Monday, September 1, 2008

Get dressed quickly but carefully

I had lunch at a restaurant today. The salad was made of lettuce still glistening with water, along with shredded carrots and a few cucumber slices. The weak dressing was on the side. As I bit into this concoction it occurred to me that many people don't care for salads because this is what they think they are. Yet even in a restaurant, even with average cooks with little time, they can be much more.

"God is in the details", they say. I think cooking is in the details. Small details, just a matter of paying attention.

My mother first told me about salads. She told me to use a wooden salad bowl and olive oil, because olive oil does not get rancid, whereas other vegetable oils do. Actually, olive oil does go rancid. The various so-called experts seem to disagree on whether the use of olive oil to "season" a wooden salad bowl is good practice. I think the best bet is to use food-grade mineral oil for seasoning an unfinished bowl but go ahead and use olive oil in your salads. Do a quick wash and dry after eating up the salad and let the bowl air dry. Never put wooden bowls (or utensils) in the dishwasher.

My stepmother took me farther into the salad creation world, showing me how to create a classic dressing. She made this salad every day that I knew her and I doubt anyone eating it ever tired of it.

If you have a wooden bowl you can use this method for making a simple classic salad (scroll down farther for the quicker version, though; this is vegan convenient, after all):

Smash a clove of garlic with a large chef's knife (or with some kind of garlic crusher). Place it in the wooden salad bowl. Use a wooden spoon to smash it up more in there. Add salt - 1/2 to 1 tsp, more if you like - and use it as a grinder to grind the garlic more.

Add about a teaspoon or more of dry mustard, grind that together a bit, then pour in olive oil. The standard formula calls for three parts oil to one part vinegar; let your own taste be your guide (you can adjust later). So start with about 1/4 c extra virgin olive oil. Smash the garlic and mustard, salt, and oil around the bowl until it is an opaque blend. There can be bits of garlic lying around. If you want to take out some of those bits go ahead. Depends on your love of garlic.

Whisk in 1/8 c red wine vinegar, or less. Taste, add pepper, adjust seasonings.

To make the salad:

Use prewashed baby spinach, romaine, or other good quality greens. Iceberg lettuce is useless for nutrition and has no flavor. If these greens are wet for some reason dry them with a clean dish towel. This is one of those steps that really do matter. Wet salad greens do not a great salad make. Tear the greens into the bowl. Add any other ingredients you like, but if you use tomatoes or other similarly watery vegetables, remove the watery seeds first so you don't dilute the taste.

Take wooden salad forks and toss, coating the ingredients with the dressing from the bottom of the bowl.


Put 1 clove garlic, 1 tsp dry mustard, 1/3 c red wine vinegar, 2/3 c extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper in blender. Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Tear fresh dry greens into bowl. Add as much dressing as you prefer, and toss together. Serve.

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