08 June 2010

The Art of Simple Food

Salad: Open a bag of lettuce. Twist off the top of that Ranch dressing and add to lettuce. Salad right? You are so very wrong. If you don't believe me, then tell that to Alice Waters. In her book The Art of Simple Food: Notes and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, she waxes downright poetic about the simple garden salad. In Waters' hands it doesn't seem the least bit simple.

"For me, making a garden lettuce salad — washing beautiful fresh-picked lettuces and tossing them together with a scattering of herbs and a vinaigrette — is as much of a joy as eating one. I love the colorful variety of lettuces, bitter and sweet; the flavor and complexity of herbs such as chervil and chives; and the brightness of a simple vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, and a whisper of garlic, which highlights the lettuces and herbs without overwhelming them.

For a salad to have flavor and life, you have to start with fresh, just-picked lettuces. I’m fortunate to have a small kitchen garden in my backyard where I grow various lettuces and herbs for salad, but if you don’t have such a garden it can take some real dedication to find good greens. Farmers markets are the best places to start. When my garden is not producing, or when I’m away from home, I shop for head lettuces and try to create my own combinations of lettuces, arugula, chicories, and whatever tender herbs I can find. I generally avoid the salad mixes, especially the pre-bagged ones, which usually seem to include one or two kinds of greens that don’t belong with the others. If there is a lovely mixture from a local salad grower, fine, but otherwise try to buy the best head lettuces you can find and make your own mix.

Wash the lettuce, gently but thoroughly, in a basin or bowl of cold water. First cull through the lettuces, pulling off and throwing into the compost bin any outer leaves that are tough, yellowed, or damaged. Then cut out the stem end, separating the rest of the leaves into the water. Gently swish the leaves in the water with your open hands and lift the lettuce out of the water and into a colander. If the lettuces are very dirty, change the water, and wash again.

Dry the lettuces in a salad spinner, but don’t overfill it. It’s much more effective to spin-dry a few small batches than one or two large ones. Empty the water from the spinner after each batch. Any water clinging to the leaves will dilute the vinaigrette, so check the leaves and spin them again if they’re still a little wet. I spread out each batch of leaves in a single layer on a dish towel as I go. Then I gently roll up the towel and put it in the refrigerator until it’s time to serve the salad. You can do this a few hours ahead.

When the time comes, put the lettuce in a bowl big enough to allow you to toss the salad. If you have some, add a small handful of chives or chervil, or both, either chopped quickly or snipped with scissors.

Toss everything with the vinaigrette, using just enough sauce to coat the leaves lightly, so they glisten. Beware of overdressing small, tender lettuces: They will wilt and turn soggy. I usually toss salads with my hands. (I eat salads with my hands, too.) That way I can be gentle and precise and make sure that each leaf is evenly dressed. Taste, and if needed, finish the salad with a sprinkling of salt or brighten it with a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste again and see what you think, then toss one last time and serve the salad right away."

OK. There you have it. Here is a fave salad variation. I adore cukes and this gives a variety of ways to go about making a lowly cucumber into a divine salad.

Cucumbers with Cream and Mint

There are many varieties of cucumbers, each with its own flavor and texture. I especially like Armenian, Japanese, and lemon cucumbers.

Peel and slice:

2 cucumbers

If the seeds are large and tough, cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon before slicing. Place in a medium-size bowl and sprinkle with:


In another bowl, combine:

1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Fresh-ground black pepper

Stir well. If water has accumulated with the cucumbers, drain it off. Pour the dressing over the sliced cucumbers and combine. Coarsely chop:

3 mint sprigs, leaves only

Toss with the cucumbers. Taste and adjust the salt as needed. Serve cool.

Add pounded garlic to the dressing.
Serve alongside sliced beets dressed with oil and vinegar.
Grate or dice the cucumbers and serve as a sauce over baked salmon.
Parsley, chervil, basil, or cilantro can be substituted for the mint.
Substitute plain yogurt for the cream.
Add spices such as cumin, coriander, or mustard seeds to the dressing.

One of the reasons i really adore this book is the way the recipes are written. They have an old-fashioned feel. they have that very "American Cookbook" list of ingredients carefully measured out, but when you read the recipes you know in your heart that Alice Waters hasn't raised a measuring cup to make this recipe.

I love that!

1 comment:

  1. Did you happen to see her segment with Bill Maher? I think he fell in love, I must say she is most charismatic-she could talk a lettuce wedge with ranch into becoming a delicacy. pgt


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