Vinegar, sugar, and lettuce! You'd only need those three ingredients to recreate the simplest summer salad my parents served almost daily to their five children. You'd have thought we were rabbits with the way we chomped down those fresh-from-the-garden leafy greens. Once my Mom threw dandelion greens into our salad, freshly picked from the ditch bank. They were slightly bitter, but we ate them anyway . . . along with the fried dandelion heads, which were rather fuzzy going down, to say the least.
We each took turns cutting the lettuce from our garden plot. We'd try to shake the earwigs from the leaves before bringing the lettuce into the house but always the kitchen sink crawled with the critters. Nozzle sprayer in hand, the girls showered the pinching creepies into the disposal, while the boys took the simpler approach of pinching them back and manually throwing them down the dark, deep hole (after first chasing sisters with them).
Washing each leaf of lettuce really took time, and frostbite almost nipped our hands after they'd been exposed to the cool, running water for that long. But we'd learned from eating gritty lettuce that it is better to wash each leaf individually than risk encounters of the microscopic kind (mud or cob-webby spiders) on your plate or in your mouth at dinner.
With the lettuce clean and dry, someone poured the vinegar into the little blue creamer. Another sibling scooped granulated sugar into a custard cup. Then, with lettuce piled up on dinner plates, a spoon splashed on the vinegar, followed by a spoonful of sugar sprinkled evenly over the greens. Wala! Instant salad--fat free dressing and all, though of course we didn't notice that back then.
Today's salads can be a bit more complex then that treat of my youth. But then again, it's salad. How hard can it be? A few basic hints and you'll be well on your way to creating delightful, pleasing salads. And don't be surprised if you overhear a guest comment, "I just have to get the recipe for that dressing."
- Choose fresh-looking greens. Avoid those bundles with wilting leaves or stems and brown spots. They should look crisp. If you get to choose, buy greens with roots still attached. As soon as the root is removed, the leaves begin to deteriorate. It's best to keep them as fresh as possible until you're ready to create and eat your salad.
- Just as one rotten potato can spoil the bag, so does one wilting or decaying leaf affect its neighbors. Toss the culprit before storing the greens. Also, if the greens are tied together with a band, remove it before storing to prevent bruising.
- Clean greens well. Your reputation as a salad chef will plunge if guests bite into grit. Fill up a sink with cool water, enough so that the leaves will float and the grit will sink to the bottom. Swish the leaves around in the water for 30 seconds. Lift the greens from the water and drain. Repeat the swishing process until no residue is found on the sink bottom and the water is clear.
- To clean iceberg lettuce, bang the core on the counter to loosen, then twist to remove. Pour cold running water into the cavity left by the core. Invert the head into a colander and let it drain. Wrap in a clean cloth towel and store in the refrigerator until needed.
- Properly dried greens will keep in the refrigerator for up to five days; undried greens will not last and be hardly edible. Plus, wet greens in a salad sog up all the other ingredients, dilute the dressing, and keep the dressing from sticking to the salad, making for a watery salad catastrophe. Dry the greens really well either in a salad spinner or manually by rolling them up in a clean cotton towel and patting dry. Alternatively, you can place them in a clean pillowcase, take it outside and whirl it around your head. Your neighbors will love this!
- Store the greens, whole (don't cut or tear them until ready to make salad), wrapped in a moistened, clean cotton towel. Place the toweled greens in the crisper of your refrigerator and store until ready to make your sensational salad, up to 5 days down the road.
- Revive limp greens by soaking in cold water for about 5 minutes. Pat them dry and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to complete the crisping process.
- Tear greens with your hands; a knife causes the edges to turn brown and can sometimes leave a bitter taste. Keep the leaves large enough to be attractive. Really small leaves create a "minced" salad look that isn't very appealing. Tear the leaves along the center rib, and then in half if they are extra large.
- You may wish to add tomatoes just before serving to prevent them from weeping into your salad, diluting the dressing, and wilting the greens. Alternatively, tomatoes weep much less when cut vertically (versus horizontal slices).
* DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *