Maybe this summer is the year I come around on salad. I had hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, as our CSA had reported early hail, a delay of the first delivery of the season, and what sounded like a significant blow to the lettuce crop.
While I do not generally celebrate the misfortune of others, my heart did a little happy dance at the notion of fewer salad greens in this year’s share from the farm.
However, two active weeks into the season we are seeing plenty of lettuce. This week and last we had two giant heads of the stuff, and the week before we had a bag of loose leaf too. Other leafy greens that can be cooked I’m quite enthusiastic about. It’s those that are eaten raw which have always seemed like more of a chore than a delight.
But I’m starting to get into the Zen of washing greens.
And I’m starting to get the feel of Italian dressing.
Lettuce is filthy. Maybe not processed supermarket lettuce. But lettuce that grows on a farm is covered with dirt. Dirt and bugs.
The good news is that it means not only is the food super-fresh because it didn’t take a detour for additional processing, but the presence of bugs suggests that the vegetables aren’t toxic even for these tiny life forms. Still, it needs a thorough cleaning. And by that I mean at least three soakings in a large bowl full of cold water.
The first bowl is murky. The second bowl will have some dirt and maybe a few remaining bugs. With luck, the third bowl only releases a few trace specks of things that aren’t lettuce.
This is the part that I’m coming to enjoy.
I have no idea how to clean lettuce in an ecologically sound way, as I cannot imagine going through this many gallons of water for a few plates of salad passes muster with the great green army. Still, on warmer days, spending some quality time dipping my hands in cold water is refreshing and invigorating. Plus the kids enjoy drying the greens in the salad spinner once my part is complete.
In the past I’ve been dissatisfied with salad spinners. Mostly because I was obsessed with dryness. Once I saw a clip of Alice Waters washing and drying greens. She used several towels, laid them all down the length of her counter, and spread them with washed lettuces. Then she rolled them all up which ensured every single leaf got fully dried.
I’m only willing to go so far for salad.
But it has been reacquainting myself with Marcella Hazan’s thoughts on Italian salad dressing that has given me a modest amount of comfort with the imperfections of my drying techniques. Although I should clarify that to her Italian dressing is salt, extra virgin olive oil, and vinegar.
In her book Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking she shares a parable:
For a good salad you need four persons: A judicious one for the salt, a prodigal one for the olive oil, a stingy one for the vinegar, and a patient one to toss it.
In the past, I’ve fretted about my greens being perfectly dry lest the last clinging droplets of moisture dilute the salad dressing. For Marcella’s technique those dewy leaves actually help dissolve the salt and spread it around the salad in a quick toss before you hit it with olive oil.
This is a much bigger relief than you can imagine.
Then comes the prodigal person bearing the olive oil. Marcella claims that, “Italians will never say, when savoring a well-tossed salad, ‘What a wonderful dressing!’ They do say, ‘What marvelous oil!’” How do you taste olive oil on salad? Well, you look for these words on the bottle, “First cold pressed” and “Extra virgin.” And when you are preparing the salad, you keep adding oil and tossing it with the greens until every leaf and every vegetable is covered with the sheen of oil.
A little vinegar goes a long way, and should you make it to a good specialty store, you too will want to be stingy with it because there are some great vinegars that come in very small bottles with very large price tags. My Italian goddess of fussy advises using balsamic only as an occasional supplement to red wine vinegar, but generally prefers the wine vinegar on its own. Vinegar adds its aroma to the salad, however it takes a supporting role, and the goal is to barely notice it in the background.
And that’s it. That’s the secret of Italian dressing.
But like anything else, when the recipes are that simple, it becomes increasingly important that you use the best ingredients you can find. That is where I feel lucky to have my CSA, because their lettuces actually do have a tremendous amount of flavor on their own.
So maybe by the end of this summer I will have turned a corner, or maybe I’ll be sick of salad by fall. Either way, that’s what’s growing now, so that’s what’s on our plates. I’m just glad I’ve found a way to make eating it less onerous, because eating should be a pleasure.