The Art of Salad and an Easy French Vinaigrette


In the cold months, I tend toward winter greens like cabbage, kale, mustard greens and other leafy vegetables.

But as spring approaches, I get hungry for salads. Simple salads make refreshing side dishes (I like to serve them after the main course, to refresh the palate). Complex and composed salads can make stunning stand-alone main courses when they incorporate protein like chick peas, nuts and seeds, goat cheese, hard-boiled egg, tofu, tempeh, sliced grass-fed steak or wild salmon.

The best thing about salads is that they can be thrown together in minutes using whatever you have on hand. You'll need some sort of green leafy vegetable, extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, and anything else you wish to add.

I never tire of salads because the possibilities are endless. Sometimes I add pistachios, tangerines and olives. Other times feta cheese, roasted red peppers and chickpeas. Or avocado, tomatoes and black beans. Or cucumbers, walnuts and cubes of baked tofu.

And I usually have several kinds of vinegar on hand - red wine, white wine, apple cider, brown rice, balsamic - so simply substituting one for the other can dramatically transform the flavor of my vinaigrette. 

This salad isn't fancy, it's just an example of what can be thrown together quickly. I added Dijon mustard and grated garlic to the vinaigrette, tossed in some carrot, red onion and walnuts I happened to have on hand, and topped it with goat cheese. It only took five minutes.

To make a great salad, there are some essential steps. If you follow these five guidelines, you will always have a crispy, perfectly seasoned salad:

1.  Clean the greens in advance. When you bring them home, discard any damaged leaves and submerge the rest in a generous amount of cold water. Swish the leaves around to loosen any debris and soak for 2 or 3 minutes (longer if leaves are wilted). You can use a clean sink, the bowl of a salad spinner, or another large vessel.

2.  Rinse the greens thoroughly. I usually rinse each leaf individually to make sure I remove as much of the dirt as possible. (Nothing spoils a salad like biting into something sandy.)

3.  Remove most of the water from the leaves. This will keep them fresher longer and prevent your salad dressing from becoming watered-down. But they shouldn't be completely dry, or they will wilt. I use a salad spinner to remove excess water and to store the leaves in the fridge. If you don't have a salad spinner, use two large, clean kitchen towels instead. Place the lettuce leaves inside one towel, gather the corners and edges, and spin it around. Then arrange the leaves in a single layer on top of the second, dry towel, roll it up and place it in the fridge.

4.  Chill the greens. After you've cleaned and dried them, allow them to chill inside the fridge for several hours to make sure they are crispy and cold.

5.  When you serve a lettuce salad, toss it together at the last moment to prevent it from getting soggy.

Here's my fool-proof recipe for a basic French vinaigrette.  It's so easy to whip up whenever I need it that I seldom make a large batch in advance. I also like making it to order because I can select the ingredients that best complement the other salad components and/or other courses.

An Easy Vinaigrette

I usually don't add sea salt to my vinaigrette because I never think it needs it. Others insist it's essential, so do as you prefer.

1 tbsp red wine vinegar, or substitute apple cider vinegar
1 tsp prepared Dijon mustard or ground mustard seed
1 clove garlic, grated or crushed

Ground peppercorn to taste
3 tbsp cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, or more to taste

Add all of the ingredients, except the olive oil, to the bottom of a large bowl. I use the largest bowl I have because I make big salads but also because I like to have plenty of room to toss everything together thoroughly, ensuring that every leaf is evenly seasoned.

Whisk until thoroughly combined. If you have the time, allow it to sit for a couple of minutes at this stage so the salt can dissolve, if you've added some, and the vinegar can soften the sharp garlic flavor. Drizzle in the olive oil and continue whisking until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Except lettuce, spinach and any other delicate additions, add your other ingredients to the bowl. This layer will form a barrier between the dressing and the lettuce, keeping the leaves from becoming soggy.

I added thinly sliced red onion, carrot shavings and raw walnuts. If there are ingredients that you want seasoned but not tossed together (like grilled chicken that you want to arrange on top), reserve a little vinaigrette to drizzle over later.

Tear the lettuce leaves into bite-sized pieces and place them in the bowl on top of the other ingredients.

Set it aside until you're ready to eat it and toss it together at the last moment.