When I started cooking in commercial kitchens it was a time of transition in American eating habits. The beef-concentric, ‘more is better,’ dining ethos was shifting to lighter, healthier fare.
I have always felt it started with the health and the organic food movement. In the 1970s, these were becoming less and less a ‘fringe’ lifestyle. Both made their way into the restaurant scene through the cooking of Alice Waters, Jeremy Towers, and Wolfgang Puck – the creators of California Cuisine.
Essentially, these chefs were building on the French Novel Cuisine movement that Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Jean and Pierre Troisgros, among others, had started a decade earlier.
On a third front, Giuliano Bugialli and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks of the 1970s were showing the American dining public, and a younger generation of Italian-Americans, that not every Italian dish should be covered in tomato sauce.
Eating healthy and cooking with fresh ingredients was something that many Italian families did not lose when they moved from Italy to America. But these culinary movements helped to bring the authentic cooking of our families to a wider audience, in addition to diversifying menus in countless restaurants.
Salads always played a big part in the tradition, new and old, of eating well.
Over the years my staple salads have changed a lot.
First they were a small course topped with some combination of sliced onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and alpha or bean sprouts, usually on a romaine and iceberg lettuce combo with a little sliced up endive thrown in. There was a different dressing every week.
Then, sliced apples and radishes with an apple cider and tarragon vinaigrette dressing was the regular. The predominate green was bib with shredded romaine for crunch.
In the later 80s, I rediscovered my Italian roots – combinations of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, capers and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano found their way onto the table more often than not. It was back to romaine lettuce with radicchio and chicory mixed in. A balsamic and olive oil vinaigrette was the standard dressing.
Occasionally, I would get away from this and use walnut oil, fig vinegar or rice wine vinegar to dress the crumbled Gorgonzola, sliced pairs, walnuts or figs on the bed of spring greens or just arugula.
A few years later I discovered that root vegetables were nature’s vitamin pills. I was getting older and I felt I needed more vitamins than protein.
The salads got larger and root vegetables of every kind landed on top. Some grilled, some raw and a few fried for a crisp finish.
That brings me up to the last few years and my latest version of a salad – greens with crudites on top. In addition to needing more vitamins, I have to work harder at keeping the weight off, even though I walk everyday at lunch, ride my bike after dinner and lift weights. Several days out of the week this big salad and crudites is my meal.
The standard mix is sweet baby peppers, carrots and rutabaga, all cut into large matchsticks and piled on a bed of mixed greens – a combination of above and below the ground. When I can, beet tops are shredded and mixed into the greens. Once in awhile, cracked black pepper, croutons, oil cured or Kalamata olives and sliced figs are mixed into the pile of vegetables.
It always has just balsamic vinegar and olive oil to finish.
One night I marinated the root vegetables in liquid smoke. That was interesting, and I am still working out the flavor details to make a memorable salad with them.
Looking back on all this, what variation is yet to come? Maybe it will include tubers soaked in liquid smoke or one type of leafy green sauteed in oil and garlic, cooled and mixed in with the uncooked greens.
Even with all the thinking I do about food, transitions between comfortable flavor combinations is slow and gradual for me. Must be my Roman Catholic upbringing.
Many of those ideas will not last long in my kitchen as I cook with them and find out what they have to offer.
Only time will tell what is next.
What is your ‘go to’ salad?