My salad days,
When I was green in judgement,— William Shakespeare
When I was in college (for the second time), I was invited by a friend of mine to a picnic with some folks he worked with. We were typical college students (by which I mean that the word “picnic” typically implied several twelve-packs and maybe a few bags of chips, if you were lucky), but this was to be an adult picnic. I’m still not sure why he brought me. Probably just for moral support.
You may remember that I talked before about how I don’t socialize well with strangers (even though I’m quite gregarious with people I know). So in this particular setting, I mostly just watched and listened. I, who’d never really been an “adult” in the conventional sense—and still haven’t been, I suppose—was essentially a visiting anthropologist observing a strange tribal culture. And, while I was dutifully cataloguing greeting rituals and parental models for acceptable public behavior, I heard this phrase:
“I simply must have that recipe!”
Now, you must understand that, at that age, I had no clue that real people actually said that. Out loud. In front of other people. Sure, you see it on televsion, but television people aren’t real people, after all. I thought it was a phrase found in old movies from the 50s, and possibly in ironic treatises on the illusions of domestic bliss, but never spoken by real people. Out loud. In front of other people. It was like I had been transported into some alternate universe.
Well, now I’m older. Now I understand ... that real people still don’t actually use those words, but the sentiment, at least, is occasionally genuine. So, somewhat oddly, I’m going to give you a recipe. Which you simply must have.
Once upon a time, I rarely ate salad. Not that I disliked it—salad was just one of those foods that I had a strong neutrality towards. I was happy enough to eat it—in fact, I very occasionally craved it, which always seemed to stun my friends, no matter how many times they saw it—but there were just lots of other foods that I liked more. So why not eat them instead?
These days, I make a giant bowl of salad twice a week. The Mother helps me eat it, mostly, but the baby will leap into my lap when I have some, and even the eldest will partake occasionally. (The middle child is still in that picky eater phase.) This change is due to two very important factors.
The first is that I moved. I never really liked fruits and vegetables until I moved to California. Of course, I’m older now, and we do begin to appreciate such things a bit more as we get older. But mainly I believe that the food is just plain better here. I used to live on the East Coast, remember, and I’m guessing that a lot of the fruits and vegetables I was eating were coming from California anyway—just after a very, very long trip, which doesn’t do much for the taste. And (at least when I lived there) you could get organic food, but you couldn’t actually afford it. Now that I’m here on the West Coast, I’m closer to where a lot of the food is actually grown, and the organic choices are not that much more expensive than the regular ones. Organic celery, for instance, is less than 50¢ more than regular celery where I shop. Will I pay a couple of quarters more per week to get celery that is better tasting and most probably better for me? Of course I will. Even across all my items, I can buy 100% organic fruits and vegetables for well under $20 more than if I didn’t, per week. A few yuppie food coupons per month to eat healthier—yes, yes, some people will dispute that, but even more importantly, in my book: to enjoy it more. If there happen to be health benefits, I consider that gravy on the cake. Sure, the quality is inconsistent. Sometimes you get something that’s less than stellar. But the awesomeness you get the rest of the time more than makes up for it. Trust me on this: even if you can’t, where you live, afford to eat organic all the time, do it occasionally, just to treat yourself. You’re worth it, right?
The second factor, though, is due to the discovery of the right accoutrements. A salad is composed of three basic ingredients: vegetables, dressing, and ... other. The extra bits that make different salads different. It can be meat, like a chef’s salad or oriental chicken salad. It might be fruit, or nuts, as in the case of a Waldorf, or cheese, as in a Cobb or a Caesar. If you’re just stuck with veggies and dressing, you’re missing out. At the very least slap some croutons or bacon bits on there.
But, for me, the ultimate salad accompaniments were a gift from our Sister Family. The Mother was having a salad one day, and I saw her putting pistachios and feta cheese on it. This struck me as terribly odd, so I asked about it. This was the favorite salad of her best friend (matriarch of the Sister Family, in case you didn’t follow that link), she explained, so she was giving it a try. Now, I was pretty sure that I didn’t like pistachios, but I couldn’t really remember why. (Later I decided it was probably because I don’t like pistachio ice cream, which is a pretty stupid reason, if you think about it.) And I’m certainly always encouraging my children to retry things they decided they didn’t like a long time ago, because your tastes change over time. So I tried it. And it was good. Seriously good. Better than seriously good: like into the “fucking fantastic” range.
So now I’m going to tell you how to make your own salad that you will enjoy just as much as I enjoy mine. Unless, of course, you are a totally different person than I am with totally different tastes. In which case I refer you yet again to the name of the blog (q.v.).
Vegetables The base of any good salad is its veggies. Now, different people like different vegetables. For instance, some people like radishes, while I think radishes taste like dirt. So, while I’m going to tell you the veggies that I like, the exact types aren’t that important. Use whatever you like. Mainly I want to give you some general tips.
If vegetables are the base of the salad, lettuce is the base vegetable. Most salads are concocted of a whole lotta lettuce and a few other veggies. This is presumably because lettuce is cheap. However, you’re not looking to make a cheap salad; you’re looking to make a delicious salad, so don’t overdo the lettuce. Let it be a supporting player: it’s not strong enough to pull off a leading role anyway.
For years I was a staunch supporter of iceberg lettuce. It’s simple, and it tastes good. Other people would say it’s boring. I don’t care: I don’t want exciting; I want yummy. When you hand me a big ol’ plate of arugula, or micro-greens, it certainly looks exciting. But it tastes like eating grass. I am not a cow. Don’t serve me grass.
