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Salads 101

When I was growing up, my mother was pretty proud of her salads. For her, salads meant lettuce, of course, always a bit wet from the washing, tomato wedges, sickly green, slimy, canned asparagus, all piled into a big bowl and drenched with Wishbone Italian dressing. In fact, I couldn’t fathom that you could make dressing, especially without a mix. Nowadays things, thankfully, are a bit different.

For whatever her exact role was, Alice Waters helped launch a culinary revolution at her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. One of the items that was her focus was the salad. Chez Panisse recruited growers to grow different types of lettuces, whether it was mesclun, frisee, or radicchio. Now, with the growth of pre-packaged and washed salad mixes, some of those very same lettuces are available year round. Also, thanks to the Food Network and numerous food publications, Americans are much more knowledgeable about foods from around the world, especially countries like Italy and France whose insistence on the freshest of ingredients make something like a garden salad go from mundane to exemplary.

Salads can be simple or complex, dangerously caloric or light, meal-sized or a simple appetizer. Since it is finally summer, and our local farmer’s market is in full swing and many of you have your own private gardens in bloom, it seems the right time to offer my take on what constitutes a great salad.

A great salad incorporates all of the flavor components that our tongues can process. The human tongue processes five different flavors: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and the latest discovery, “umami” which translates into savory. Umami is present in things like anchovies, Parmesan cheese, and dried mushrooms.

By using different ingredients in your salad you can target all of these- some candied nuts, or dried berries for sweet, a lettuce like arugula for the bitter component, vinegar in your dressing for sour and a nice hard cheese like parmesan or grana for the umami.

It may seem obvious, but freshness of ingredients in a salad is hugely important. Lettuce should be vibrant. Prepackaged lettuce is fine, but fresh from the ground farmer’s market produce trumps most of the prepackaged stuff. But please, if you are washing your own lettuce, make sure you dry it well. About the only cardinal sin when making a salad is using wet lettuce that will dilute the dressing! The right ratio of fillings or additions is important as well. As to the dressing, I rarely buy bottled dressing, other than creamy blue for buffalo wings, or ranch for the kids. I much prefer to make a nice light vinaigrette. Vinaigrettes are salad workhorses, extremely simple to prepare, and with all of the different vinegars and oils available are open to amazing variation.

So, let’s make a salad. Start with some mixed greens and romaine lettuce. I like romaine because it is a bit sturdier and holds up well to dressing, as well as having a nice crunch. Wild greens or spring mix have differing textures and flavors and are nice and tender. Also, many mixes have radicchio or arugula that adds a nice bitter edge. Toss in some candied nuts and dried cranberries. A bit of your favorite cheese - I am a big fan of fresh goat cheese, but feta works nicely, as does the aforementioned shaved Parmesan or grana that will give you the elusive “umami” flavor component. Now toss with a freshly made vinaigrette.

I like all types of vinegar, but if I had to pick, I’d go with aged sherry. To make the vinaigrette simply whisk one part of vinegar with some chopped shallots and sugar and salt to taste. Add about one tablespoon of Dijon mustard and while whisking pour three parts of olive oil into the bowl in a steady stream. The mixture should emulsify - come together into a homogenous whole. If you are feeling really decadent and have some on hand, a little white truffle oil mixed in bumps the flavor to another savory level. Serve immediately on cold plates and enjoy a taste of summer.

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Duke Diercks Duke Diercks is the owner of Duke’s Cowboy Grill in Ponderay. Visit his blog at www.bbq-recipes-for-foodies.com

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