by Anne Louise Bannon
Independence Day. The celebration of the signing of that great document that told the British Crown to shove off, we’ve got this one.
Let’s face it. Traditional Fourth of July fare is picnic food because it’s too hot to stay inside and cook. And that means salads. Salads are easy. They’re usually cool. They can even be healthy, which is a plus if you’ve got a family member who really does have to watch out.
And while there are tons of recipes out there for salads, you don’t really need one. I like to think of salads as similar to another great American art form—jazz. Once you’ve got the basic notes, you can improvise to your heart’s, and taste buds’, content.
There are three basic components of any salad: the base, the additives, and the dressing. Think of a base as the main theme. If your base is lettuce or a combination of greens, you have a green salad. Your base could be a starch, such as macaroni, potatoes, or rice. Meats, or other proteins, make another great base. I mean who doesn’t like chicken salad, ham salad, or even bean salad?
Your base will determine the salad’s texture, the smooth creaminess of a good egg salad, for example, or the crunch of an iceberg lettuce salad. Most bases are also relatively mild in flavor, such as chicken breast, potatoes, or iceberg lettuce. There are exceptions, of course. Ham and tuna can be pretty strong, as can many bitter greens, and that’s important to remember. As you build your salad, you’re building flavor upon flavor. If you start with something pretty strong, you’re going to want a lot of milder, more subtle flavors to enhance it. And vice versa.
Which brings us to additives. These are the counterpoints to your base. Chewy, tangy dried cranberries to the mild chicken breast, along with crunchy almonds. Bright orange shredded carrot next to the light green of cabbage in a slaw. Do you want to complement something in your base, such as nice, soft texture of potatoes with some similarly soft black olives? Or do you want to go for the contrast, perhaps with a bit of diced celery? Or both?
This is one time when more is not necessarily better. There are exceptions, but generally, you only want three additives, with only one or two serving as contrast to your base.
The dressing is what ties everything together. Look at almost any recipe for salad dressing, and it will feature two or three parts oil/creamy to one part tangy. So, three tablespoons of good olive oil to one tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Two teaspoons of mayonnaise to one teaspoon of sour cream. Sometimes you’ll get a sweet component that can either ease off the tang, such as honey in a honey mustard dressing, or can add tang to a creamy dressing, such as thousand island.
And, yes, I heartily recommend making your own. Look at the ingredients on almost all bottled dressings, and it looks like what’s inside came out of a laboratory, not a kitchen. Not to mention the fact that making your own is way cheaper. My one exception is if I can find a really good creamy blue cheese dressing since that can be a hassle to make. Once you’ve pulled your components together, the assembly is easy. You can opt for layering your components, as one does in a traditional three-bean salad if you have a nice clear bowl. But more often than not, you’re going to mix it all up.
Which means you start by mixing your dressing right in the bowl. Add your two parts mayo and one part sour cream first, then mix it. Or your oil and vinegar. Or your equal part mayo and ketchup and spoonful of sweet pickle relish (aka thousand island). Now add the rest of your components and mix them all up.
Finally, you do want to think about keeping everything safe and tasty. If you have a really big bowl, you can fill it with ice and nestle your smaller salad bowl in it. You do want to be sure the salad stays in the ice chest until serving time and put it back the second it looks like everyone is done serving themselves. One other tip, if you’re serving a green salad, dress the additives (tomatoes, cucumbers, whatever), but don’t dress the greens and serve the two separately. That way, your greens will stay dry and you can use the leftovers again.
So don’t be afraid to try something a little different. Go ahead, add that splash of lime to your mayonnaise or olive oil. Try a fruity balsamic on some greens and cooked barley. It is, after all, like jazz. Sometimes it’s not perfect, but it’s almost always interesting.
I was supposed to add a mystery component here (I am a mystery writer, after all), but maybe that’s what will end up in your dressing. Or should I say, the only mystery to me is why people buy bottled dressings.
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