It seems that in life, most people follow a similar journey when a comes to salads and their dressings. Of course, at the start, salads are that vile green thing Mom eats while you carefully pick out the faux marshmallows from a box of Lucky Charms. You wouldn't even think about the dressing she uses because you may barf.
One day you are tricked into eating a carrot dipped in Ranch dressing and suddenly a few more formerly revolting vegetables are palatable (even though you're really only tasting Ranch). At restaurants, if a house salad is mistakenly served as a side to your chicken fingers, you would ask for double Ranch and gingerly eat a few bites of now-white lettuce.
At this point, the road diverges slightly. Either one, you become a salad eater or two, you do not. Typically if you become a salad eater this early on, you are an overly weight-conscious, eager-to-please first date, overly self-aware teen. Maybe you expand your dressing horizons to the realm of vinaigrettes. If you stop eating salad, it's probably because you realize most cream dressings actually counteract the health benefits of salad and why eat limp, tasteless lettuce that has been sitting in the fringe turning liquidy for days in your fridge or a restaurant's?
Fast-forward and here I am today. I happened to take the road of no salads for most of my post-Ranch life because I felt I could choose many many other healthy dishes that I would actually enjoy eating. Just the thought of sliced American cheese on torn head lettuce with flavorless Kroger-bought tomatoes makes me cringe. But now I understand that salads and dressings can be fresh, imaginative and delicious in ways I could have never dreamed.
My first realization occurred when I started being more adventurous with dressings at restaurants. I would order a incredible feta dressing or balsamic vinaigrette, and so impressed, I'd pop over to the grocery store, pick out what seemed like the same thing, spend too much money on it and only use it once when to my horror it would be disgusting and nothing close to the restaurant experience. This was when I began making simple dressings at home that I could alter slightly for different salads and always prefered.
My second realization came about when I started making salads with fixings other than the blandest of lettuce. Adding beans, nuts, mache or mizuna, a little arugula or even some fruit really transformed my definition of salad for the better. Now I can say confidently that I'm a salad convert...thought it will never be the food I request for my last meal ;)
a rough base to play around with
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Tsp. Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful of basil, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
optional: lime juice, hot pepper
Whisk or shake all ingredients together and let mull in the fridge before serving.
Now for my two simply summer salad suggestions...but first, let me mention my third and perhaps most critical salad-related revelation. I learned to buy my produce, particularly tomatoes and greens, at the farmers market. The difference in quality is striking and the varieties available to you will be unlike any you'll see at your mass market supermarkets.
Bean and Tomato Salad with Basil Vinaigrette
1 lb. yellow wax beans, ends removed
Fresh cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Cook beans in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, or to your desired tenderness. Plunge in an ice water bath immediately after draining. Pat dry the beans and arrange on a plate with the tomatoes. Top with vinaigrette and serve.
Kale, Tomato and Radish Salad with Basil Vinaigrette
One bunch of lacinato kale, center stems removed, cut to easily edible size
Cherokee purple tomato, sliced in quarters
Pickled radishes, sliced (or plain radishes, thought I like the tang of pickled radishes)
Thoroughly toss together all ingredients and eat on a hot summer day. Kale is one of the most nutritious greens available!
Do you have any favorite off-beat salads? For a few other summer salads of late, check out my Kohlrabi and Asparagus Ribbon Salad, this Asian Noodle Salad or Bon Appetit's Shaved Summer Squash Salad.