By Amy Myrdal Miller
I love leafy green salads. My husband Scott and I eat them almost every evening during the spring, summer, and fall. Sometimes they are the star, an enticing entrée salad, and sometimes a simple side salad will play a supporting role. In the winter months, I rarely make leafy green salads. They just don’t seem as appealing when the weather is colder. Part of this may be explained by my childhood and our family traditions.
I grew up on a farm in northeast North Dakota, about 30 miles from the Canadian and Minnesota border. Each summer our family would eat butter lettuce salads at dinner and supper that my mom dressed with a simple mixture of cream, fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, and sugar. That sweet, lemony dressing paired perfectly with the tender yet flavorful lettuce from my mom’s garden.
I wasn’t introduced to other types of lettuce until I went to college in California. The salad bars at UC Davis always had a large bowl of iceberg with a small amount of Romaine that formed the base for a mish-mosh of toppings—canned tuna, sunflower seeds, black olives, maybe a few broccoli florets—and some awful dressing like a cloyingly sweet raspberry vinaigrette. I missed my mom’s salads, but I was trying to fit in and eat what others were eating.
Years later I enjoyed an incredible salad at Lucques in Los Angeles that made me think differently about my home cooking and the potential for leafy green salads. The salad contained just three ingredients: mint leaves, cilantro leaves, and a lemon vinaigrette. It was so incredibly flavorful and so memorable. I still crave that salad nearly 15 years later.
Fast forward to my work at The Culinary Institute of America where Chef Joyce Goldstein was a frequent guest chef at conferences. The author of Mediterranean Fresh: A Compendium of One-Plate Salad Meals and Mix-and-Match Dressings¸ Joyce taught me how to create a salad that made sense, a salad where all the ingredients work together to create fantastic flavors and textures.
Joyce has done a lot of consulting with campus dining operations to help them create salad bars that offer choice but also ingredients that make sense when combined. One example is a salad bar stocked with ingredients for a Greek salad. The chopped Romaine is followed by diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers, sliced red onion, Kalamata olives, crumbled feta cheese, and a basic vinaigrette enhanced with garlic and oregano. As you build your salad you can vary the amounts or omit certain ingredients if you like, but you’ll end up with a great Greek salad. I wish Joyce had been consulting at UC Davis when I was a student there.
Lately I’ve started adding radicchio to our salads. I love the bitter bite of radicchio, and I have a fun time getting my super-taster husband to eat the radicchio without complaining about the bitterness. I typically salt the radicchio and let it sit for a few minutes before adding it to the salad, which helps tame some of the bitterness. A well-balanced, not-too-acidic vinaigrette also helps. And if we’re grilling, I’ll use the heat and smoke of the grill to further tame the bitterness.
You know what leafy green I hate. Kale. Ugh. I’d much rather eat spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, endive, or escarole. Earlier this summer I asked a waiter if the coleslaw on an astoundingly good fried chicken sandwich contained kale. He said “yes”, and I said, “Oh my god, I wish I’d know this earlier. I can’t eat kale!” to which he replied, “What? Do you have a mental allergy?” I laughed and agreed that’s what it was. But seriously, kale has gotten an unfair amount of attention the past few years. There are many other leafy greens with “super food” powers that deserve our attention in both home and professional kitchens.
Have I mentioned how much I love cabbage? That too is likely due to my childhood on the farm. While we were harvesting and eating the butter lettuce for a few weeks in June and July, the cabbages were quietly growing, waiting a later harvest and then storage in our basement refrigerator. I ate a lot of coleslaw in the fall and winter as a child, and today I make coleslaw at home at least once a week, typically as an accompaniment to fish or carnitas tacos. I also love adding cabbage to mashed potatoes in the winter, Irish Colcannon Potatoes with Green Cabbage. Never with kale!
On that note, I’m heading into my kitchen to make a salad for lunch. Spring mix will combine with red onion, a little blue cheese, a few slices of the New York steak we grilled but couldn’t finish last night, and a little radicchio. The dressing? A simple red wine vinaigrette with a small amount of garlic. I think Joyce would approve. Bon appétit!
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, known kale hater, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com and you can follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller