Salads With Good Sense: Easy ways to enjoy the taste, smell and sounds of springIf one were to write a treatise on salad-making, it would be that the essence of a good salad is all about the senses. Eating a salad should be a multisensory affair, a harmony of taste, texture, color, smell, even sound.
Greens are a basic building block for a springtime tossed salad. Frilly chicory, melt-in-your-mouth butterhead, variegated red radicchio, multicolored oak leaf and young beet greens. Why only but romaine in the salad spinner, when there’s a whole family of greens to choose from? Aim for a mesclun blend of 70 percent mild and 30 percent sharp. I grow my own greens and mix the seeds before planting. In my plot, you’ll find pointy-stemmed dark green arugula next to colorful zippy microgreens, oh-so-many varieties of silky loose-leaf lettuces, and some ruffled endive and escarole tossed in for good measure – a harvest of color and texture.
The foundation planted, it’s time to consider the overarching flavor that will determine the veg or fruit add-ons. During spring, sweetness can come from sugar snap peas, strawberries or red onion. If savory is what you’re after, reach for asparagus, baby beets, mushrooms or new potatoes. Any of these foods will lend a bright color contrast to the salad bowl. And when you use what’s in season, you get the juiciest, most flavorful, nutrient-packed food available.
Adjust the sound with your knife: chop for crunch, grate or slice thinly for eye appeal. Nuts and seeds are also great for some noisy chomping. Hot, toasted nuts even sizzle as they touch down to crown a dressed salad. There are umpteen ways to add chewy, meaty texture to a salad. For starters, there’s cheese, chicken, eggs, fish and other meat sources. Or start rummaging through your pantry and you’ll no doubt find the right pasta, beans or grains to turn that mélange into a memorable main course.
Moving on to aroma. A good rub of a garlic clove on the inside of a wooden salad bowl will permeate the salad with a nice pungency. Delicate nasturtiums, marigolds, violets and other edible flowers give off an elegant fragrance and add to an attractive arrangement. (And when guests ask, “Can I really eat these?” you smile and answer with a sophisticated, “But of course.”) Or take the more modest route by adding scallions and herbs – parsley, cilantro, basil, mint, chives – for a fresh, earthy whiff that you just can’t get from a spice jar.
We all know that dressing can make a world of difference. Why not surprise your taste buds with a grainy mustard mayonnaise or a spicy pepper-yogurt dressing? Homemade vinaigrettes are especially easy to make. There are loads of possibilities: tangy flavored vinegars; sweet, musky balsamic, or a squeeze of citrus fruit – it doesn’t always have to be lemon, either. In the end, the acid, along with some olive oil, salt and pepper should complement the taste of the main ingredients without overpowering or disguising them.
Fresh salads provide a limitless opportunity to become a feast for eyes and appetite. At my table, we have a salad almost nightly, but it’s never the same. And, you know, an improv can taste just as divine as a carefully choreographed composition.
Combos for color, texture and crunch
Here are five ideas for building multisensory springtime salads. We’ve suggested the ingredients, you decide the quantities. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
Boiled new potatoes
Grape or cherry tomato halves
Flaked tuna fish
Sliced hard-boiled eggs
Dressing: Olive oil, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, crushed garlic, sugar, chopped fresh parsley and basil
SWEET RUBY RED
Thinly sliced red onion or Vidalia sweet onion
Dressing: Olive oil, cider vinegar, sugar and poppy seeds
Sautéed mixed mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, chanterelles)
Shaved Pecorino cheese
Dressing: Olive oil and lemon juice
RED LETTUCE AND MUSHROOM
Lightly toasted pecans
Dressing: Olive oil, lemon juice, yogurt, fresh thyme and honey
Crumbled feta cheese
Lightly toasted pine nuts
Grilled chicken cubes
Dressing: Olive oil and red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar