"Growing up, my mother made salad every night," Brennan recalls. "Usually, it was romaine or iceberg, often with tomato, sometimes with croutons. … She also made fruit salads and coleslaw with homemade sweet-and-tangy mayonnaise, red wine vinegar, sugar, and milk. I still make that today."
My own salad repertoire has grown over the years as lettuce and vegetable choices have expanded in the marketplace and I discovered the whisk. Over the years, we’ve all embraced homemade Caesar dressing, Asian-inspired flavors, and, of course, the now-ever-present balsamic-vinegar-based concoctions. And now we see salads as not side dishes, but the main course. They’re ideal for today’s more health-conscious diner because they generally contain more fruit and vegetables than they do animal protein.
My thoughts on salads and their dressings are measly compared to Brennan’s. The evidence is in her recently published Salad of the Day: 365 Recipes for Every Day of the Week, a collaboration between Weldon Owen Inc. publishers and Williams-Sonoma, and with beautiful photography by Erin Kunkel.
The book bears witness to Brennan’s contention that "anything goes" regarding salads these days.
"Warm, chilled, with or without lettuce. A base of grains instead, vegetables, fruits, cheese — it all seems to be capable of being a salad," she says. "The trick is to balance the flavors, textures, and even colors so that the effect is pleasing — not overpowering or confusing."
These days, dressings, too, are wide-ranging. Some take the form of classic vinaigrettes — oil, an acid, and flavorings — whisked into an emulsion. Others, such as Farro with Creamy Artichoke Dressing, demonstrate the ability of pureed vegetables to take the place of oil. Brennan’s Melon and Fig Salad is beautiful and delicious by virtue of seasonal fruit and a splash of cream delicately flavored with basil.
Brennan says her best salad-making tip comes from one of her neighbors in Provence, France — she splits her time between there and Northern California. Many salads can be prepped ahead of time by making a vinaigrette in the bottom of a salad bowl and layering the other ingredients on top.
"But don’t toss it until you are ready to serve," she says. "The untossed salad can stay at room temperature for 30 minutes or so."
Brennan’s says her favorite childhood salad was shrimp suspended in tomato aspic, although this does not make it into Salad of the Day for reasons that probably have something to do with the decline of the popularity of aspic in the modern American kitchen.
Salads are only as good as are their components, so even the best dressing won’t save wilted or past-ripe ingredients.
In her Salad for Dinner (Taunton, 2012), Tasha De Serio points out that one of the most common mistakes made in making salads is overdressing or including too many ingredients. The general culinary wisdom is that no more than one to two tablespoons of dressing per serving will do.
De Serio also advocates drizzling the dressing around the edges of the salad bowl, then using your hands to toss the salad. I agree, but think you should do this privately, as it can freak out germophobic guests.
Here are a few capsulized vinaigrette variations to get your hands into:
• Balsamic Wasabi Vinaigrette: Blend ½ teaspoon wasabi paste with 1 teaspoon each soy sauce and sugar, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, a drizzle of rice wine vinegar and sesame oil, and ? cup olive oil. Shake in a jar or whisk well. Use on lettuce salads or grilled or poached seafood. From Paul Gayler, executive chef of London’s Lanesborough Hotel.
• Pickled Jalapeño, Cilantro, and Garlic Vinaigrette: Place 1 tablespoon or more to taste of jarred, pickled jalapeños in a small food processor or mortar. Add a bunch of cilantro leaves and a clove of garlic. Pulse the processor or grind the mixture until a smooth as possible. Use as-is on meats, poultry, and seafood, and as a dip, or whisk with vegetable oil to create a salad dressing.
• Spicy Lemon-Mint Vinaigrette: Whisk ¼ cup lemon juice, 1 teaspoon honey, ¼ teaspoon chopped ginger, 2 finely minced mint leaves, ½ teaspoon minced jalapeño with ? cup of canola oil and 1 tablespoon sesame oil, and salt and pepper. From The New Sonoma Cookbook (Sterling, 2011)
• Beet Vinaigrette: Place 1 cup chopped canned beets in a food processor with 1½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar and ? cup water. Pulse until smooth. Slowly add the oil with machine running. Salt and pepper to taste.