Vegetables. Even the word is high-maintenance. Other food groups have simple, iconic, one-syllable names, like Cher. Fruit. Meat. Bread. Cheese. You expect me to chew my way through the entirety of “vegetable”? I’m already exhausted.
Salad can be such a bummer. Bad salad tastes like licking a hedge clipper and feels like a punishment, and yet people eat it all the time.
I used to bring those pre-washed bagged salad mixes to school as preteen, as if middle school isn’t miserable enough already. Stabbing a plastic fork into a bag of tough, bitter “spring mix” covered in enough ranch to kill a horse is a sensation I think we should all leave behind us as we age, like Linkin Park and studded belts.
Really good salads are usually full of things that aren’t salad – meats and croutons and cheeses and interesting nuts. You think people are going to Sweetgreen for the kale?
And listen, I’ve made a Sweetgreen harvest bowl at home from scratch. Technically, it’s possible. But by hour 4, after roasting a chicken and two sweet potatoes, making brown rice, chopping apples and massaging kale and sprinkling chopped almonds and forgetting to not eat the goat cheese, I’ve determined that only Olympic athletes and the guy from Free Solo have the stamina to do this on a regular basis.
Actually delicious, lick-the-bowl-clean make-at-home salad is possible, and it doesn’t involve trying to keep an entire 50-garnish salad bar alive in your fridge.
People disrespect the humble side salad because most of us buy, again, a pre-washed bag of spring mix or baby spinach. (Why. I mean, I know why. Because it’s “easier”. But is it actually easier if you actively hate eating it?) Then we dump some bottled dressing on it, or douse it in oil and vinegar.
You can’t outrun a sad salad with just the power of dressing. Believe me, I’ve tried. If you lean too hard on dressing your salad will swivel all the way back around to gross, like leaning on a trick bookcase in a Scooby Doo murder mansion.
Good salad dressing makes vegetables taste more like themselves – sweeter, fresher, crisper, juicier, crunchier. Good dressing makes a plate of chopped lettuce, shaved carrot, celery, cucumber and herbs as refreshing as frosted chilled glass of your preferred beverage du jour.
The salad I bring before you today is not the only good salad, or the only right dressing, or even the easiest. What it is is a gateway salad. It’s a salad to make you interested in eating other raw, dressed vegetables for fun and (probably not) profit, in a way that doesn’t make you hate them or yourself or Paul Newman.
Salad is a balancer – it cuts the heat, it brings the contrast, it cleanses the palate, it makes you feel better about that third slice of onion tart. Salad is a grease merkin, by which I mean it covers a multitude of scalloped-potato-based sins and lets you get away with some shocking stuff. It’s a delicious get-out-of-heartburn-free card. You should be able to have a simple, delectable plate of lightly dressed leaves to go with your takeout pizza any night of the week, one that is cherished rather than immediately thrown in the disposal.
This recipe comes from my mother, who lived in the South of France for a summer in the late 1960’s. This is her host mother’s recipe, and is therefore extremely chic and should only be eaten while wearing a patterned silk headscarf and muumuu and giant fuck-off shades. Not that we have ever done that. I’m just telling you the energy I want you to bring to this project.
It’s our go-to family recipe, and goes perfectly with everything from spaghetti and meatballs to the easy frittata to pizza to omelettes to literally anything: sweet, zingy, crunchy, fresh and spicy.
SIMPLE SUMMER SALAD + FRENCH VINAIGRETTE
Yield: The dressing makes tons, enough for a giant salad that feeds 8-12. So I usually make some and use over the course of two salads, half at a time. Make half and save half. The salad amounts are for just one salad, that feeds 2-4.
