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Anatomy of a salad

A great salad is anything but healthy. That is not to say that a tasty salad is bad for you, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you are creating health food. If health is your concern, go eat a grain roast; for as far as I am concerned, a well-built salad should be a seasonal flavor sensation.

A proper salad begins with a trip to the farmers market. A well-stocked produce department of any reasonable grocery story will suffice, but they tend to frown upon the necessary grazing required to identify the appropriate tastes. To build the salad of your dreams, simply follow these six easy steps:

Step 1 - Locate the green selections at your market of choice. Like all other produce, greens are seasonal. To me there is nothing like the bite of a spicy arugula grown in a dry southern California summer. And that has almost nothing in common with bitter radicchio or baby spinach, an edible flower or a Boston butter bib, dandelion leaves or endive frisee to name but a few of the multitude of varieties. Your choices are really only limited by region and season. So taste a few of the greens being offered and dare to imagine the culinary possibilities.

Step 2 Congratulate yourself. You have chosen your green or combination thereof, and now you are ready to begin the real work. Take another bite and savor the flavor. Is it bitter, sweet, gentle, strong, woodsy or spicy? Now consider your mood. Take into account the weather or the moon and stars if you are so inclined. And finally trust your instinct for it is time to consider the fixings. Once again, the options are limited only by season, region and imagination.

Diced figs are my all time most beloved salad accoutrement. But they are only a start. The figs go beautifully with a spicy arugula and fortunately their seasons overlap. Combine walnuts, raisins and a crumbled dry blue cheese with those diced figs and sharp arugula, and we are approaching celestial proportions.

Or perhaps a gentle baby spinach has caught your eye. My mind speeds in the direction of farm-fresh hard-boiled eggs and mushrooms. Granted when I visit the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Saturdays, the mushroom vendor is parked right next to the free range organic egg vendor, who is right next to the vendor of the most glorious hydroponically grown Japanese spinach this side of the pacific. The only person missing from that lineup is a guy selling slabs of smoked bacon.

But those are only two salad options. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of the topping possibilities that I find in my market through the seasons: raisins, tart apples, sweet apples, dates, olives, blue cheese, gouda cheese, goat cheese, persimmon, orange, tangerine, toasted pecans, grapes, tomatoes (think of the varieties), pistachios, cucumbers, thinly sliced flank steak, mushrooms and if I didn’t have a five year old daughter asking every 30 seconds if I have finished my thought so we can go out to the garden and plant salad fixings, I would continue on listing the possibilities to the point of reaching exhaustion.

Step 3 You’ve tasted your way through the farmers market, chosen your green with care, considered your emotional variables and opted on three to six toppings. Now you are ready to consider the dressing. Anyone thinking about sloshing on a bottled dressing by a well intentioned but taste dyslexic movie star is politely invited to test our egress. For leaving someone else to create your dressing after giving so much attention to the foundation is no different than paying someone to step in with your spouse following foreplay while you go in search of a stale roast beef sandwich.

Step 4 Now for all of you naysayers who say vinaigrette dressings are too difficult to create, I say “Tosh.” You simply need to be able to open up your imagination, follow a few basic proportions, and be willing to experiment. Here’s how:

  1. Start with a good oil. Virgin olive is the most obvious choice for many, but walnut, grape seed, canola, and sesame are just a few of the many oil possibilities. One of my favorite oils for dressing is a blood orange infused olive oil.

  2. Find a quality vinegar. You can’t go wrong with a balsamic. But at least consider rice wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar to name but a few good options.

  3. Choose your ratio. There are two ratios bandied about for dressings and both are appropriate. The traditional is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. The stronger version is 3 to 2. I prefer the later and I encourage you to experiment to find your preferred ratio.

  4. First pour the oil, then the vinegar into a small cup or jar (with lid) for shaking. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and whisk (or cover and shake) until the dressing emulsifies. Taste and adjust.

  5. (optional) Consider a flavor enhancer. My father who can’t cook much more than a bowl of stale cereal is famous for adding mustard to his vinaigrettes. Sometimes I add a touch of lemon juice, or lime juice and I’ve been known to add a dash of grapefruit juice or hot sauce to account for certain moods. Other options include but are not limited to crushed garlic, chopped herbs, flavored salts, mayonnaise and even ketchup. Let your tastebuds be your guide.

Step 5 Like many a fine cocktail, most quality salads are built not tossed. I like to layer my salads with the lettuces on the bottom, the toppings artfully arranged on the top, and the freshly emulsified dressing drizzled over the toppings (let the serving tongs do the unsightly tossing for you). Occasionally I will sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper over the top just before serving.

So off you go … to the market. You now have the fundamentals of making a great salad under your belt and it’s time to start experimenting.

Step 6 Serve, enjoy, and for goodness sakes — keep experimenting!

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