How I Broke the Salad Rules

Why does it seem that everyone in the world can make a good salad except me? I’m not talking about a fancy specialty affair like Cobb or Nicoise. I’m talking about your basic salad, the green salad, the dinner salad. The one that looks so simple that screwing it up defies logic. After many years of reading all the books and following all the rules and being consistently disappointed, one day I decided to break the rules. All of them. And the results were astounding. Here is how I did it.

Broken Rule #1 – Never use iceberg lettuce
Why is everyone so down on iceberg lettuce? It’s crisp and holds its crispness when dressed. It doesn’t taste bitter, as many of the currently popular lettuces do. It plays well with other vegetables in the salad. It’s easy to find, it’s economical, and it has the distinct advantage of allowing one to break Rule # 2. So, I used iceberg lettuce.

Broken Rule #2 – Wash and dry the lettuce
I find that no matter how much talk there is about salad spinners (in which I have spun lettuce to the point where it was sent back in time) there is no real way to get dry lettuce without drying each leaf by hand with paper towels. This is time consuming and wasteful, and can break the leaves in ways you might not prefer. A head of iceberg lettuce, after removal of a few outer leaves, is wrapped about as tight and dense as a head of cabbage, which no one thinks need be broken apart and washed before using. So dash it all. I removed a few outer leaves and didn’t wash a thing.

Broken Rule #3 – Use extra virgin olive oil
This felt like the most blasphemous departure of all, and I’ll admit I was mildly traumatized by it. But after all, I was looking to shake things up. Good extra virgin olive oil has a very strong taste, so I decided to go for a very mild, all purpose oil. I settled on canola. Might as well be heart healthy.

Broken Rule #4 – Use high quality balsamic, wine or flavored vinegar
If you’re like me you probably have a whole pantry shelf full of these, in flavors as unlikely as raspberry and as decadent as champagne. How was I to find the opposite of so many flavors? By looking to the plainest of the plain - distilled white vinegar. Organic of course.

Broken Rule #5 – Whisk the oil into the vinegar in a stream
I understand that there is a scientific principle at work here that somehow fakes out the oil and forces it to blend with the vinegar, at least temporarily. Along with this rule come the other basic tenets of salad making – that you carefully measure three parts oil to one part vinegar, and that you don’t dress till the last minute to avoid eating your salad at that moment when the oil and vinegar realize they have been duped and start making a run for it. But since my own personal salad ingredients have never been fooled for one second, I dispensed with the entire process. I poured my oil directly on top of my salad, followed by vinegar, both in ballpark quantities, well in advance of eating.

Broken Rule #7 – Use fresh ground black pepper
This pepper craze is a pet peeve of mine. I know any chef reading this will start sending me hate mail for saying it, but what is with the pepper anyway? Can there really be this one substance on earth that belongs on absolutely everything? Why are waiters in restaurants always coming at me with big phalluses full of pepper? I left it out.

In addition to all my broken rules, I added a few thin slices of onion and tomato, and a generous pinch of salt. When I tasted it I couldn’t believe my tongue. It was crisp and flavorful and when paired with some nice Italian bread it was irresistible. This salad has become a staple in my household. Even the kids, avid detesters of all things green, will eat it.

In restaurants and at other people’s homes, I continue to enjoy the green salad made according to the rules. Clearly some people can get those rules to work for them and I’m glad they’re out there, regaling their guests with their obedient and harmonious arugula and fresh ground pepper and 12 year old aged balsamic. But until I get invited to one of those places I stand on one cook’s experience – that it all came together only when I threw the heretofore unchallenged salad rules out the window.

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