I seem to have lost track of Ben, developmentally: for so long, I've been giving him little jobs to help me with the cooking that I didn't realize he'd turned into this actual, competent person who can make a recipe from the ground up and doesn't need to be stuck always and forever with the lemons and parmesan like he's Edward Graterhands or something. And so I taught him to make a salad. And now I can be 15 minutes from dinner on the table, and I can say, "Hey Ben, would you please make a salad?" And yes. He would. Happily.
The learning curve is swift and steep: the kids, they don't know stuff so much at first. They don't know where the mustard is (fridge), where the nuts are (freezer), where the salad bowl is (kitchen island) and how to get it out from under the other bowls (you have to take all the bowls out together, and then put the smaller ones back). They don't know how to preheat the toaster to roast the nuts (wait for the light to turn orange and then to go off and then it's ready), how to taste the dressing (dip in a leaf of the salad), how not to get oil from the measuring spoons all over their hands (measure the oil last), and where the dried fruit is (the cupboard). But then, get this: they can learn all of these things! In fact, and this is different from the way it might be with certain partners, you only have to tell Ben once. Then he learns and knows! He was so cute and excited about the salad lesson that he took notes. And then I realized that that's one of the most important things: write down (or have them write down) the recipe for the salad dressing, and then stick it to the fridge. That way they can take complete ownership of the task without having to ask for reminders, and that works best for everyone.
What I am also trying to teach him, and this is a little more complicated, is how to make a really well balanced salad. For me, that means greens of some sort, other vegetables that are in season, something crunchy, something sweet, something rich, something borrowed, something blue, and a good, sharp vinaigrette (I like to use either balsamic vinegar, which is sweet, or sherry vinegar, which is nutty and rich). I do not always do all of these things: if dinner is already filling or complicated, I will happily dress a bowl of plain arugula and that will be perfect. But because we are so often eating simple, vegetarian meals, I expect the salad to carry a little extra weight, and I think it's worthwhile to roll with the seasons and not try to eat tomatoes in January, when they inevitably suck.
I know. I am exceedingly opinionated about salad. Which is not to say, and I know you know this about me, that a bowl of iceberg and Catalina French wouldn't totally do it for me, because it would. It really would. But a big, good, crisp, tangy, balanced salad makes me feel different. Like I'm photosynthesizing, despite the cold and the dark. Like life is burbling to the surface. Like spring is coming, which it is, you can see all over the trees already: the buds sleeping inside their icy jackets, dreaming about the thaw.
The World's Best Salad
Total time: 15 minutes
Greens, washed and dried:
-sliced up romaine
-torn butter lettuce
-baby greens mix
-slivered cabbage and/or kale
Other veggies, in season:
-tomatoes, cukes, bell peppers, steamed green beans, corn (summer)
-roasted diced squash or beets, shredded raw beets, fennel, jicama (winter)
-lightly steamed asparagus or snap peas, sliced radishes (spring)
-sliced or shredded carrots and seeded and sliced cukes (year-round)
-fresh herbs, as available
-diced apple or pear
-grapefruit or orange sections cut free from the peel and membranes
Something crunchy (especially if there's not a crunchy vegetable):
-nuts, roasted at 350 for 4 or 5 minutes: pecans, walnuts, almonds
-pine nuts or pumpkin seeds, toasted in a little oil in a small frying pan for a minute or two
-croutons: bread cubes, sprayed with olive oil and toasted in a hot oven until crisp
-cheese (grated parmesan, feta, crumbled blue or goat cheese)
-tinned beans or hearts of palm, rinsed and drained
Optional: something strong or salty
-sliced red onion
-cooked, crumbled bacon
For a good, basic vinaigrette:
1/2 tsp kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 teaspoon good grainy or Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons good olive oil (buy it in small bottles, and always make sure it smells fruity and clean; nothing ruins a salad quicker than rancid oil)
Add all the ingredients to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and shake to emulsify. Taste for salt and acid/oil balance by dipping a leaf in.
- This dressing
-use sherry vinegar along with a bit more oil and a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity
-add a clove of garlic, pressed, or a bit of chopped shallot
-use white wine vinegar and vegetable oil, skip the mustard, and add a half teaspoon each of vanilla and sugar (this is my vanilla vinaigrette, and it's what I make when we run out of olive oil)
Assemble the salad: place the greens in a large bowl and add whatever veggies you're using (here Ben used carrots). Dress the salad and toss it (we use tongs for this), then add the other ingredients (here Ben used toasted pecans, dried cherries, and grated parmesan), and toss again. Serve and eat right away.