Cooking for One

I'm Happy When It's Crunch Time

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Let's get one thing clear. I am not one of those salad girls.

You know that girl. The one who picks at lettuce leaves while the guys dig into their steaks. The one who skips dessert or will "have one little bite." I am not her.

I say that because I feel a little defensive about salads. When people ask me -- as they often ask food writers -- what I cook for myself at home, I can see the wave of disappointment cross their faces. A salad? Not a dainty plate of leaves, I hastily add. A big, satisfying salad full of cheese, nuts, seasonal vegetables and, um, whatever's languishing in the fridge.

They do not look convinced. So let me make my case.

First, as much as I would enjoy telling people that on an average Tuesday I come home at 8 and whip up some beef bourguignon, that's just not true. I eat out a lot for my job, and when I'm home: a) I want a light meal, and b) I usually have small quantities of a hodgepodge of ingredients in the fridge. Cooking elaborate meals requires planning, and in my life, planning happens only on weekends.

Second, and this is another bubble-burster, I don't want to cook for hours just for myself. I like to cook, but the joy comes from planning the menu, shopping for the best ingredients and watching friends savor the food. If I'm alone, I like to be in and out of the kitchen in 30 minutes.

And so I'm on a mini salad crusade. I'm tired of cooks, especially restaurant chefs, failing to give salads their due. Too often, menus offer skimpy green salads designed as punishment for dieters, or bucket-size Caesars with so much fat that you might as well go ahead and order that burger. Even the priciest salads often fail to impress. I can hardly remember the last time I saw something on a menu besides a mozzarella-and-tomato, a beet-and-goat-cheese or mixed greens. Salads deserve more.

So what makes a good dinner salad? Like any great dish, it calls for balance: of color, sweetness, saltiness, crunch and a little bit of fat. (A really good dressing certainly helps.) And note what I didn't say: lettuce. You do not need a bed of greens to make a salad. A salad should be a plateful of things you want to eat, not a few good morsels tossed into a bowl of tasteless leaves.

I do use lettuces, but I favor romaine for crunch, radicchio and frisee for bitterness and mache rosettes for sweeter salads, such as the one with peaches, goat cheese and candied pecans that was my favorite last summer. I try not to buy the bagged, pre-washed kinds, which contain several types of leaves yet still have a monotonous, bland taste. My basic rule: If the lettuce doesn't add flavor, leave it out.

Case in point: One of my favorite combinations is grilled shrimp with avocado, mango, red onion and cilantro. It's a salad I put together one night when I needed more ways to eat champagne mangoes, the unbelievably luscious variety available in stores right now. The dish has everything: protein, color and a balance of creamy and sharp, bright flavors. (It also has enough fat -- good fat -- to make it satisfying.) The dressing is a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Take that, Rachael Ray. This is dinner in five minutes.

Of course, the color and the particular sources of sweet and salty depend on what you like and what's available. (I tend to put fruit in everything, but that might not be to your taste.) And naturally, salad ingredients don't have to be raw. Grilled chicken or steak, boiled potatoes, roasted peppers or pears and grilled asparagus are made for salads. So are whole grains such as quinoa or bulgur wheat, which can help a salad feel more like a meal. You can prep any of those quickly, or use up leftovers that might otherwise get thrown away.

Other pieces of advice: For protein, my go-to is cheese, but that's mostly because I am lazy and it's what I have on hand. If I'm feeling fancy I use a poached egg, as I do in my bistro-inspired Bacon and Egg Salad. For crunch, I use toasted nuts or croutons. Homemade croutons are far better, but I do buy the unflavored ones to keep on hand. I buy enormous bags of pine nuts, walnuts and almonds and stick them in the freezer. A few minutes in the toaster oven, and they're ready to go.

And after years of drizzling my salads with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, I've come around to using vinaigrettes that add depth and complexity. Simple ones take less than 10 minutes, can be made in large quantities and can be stored for a few weeks in the fridge. Right now, I have three dressings ready: pomegranate-hazelnut vinaigrette with shallots, cumin vinaigrette and Parmesan-lemon vinaigrette. I also love buttermilk dressing, but you have to use it up more quickly.

I make salads year-round. Spring and summer are easy, of course. On my list this year: on ChocolateandZucchini.com, Clotilde Dusoulier's recipe for green bean, pecan and cured ham salad; and Martha Stewart's roasted fig, feta and mint.

But it's just as easy in colder months. In the fall, I roast butternut squash with maple syrup and toss it with toasted hazelnuts, fresh goat cheese and baby spinach. (A seared scallop would be great, too.) My last year's winter favorite was roasted carrots, white beans and grilled shrimp, a keeper of a recipe I found in Nancy Silverton's "A Twist of the Wrist" (Knopf, 2007).

For almost every salad, a twist is about all it takes. Maybe I am a salad girl, after all.


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