Saturday, 19 May 2012

Garden Salad Season

I don't know when salads got such a bad rep as boring food, barely worth to be an entree or a side-dish. Nice weather having finally decided to warm up my neck of the woods, I get the urge for fresh crisp veggies to sink my teeth into, as I sit on my sun-basked balcony with a glass of wine. Can you tell I am looking forward to my vacation?

Salads never have to be boring or bland, so put away your prejudices that they are barely fit to feed rabbits. This recipe is a fresh garden salad my dad used to make all the time in summer. I give quantities, but really, he eyeballed almost everything. He insisted on cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil at all times. Thanks to him, I always use that liquid gold, and I am a better woman for it, both because it's amazing to cook with, but also because it's the healthiest cooking fat out there. Don't be afraid to shell out a few extra bucks for good oil: your arteries will thank you!

There are a few things to remember when you want to make a kick-ass salad. Fresh ingredients are the obvious key here, so hitting the farmer's market is a good idea. Try to use the veggies in your salad the day you buy them for extra-freshness! Rinse everything well with water and pat the excess water with a clean cloth. A salad spinner is great for all leafy greens, but if you don't have one, dry your lettuce leaves by laying them between paper towels for a few minutes.

Complementary flavors are a great combo for a good garden salad: try paring one sharp tasting veggie (red onion) with a sweeter one (cucumber). Also try blending textures for an interesting mouthful. Very importantly, resist the urge to overcrowd your salad bowl; five ingredients is enough to get a colorful and delicious bowl.

Here's a little trick I use when I have an especially busy week: I'll get all my salad ingredients and throw them together in a large plastic container, and mix them up. Whenever I have a meal, I simply take a few handfuls of salad and put them on my plate next to my main course. Yes, it compromises a bit of the freshness, but when you are on the run, cutting a few corners can be excused if it helps you eat your veggies.

I know that home-made dressings sound intimidating to some, but I dare you to read the label of a commercial salad dressing and understand half of the stuff listed there. The simple and healthy alternative is to get a few jam-jars, fill them with some spices, oils and juices, and give them a vigorous shake before serving! Or better yet, do what my father did, i.e. throw the dressing ingredients directly in the mixing bowl on top of the veggies and mixing it all up.

Dressing should never drown the salad, but rather, coat it lightly to bring out the flavors and freshness of the ingredients. Dose it carefully, and toss well before adding more. Don't be afraid to use your (clean) hands here: spread your fingers and play with your food! I promise it will taste better!

And now, here is my dad's good old garden salad:

8 cups Romaine lettuce, leaves trimmed and cleaned
1 English cucumber, cut into half-moons
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, halved
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 lemon, juiced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Vigorously blend the dressing ingredients in a small bowl or jam-jar and set aside. Shred the lettuce into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Add the other vegetables and toss until well-mixed. Pour the dressing on and toss again until everything is coated. Divide into serving bowls and serve.

It's pure simplicity, with a tangy dressing. I find it always makes a great complement to simple meals, like a nice piece of pan-fried fish or some soup, as pictured above, but it can make a meal on it's own if you pair it with some nice crusty bread and a few pieces of cheese.

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