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How to season a salad: The secret to delectable greens

BY Tamar Adler

27th Jul 2023 Food Heroes

How to season a salad: The secret to delectable greens
A salad doesn't have to be an afterthought—getting creative with your greens and how you season them can elevate your salad to new heights, says Tamar Adler
A salad does not need to be a bowl of lettuce. It simply needs to provide tonic to duller flavours, to sharpen a meal’s edges, to help define where one taste stops and another begins.
Italian salads are often just a single raw or cooked vegetable, sliced thinly and dressed with a drizzle of vinegar and olive oil.
In France, they are happy little mops of celery root, doused in vinegar and mixed with crème fraîche and capers.
"A salad does not need to be a bowl of lettuce. It simply needs to provide tonic to duller flavours"
In Greece or Israel, salads might be cucumbers and mint, or roasted aubergine, or spiced boiled carrots.
There is a delicious Palestinian salad made only of preserved lemons, roughly puréed, and eaten cold with warm pitta bread.
Elizabeth David suggests, after a lament about her native England’s bad salads, “a dish of long red radishes, cleaned, but with a little of the green leaves left on.”

What counts as a salad?

Broadening your definition of a what a salad can be will add excitement to your meal
Cold roasted beets, sliced or cubed, drizzled with vinegar, and mixed with toasted nuts and olive oil are a wonderful salad.
So is roasted broccoli, tossed with vinegared onions and a light smattering of dried chilies.
So are green beans, boiled until just cooked, cold and sliced thinly, tossed with peanuts and crisp scallions and rice wine vinegar and sesame oil.
So is boiled cauliflower or potatoes, already nicely salted, drizzled with vinegar and oil, with a big handful of chopped olives and capers mixed in.    
Anything, cooked or raw, cut up a little, mixed firmly with acid, salt and a little fat, laid carefully on a plate, or spooned nicely into a bowl, is a “salad”.

Rethinking your salad leaves

Slice courgettes thinly like leaves to make an Italian-style salad
Because a salad can be made of anything, make one of an ingredient about which you get excited, or of whatever looks most lively, or of whatever you have around already.
Do that instead of automatically buying lettuce, or wishing you were happier eating the sallow lettuce you have.
Parsley makes a very good salad. I have seen the humble leaves do a salad’s duties on several occasions.
In summer, the ingredient you see piled high and regally on Italian tables is raw courgette, soaked through with lemon and good oil.
"Because a salad can be made of anything, make one of an ingredient about which you get excited"
Slice courgettes in half lengthwise, so that you can put a flat surface on a cutting board, then slice toward the board, safely and thinly. Try to make the slices leaflike in aspiration, if not appearance.
Put the slices in a mixing bowl, add a big squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of white wine vinegar and a small handful of salt, let it sit, then dress with olive oil, mixing it through with your hands, and lay the salad out on a platter, making sure everything is well coated and glossy.
A handful of herbs will do nothing but good, as will a scattering of toasted walnuts or almonds, or a grating of hard Parmesan.

How to dress up lettuce without drowning it

Lettuce is a delicate leaf, so season it last when you compile your salad
Lettuce salads should be simple, with only one or at most two other ingredients. Thinly sliced cucumbers or thinly sliced radishes, and if you twist my arm, OK to both.
If you add other ingredients to lettuce salad, keep in mind that you are never dressing the dish “salad,” but rather dressing each ingredient.
If you were making a stew, you’d season the stew, not its carrots in one corner of the pot, then the meat, then the potatoes. A salad is the opposite: you season its carrots, its meat, its potatoes.
An irony of default lettuce salads is that lettuce is, of all salad ingredients, the ingredient that needs the least dressing and mixing, and the one that often gets overdressed while ingredients that need dressing end up neglected.
"Lettuce is, of all salad ingredients, the ingredient that needs the least dressing and mixing"
Salads of more than one ingredient should be dressed in stages, with the hardier ingredients dressed in the salad bowl first, then the more delicate. The first ingredient, well dressed, in turn dresses the second.
Lettuce is always the most fragile ingredient in a salad. It should always be added last, when everything else is already dressed and ready to go.
We must choose our salads well and put seasons of dreadful salads far behind us. When we do we’ll find ourselves, all assumptions pushed aside, already and always in our salad salad days.
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