Humans have been burdening salad with a surprisingly weird variety of mystical properties and psychological baggage since ancient times, but its storied history hasn’t necessarily made it more popular.
“It’s a new year, so a lot of people are thinking about diets,” my Beloved said to me. “And that means a lot of people are thinking, ‘Oh @#$%! I have to eat salads.’”
It’s no wonder so many people dislike them — many are soulless, flavorless little bowls of obligation. We chew them to atone for dietary sins, past or impending — or because we were raised to believe that they are talismans against ill health — but rarely because we want to.
It’s not salad’s fault that we’ve turned it into something to be endured, rather than enjoyed, and leafy greens don’t deserve to be buried in infamy — much less ranch dressing. To start the new year off, I’m sharing a bit of the history of salad, along with several ideas for turning it into something you’ll enjoy preparing, and look forward to eating.
On the origins of ‘Sallets’
Citizens of the Roman Empire were great fans of greens and herbs dressed with vinegar, olive oil and salt. In fact, the word ‘salad’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘salt.’ The Romans were also great fans of arguing, and their philosophers had passionate debates about whether salad should be eaten first, to aide digestion, or last, to keep it from ruining the taste of wine.
Ancient Greeks thought salad dampened the sex-drive — a first-century Greek physician recommended serving it to soldiers to prevent them from having naughty dreams. People in medieval England believed lettuce was most useful as a cure for insomnia.
In 1699, English rich kid and professional “diarist” John Evelyn gave the world something it may or may not have been clamoring for: “Acetaria: A discourse of Sallets” the first comprehensive treatise on salad. He, too, was a great believer in the party-pooping power of leafy greens, saying salad had “beneficial influences on morals, temperance and chastity.” At the other end of the spectrum, his contemporary, Robert May, recommended an elaborate salad made with no less than 18 ingredients, including pickled oysters.
The New Ice Age
Salads became increasingly ostentatious over the next couple of centuries. Complicated dishes were status symbols because only homeowners with large hired — or enslaved — kitchen staff could manage them.
According to Laura Shapiro, author of “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century,” the dish took a hard right turn in the late-19th century, when cooks developed a new fascination with using science and technology in the kitchen. Typical tossed salads began to seem messy and unsophisticated. These cooks wanted control, predictability, cleanliness and order.
Once instant gelatins and refrigerators gained a foothold in the salad-game in the early 1900s, all bets were off. Suddenly, jellied salads, dishes you could only make if you could afford to keep them cold, became all the rage. But as more and more households acquired refrigerators, Jell-O lost its dubious veneer of elegance. The Jello-molds were relegated to church suppers, and the Midwest.
In the eye of the beholder
My mother hails from a small Minnesota farm-town where mosquitos outnumber humans 3,000 to 1, and there are only two kinds of salad: little scraps of Iceberg submerged in one of the state’s 10,000 lakes of Russian dressing, and unlikely ingredient combinations entombed in Cool-Whip or Jell-O. There, if it doesn’t shine, shimmy and jiggle like a Vegas showgirl, it’s not salad.
At my uncle’s 100th birthday potluck, my California aunt and I contemplated a bowl of pasta O’s, canned oranges and mini-marshmallows bobbing in a viscous white liquid. We cautiously tried some, but we couldn’t identify the chalky white gloop. We finally guessed that it was vanilla-flavored Ensure, the liquid meal-replacement for seniors with pushy adult children.
Years later, I learned that the mystery Desserty-O’s are better-known as “Frog-Eye Salad,” a dish which Utah Mormons, perhaps unwisely, claim as their very own. The gloop is a sauce made from eggs, pineapple juice, flour and Cool-Whip.
Despite Midwesterners’ efforts to undermine our most ancient, basic and holy concepts of salad, it lived to find yet another new identity in the 21st century.
‘Just a salad for me’
As any woman who has ordered ‘just a salad’ on a date can attest, eating it can be a form of “health theater” that you perform to show that you are disciplined or health-conscious or ladylike. A couple of decades ago, restaurant chains realized consumers wanted to feel that they were eating healthfully, and unleashed a barrage of options whose names suggested power and action. McDonald’s briefly offered “McSalad Shakers,” while Chili’s offered the “Quesadilla Explosion Salad.”
Unsurprisingly, most of these salads are not healthy at all. At best, the ones made from low-quality ingredients like iceberg lettuce, “baby” carrots and mealy tomatoes have little nutritional value. At worst, they’re an avalanche of salt and sugar-laden meats, cheeses and gloppy dressings with more calories than many third-world people consume in a day.
