Monday, January 26, 2009
How To Make A Salad Everyone Will Love
I firmly believe that salads are only side dishes and starters. I'm fully aware that there is a large contingent of people who think the more you throw into a bowl with lettuce, the closer you come to making it a main course. I'm sorry to be the barer of bad news, but allow me to rain on your parade for just a minute while I make a case for salads being a number of things, including awesome, tasty, refreshing and hearty, but not even close to a meal. Don't get me wrong, I love salad. If you ask my mother she'll tell you that I loved salad so much as a kid that I sopped up the leftover dressing with bread, and when I ran out of bread, I tilted the bowl to my lips and drank the remainder when I thought no one was looking. So it's not for lack of love for salads that I claim them merely a side or starter. In fact, I believe they serve a great purpose in the course of a meal, and in fact their false hope as a meal in and of themselves is hindering their true potential to be great and truly appreciated. And here's and abridged version as to why.
If we look briefly at salad history (yeah, that's right, I'm getting educational), salad as we know it today is a truly American invention. It came about in the mid-to-late 1800's when the upper crust food scene revolved around traditional French fare. There was nothing strictly American to speak of where food was concerned, and in order to compete with other upper echelon establishments, restaurants such as Delmonico's in New York had to come up with increasingly new and fabulous dishes to draw in the wealthy clientele (the only folks who would pay that much money for a bowl of tossed vegetables). And so, salad became known as the food of the rich on the east coast, with Waldorf salad coming out of the restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria, while California, as can be expected, was more accepting of the dish and ran with it. In fact, the first (and still popular) everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salad was created at the Brown Derby and called a Cobb salad. Salad as we know it today, heaped with everything from bacon and eggs to blue cheese and beets, came about as a way to get more than just the wealthy to order it. The less it seemed like a few tossed veggies and the more it seemed like a hearty dish, the more likely people would be to pay for it.
And so, this is the beginning of salad as marketing for profit. That doesn't actually bother me (well, maybe a little bit), but it bothers me that salad just became a vehicle for toppings instead of a dish that should be balanced and studied like any other. At least someone originally put thought into what they created, and why they added walnuts and cherries, or anchovies and cheese. You wouldn't just throw 14 things into a soup because you like them without thinking about how they pair, right? A salad should demand the same respect as any other dish, whether or not it's all veggie or topped with meats. It's unfortunate that a desire for "healthy eating" has made it socially acceptable to consume a massive salad as a meal, when I think we all know that once you're done topping that salad with everything under the sun, you'd be better off eating a steak as far as health is concerned.
Needless to say, no matter how good it may be, or how many meal-like things you top it with (buffalo chicken, grilled steak, marinated tofu, chopped chicken, etc...) you're still just eating something that could be considered a meal or main course, with a salad underneath (and you probably just crave that delicious topping). I don't think I've done a great job of arguing my point (I think your most fervent beliefs are often the most difficult to explain), but I hope that I've at least encouraged you to put some thought into your salad. I know I could have gone into salad as a palate opener, or an alternative desert, but I figure with some of the evidence I've laid out before you, you can come to your own conclusion. What I would like, is for you to give my favorite simple, but impressive salad a shot. Whether you're serving a salad lover, or someone that doesn't give them much thought, this recipe can impress almost anyone, and can be tweaked to your guests likes and dislikes. The greens can be whatever you like, but I tend to choose arugula or a bitter chicory like frisee, and top it with juicy pomegranate seeds, fresh clementines, and some kind of fried crunchy goodness. Sometimes it's goat cheese, and for my vegan friends, soft or silken tofu. The key is to use cornmeal (for crunch), that's spiced up for some kick. It's a great winter salad, and a wonderful alternative to beet salad when you're knee deep in roots and mash. Here's how to make the fried bits for yourself, since the rest is just assembly. I'd serve it with a simple vinaigrette, and let the combination of ingredients do the talking.
Cornmeal Crusted Tofu, Goat Cheese, or other melty bits
Goat cheese or soft or silken tofu, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
2 Tbsp smoked paprika
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp salt
vegetable, canola or peanut oil for frying
1. Heat oil in a heavy bottom skillet so it's about 1 inch deep.
2. Combine cornmeal, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, cumin and salt in a bowl. Toss cheese or tofu in mixture, 4 or 5 pieces at a time until all pieces are coated.
3. Fry in batches, flipping each piece over until browned. Use to top a salad, or serve alone with dipping sauce Enjoy!