Savory salads

Create a delicious balance of color, texture, flavor


Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 24, 2004 at 10:36 a.m.

It wasn't long ago that the American salad was a dreary, monotone affair - a chunk of iceberg here, a Caesar salad there, and maybe, if you got lucky, a wilted spinach salad.

Enlarge |

Most American salads consisted of mainly iceberg lettuce until the late 1970s. Now there is a much wider selection of greens, as is apparent in this salad of greens with citrus fruits and avocado.

Christopher Chung/NYTRNG

No wonder our mothers had to remind us to ''eat our greens'' - the choices were not exactly memorable.

Then in the late 1970s, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., introduced America to a brave new world of leafy greens and lettuces, bringing the garden back into the kitchen in a big, bountiful way.

''With Alice Waters, the chefs and growers made contacts, and it really revolutionized salads,'' said Michael Salinger, director of Santa Rosa Junior College's culinary arts program. ''Now there are a variety of greens available, and you can find salads as an entree, or as a side for the protein, like grilled scallops with frisee.''

We asked Salinger to help us lighten up our spring palates with a few crisp clean salads like Tart Greens with Prosciutto and Warm Balsamic Vinaigrette and Greens with Citrus Fruits and Avocado. Along with sweet cabbages and bitter chicories, mild lettuces and spicy cress, he throws in some citrus and avocado, nuts and cheese to harmonize these salads as cohesively as a string quartet.

Each leafy green adds its own, distinct flavor, creating a whole that is greater than its parts. Tatsoi and mizuna, endive and escarole, frisee and radicchio are terrific ensemble players, providing a balance of color and texture, sweet and bitter flavors.

Mesclun - a combination of mixed field greens that includes some bitter greens like frisee - is one of the most popular blends of salad greens.

''Traditionally, in the south of France, they picked wild shoots and leaves of wild plants,'' Salinger said. ''Today, mesclun is cultivated from a mix of seeds. Some farmers grow individual crops, then put them together.''

Asian greens - a mixture of baby greens like mustard, mizuna and tatsoi - is another ready-made blend that is easy to find. Dress it up with a subtle Asian dressing, and you've got a starter with star power.

When they are tender and young, greens like mustard, chard and spinach are best tossed together into a salad. If you pick them when they're mature, however, you'll need to braise them to tame their flavors and bring back their tenderness.

Some of the hardier greens, like endive and romaine, are also ideal for grilling.

''Many people think of endive in salads, but it's fabulous grilled as well,'' Salinger said. ''I've had a grilled Caesar salad before, and it completely changes the flavor. The heart sweetens up.''

With Salinger's help, we've compiled a user's guide to some of the more unusual leafy greens and lettuces now available to consumers, with tips on how to choose and use them wisely.

CABBAGE FAMILY

Savoy cabbage - A round cabbage with crinkly leaves and a sweet flavor. Although it is often braised, it can add texture and durability to a salad when cut up finely.

Napa cabbage - Shaped like romaine and often found in Asian dishes, including

soups, spring roll fillings and salads, it boasts a delicate flavor.

Baby chard - Used in mesclun and salad mixes, where it adds color and texture and its own unique sweetness.

Tatsoi - A member of the bok choy family, it has dark green leaves with a spicy, fresh flavor with slight bitterness. In baby form, tatsoi is widely found in mesclun mixes.

CHICORY FAMILY

Radicchio - Attractive red leaves and a pleasantly bitter flavor. It adds color and flavor to mesclun mixes but can also stand on its own. Salinger likes to pair radicchio with tangerines, grapefruit and blood oranges or mix it with escarole. ''It goes well with a good balsamic - the sweetness works nicely with it,'' he said. The more common radicchios are the cabbage-shaped Rosa di Verona and the romaine-shaped Rosa di Treviso.

Escarole - Resembles a butterhead lettuce in shape, with dark green, cut-edged leaves that grow paler as they approach the stem. The leaves have a bitter, nutty flavor that pairs well with blue cheese, apples and walnuts. Escarole can also be served wilted, either by grilling and sautéing or by adding a warm dressing. It blends well with other chicories and is available year-round in grocery stores, Salinger said.

Belgian endive - The blanched leaves of the witloof chicory are grown in darkness to preserve their ivory color and crisp, bittersweet flavor. Most people are introduced to endive on hors d'oeuvres trays, where they make excellent vehicles for dips. Salinger mixes endive with other greens or cuts them into thin strips and dresses them with a basic vinaigrette. When sautéed in butter and braised in stock, they also go well with pork.

Frisee - Easy to remember, because this chicory looks as frizzy as it sounds. The lettuce has a white center and lacy, pale green leaves that add body and drama to a salad. ''Some people get turned off from it,'' Salinger said. ''Frisee can be very, very bitter, but now the mesclun mixes have less of it.''

HERBS

You can add herbs to a salad as a palate cleanser. They provide another flavor dimension and offer contrasts in texture and color. Some herbs that work well in salads include cilantro, parsley, chervil, fennel leaves and basil. Fennel adds a subtle licorice flavor, and cilantro pairs well with Napa cabbage.

LETTUCES

Arugula - Looks like an elongated oak leaf and boasts a distinctive flavor that is nutty, tangy and spicy all at once. It stands up to assertive flavors and pairs beautifully with cheese, nuts and all kinds of vinegars. ''It's one of my favorite salad greens,'' Salinger said. He suggests mixing it with avocado, bay shrimp and a creamy dressing. If the arugula is not young and tender enough for a salad, a quick sauté will calm it down.