Take for example, McDonald’s Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken. Roughly half of the calories come from fat. It contains 22 percent of the recommended daily allowance for cholesterol, and 43 percent of sodium, as well as something described as a “mold-inhibitor.” A Big Mac has slightly more fiber.
When in Rome
After two-thousand years of experimentation, the only thing we’ve really learned is that the Romans were right: The keys to good salad are simplicity and quality. You need very few tools or ingredients, but they should be the best you can get. You may already have many of the essentials around: a truly sharp knife, decent olive oil and vinegar, some Kosher or flaky salt, fresh garlic and a jar of Dijon mustard.
Get a nice head of Boston, Butter or Red-leaf lettuce. Each has a fresh, mild taste and a texture that catches dressing.
Middle-shelf red or white wine vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar are very good starting points. Good olive oil is the standard, but if you want something milder, try grapeseed oil, which has a light, clean taste that is far superior to standard salad oil.
A head for lettuce
Here are a few reasons why you might not like salads: They’re soggy, they’re boring, you can’t taste anything but dressing, you once ate a bug that was in your lettuce, having cherry tomatoes squirt all over your shirt isn’t really your thing. We can fix all of these.
All the other essentials are things The difference between a bowl of vegetable chunks and a bowl of tasty salad has much to do with how you prepare the ingredients to make them become more than the sum of their parts.
Tear the lettuce into scraps that you can eat in one or two bites, pulling out any big, bitter ribs. For texture and color, you can throw in just a bit of one of the more “challenging” greens, like arugula, endive or radicchio if you like. Rinse the lettuce in a colander to evict any hitchhiking inchworms.
I dislike highly-specific kitchen gadgets like salad spinners, but there is a legitimate reason to dry your lettuce — it keeps it crisp and makes the dressing stick. Fill a clean, inside-out pillowcase with the rinsed lettuce. Take it outside, and swing vigorously until water is no longer arcing off of it. Put it in a big bowl.
My dad calls the delicious tidbits that inevitably end up in the bottom of the pan or bowl “scoobies.” I don’t know why, but it works, and your salads needs them — in moderation.
Salad-bar salads tend to be awful because pickled beets, hard-boiled eggs, chow mein noodles and canned peaches should ever be in the same bowl together. A good salad has color and texture, but not chaos. Forgive yourself if you don’t like certain “obligatory” salad ingredients, like carrot or tomato, and give them the old heave-ho. There are plenty of other options.
Pick a star ingredient and then think about what goes well with that. Make a salad with cucumbers and radishes, or shredded green apple, toasted pecans and craisins, for example. Just don’t use all of those things together.
Now it’s time to use that sharp knife. Remove any barriers to enjoyability like pith, seeds and blemishes. Then slice your veggies into very thin, bite-sized pieces. This is essential — eating salad should not be a chore. Not only will the various flavors and textures work together better, it will also be much easier to convey the salad to your mouth.
For now, leave the add-ins to the side.
You won’t regret vinaigrette
Bottled dressings are a minefield of things that don’t belong on lettuce, like corn syrup. Making your own simple vinaigrette is easy. You can alter it to work with the flavors in any salad by switching up the type of oil and acid you use.
If you like garlic a little, smash a clove and rub it around the inside of your salad bowl. If you like it a lot, finely mince it or grate it into a little dish. Rub some kosher salt into the minced garlic, and add vinegar. For one family-sized salad, you need maybe three tablespoons at most. Not a fan of very strong flavors? Replace a bit of the wine vinegar with an equal amount of the same color of wine or a squeeze of citrus juice. Blend in a small forkful of dijon mustard. This will help turn the dressing into an emulsion. Pour a thin stream of oil into the acid, while whisking with a fork. Resist the temptation to dump all the oil in at once. You can add pepper and herbs if you like, but don’t add salt to your dressing.
Adding something crunchy and unexpected can make all the difference. Put a couple teaspoons of uncooked quinoa, flax or pumpkin seeds in a pan. Toast them over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they begin to pop and take on a light color.
Don’t drown your salad. Add the dressing a bit at a time, and use your clean hands to toss it. Stop when it’s just barely coated in dressing. Reserve a bit of dressing. Add the toasted seeds and a pinch of good salt, and toss again. Pile the other add-ins on top, and finish with a drizzle of dressing.
If your family is accustomed to dried-out bag salad and dairy dressing, it’s going to be a shock at first. If the kids balk, put it on their plate anyhow, and trust that the color, texture and eat-ability will win them over. If they still resist, smile and say, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”
Steal the leftovers off of their plates when they’re not around. You’ve earned them.