For the Dressing:
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced and mashed with salt
1 heaped teaspoon Dijon mustard (the more the better, in my opinion)
1 scant teaspoon sugar (and one of salt if you’re not doing the garlic)
1 tbsp warm water, OR PREFERABLY tomato juice (see below)
Black pepper to taste
5 tbsp oil of your choice. Ideally it should all be olive, but that can get expensive, so usually we go half and half with 2 tbsp olive oil and 3 of vegetable oil
For the Salad:
Like so many great dishes, salad is an exercise in texture and contrast. We’re painting with a limited palate here in order not to fall into the Sweetgreen Salad Exhaustion trap, so it’s just vegetables and maybe some fruits. Think about what you actually enjoy eating. What can you cull from Charcuterie for Bums and present to yourself in salad form?
1 head of lettuce, butter or Cobb. These have soft, sweet, tender leaves that work well as cups to hold the dressing.
Tomatoes, diced – whichever ones look best to you. I personally think raw tomatoes are extremely gross and taste like raw meat, but I know people love them. They have a super-secret special purpose in this recipe which means they are unskippable.
Awhile ago the NYT Cooking section did a piece about the most delicious salad dressing ever, and the key was 1 tsp of warm water. And that’s cute.
But what you need to do is, when you’re slicing your tomatoes, shuck the seeds ‘n’ inner goo out with your thumb and reserve them in a bowl. Sieve this liquid into your dressing, and voila: you get your teaspoon of water, PLUS flavor, PLUS a bunch of excellent vitamins, MINUS tomato pips. It really does make the dressing taste impossibly good.
Anyway, like 4-6 cherry tomatoes, or 2 medium-big roma/plum ones? Or more, if you actually enjoy eating them. My mother swears by blanching them to take the skins off so they’re less acidic, but I can’t emphasize enough how much I won’t be eating these tomatoes, so.
Carrots – just one medium-large one, peeled and then grated on the big-hole side of your box grater. You don’t want big chunks of crunchy carrot in this, you want juicy shreds of sweetness that melt into the bigger flavor picture.
Cucumber – about ½ of one, diced
Celery – 2 or 3 stalks, diced
HERBS – These are extra credit, but the more you have, the better. Sweet, soft herbs are best: Parsley and basil are the classics, but you could do chives or cilantro. Stay away from strong flavors like thyme, tarragon or dill, and don’t go for woody herbs like rosemary or sage. If you don’t have herbs at all, don’t worry, it’ll still be great.
If you want to take this in a sweeter direction, leave out the garlic and add in a grated green apple and some wheatberries that have been soaked overnight.
- Take all of the dressing ingredients minus the oil and whisk together briskly – either with a whisk in a small bowl, or in a food processor, or, if you’re really feeling lucky, punk, in the bottom of your salad bowl with a fork like a real 1970’s French housewife. (only do that last bit if you are making the giant 8-12 person salad)
- Add the oils gradually to the dressing as you whisk it, it should emulsify and turn a creamy light yellow. People get freaked out about vinaigrettes not emulsifying, which I get, but this one uses mustard which helps things along and stops things getting weird. If you have to let the dressing sit and it separates, just whisk it up again and it should come together no problem.
- Taste the dressing for salt and pepper – don’t worry if it seems really zingy, it’s got to cover a lot of veg.
- Put your chopped and grated vegetables (the gubbins – which I always thought was my mum’s word for “good bits” but is in fact an actual British English word. Wild.) in the bottom of your salad bowl and cover with a scant half of the dressing, mix well.
- Wash and tear up your lettuce into bite-size leaves. At this point you can just put the lettuce over the rest of the salad in the bowl and leave it for up to half an hour, if you have other stuff to cook/people aren’t ready to eat it yet.
- When you are ready to eat, mix everything together really well. The leaves should just be shiny with a light coating of dressing, but you can obviously add more to taste.
- Save the rest of the dressing for another salad at a later date. It keeps for about a week, covered in the fridge.
- Speaking of keeping things for later, everyone knows that leftover salad turns immediately to slime, but this one does have a workaround. If you eat all of the leafy stuff the first night but have gubbins left over, they should be good for another round the next day with fresh leaves.