News & Politics

Great Salads

How to turn a bowl of vegetables into something lovely.

As with the best of cooking, salads are inspired not by a recipe but by the best products available. Whether you shop in a supermarket or take advantage of the fresher produce at a farmers market, let the ingredients that look best determine the composition of your salads.

Do not be discouraged from trying one or more of the following combinations if you can't find one or two ingredients, and don't dismiss any of the suggestions for their lack of specific proportions.

Let your taste guide you toward making a perfectly balanced vinaigrette for a particular salad–think more acidity for a salad of assertively flavored greens, one that is less acid for the easily wilted leaves of baby oak leaf, mâche, and watercress. And if dissatisfied with the result of your first try at any of these combinations, adjust subsequent attempts according to personal taste. In salads, as in all other kitchen endeavors, it is taste–not set recipes–that makes for a successful dish.

Here are combinations I like:

* Cooked fava beans tossed in a vinaigrette with a third of their volume of peeled, diced tomato and a scattering of chips of Pecorino cheese.

* Tomato slices, salted and peppered, seasoned with sherry vinegar and drizzled with unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil, and topped with cooked baby green beans, tossed in a separate vinaigrette and generously mixed with chopped flat-leaf parsley. (Prepare the tomatoes first, and allow them to marinate while preparing the haricots verts.)

* Quartered tomatoes, tossed in a vinaigrette with bias-cut scallions, and small chunks of fresh feta cheese. (The latter is produced by Just So Farms and is available daily at Fresh Fields and on Sundays at the Dupont Circle farmers market at 20th and Q streets, Northwest.)

* A particularly guilty pleasure, learned from my late father and reserved for solitary meals: salted, peppered, and sherry-vinegared tomatoes, covered with a generous amount of diced onion tossed in a vinaigrette, and topped with the contents of a can of sardines packed in olive oil.

* Thinly sliced button mushrooms and chopped flat-leaf parsley, tossed with vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, and scattered over with chips of Parmesan. A souvenir of a first meal enjoyed at the Diana restaurant in Bologna.

* A salad of purslane–a prolific weed that can take over a garden faster than English ivy, and whose boxwood-size leaves are served individually plucked off their inedible stems–tossed in a vinaigrette with a dice of peeled tomatoes. This is something to be served either before the cheese course–or with the cheese course–or as an accompaniment to a perfectly roasted free-range chicken with the tiniest of new potatoes.

* Fresh October beans–sold when dry under the name of "cranberry beans"–served hot out of their cooking water, dressed in a mixture of lemon and olive oil, and scattered over with chips of Parmesan and a very few paper-thin slices of celery. A dish first introduced to me by chef Luigi Diotaiuti, owner of Al Tiramisu near Dupont Circle.

* The first tiniest head of cabbage to arrive at the farmers market, shredded, and allowed to soak in hot water poured over it in its bowl for ten minutes, then drained, dried in a salad-spinner, and immediately tossed with a vinaigrette and the equivalent of a large handful of freshly fried, crisp batons of salt pork.

* Hot, freshly poached young leeks, briefly blotted with a towel, covered with a vinaigrette that includes Dijon mustard and boiled egg yolk, and given a last minute sprinkling of the chopped white of the hard-boiled eggs and finely minced flat-leaf parsley.

* A first course of a slice of Coach Farm fresh goat cheese, which has marinated for at least an hour with a sprinkling of sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a generous sprinkling of chopped fresh chives and leaves of fresh thyme, presented on the plate with a circle of diced tomato tossed in a vinaigrette made with finely-chopped shallots and an inexpensive sherry vinegar, and an outer circle of fresh, cooked artichoke hearts, each cut into quarters and dressed with a vinaigrette made with hazelnut oil, minced chives, and a 25-year-old sherry vinegar. This excellent sherry vinegar, labeled "Maison Glass Vintage Sherry Wine Vinegar" is available at Calvert Woodley Liquors.