt will follow them. Repeat with fresh water until no traces of sand remain on the leaves or in the bottom of the bowl. Spinach, arugula and parsley may require three or four rinses.
Do you need to clean your prewashed greens? Yes! Although most growers double or triple wash young, tender mixes, to be on the safe side you should always wash them at home and use a salad spinner to dry all the leaves. Many farmers dry greens in an old washing machine (hardly a sanitary piece of equipment) using the spin cycle.
It’s important to dry your greens thoroughly—wet salad greens spoil prematurely in the fridge. They also repel salad dressing, leaving an oily pool in the bottom of the bowl. A salad spinner will prevent both problems. To use a salad spinner, fill the basket no more than half-full with washed greens. Cover the spinner. Pump the top or pull the string several times. If water collects in the bottom, remove the lid and basket and pour out the water. Repeat several times until the leaves feel fairly dry. Next, tear a piece of unbleached paper towel in half and slip it under the leaves in the bottom of the basket. Spin again to wick away excess moisture. Now your leaves are ready to use or store.
If you need to wash more salad greens than will fit in your spinner, wash and spin smaller batches of greens and gently stuff the clean, dry greens into a cotton or linen drawstring bag or place them in the center of a clean dish towel; fold the edges to cover and store in the fridge until ready to use. You also can store washed salad greens in the spinner on the top shelf of the refrigerator for several days. Both methods eliminate the need for plastic containers and bags.
Tear with Care
Salad greens bruise easily. Leave young, tender baby greens whole. Tear or gently cut mature leaf lettuces into bite-size pieces. Slice romaine and other firm lettuces close to serving time to avoid bruising and discoloration. Slices of firmer vegetables (radishes, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, scallions and parsley) will last for a few days; store in jars (do not add water) in the fridge. Use chopped celery or jicama within 24 to 48 hours; they discolor quickly.
Rachel Albert-Matesz, a food and health writer, healthy cooking coach and co-author of the award-winning book The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004) lives in Phoenix. For more information about her book, classes and services, visit www.TheGardenOfEatingDiet.com.