Dandelion greens - A tangy yet pleasant flavor that pairs well with sweeter ingredients, like red raspberry vinegar. The greens are sold separately at the supermarket and found in mesclun mixes.

Mache - Small, round leaves that are dark green, with a dense texture that gives more body to salads. It is most often found in mesclun mixes, but some chefs buy it whole and use it on its own.

Mesclun mix - When buying a mesclun mix look for a variety of baby leaves that are not overloaded with kale, beet greens, mustard, chard or frisee, which tend to be tougher and stronger in flavor, Salinger said. Make sure the leaves are not bruised or torn. If it's an open box, make sure that it hasn't been over-watered or under-watered. Bags are preferable, since the delicate greens stay fresher, and you know they haven't been handled.

MUSTARD FAMILY

Mustard greens - Can be eaten raw only when very young. They add an intense, peppery flavor to salad mixes.

Mizuna - Long, feathery leaves with a mildly peppery flavor. The baby Asian greens are essential to mesclun mixes, boasting a tenderness that makes them ideal team players.

WATERCRESS AND CRESSES

Watercress - Adds a pleasant pepperiness when added to a salad. Look for nice, young tender leaves that are fresh. ''In heat, it gets too bitter,'' Salinger said. For a side dish to grilled chicken or steak, Salinger picks all the leaves off the stems and toss them with mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper and shallots.

GREENS WITH CITRUS AND AVOCADO

1 pound Asian salad mix (should include baby mustard, tatsoi, mizuna, baby chard and arugula)

1/2 pound baby spinach

2 ripe but firm avocados, cut into thin slices

2 blood oranges, peeled and cut into thin slices with seeds removed

1 ruby red grapefruit, peeled and cut into thin slices with seeds removed

4 satsuma or honey tangerines, peeled and cut into thin slices with seeds removed

1/4 cup citrus juice (from the same citrus as above)

1 teaspoon shallot, finely diced

3/4 cup mild olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Wash and dry the lettuces and spinach. Remove any large stems or bruised pieces. In a large bowl, toss the greens and spinach and set aside.

On a large platter or on individual plates, arrange the avocado slices and the citrus slices in a decorative pattern. In a small bowl, combine the citrus juice and the chopped shallot, and slowly whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add all but 2 tablespoons of the dressing to the reserved greens and gently toss. Place the greens on top of the arranged avocado and citrus fruits, allowing the avocado and citrus to show around the edges. Drizzle the remaining dressing over the avocado and citrus.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

TART GREENS WITH PROSCIUTTO AND WARM BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 small head radicchio

1 small head frisee

1 pound mesclun salad mix

1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

3 scallions, thinly sliced

3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved with a peeler into thin curls

3 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into 1-inch squares

1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves

1 cup lightly packed fresh Italian parsley leaves

10 medium garlic cloves, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak the red onion in the 1/2 cup vinegar for at least 30 minutes.

Wash and dry the lettuces and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.

In a large bowl, toss the greens with all but 3 tablespoons of the pine nuts, most of the scallions, half the cheese, half the prosciutto, and all the basil and parsley. Arrange on a large platter or individual salad plates.

In a medium skillet, slowly cook the garlic in the olive oil over low heat for 5 to 6 minutes or until barely colored. Remove garlic with a slotted spoon and reserve. Raise the heat to medium and add the vinegars to the oil. Cook for 1 minute, add brown sugar to taste (this adds some depth to commercial balsamic vinegar and can be omitted if using aged balsamic), and let the mixture simmer slowly for 1 minute.

Taste for sweetness and tartness balance, add extra brown sugar or balsamic to taste. Stir in the reserved garlic, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Set aside until ready to serve.

Top the salad with drained red onions and scatter the rest of the scallions, pine nuts, cheese, and prosciutto over the salad. Reheat the dressing if necessary, stir well to blend, and spoon over the salad.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Broccoli rabe, which has long stalks and clusters of broccoli-like buds, has a pungent, bitter flavor.

GRILLED BREAST OF CHICKEN STUFFED WITH GREENS

8 boneless and skinless chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 heads frisee

3 heads baby escarole

1 bunch broccoli rabe

Olive oil for brushing and sautéing

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 celery stalks, finely chopped

2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped

Chicken stock to cover

Preheat a grill or grill pan.

Place each chicken breast between sheets of plastic wrap and pound until very thin but not tearing. Season with salt and pepper.

Parboil the frisee and escarole in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes and the broccoli rabe for 2 to 3 minutes; refresh in ice water and drain. Trim the tough bases off the frisee and escarole.

Coarsely chop all of the greens and set half of them aside. Divide the remaining greens on top of the flattened chicken breast, roll up, and tie with kitchen string. Brush the rolled breasts with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place the rolled breasts on the grill or grill pan and grill, turning as needed until evenly browned and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside.

Place a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add a small amount of olive oil just to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onion, celery, and carrots and sauté until soft and lightly colored, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the reserved chopped greens and enough chicken stock to just cover the vegetables. Simmer until the vegetables are very soft, about 10 minutes. Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Remove the strings from the chicken and slice into 1/2-inch pieces. Spread the sauce onto individual plates and arrange the sliced chicken on top of the sauce.

Makes 8 servings.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top