Make the most of springtime salad

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Particularly during warm weather, salad becomes something I crave for its light, crisp texture and satisfying blend of elements. The best salads play ingredients and tastes against each other: something tart and acidic, something creamy, something sweet.

There are all kinds of ways to accomplish those goals.

Oil, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, seeds and avocados can all add the richness and heft of high-fat foods.

Tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, oranges, grapefruit and pickles provide a clean bite of acid.

A bit of sweetness is actually optional, but it does help to round things out, and can, again, come from a variety of sources, from dressing to raisins.

Even the green base of salad offers all sorts of variations, from simple iceberg lettuce to elaborate mesclun blends. Choose according to your favored flavors and textures. Butter lettuce is silky soft; crisphead — better known as iceberg — juicy and crunchy. Romaine and leaf lettuces fall somewhere in between. But those are only the beginning; you have also the array of lettuce alternatives: bitter chicories and escaroles for winter, finely chopped or shredded cabbage, spicy arugula, lemony sorrel, mild garden herbs such as purslane and chicory, and the useful native miner’s lettuce.

I like to keep my mixtures fairly simple and heavy on the lettuce, but that’s a matter of personal preference; experiment until you find yours. In fall and winter, a spinach salad with toasted pecans or filberts and juicy ripe pears is enough to make a person swoon with happiness. Chunks of blue cheese or goat cheese can only make the whole thing even better.

Our household also prefers crisphead lettuce for its lovely crisp texture and sweet flavor. It is a myth that iceberg has nothing to offer beyond water in the way of nutrition. It provides fiber, vitamin K and vitamin A, and some choline. It is not, perhaps, the most nutrient-rich of all the vegetables, but we like it.

To enhance crispness, soak lettuce leaves in ice water for about 20 minutes or so beforehand, then dry the leaves, either in a salad spinner or by gently patting them in a towel, and proceed. I usually spend the time chopping the other ingredients.

Vegetables make excellent bit players; small pieces or slices of carrot, radish, cucumber, broccoli, celery and jicama all make good salad additions.

Don’t, however, overlook the value of small amounts of herbs in salad.

Mint, especially once the tomatoes ripen, adds a wonderfully bright note that somehow fits in perfectly. Finely chopped fresh basil will fragrantly announce its welcome presence. Parsley is more subtle, but definitely worth adding. Chop it finely to minimize its assertive texture, especially if you’re using the curly variety.

In spring, before the summer herbs ripen, I like to combine fresh thyme and minced fresh oregano in salad. Lately, though, I’ve preferred using them together in vinaigrette. The herbal flavor is enhanced by using oregano vinegar.

It’s easy to make herbal vinegars, and fun to do if you like experimenting with making your own flavorful vinaigrettes. Tarragon is a classic, but oregano is good, too. To make, steep the fresh herbs for a few weeks in white wine vinegar, then strain. Discard herbs.

Contact Nicole Montesano at nmontesano@newsregister.com.

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