here’s an old Italian saying: It takes four people to make a salad — a spendthrift for the oil, a miser for the vinegar, a wise man for the salt, and a pazzo, or madman, to toss it.
I know, I know, you may be wondering why on earth this food writer would think anyone needs information about making a plain salad. To which I reply, “Because so many salads fail and so many guests tell me that their salads never come out right, have no taste, or become soggy before being served.” I also get one question again and again: “What is in this salad? It is so different, so tasty.”
In the salad, my salad, you’ll almost always find fresh greens, good olive oil and a 150-year-old vinegar that I travel with and protect as if it were my child.
All of this calls for a few words on how to create that simplest and sweetest of additions to a menu that needs stretching — whether it’s a cheese plate that needs a green respite or a tagliata (a lovely, rare, tender cut of beef, sliced thin after grilling) that requires an elegant and tasty bed on which to lounge.
Greens: Choose the freshest you can buy. If you must wash them, wash and dry them very, very well. Nothing is more irritating or disappointing than a lovely salad with even a tiny bit of grit. Even the best restaurants can be faulted for this shortcoming. Better to buy already-washed and dried greens (whether baby lettuces, spinach, mizuna, beet tops, mesclun, arugula or mache) than endure a sandy salad.
Oils: Extra virgin olive oil is my favorite. I’ve also used walnut, almond, pecan and others. But unless those oils are truly fresh, they can potentially impart a rancid taste. Olive oil rarely goes bad (certainly not around our house where we use a liter every 10 days or so). A little dash of sesame oil can pep up a salad, especially if there are tiny green onions, sliced thin, and tiny bay shrimp added to the mix. But first and foremost: olive oil.
Vinegar: Well, this part is difficult, since I use a vinegar mother (the fermenting bacteria culture used to make vinegar) I got more than 40 years ago from a Sicilian neighbor, whose nonna got her vinegar mother from her own mother, and so on probably back to the time of Odysseus. My vinegar is made with leftover red wine, but only good ones that we just happened not to finish (a rare enough event). It’s extremely rich with a nutty flavor, so a little goes a very long way (it’s also great to sooth sore throats.) But there is full-bodied and delightful commercial red wine vinegar, especially in Italy and France. You can always mix in a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar to boost the flavor of your salad.
It was dear Marcella Hazan, nee Polini — the late Italian cooking writer — who insisted balsamic vinegar (which she says she introduced to America as a bride) was overused in just about every dish that called for it — “People put aceto balsamico on everything,” she lamented. “They’re not supposed to.” Be a miser with the vinegar. There is also the very expensive Modena balsamic vinegar, a kind of dark, caramel syrup, of which only a few drops are needed for a good zap.
Salt: Plain salt or sea salt is best. No garlic or onion or herbed salt. Never. And if I get argument on this, so be it. Dried herbs are a no-no in my kitchen, unless I’ve dried them myself, but there is never a reason to do this. Fresh herbs are sold in every supermarket now, and it’s time to put dried herbs to rest — in peace.
Choose a bowl large enough to allow the pazzo to toss the salad.
Make sure the greens are well chilled and crisp, and then begin. A perfect salad takes about 2 minutes to make when all the ingredients are at hand.
For 175-200 grams (a bag, more or less) of fresh greens you’ll need about a teacup of good olive oil, about 3 to 4 soupspoons of vinegar, and about 3-4 generous pinches of sea salt.
Then you toss, crazily but not too crazily, since greens such as maches or small-leafed arugula absorb oil quickly. You want to avoid a soggy mess, so make the salad at the very last minute before serving. Add a bit more of anything you feel the salad needs; you’ll find your own combination with practice.
And here’s another suggestion that has always worked for me but may make others cringe: Never put tomatoes in a salad. They make a perfectly lovely, textured salad into a soupy one, no matter how tiny they are. They can always be served on the side, sliced and dressed with olive oil, a little vinegar and fresh basil, and salt.
As for putting anything else in a salad, by all means have some fun — ripe avocado, cut in dice; very, very thin slivers of sweet onion; crushed, toasted walnuts or almonds; a tiny, and I mean tiny bit of fresh garlic; a few sprigs of cilantro, basil or mint, chopped or scissored into fine julienne; cooked bay shrimp, good canned tuna, tiny pieces of crisp bacon or smoked fish — all are lively additions and create intriguing and surprising tastes. But first learn to make a plain, green salad with oil, vinegar and salt in perfect proportion to one another that will knock your guest’s socks off.