Friday, May 30, 2014

Salad Days Are Here Again
What’s cooking? Spring Veggie Salad with Mint Vinaigrette

I started thinking about this post by looking up the term “salad days” in Wikipedia. Wouldn’t you know it, that rascal Will Shakespeare coined the phrase in 1606, when he used it in Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra laments her dalliances with Caesar and refers to “My salad days, When I was green in judgment...”

I remember my own salad days – crazy, fun days living and working and playing in Manhattan, with more than a few dalliances – and I marvel now that I made it through those days alive. Talk about green... And yet salad wasn’t a food I much liked. I knew nothing about making salad dressing, or the huge range of foods that can go into a good salad.

These days, I think more favorably of salads. They’re the Jackson Pollocks of the kitchen – free-form collections of wildly and widely ranging ingredients, from fruits and veggies to nuts and proteins and grains, tossed and turned with dressings that cover the sweet/savory waterfront. Europeans tend to serve salads after the main course, as a sort of refreshing break between the entrée and the cheese course or dessert. Most American restaurants serve it at the beginning of the meal, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. My dinner parties tend to be buffet-style, so the salad is just part of the buffet.

The best salads are seasonal, taking advantage of the textures and flavors available now. I think that’s what I like most about the salad I made last weekend – featuring asparagus, snow peas, and English peas, on a bed of mâche and sunflower sprouts – and I dressed it with a vinaigrette made with mint from my garden. The final touch is a sprinkling of fresh dill.

I love wandering farther afield than your basic salad greens – although a “spring mix” of baby greens will work as well in this salad. Mostly, I hate the tedium of tearing lettuce, so I’m thrilled when there’s a good alternative that doesn’t require tearing. Mâche (rhymes with gosh) is a soft-textured lettuce, also known as lamb’s lettuce or corn salad, that’s increasingly easy to find these days. Deep green in color and sold in packages of rosettes, the leaves have a shape that reminds me of cartoon speech bubbles. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and, according to Wikipedia, three times as much vitamin C as lettuce, in addition to beta-carotene, Vitamin B6, iron, and potassium. The sunflower sprouts – also available almost everywhere these days – are similarly packed with good stuff: high in fiber, protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins A, B complex, C, D and E. So eat your salad – it really is good for you!

Kitchen Goddess note: What I like most about this salad is the effect of the shaved asparagus and the julienned snow peas. You wouldn’t think these cuts would inprove the taste, but they do. I don’t have an actual scientific explanation, but in both instances, you’re exposing more of the sweet inner flesh of the veggie and less of the tough outer skin, so what your taste buds experience is more of the natural sugar of the plant. Also, more of the vegetable gets exposed to the dressing, and that may add to the effect. At least, that’s my analysis. (The mathematician in me wants to get into a discussion of surface area ratios, but I’ll spare you that.) So while you might think these cuts were just some display of Kitchen Goddess obsessiveness, there’s a real difference in the taste of the salad. And it does add to the look. 

By the way, the season for English peas is painfully short, so you need to try this salad now. While you’re at it, buy some extras and make Cold Spring Pea Soup.

Tips from a Professional

In his wonderful cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller – owner and chef of The French Laundry (Napa Valley) and Per Se (NYC) – offers three steps to help you dress your salad like the pros.

➊ First, drizzle the dressing around the inside of the salad bowl – not on top of the greens – so that the greens pick it up evenly as you toss them. Don’t overdress the salad – you want the greens just lightly coated. Add dressing sparingly, then offer guests a small pitcher of dressing on the side.

➋ The next step is to add salt and pepper, then toss again to distribute the seasoning.

➌ Lastly, sprinkle any herbs you want on top of the greens. Except for chives, which must be sliced, tear the herbs instead of cutting them, so you don’t leave their flavors on the cutting board.

This is a great salad for a dinner party, as you can prepare the snow peas, English peas, and asparagus well before serving and refrigerate them separately in zip-lock baggies so they stay fresh, then toss them together at the last moment. The mâche and sprouts come ready to use. You can make the Mint Vinaigrette the day before (it will last a week or so, but the color of the mint will fade) – I think you will love the light, fresh flavor it adds to the salad.

The quantities below should serve four, unless, like me, you become so obsessed that you sit down and eat the whole thing for lunch. And of course, the idea of counting out 36 peas is a bit absurd. I gave you these quantities as guidelines – feel free to use a pea more or less.

Spring Veggie Salad

Serves 4.

2-3 ounces mâche (or a mix of baby greens)
2-3 ounces sunflower sprouts
12 snow peas, julienned (sliced thinly)
4 medium-thick asparagus, shaved
36 English peas, uncooked
Mint Vinaigrette (recipe below)
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh dill leaves

Toss together the mâche and sprouts, then sprinkle them with the snow peas, asparagus, and English peas. Dress with Mint Vinaigrette (recipe below), add salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle on fresh dill before serving.

Mint Vinaigrette

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1½ teaspoons honey
½ teaspoon minced shallot
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup grapeseed oil or good olive oil
10 fresh mint leaves, stems removed

At least an hour before serving, combine the lemon juice, honey, shallot, mustard and salt in a blender and blend until smooth (15-20 seconds). While the machine is running, add the oil in a slow stream and continue blending until the mixture emulsifies (comes together), about a minute.


  1. You're an inspiration -- I have in my teeny-tiny kitchen about half of these ingredients so will improvise. I have fresh thyme, mint, a bag of baby lettuces (Trader Joe's), etc.
    Clive Barnes, of course, many years ago gave instructions to rub cut garlic in an empty bowl and then put in dressing, then greens -- It might have been a spinach salad which were very "chic" in the 70s.
    You reminded me, too, of my grandfather's vegetable garden to which my grandmother sent me each late afternoon to pick salad makings. She was an exceptionally good cook and made a different salad dressing almost every day. But no lettuce for me, thank you very much, but I wish I'd learned to love them way back then. Oh, what I missed..
    Thanks, Lee, I'm off to make a salad variation.

    1. I'm so glad you're inspired, Dorothy -- food can evoke so many wonderful memories. Good to hear from you!