So often when we talk about salads, we apologize. If we bring a salad to a potluck, we play down our contribution. If we serve salad for dinner, we regret that it isn’t more substantial. If a co-worker asks what we ate for lunch and the answer is leafy, green and dressed with vinaigrette, we say, “Oh, just a salad.”
We take salads for granted, as cooks and as eaters. We undervalue them for their potential for sustenance and satiation, but also for the care they require in the making, a trend no doubt encouraged by our dependence on bottled dressings and pre-prepped greens.
We can do better. So with fall’s dropping temperatures, I’m adding ever more salads to the menu, wielding the season’s frost-sweetened, intensely flavored greens — collards, cabbage, mustards, chicories and, yes, kale — to restore some glamour, and perhaps some respect, to the salad course.
I suspect that many cooks would judge me a season off, salads being what we run to when the heat chases us toward something lighter. But warm-weather leaves, when you can find them, are often aggravated versions of themselves. Their bitter, pungent or spicy undertones can be aggressive, their texture brash. The cold is what brings their flavors into alignment.
Bitter chicories take on a mellow, buttery glow; collards turn bright-tasting and sweet, their stems juicy enough to eat raw; mustards, tasting of hazelnuts and wasabi, are irresistible.
“I really look forward to selling our greens this time of year because the flavor is so good,” said Mike Nolan, who grows a variety at his Earth Spring Farm in Carlisle, Pa.
But while you could certainly apply heat to these greens, it’s gratifying to capture them as they are, framing them, along with a few garden companions, as a moment in a season. Maybe it’s a ruffly head of savoy cabbage, juicy-sweet daikon radishes and garnet-skinned carrots; or a head of spiky-leaved, ruby-streaked mustard greens with a plump, crisp kohlrabi. To enjoy them fresh and vibrant is a privilege. With that in mind, make your salads soon after you buy their star ingredients, before they have anything to hide.
Numerous cookbook authors have devoted chapters entirely to the art and methodology of making salad well: Paul Bertolli in “Chez Panisse Cooking,” Judy Rodgers in the “Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” for instance. If you are a disciple of deliberate saladmaking, you know that the subject is worth the meditation.
Making a salad, their philosophy goes, should be a thoughtful and measured process, as much about preparing its components as about assembling them. Although you could apply that rhetoric to other types of cooking, it is critically important with salad, because rarely is there a next step in which to coax out flavors or veil flaws.
Cal Peternell, writing in “Twelve Recipes,” has just added a contribution of his own. Although Peternell, chef at the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse since 1995, focuses on vinaigrettes, he touches on some of the basics that home cooks tend to skip because the steps seem painstaking or because, having grown up on iceberg, we never learned.
There’s rinsing the leaves in a bowl of cold water, not under the faucet, so the grit falls away from the leaves and the rushing water doesn’t bruise them. (If your greens have lost a little life, make sure the water is extra cold; a short bath will revive them.) There’s lifting the greens out of the water and into a colander rather than pouring them, along with all the grit you’ve carefully dislodged. There’s drying them, because spending the better part of twilight carefully filling a salad bowl, whisking up a dressing with your best olive oil and then diluting it with too-moist leaves is heartbreaking. Use a salad spinner or a couple of tea towels, again aiming not to bruise those leaves, which under the weight of dressing will turn soggy and limp faster than an unbruised leaf will.
For dressing those carefully prepared greens, look to your hands, which will coat the leaves more effectively than any utensil. Dress them at the last minute before you serve, because they cannot wait to begin wilting. Sturdier greens like chicories, dandelion and collards will buy you a little extra time, cabbage even more. Then, for the sake of economy, dress only as much as you think you’re going to eat, because unlike stew, a leafy salad rarely improves the next day. As Peternell points out, “You can always dress more.”
Working with sturdier leaves requires just slightly altered attention. Heartier, fuller-flavored greens, such as mustards, chicories or everything-but the-kitchen-sink mixes like one Nolan brings to the Mount Pleasant farmers market on Saturday mornings, can take burlier dressings than you might use for a salad of delicate spring lettuces, which can turn sodden without much provocation. Ingredients like Dijon mustard, cream, pounded nuts and honey add a heft and texture that encourages the dressing to cling to the leaves.
For salads of collards or kale, Peternell prefers to cook the greens first, boiling them briefly in salted water just until tender before dressing the drained, chopped greens with a pounded-garlic-and-anchovy vinaigrette and serving them over toast.
“The dressing drips into the toast, and it gets all delicious. It makes a great snack or a light lunch,” he said.
So much of making salad is in the preparation that it seems wise to learn to enjoy it. Rodgers, in the “Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” puts it this way: “I love the feeling of scooping up the leaves and sliding them between my fingers, coating each surface with dressing.”
Even if you don’t find anything meditative in that, your care will come through on the plate. It will be more than enough.
Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle.