One of my favorite elements of a multi-course meal is the salad. At our house we eat it after the main course—a fun bit of gastronomic protocol that the French taught us. Or was it the Italians?
It doesn’t seem like such a challenge, but really, how do you make a simple bowl of fresh greens something reliably mouth-pleasingly yummy and savory? It’s a two-part answer: choose crisp greens, and make a memorable dressing.
This evening’s salad consists of Boston Bibb (one of my favorites; love the subtle sweetness) and endives (with a nice contrasting bitterness). But really, any greens work. I look for the freshest leaves the veggie isle can offer up.
And now the dressing, which is the primary focus of today’s labor of love. We are creating a classic vinaigrette, but with some twists. The building blocks of a vinaigrette are acid and oil. On this one we’re using a basic red vinegar and olive oil. Garlic, shallots, and mustard contribute additional flavor.
Here’s our first little trick: how to avoid having our dinner guests bite into sharp little chunks of garlic in our salad. Particularly if he/she is our date for the night. The secret is pulp. So, mince a clove of garlic, add a teaspoon of salt and then smash both—to a pulp!—with the edge of a heavy kitchen knife. At the end of your effort you want to have a paste-like texture, as shown in the photo above.
Now put the garlic and salt mixture in a small bowl. Add some ground pepper, two or three tablespoons of vinegar, and one tablespoon of mustard (and not just any mustard, but a sharp Dijon, please).
And one last water-soluble component—something sweet. A little sweetness enhances all the other components of this dressing. We’ll provide the magic this time with a tablespoon of maple syrup. But you could also use honey, sugar, or agave juice—you get the idea.
It is important that that all water-soluble ingredients get mixed first. The mustard part of the water-soluble portion will act as an ambassador in the next step, creating an easy emulsion with the oil, resulting in a thick and creamy dressing. So now drizzle in that oil, about 6 tablespoons. As always, taste as you go! The dressing should taste distinctly sharp and spicy. In the end I add a finely-minced shallot.
Dress the salad just seconds before you serve it. For a low-frills weeknight dinner we serve the salad on our dinner plates. This allows us to mix and mingle the last of the main course’s chicken juice (or was that the sauce from the strip steak?). A simple-pleasures treat. You might want to try it with my best roasted chicken.
Yack yack yack. Who would have thought a guy needs to write a dissertation on such a simple thing as a green salad? (I always say, once you’ve written one…) Please excuse my academic extremism here; you’ll see the effort is worth it.