All that chopping is worth the trouble
Maybe salads are more popular in LA than here (hey, they've got all that local, year-round produce), but New York home cooks probably make salads more than anything else.
Many of us cook at home for health reasons. The fact that I can vouch for the quality of my ingredients is a huge motivation to not eat in restaurants. When I can, I buy organic produce. But it's not always convenient to do so, plus it can be costly. However, the "conventional" produce in our markets can be excellent, creating a world of possibilities when it comes to making salads. Besides their good nutrition, I also love salads for their complex taste, colors, pungency, variety and their textures. Salads have the potential to be low calorie, but good ones have real fat in them, whether from olive oil in a dressing or a disc of chevre added to the side of the plate. The amount of fat, of course, is up to you.
Salads aren't exactly fast food. We can buy our greens pre-cut and pre-washed, but most other ingredients need some chopping and chopping takes time. My friend Pat says that if you eliminate the salad from a weekday dinner, you can cut your prep time in half. She's probably right. Still, salads are worth the trouble whether it's dinner for one or for company.
Making salads as something special for company can be a challenge. One of my favorite things to do is a selection of different kinds of salads, ideally four or five, with a mound of each on a large platter surrounding a heap of greens in the center. Guests can help themselves to what appeals to them most. If you also pass slices of a good, fresh bread, like a Sullivan Street Pugliese or a Corrado ciabatta, a salad platter becomes a first course that some will want to be the whole meal.
Here's a salad selection I recently made for a dinner party:
- Red cabbage with red wine vinaigrette
- Celery with Roquefort dressing
- Mushroom and tarragon with sherry vinegar dressing
- Tomato and chives with balsamic vinaigrette
- Shredded carrots with chickpeas and lemon vinaigrette
In the center I put some handfuls of baby arugula that I had drizzled with a touch of olive oil (no vinegar -- there's all that flavor already on the other salads) and added a pinch of sea salt. Peppery watercress would have also done nicely.
In this arrangement each salad has its own dressing which while a subtle difference, means each brings out the best in each combo of vegetables. And this is how you keep everything from tasting the same.
A final word about all that chopping: When I made this salad platter as the first course for guests (the rest of the menu was a simple veal roast, the Roman pasta dish called cacio e pepe, broccoli rabe, and a lemon tart for dessert), making the salads took more than 2 hours, about the time it took me to prep and cook everything else -- including the lemon tart. But which course did everyone like best? The salads. Maybe next time I'll skip the veal roast and go right to dessert!