I have a copy of the classic tome Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine, and Cookery, by Prosper Montagné. It's written in a deliciously snooty Euro-crusty tone, with recipes that can take weeks to prepare. Salad, meanwhile, is relatively simple and quick, and its preparation is infinitely flexible. Montagné defines salad as a dish "made up of herbs, plants, vegetables, eggs, fish, and meat, seasoned with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, with or without other ingredients."
While Montagné confirms that you can make a salad out of practically anything, there is a huge difference between raw things and cooked things. Today, I'm talking about salad that is raw and green, whose ingredients are in-season and alive, right here, right now. Montagné addresses this type of salad by quoting gastronaut Brillat-Savarin, who declared that a leafy salad "freshens without enfeebling, and fortifies without irritating."
These words resonate profoundly in my belly as I sit here digesting the aftermath of a rite of summer, a creamed combination of items cleaned from my freezer: smoked salmon, corn, and basil paste, cooked with bacon, potatoes, garlic, and onions - what I call "Freezerburn Chowder." It tastes good at the time, but now in the heat of the afternoon I feel like I could sleep for 100 years.
Indeed, food is about much more than how it tastes. It's about how you feel after you swallow. In this respect, it's tough to beat raw foods. And interestingly, what really brought out the flavor in my Freezerburn Chowder was the final garnish of cilantro and red onion, whose raw, living vigor cut through the heavy cream like the first dandelion sprouts of spring.
Speaking of which, many wild greens - often considered weeds - can add nicely to a salad if they're picked in the young pre-bitter state before they flower, preferably from a shady spot. Dandelion, lamb's quarter, purslane, even young thistle. Just be careful that you know what you're eating and seek advice if not.
I used to think that salad was a good thing to eat at the end of a meal, when I'm too full to keep eating but I don't want to stop chewing. Indeed, one challenge in making a full meal of salad is finding a way to fill your belly with it. But with enough extras on top, a salad can deliver complete satisfaction. And you can always serve it with bread.
When my dad makes a salad, the whole world stops. He enters a blissfully meditative state that would make the Buddha blush green. When Dad makes a salad, people rearrange their schedules to partake, waiting patiently as he carefully prepares and assembles the parts.
First he washes the lettuce, a combination of Romaine and Greenleaf, before cutting it into bite-sized chunks and spinning it dry in a salad spinner. He washes watercress and a small amount of Belgian endive, patting dry with a towel and then chopping.
He combines these leaves in a large wooden bowl and then tosses in a clove or two of pressed raw garlic to coat the leaves - this is very important! If you are a garlic lightweight, try rubbing the inside of the salad bowl with the cut end of half a clove instead.
Dad's dressing is a vinaigrette of two parts oil to one part balsamic vinegar, with a little salt. For the oil, he blends a mixture of olive, safflower, and canola oils. He tosses the leaves in this and then tosses in tomato wedges (or cherry tomatoes cut in half), avocado wedges, and chopped onion.
He serves kalamata olives and feta cheese separately in bowls. If you toss these goodies in, they will end up swimming in vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl, so it's better to sprinkle them atop the tossed salad. This way, each eater can personally administer the goodies.
Dad's salad is a perfectly balanced symphony of living flavor, the product of many years of ritual and refinement. I love it when I go home, but on my own I'm not so set in my ways. I let what's available dictate what's in the salad rather than shop for the same specific ingredients. I'll throw in snap peas, or cucumber, or spinach. You can't go wrong with salad mix, also known as mesclun mix, available these days almost everywhere they sell lettuce. I also play around with different types of oil and vinegar - mixing balsamic with cider or wine vinegar, for example - while keeping the oil/vinegar ratio roughly at 2:1. In the goodie department, I like pickled peppers and smoked salmon in addition to olives and feta. Whatever I do, I never skip the garlic.
After a meal of salad, your digestive juices will flow happily along as they distribute the raw life energy of salad. Freshened rather than enfeebled, fortified rather than irritated, you'll be able to skip that food coma and stay awake to enjoy every last drop of summer.