Happy New Year to all. I hope you were able to enjoy some quality down time during the holidays. Pictured above is our New Year’s eve dinner. Beverage choices for the evening included a pre-meal glass of NV Laurent-Perrier Brut La Cuvée, followed by a glass-and-a-splash of the 2020 Benanti Etna Bianco to accompany our version of the classic Salade Niçoise. While the salad may seem out of season, it was a refreshing change from the roast beast as of late. It also got me thinking about all things salad.
The idea of eating mixed greens with some kind of dressing goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The word salad entered the English language from the French salade, itself a shortened form of the Latin herba salata (salted herb), also from the Latin salata, ultimately from sal (salt). The word first appears in English in the 14th century as sallet. All the variations have to do with salt because vegetables were seasoned with brine, salty oil, or vinegar going back to Roman times. Shakespeare first used the phrase “salad days” in 1606 to mean a “time of youthful inexperience.” Closer to home, or at least to your nearest Cracker Barrel, the first salad bar was offered in 1937. By the 50s, these salad buffets were common fixtures in restaurants like mutant offspring of the Scandinavian smorgasbord sans Aquavit.
Childhood salad memories involve large plastic bowls filled with lettuce which was usually chopped iceberg. From there, any number of veggies were added including chunky slices of underripe tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and chopped green bell peppers. Sometimes grated longhorn cheese was sprinkled over the top to make the entire affair more continental. Ingredients aside, any salad even then was all about the dressing. And any dressing in the time of my youth came in a store-bought bottle. French Dressing, with its dull orange sheen, was all the rage. Only years later did I learn it was basically mayo with a splash of ketchup for color. As time went on, Zesty Italian, Ranch, and Thousand Island were added to the dressing stable. My favorite then, beyond the tried and true French, was Kraft’s Zesty Italian made from the foil packet. If you mixed it with sour cream, it also made a savory dip for chips. Can you say versatile?
I also remember my Grandma Wade’s Jell-O salads and not because I liked them. As a little kid, I found the texture of Jell-O somewhere between slightly oogie and unnerving. The way it wiggled long after impact was unsightly at best. That it could be found in any color of the rainbow except blue only emphasized the fact that you were eating something made by the chemical industrial complex. And once my older siblings Tina and Tom let me in on the not-so-well-kept secret that Jell-O was made from gelatin, which was made from the skins and hooves of dead animals, the deal was sealed. I passed on anything resembling Jell-O forever more. That especially went for granny’s Jell-O salads that compounded the gelatin fracture with added slices of Dole pineapple and cottage cheese. Think about it. A ring-shaped green Jell-O salad made milky and murky with streaks of cottage cheese curds and chunks of canned pineapple slices. The only thing missing were Vienna sausages.
A major shift in the salad universe occurred once we moved to Ann Arbor so I could attend grad school. Then the combination of my wife Carla working at the Earle restaurant and our dining periodically at the Ghitalla’s, my trumpet professor, brought the realization that salad was never served until after the entrée. After all, historically it was intended to cleanse the palate after the heaviness of the main course which was some form of protein. The Earle also dialed up more exotic fare in the greens universe including the Salade Niçoise and the classic Cesar. The former was a revelation in that a salad with the right protein and veggies could be a complete meal. With the Cesar, the idea that salad dressing could register on the Richter scale with serious quantities of garlic and anchovies.
From then on, salad in the Peña-Gaiser household would be forever more served after the entrée and before any cheese or sweets. But I wonder if it was Escoffier who first moved the salad to post-entrée. Or was it an aspect of formal Russian service, at least the part where you weren’t invading each other’s stations. Regardless, around the same time, Carla honed her chops to the all-pro level when it came to making salad dressings from scratch. Her specialty is Cesar dressing. Even though the ingredients have always remained the same, each batch is slightly different. But the common denominators of bracing acidity, pungent garlic, and anchovy bite are always there.
There are times when I think one can measure the quality of a restaurant not by how clean it keeps its restrooms—although true, but how well the kitchen dresses a salad. More often than not, it’s a mass of prepackaged greens glopped to the gills with a dressing possessing the texture of sludge. And the longer the twain do meet, the more you understand how peat bogs are formed. However, there are times when one darkens a reputable restaurant door and is served a salad comprising absolutely fresh greens that are carefully washed, thoroughly dried, and hand-dressed with just the right touch of house-made vinaigrette. It’s a thing of vegetive beauty.
Here at the compound salads are practically always part of the dinner menu. Usually, the greens are dished out of a plastic container, what with our living behind the adobe curtain. But the quality is variable. Purchase any salad offering from a mass brand supermarket, even those labeled “organic,” and you’re forking over shekels for what could double as lawn clippings. It’s like the greens were rinsed in a car wash and then put through a wind tunnel for the dry cycle. Good salad greens, on the other hand, come from Sprouts or Whole Foods. With either, you’re getting high quality stuff that’s not only fresh but washed multiple times so good to go on opening. As for dressings, we run the gambit from Carla’s specialties to store-bought bottles of Girard’s, once a Bay Area delicacy and now made somewhere in Jersey, the elephant graveyard of condiments.
In the end, my favorite salad is still the Cesar. In fact, I’ve listed it as one of the courses in my “meal for the end of time,” the literal last supper when world is about to end in biblical fashion with mountains crumbling, rivers of fire, and cats and dogs living together in sin. As for the salad, the romaine has to be utterly crisp, the croutons crunchy and freshly baked, and the dressing pungent with garlic and bracingly acidic. One last thing. Don’t hold back on the anchovies, please.