Freshly Grated Cheese Makes This Dish Sing
Although an elaborately constructed salad can be a great main course (think Salade Niçoise), most of us prefer to use salad as a light starter that sharpens the palate for the rest of the meal.
The best salads often have only a few well-chosen ingredients. Mixed together expertly, however, they can deliver a distinct, clear taste that lingers agreeably on the tongue.
A great example is this Spinach Salad — a simple dish that delivers superb flavor and takes only a few minutes to prepare.
Tossed Salad Basics
Virtually all tossed salads include oil and an acidic element (vinegar or lemon juice) as key ingredients. Often, we mix these together with other flavorings ahead of time to make a vinaigrette, then toss with greens when it’s time to serve the salad.
But an even easier (and perhaps tastier) technique is to build the dressing as you toss the salad greens. We all instinctively know how to do this — which perhaps is why so few cookbooks spend much time on it. One exception was Adelle Davis, who made this technique the cornerstone of her salad chapter in Let’s Cook It Right.
We’ll be using the “dress as you go” method in this recipe, so here is an overview of the technique:
First, toss the washed (and completely dried) greens with oil. I like to use a flavorful extra-virgin olive oil. Make sure to coat each leaf with enough oil so that it glistens. This may take less oil than you think. If you toss the greens well, a tablespoon (sometimes a bit more) is often sufficient to properly coat all the greens in a salad for 4. If your greens aren’t totally dry, you may have trouble getting the oil to coat them evenly. Remember — oil and water don’t mix! If you want, you can do this step an hour or two in advance. Then proceed with the rest of the ingredients when you are ready to serve the salad.
Next, season the greens with salt and pepper. Toss to incorporate and combine the flavors (taste to make sure you’ve added enough seasoning).
Last, drizzle on just a bit of wine vinegar or lemon juice. Start out using less than you think you’ll need. After tossing and tasting, you can always add more if you want a bit more zing in your salad.
By building layers of flavor like this, you often produce a lighter, more interesting salad than if you start with a vinaigrette. And the whole process takes only 5 minutes. Easy!
Recipe: Spinach Salad with Parmesan
Parmesan plays a starring role in this salad. So I suggest buying the best authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano you can find. The imported Italian version really does have better flavor than domestically made Parmesan.
In this salad, Parmesan combines with olive oil and lemon juice to form a dressing that is somewhat creamy. The effect is reminiscent of Caesar dressing. But because you’re not using eggs, anchovies, or other ingredients typically found in a Caesar Salad, it’s a lighter dressing with a brighter taste.
This salad was inspired by one that my sister served at a dinner party (the same sister who contributed the meringues recipe). She had tasted it at a restaurant, and recreated it. Her salad contained arugula, which is good. But I think fresh spinach provides a more interesting flavor combination with Parmesan (and spinach offers better nutritional value).
This recipe serves 4 as a starter course. Although I provide measurements for the ingredients, you’ll be happiest if you adjust ingredient amounts to suit your taste.
- 6 - 8 ounces of spinach, washed and dried (may substitute arugula; see Notes)
- 1 - 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or to taste)
- 1 - 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 - 2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese (or to taste; use a Microplane to grate if possible; see Notes)
- optional garnish: I suggest a shaving of Parmesan (use a vegetable peeler), sliced mushrooms, sliced or diced hard-boiled eggs, or homemade croutons
- extra grated or shaved cheese for serving at table (very optional)
- Thoroughly wash your spinach (even pre-washed, bagged spinach can sometimes be a bit sandy). Dry completely in a salad spinner, or pat dry in a kitchen towel. Roll dry spinach in a towel and chill in the refrigerator.
- When ready to make the salad, place spinach in a large bowl. Add oil (a bit less than you think you’ll need). Using tongs or a large fork and spoon, toss the salad (it’s easiest if you use a long-handled fork and spoon or tongs made specifically for mixing salad). Toss until oil totally covers each leaf; you may need (or want) to add some additional oil.
- Add a pinch or two of salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and toss to incorporate. I always sample a leaf at this point to make sure the amount of oil is right, and the salt and pepper are to my taste. If not, I make adjustments.
- Add lemon juice (less than you think you’ll need) and toss. Taste, and add more lemon juice if necessary.
- Sprinkle in Parmesan (again, add less at first than you think you’ll ultimately need) and toss to incorporate. If your Parmesan is finely grated (a Microplane is ideal for this), the cheese will sort of melt into the oil/vinegar dressing. Taste, and add more Parmesan if necessary (I like quite a bit of Parmesan in this dish, but you may prefer less — it’s good either way).
- Plate the salad. Garnish if you wish with sliced raw mushrooms, sliced or diced hard-boiled eggs, or homemade croutons. You may want to pass additional shaved or grated Parmesan cheese around at table for those who want to add a bit more.
- Salads in restaurants are often a treat because chefs can put as much care and thought into perfecting their salads as they do in devising exciting entrees. You’re the chef here, and when you make a salad with this much flavor, you can wow your guests.
- Every ingredient needs to pull its weight in this salad, so buy quality ingredients. Good fresh spinach is available year-round in most markets. Use a high quality extra-virgin olive oil and, as discussed, imported Parmesan for the best flavor.
- Arugula, Swiss chard, or another flavorful salad green can be substituted for the spinach.
- If you wish, you can substitute a good wine vinegar for the lemon juice (I recommend a white wine vinegar, but red would work too).
- You want to grate the Parmesan cheese finely so it will “melt” into the oil and lemon juice, producing a somewhat creamy texture. A Microplane-brand grater works extremely well.
- If you’re sure that the grated Parmesan cheese in your market is fresh, feel free to use it. I always prefer to grate my own Parmesan, though.
- You can make this salad two ways: With a little bit of Parmesan, so that its flavor provides just a note of sharpness. Or with quite a bit of Parmesan, in which case the flavor of the cheese will dominate. I make it both ways — depending on what else is on the menu, and on my mood that day.
- Let me reiterate: In all cooking, but particularly in salad making, it’s important to suit your own taste. So taste while you’re putting the salad together, and adjust the quantity of ingredients to please your palate.
- More reiteration: It’s important that your greens be totally dry when you use this method to toss a salad.
- After you add the oil, make sure you toss long enough to thoroughly coat each leaf completely with oil.
- For mixing, use a large bowl. You should be able to toss without worrying about spinach leaves flying out of the bowl. I typically use a large plastic or stainless mixing bowl. If you want to serve the salad from the bowl at table, a pretty glass or wooden salad bowl would be ideal.
I usually think of spring and early summer as salad season, because that’s when locally grown greens are most readily available. But some greens grow well in cooler weather, too. Fall can be a great time for local lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard.
Even during the winter months, warmer parts of the world ship good quality greens to our supermarkets, usually at a reasonable price. And for those who don’t particularly enjoy winter vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes, a green salad may be the most accessible and desirable veggie option. Salads also make a great first course for the hearty soups and stews that many of us will soon be making.
So while there will be plenty of recipes for winter vegetables on this blog in the weeks and months ahead, I’ll also be sneaking in a few more salad recipes.
Besides, at the Kitchen Riffs household, we like being in our salad days.
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