Capturing the spirit of what’s fresh and wonderful on a plate, the status of salads continues to rise. Still gerbil food to some, salads have emerged from their ugly duckling years of pale green iceberg lettuce topped with creamy ranch dressing and a wedge of tomato to become the swan of the menu, beautifully composed from artful ingredients that come together in a delicious ensemble. From a tidy lineup of sweet asparagus tips with a spicy drizzle of dijon dressing to whimsically tossed baby lettuces with raspberry vinaigrette and walnuts, professional chefs and home cooks alike communicate their creativity through these delicious dishes using the basic salad components of greens, dressings, and additional complementary toppings.
Nothing against iceberg–which adds a delightfully crisp bite when fresh–but there is a veritable leafy invasion that’s taking over restaurant menus and supermarket shelves, and most food lovers are taking part. First it was red leaf, green leaf, and romaine; now the array of choices makes even these seem mundane. From bitter endive to peppery arugula, lettuce varietals alone can compose a flavor-packed plate when chosen correctly. Varying leaves will additionally draw dramatic differences in the body and texture of a salad. Whether you’re into the light airy tumbleweed look of frisee or the angular, structure of endive, there’s probably a leaf for you.
Ever enamored by exotic greens, chefs also continue to experiment with innovative dressings that play upon the unique attributes of individual salads, rather than catering to the menu section as a whole. We no longer wait for the mantra “Blue cheese, ranch, thousand island, or Italian vinaigrette, ma’am?”; now the restaurant kitchen takes this decision very seriously for us. Dressings add a spark of acidity and seasoning that specifically complements the composed salad plate, instead of covering up boring or unpleasant flavors as they used to do. Move aside, heavier applications of creamy dressings, as citrus juices, imported vinegars, and virgin olive oils come together and cater to the subtler, more complex salads of today. In the home, that means cupboards full of pungent balsamic and fruity first-press olive and herb oils. Taking it even further, restaurant chefs give salad dressings the same attention as their other sauces, reducing juices and vinegars to make them bold and seasoning with fresh herbs and exotic oils for intense flavor. When tended so carefully, a little drizzle of dressing is all a salad needs to enhance its natural flavors.
A fantastic salad is not necessarily one with the most exotic ingredients or costly components, but one that tastes and feels well balanced in the mouth. In fact, the best chefs are able to make these delicious statements with five ingredients or less, avoiding the chaos of using the whole kitchen sink. When using fresh, high-quality ingredients, there’s no need to mask the flavor of one item with another; instead, everything tossed into the salad mix has a purpose. Just as greens lend a crisp refreshing burst and vinaigrettes act to bring up acidity and flavor, remaining “add-ins” contribute something else to create a great ensemble. For some, it’s the sharp salty flavor of a curl of parmesan that makes the perfect foil for sweet shaved fennel. Others think their salads are naturally complete when topped with toasty pecans, grilled figs, or earthy chunks of chevre. Success relies on the power of each individual ingredient to contribute to, not dominate, the plate, as flavors and textures integrate harmoniously with every bite.
Nowadays, there are endless possibilities of heavenly flavors derived from inventive salad combinations plated with a mere drizzle of perfectly complementary dressing, or enhanced by a crumble of cheese, a morsel of meat, or a sprinkling of nuts. Farewell to former days of soggy lettuce, one mealy tomato, and too much dressing. Now that we are letting their creative juices flow from the very start of a meal, freshness is getting even friendlier.