Romaine is fine. It’s not my favorite, but at least it doesn’t taste like grass. The Mother prefers it, and disdains my beloved iceberg. So it was always a bone of contention when creating salads. Lately, however, we’ve reached a compromise: butter lettuce. Butter lettuce is as crisp and dependable (and tasty) as iceberg, but not as boring, so it makes a good choice. I typically buy it by the bag and I use about a bag and a half for the base of my salad. If there’s any leaves which are even the least bit brown or wilted, I just toss them to the side and feed them later to the guinea pig (lizards or turtles are also good for this purpose). You may ask, why a bag? Mainly because that’s how my store sells it.
For the rest of the vegetables, there are just a few tips. First, get what you like. Don’t try to fool yourself into eating veggies you wouldn’t eat separately by sticking them into a salad and hoping you won’t notice. You will. Buy them as fresh as you can, because there’s no way you’re going to go to the store every time you want a salad (especially since you’re going to want this one a lot). Sure, fresher is better, but let’s be realistic too. I buy enough to make two big salads every week.
Lastly, buy organic. Seriously.
Here’s what I use:
- 1 large bell pepper (green’ll do, but red or orange is nicer, for color)
- 1 large cucumber (American or English)
- 3-4 small cucumbers (Persian)
- 4-6 ribs of celery
- 4-5 green onions or scallions (which in some places are the same thing, but even if different should be interchangeable)
Buy whatever you like that you can reliably find. Outside of not being able to find American cucumbers for part of the year, everything on my list is available year-round where I am. (And, when I can’t get American, I just substitute English instead.)
Then chop all that shit up and throw it in a big salad bowl. I peel my cucumbers first, but you don’t have to. Chopping is a big pain in the ass, but once you taste this salad, you won’t mind it so much, because the end will justify the means. But that’s why I always make much more than I can eat: so I don’t have to chop so often.
For storage of leftovers, a gallon Ziploc bag will do fine. Maybe add just the tiniest splash of water to keep it moist. It won’t sit in the fridge long enough to go bad, trust me.
Extras Like I said above: pistachios and feta cheese. I suppose you could experiment a bit here—slivered almonds, maybe? goat cheese, perhaps?—but don’t, at least not until you’ve tried the original. It’s pretty awesome.
For pistachios, I buy dry roasted, unsalted, shelled halves and pieces. Raw wouldn’t be as good, in my opinion. You can also get them organic, but honestly the taste difference for nuts is not nearly what it is for veggies. But you certainly don’t want to have to shell them yourself, and you don’t need the extra salt.
I buy pre-crumbled feta with “Mediterranean herbs.” I have no idea what that means, exactly, but it tastes good, so I go with it. You can also buy it in blocks and crumble it yourself—it’s a little bit cheaper, but not enough to be worth it, if you ask me. Plus then you don’t get the “Mediterranean herbs” ... whatever those are.
Add your extras to the individual servings. Your pistachios and feta will get soggy if stored with the leftover salad.
Dressing I like lots of different kinds of dressing. My absolute favorite is bleu cheese. But that’s not what I use for this salad, because this salad really shines with Thousand Island dressing, and that’s what you should use too. You can use your favorite brand of Thousand Island if you like, but what’s really awesome is to make it yourself.
I taught myself how to make Thousand Island dressing because I didn’t want all the sugar and MSG and other various crap in the store-bought brands, and my local Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry a healthy version. But, as it turns out, it’s easy to make, and I get to buy mostly organic ingredients, which is nice.
Now, I don’t measure things when I cook, for the most part. I mean, think about it: whose is the best cooking you’ve ever had? Your grandmother, right? Now, did your grandmother ever measure anything? No, of course not. Grandmothers have better things to do with their time than fiddle with measuring spoons and whatnot. So, when I say “tablespoon” below, I don’t mean an actual measured tablespoon; I mean just take the big spoon out of your silverware drawer. Likewise, “teaspoon” means the little spoon—I actually use a baby spoon, since I have a baby around, but I also heap it pretty high, so it’s probably the same as a normal teaspoon if you fill it closer to level. And “3 count” means you pour at a reasonable rate for a count of three (like mixing a drink).
- Mayonnaise: 5 tablespoons (not heaping)
- Ketchup: 9 good squirts
- Yellow mustard: 1 good squirt
- Dijon mustard: 1 little squirt
- Sweet pickle relish: 9 teaspoons
- Vinegar: 3 count (I use balsamic white vinegar)
- Sugar: 2 heavy pinches
- Salt: 1 heavy pinch
- Pepper: 12 grinds
Throw that all in a big bowl and just stir it up. Now grab one of those 12 oz squeeze bottles they sell at the store (or get ’em on Amazon) and a funnel, pour your dressing into the bottle, and you’re pretty much set. The only other bit you need to do is to cut the top of the nozzle pretty low, or else the pickle relish will get stuck in the tip. I also cut it at a bit of an angle, as that seems to give me a wider opening. The amount above is pretty much exactly enough to fill the bottle (sometimes I’m a bit over, but I just dollop that on my current salad). When you run out, just make more. Easy peasy.
Hopefully you’ll give this a try and come to love salad as much as I do. I used to eat a little bowl of salad before getting a bit plate of spaghetti, or burritos, or whatever. Nowadays I eat a big bowl of salad and then check to see if I even have any room left over for the “main” meal. That’s gotta be more healthy in the long run, right?