The month of June is in full swing and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) season is getting underway. Today I'll pick up our first of 16 fresh vegetable shares and begin the summer Planted Plate cooking challenge. This isn't my first rodeo and I know that a boatload of kale, chard, collards and mesclun mix are on the menu for the foreseeable future. After a long winter fighting off scurvy with trucked in veggies I'm always eager to tuck into my first few bunches of greens, but let me tell you something I've discovered over the years: Salad fatigue is real and staying interested in eating so much of it can be a big challenge a few weeks into the annual CSA. It's a really good thing that I am a salad ninja and I'm willing to spill some of my secrets for the greater salad eating good.
I've got dozens of salad tips to dole out over the summer, but I want to get started with standard basics. A triumphant salad consistently has the same components and creative cooks can play with the variations to avoid the dreaded salad burnout:
You might think this goes without saying, but "Fresh is Best!" The box of spinach languishing away in the bottom of your fridge, you know the one that smells more like it's at the bottom of the laundry hamper? Not fresh. Using the crispest greens isn't just good for your taste buds, it's good for your body. The fresher your veggies the higher their nutrient value and yes, they DO taste better! One more thing, after washing all that awesome local produce DRY it! Watery lettuce will ruin everything.
Who doesn't love the satisfying crunch of toasted nuts? In a salad with airy lettuce and succulent tomatoes there is almost nothing better than the salty and smoky addition of nuts. Strategically chosen cheese (the right kind for the salad, not too much or too little) adds a pleasant and creamy smoothness. Experimenting with different vegetable additions is a fun way to get to know new foods and get your five a day while you are at it! For crunch I'm thinking jicama, radishes, romanesco, etc...
Remember Saturday morning School House Rocks cartoons? When it comes to dressing I often recall the animated short sung by a hard boiled egg intent on educating viewers about sensible portions. Fighting the tide of ranch dressing on a pitiful life preserver the egg sang, "Don't drown your food!" which made an impression on me. In the case of salad less is always more,and a mere coating is preferred to a shellacking. Dressing should compliment the flavors of your salad, not obscure them. My go-to/everyday dressing is as simple as this: Sprinkle pepper and garlic powder on undressed salad. No salt necessary if using umeboshi plum vinegar. Toss. Swirl olive oil and several dashes of ume on top. Toss. Correct seasoning and serve.
An unexpected, tasty, little morsel in a salad is a nice treat. Orange slices, dried fruit, coconut flakes, etc. Thinking outside of the veggie box will open a world of creative possibilities. Cheerios might sound crazy, but they may just be the garnish you're looking for. Don't be timid about experimenting, it's only salad!
Along the way I've absorbed little tricks about cooking from people in my life. Recipes are sometimes more like a portrait that I draw anew each time it is prepared. Folding sliced mushrooms into a vinaigrette I think about someone I used to know and wonder. Slicing orange segments into lettuce greens transports me back to art school days, but has nothing to do with clay. Crumbled feta reminds me of when I started getting the knack of this cooking thing and MY salad (with romaine, toasted walnuts and feta) was requested for dinner parties and pot lucks.
Spinach Salad Tips
Spinach doesn't like to be tossed around too much, it bruises and wilts quickly under duress (who doesn't?!). When I prepare this salad I like to toss everything except the spinach in dressing and then gently fold in the leaves. Here I made a dressing of mustard, wine vinegar and olive oil. No measuring (just eyeballing it) the proportions are approximately:
2 Tablespoons of Mustard
1 Tablespoon of Red Wine Vinegar
1/4 cup Olive Oil
Salt, Pepper, Granulated Garlic to taste.
Blend the dressing together until emulsified. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Stir in all salad ingredients except spinach leaves. I used thinly sliced cucumbers and mushrooms. Mix until thoroughly coated. Gently fold in spinach leaves until dressed. Plate and serve!
What are some of your favorite salad tips and tricks? Do you have a unique ingredient in your salad wheelhouse we need to know about? Share in the comments.
Special shout out to our fantastic farmers, Courtney and Jacob Cowgill of Prairie Heritage Farm. Thank you for doing what you do! Looking forward to another awesome season.