A salad does not need to be a bowl of lettuce. It just needs to provide tonic to duller flavors, to sharpen a meal’s edge, help define where one taste stops and another begins.
Italian salads are often just a single raw or cooked vegetable, sliced thinly and dressed with a drizzle of vinegar and olive oil. In France, they are happy little mops of celery root, doused in vinegar and mixed with crème fraîche and capers. In Greece or Israel, salads might be cucumbers and mint, or roasted eggplant, or spiced boiled carrots. There is a delicious Palestinian salad made only of preserved lemons, roughly puréed, and eaten cold with warm pita bread. Elizabeth David suggests, after her lament about her native England’s bad salads, “a dish of long red radishes, cleaned but with a little of the green leaves left on.”
Cold roasted beets, sliced or cubed, drizzled with vinegar, and mixed with toasted nuts and olive oil are a wonderful salad. So is roasted broccoli, tossed with vinegared onions and a light smattering of dried chile. So are green beans, boiled until just cooked, cold and sliced thinly, tossed with peanuts and crisp scallions and rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. So is boiled cauliflower or potatoes, already nicely salted, drizzled with vinegar and oil, with a big handful of chopped olives and capers mixed in. Anything, cooked or raw, cut up a little, mixed firmly with acid, salt, and a little fat, laid carefully on a plate, or spooned nicely into a bowl, is a “salad.”
A salad simply is too wonderful a moment in the meal to waste on assumptions. Because a salad can be made of anything, make one of an ingredient about which you get excited, or of whatever looks most lively, or of whatever you have around already. Do that instead of automatically buying lettuce, or wishing you were happier eating the sallow lettuce you have.
Parsley makes a very good salad. I have seen the humble leaves do a salad’s duties on several occasions. At the wonderful little restaurant Prune, it is served next to two gloriously rich marrowbones and buttered toast. No lettuce on earth is a better-suited foil to that fatty combination.
When friends and I opened a restaurant in Georgia in a summer too hot for lettuce to grow, I decided that if parsley could do what needed doing for bone marrow, it could do it for a hamburger. So I listed “parsley salad” on the menu.
Our general manager made little signs to put on tables that explained that lettuce was a seasonal crop, printed with a solemn, “Why we don’t have lettuce,” but other than a few noisy ones, customers ate their parsley salad unquestioningly. There were even requests for more parsley salad, once the days cooled down and our farm’s young lettuces needed to be picked and served instead.
Other humble ingredients make fine analeptics. Use a vegetable peeler to peel long slices off carrots. Fill a bowl with the carrot ribbons, add a light sprinkle of toasted cumin or coriander, a little vinegar and salt, then dress it with a lot of good olive oil.
Or slice celery thinly on a long diagonal, and, omitting the spices, do the same.
Rich, piquant, rémoulade salads, usually made from celery root, are in season when the ground ices over and the only vegetables available are fibrous roots. If you ever wonder whether all vegetables really can become salads, stop and look at celery root, with its grizzled, warty skin. In France, it’s waited for all year long, itself a reason to look forward to the arrival of shorter days.
Rémoulade, designed to tame cold-season vegetables, could tame cardboard just as easily. If you end up with old, tough green beans, slice them very thinly, and treat them to the same smoothing over. Use rémoulade to make a salad of anything but tender spring and summer vegetables, which it would wilt, leaving the delicious sauce a cold untested puddle.
Adapted from “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” Copyright © 2011 by Tamar Adler. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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