When we talk about salads, we often apologize. If a co-worker asks what we ate for lunch and the answer is leafy, green and dressed with vinaigrette, we say, “Oh, just a salad.”
We take salads for granted, as cooks and as eaters. We undervalue them for their potential for sustenance and satiation, but also for the care they require in the making, a trend no doubt encouraged by our dependence on bottled dressings and pre-prepped greens.
We can do better, even in winter. Frost-sweetened, intensely flavored greens – collards, cabbage, mustards, chicories and, yes, kale – can restore some glamour, and perhaps some respect, to the salad course.
Cold brings out the best in a lot of greens. Bitter chicories take on a mellow, buttery glow; collards turn bright-tasting and sweet, their stems juicy enough to eat raw; mustards, tasting of hazelnuts and wasabi, are irresistible.
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“I really look forward to selling our greens this time of year because the flavor is so good,” said Mike Nolan, who grows a variety at his Earth Spring Farm in Carlisle, Pa.
Sure, you could cook these greens. But it’s also gratifying to capture them as they are, framing them, along with a few garden companions, as a moment in a season. Maybe it’s a ruffly head of savoy cabbage, juicy-sweet daikon radishes and garnet-skinned carrots; or a head of spiky-leaved, ruby-streaked mustard greens with a plump, crisp kohlrabi. To enjoy them fresh and vibrant is a privilege.
Making a salad should be a thoughtful and measured process, as much about preparing its components as about assembling them. Although you could apply that philosophy to all kinds of cooking, it is critical with salad, because there are fewer steps to coax out flavors or mask flaws.
In his new book “Twelve Recipes,” Cal Peternell includes good points on the art of making salad well. Peternell, chef at the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse since 1995, touches on some of the basics that home cooks tend to miss because the steps seem painstaking or because, having grown up on iceberg, we never learned:
• Rinse the leaves in a bowl of cold water, not under the faucet, so the grit falls away from the leaves and the rushing water doesn’t bruise them. (If your greens have lost a little life, make sure the water is extra cold; a short bath will revive them.)
• Lift the greens out of the water and into a colander rather than pouring them, so you don’t bring along all the grit you’ve carefully dislodged.
• Dry them, because taking the time to carefully fill a salad bowl and whisk up a dressing with your best olive oil and then diluting it with too-moist leaves is heartbreaking. Use a salad spinner or a couple of tea towels, again aiming not to bruise those leaves.
• Use your hands to dress those carefully prepared greens, which will coat the leaves more effectively than any utensil. Dress them at the last minute before you serve, so they don’t have time to begin wilting.
• Dress only as much as you think you’ll eat at one meal. Unlike stew, a leafy salad rarely improves the next day.
As Peternell points out, “You can always dress more.”
Emily Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle.