Every time I open one of the glossy food magazines, or look at an online food website and find a recipe for some kind of salad, I have the same thought: Why would anyone need a recipe for a salad; salads are one of the great opportunities, along with soups, stews and omelets, to be creative in the kitchen.
Salads don’t need recipes. They need inspiration and guidance.
This occurred to me yet again when the Southern California temperature bumped into three digits for the first time this year and Jennifer greeted the news with a request for “a salad for dinner.”
Now, this is unusual for two reasons:
1) Jennifer rarely makes a request for a dinner at home. For the last 30 plus years of our marriage I’ve done virtually all the cooking. Jennifer has been willing to trust me to create the menu. On occasion, if I was planning something new, I would ask if it was OK with her. And on even rarer occasions she would express a desire for “something chickeny”, or the likes.
2) Jennifer is not a salad eater. She almost never orders a salad in a restaurant, unless it’s the Caesar salad made tableside at de’ Medici Cucina Italiana in San Diego. When she orders a chopped salad in a restaurant, it’s a stunning moment.
The only deviations from these have been my home made entre dinner salads. Jennifer often tells people, “I’m not a salad eater, except for Larry’s salads.”
Jennifer likes busy salads. She likes them well tossed. She likes a salad moderately dressed. For my home made salads, she prefers spinach to any other greens. And she has an absolute aversion to “grit”, be it from spinach that isn’t properly washed, mushrooms, mussels, or anything else edible.
This time Jennifer’s request was timed perfectly with the farmers’ markets that dot the map of Los Angeles every Sunday. I set out in the morning to forage for the ingredients for this salad at the farmers’ market in Studio City, CA, not far from our home.
There’s a truism about my salads: there are no recipes. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same salad twice in all the years I’ve been putting together salads. I’ve probably used a hundred different ingredients in various combinations. I make my own dressing for each salad, unique from any previous or future dressing because I never use a measuring spoon or cup and I have a cupboard full of herbs and various oils and vinegars.
The following is a guide to the salad I did at Jennifer’s recent request. Rather than repeat it at every step, I’ll tell you at the start – adjust the proportions of everything in the dressing to your personal taste. The most important words in approaching the assembly of a salad are “to taste” and “about.”
A BUSY SPINACH SALAD (for Jennifer)
About 1/3 cup very high quality extra virgin olive oil
About 3 Tblsp very good balsamic vinegar
About 2 Tblsp chardonnay vinegar
About 2 tsp dried fine herbs
About ¼ tsp black pepper
9 oz. baby spinach
2 large tomatoes
1 medium size cucumber
5 white mushrooms
½ lb. bay shrimp
Put all the dressing ingredients in a bowl. Mix them together thoroughly. Taste it and adjust the ingredients to your taste. Let the mixture sit for at least an hour, more if possible, so the flavors can blend. Taste it again and adjust to taste if necessary.
Wash the spinach thoroughly to get rid of any grit. Change the water and wash again. Put the spinach in a large salad bowl.
Cut the tomatoes into bite size pieces and add them to the salad bowl.
Peel the cucumber. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scrape out the seeds. Slice the cucumber thinly. Add the cucumber to the salad bowl.
Wash the mushrooms thoroughly to remove all the dirt. If the mushrooms are on the small side, cut them in quarters. If they are little larger, cut them in half, put the two halves of the stems in the salad, then cut each half of the mushroom into thirds and add them to the salad.
Stir the dressing and pour it over the salad. Toss the salad thoroughly.
Add the shrimp and toss again.
Cut the avocado into half inch pieces and add to the salad bowl.
Slice in small slivers of onion. Toss again and serve.
This makes four hefty sized servings. Left overs will refrigerate well for the next day.
A nice crusty bread goes well with the salad and is handy for moping the dressing that remains in the plate after you’ve finished with the salad.
Some fun with the dressing
I prefer to start with a very high quality extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of grapeseed oil, or substitute grapeseed oil for the olive oil and vary the other ingredients accordingly.
If you are going to use balsamic vinegar make sure it’s top quality and well-aged. If you want to skip the balsamic use more of some kind of wine vinegar. For the wine vinegar I have interchanged chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, Champaign, or whatever others I may have had in the pantry at the time. The fine herbs give the salad a bit of a French touch. If you want something a little Italian, try oregano instead.
Some fun with the busy
Everything in this salad is expendable, replaceable and inter-changable. You can exchange romaine or butter lettuce for the spinach. At various times I have used garbanzo beans, pinto beans, boiled potatoes, roasted Japanese eggplant, roasted asparagus, toasted pine nuts, roasted squash, Mandarin orange slices, or anything else that struck my fancy.
There have been times when I’ve given the whole thing a final, hefty sprinkling of Romano or Parmesano cheese and a final toss to make the salad a bit creamier.
It is definitely becoming the time of year for salads for dinner. My husband is not a salad person, but that is what we want often, during the hot months. I use a variety of greens and a large variety of ingredients, but is always the dressing that is the headache. So, I have three questions: 1. What do you consider “very high quality” extra virgin olive oil, and where can I find it? I live in Valley Glen (S.F. Valley), just north of Grant High School. 2. Where do you find chardonnay or Champaign vinegars? 3. What do you consider “fine herbs?” Are they bottled or bagged as “dried fine herbs?” I like light dressings, and love using fresh lemon juice when I can. Any suggestions for a light dressing including lemon juice?
Olive oil is one of those “you get what you pay for” items. Most of what you find on the super market shelves is adulterated. For a moderate priced oil Colaveta is acceptable. The best olive oils will give you a burn at the back of your throat when tasted from a tea spoon. If you want to be adventuresome, go to the website for Corti Bros. market in Sacramento and see what you can find to have it shipped to you. There’s a very good olive oil tasting and sales facility in Pasadena. Let me track down the name and get it to you later. I’ve bought my wine vinegars during visits to Napa Valley wineries. Let me see what I can track down for you in or near the Valley. Fine Herbs (pronounced fin herbs) is available at Gelson’s. It is a dried mixture that comes in a bottle. Can’t help with the lemon juice dressing but I’ll put the question out for our readers and see what comes back.
For fairly local olive oil tasting try Beyond the Olive in Pasadena. http://www.beyondtheolive.com/about/pasadena/
120 S Raymond Ave, Pasadena, CA. You can find the one(s) that best suit your taste. If you’ve never done this before you are in for a surprise. You’ll find olive oils far different that what you are accustomed to getting in the super market. I’ll pass on the information about wine vinegars in a day or two.
I get most of my wine vinegars from Cuisine Perel. http://www.cuisineperel.com Otherwise, I pick up bottles at various wineries we visit in Napa or Sonoma Counties.