I didn’t grow up eating salads. At least, not in the traditional American sense. I don’t think my mom ever even bought a head of lettuce until I was in my teens and she’d succumbed to the influence of food presented on TV. She did have wonderful standards such as the fresh and vibrant seaweed salad, using seaweed she pulled with her own two hands from the rocky beaches near our house, or her sweet and creamy fruit salad. These had nothing to do with the boring, ho-hum iceberg salads I came to associate with what a salad was supposed to be.
During my freshman year in college, my roommate was a vegetarian. She was the first vegetarian I ever knew. She ate Raisin Bran for almost every meal except for when we’d go out; then, it was always salads. I’d follow suit, and I ate more salad that year than I had in the 18 years leading up to that. I was probably one of the few freshmen who lost 15 pounds instead of gained them. In truth, I hated those salads. Whatever those places treated their produce with to keep it green and fluffy would make my stomach clench. Even now, some places’ salads will make my physically ill. Then there’s my irrational fear of getting a plate of contaminated produce.
In cooking school, I’ve learned that every chef instructor has his or her own series of horror stories. While most of them have stories about kitchen accidents that leave fellow chefs maimed of eviscerated (the moral of this story, kids, is don’t run with your chef’s knife), my chef instructor for my Food Service Safety and Sanitation class had a lot of sanitation stories. One of her favorite morals was “a good percentage of foodborne illness comes from contaminated raw produce.” I won’t even start on her salad dressing stories.
Thus, I very rarely order salads when I’m out to eat. Plus, I so rarely eat out, that I always try to get a dish that I wouldn’t be prone to make at home. Despite my shaky introduction to salads, salad dishes don’t fall into that category.
June’s Savories and Sweets party went back to its roots as the Salad and Sweets party. I thought about some cool summer salads and decided on four to serve with my Daring Bakers project, my Danish Braid. And, following my personal preferences, I stayed away from lettuce. I ended up serving variations on Heidi Swanson’s Spring Panzanella, Epicurious’ green bean and hazelnut salad, a brown rice and cucumber salad with asparagus tips, and an approximation of the El Salvadorian drink Agua de Ensalada. I really enjoyed all of these and will be adding them to my go-to. I’m also inspired to play with variations since they’re all so easy to make and easy to alter depending on what’s on hand. I also always seem to have the right stuff to make a decent dressing: a little acid, a little oil, some herbs and seasonings, shake or whisk, and I’m good to go.
For my panzanella, I’d planned to bake a rustic Tuscan loaf, but I ran out of time, so I ended up making a quick milk bread. I liked the richer bread with the greens and the lemon vinaigrette I ended up winging to dress the salad. I steamed the peas and asparagus; cubed the bread and fried it with the shallots, garlic, and thyme; and wilted the spinach. Then I combined some lemon juice and salad oil, seasoned it, and dressed the salad.
The green bean and hazelnut salad dressing included white wine vinegar, some extra virgin olive oil, mustard powder and grainy mustard, and a couple drops of sesame oil. I think toasted hazelnuts can make almost anything taste good, and I loved them with the blanched green beans. The mustards added a nice, muted heat and tang, and the white wine vinegar added a nice, bright zip. It was all topped off with the olive oil’s floral and fruity notes.
The rice and cucumber salad, inspired loosely by this season’s Top Chef competitor Antonia, included cooked brown rice, chopped English cucumber, and lightly steamed asparagus tips. It was dressed with some extra virgin olive oil and white Balsamic vinegar. Just as Antonia commented, the warm and cold combo was appealing, and I liked the flavor and texture combos this dish gave me, too—nutty, crisp, juicy, slightly chewy, with all of it blending together easily. To be honest, it was comfort food. It was the only salad that didn’t make the best leftovers, though; brown rice always seems to toughen up after being in the drying environment of my fridge.
The idea for Agua de Ensalada came from the actual drink I had at a local El Salvadorian restaurant called Eliana’s. It was so lovely—fruity and refreshing without being overly sweet. Their recipe seemed to be pineapple juice, a not-too-sweet simple syrup, and chopped fruit that included apples, pineapple, and carrots. I used just the pineapple juice and added apples, pineapple, and quince, then finished it off with some agave nectar.