The weather is warming and salad sales in the restaurant are booming.
I like salads, but I am not an entrée-salad eater. I like a salad as a small course or as a component or accompaniment to a main course.
When I am entertaining friends at home, I rarely serve a salad. Sometimes at lunch, I might throw together something quick and uncomplicated, but mostly I opt for soup in lieu of salad.
My grandmother always served a salad when she hosted a formal meal, though her salads were not of the tossed variety. She never served a bean salad or a pasta salad. She occasionally served a fruit salad. Mostly what she served were little-old-lady-congealed salads.
I loved my grandmother more than I have column inches to describe, but I hate congealed salads.
Congealed salads are evil. They are the greatest trick ever played on children. They looked like Jell-O, they shook like Jell-O, but they tasted like V-8 juice. She would even put a dollop of mayonnaise on top, which, of course, looked like some type of sweet whipped cream, shook like some type of whipped cream, but tasted like Miracle Whip.
My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was the Queen of the congealed salad. She had hundreds of small metal molds in dozens of shapes and designs— sea shells for congealed salads made with clam juice and V-8 juice, tiny wreath molds for a green jiggly concoction with vegetables in it, and small, scalloped dome-shaped molds for congealed fruit salads that didn’t taste like fruit but still had a dollop of mayonnaise on the top.
I love shrimp salad. My grandmother made the world’s best chicken salad. We serve a salad named Sensation Salad at the restaurants that I could eat to accompany most meals. What do those salads have in common? None of them use Jell-O. None of them try to deceive little kids into thinking that they are dessert when they are actually cloudy, bitter, and vegetable-laden tomato juice.
When one eats a shrimp salad, one knows he is eating a shrimp before he even takes the first bite. The same goes for chicken salad and tuna salad. That is what I require from my salads— honesty.
While we’re on the topic of salads that I hate, add that nasty carrot-and-raisin salad to the list, and also that salad that is made with English peas, sour cream, and green onions. Ambrosia? No sir.
I like fruit salad as long as there’s no grapefruit in the general vicinity. There is a comedian— I have forgotten his name— who does a hilarious 10-minute bit on why grapefruit is bad and why it destroys a fruit salad. I am in full agreement.
The best salad I have ever eaten was at the Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. I order it (or its current incarnation) every time I go to the city. It is a simple creation of frisee lettuce, bacon lardons, roasted shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese, tossed in a light dressing made from extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and shallots. Beautiful.
It’s amazing how something so simple can taste so complex when left in the hands of one of that city’s best chefs— Alfred Portale. Then again, it’s startling how something so fun looking— the congealed salad— can taste so awful, even in the hands of a sweet, well-meaning and gracious Southern lady.
Frisée Salad with Smoked Bacon, Shiitakes, and Aged Goat Cheese
16 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces slab bacon, cut into lardons (1/4-inch strips)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
6 cups frisée lettuce, curly endive, or Belgian endive leaves
4 ounces aged goat cheese
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Arrange the shiitakes on a roasting pan. Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft, fragrant, and lightly browned. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them into large pieces. Transfer them to a bowl and set aside.
Warm 1 teaspoon of the oil in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the bacon and sauté, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 8 minutes. Remove it with a slotted spoon and set it on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon fat and keep it warm.
In a bowl, mix together the mustard and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in the remaining olive oil and reserved bacon fat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more vinegar if the dressing seems oily.
Dress the mushrooms with about 1 tablespoon of the dressing and set aside. Put the lettuce in a salad bowl, add the mushrooms and shallots, and dress them lightly with the remaining vinaigrette. Grate half of the aged cheese (or crumble if using fresh) into the bowl, toss to combine, and season with salt and pepper. Scatter the bacon over the salad, grate (or crumble) the remaining cheese over the top, and serve family-style from a bowl or divide among 4 salad plates.
You can go a more traditional route and use blue cheese, ideally Roquefort, instead of goat. Try sherry vinegar in place of the red-wine vinegar. Serves 4
FLAVOR BUILDING— A teaspoon of freshly chopped tarragon stirred into the dressing will complement all of the flavors here. Or, whisk in a tablespoon of honey into the dressing along with the mustard to subtly sweeten it.
From Simple Pleasures: Home Cooking From the Gotham Bar and Grill’s Acclaimed Chef by Alfred Portale (William Morrow 2004)