By Nancy Allen Krcek
This article was written by Nancy Allen some years ago for Oryana's Natural Food News. Nancy talks about her love of salads with a focus on spring salads that feature asparagus, wild leeks, spinach, and other fresh ingredients.
Salads form the main part of my eating life. I don’t consider them something to hurry through because they’re “good for me.” It’s not surprising then that I look forward to early spring when local edibles like arugula, sorrel, spinach and baby lettuces, bravely shoot up through the melting snow. Until that happens, I supplement my salads with a myriad of other local and organic vegetables and fruits. I know that many of you are bothered by big bunches of greens and unfamiliar vegetables. I, too, used to pass over the more work-intensive produce I had so virtuously purchased, until it turned into yellowing compost, for some quicker fix. Now you’ll never find any vegetable languishing in my refrigerator. My solution is to eat them all as salads.
I have a loose and creative hand with what I call salads—so much so that you might not even recognize them as “salad”. Almost every salad I make is different, but they all have several things in common.
First, I don’t spend a lot of time on preparation—my time goes to selecting the best ingredients and then thinking up inspired, simple combinations. Second, my salads always have cooked or raw produce and some fat, sour, salt and even protein. Third, I may start with the freshest seasonal produce but I keep an eye to color, flavor and texture and their contrasts. Fourth, I always grow something for my salads.
One winter I sprouted fenugreek seed; another winter saw me growing arugula in a trough on my windowsill. Currently I have pots of herbs, which I snip for my salads.
I categorize my salads into four: tossed, composed, warm and strange: Typical of tossed salads is the French “simple salad” with its combination of Bibb or Boston lettuce, curly endive and escarole. These bitter and sweet greens—great for digestion—are tossed with olive oil, sea salt and vinegar. The composed salad has a base of greens upon which you might arrange an array of eye-catching ingredients like olives, grilled tuna, marinated white beans, sliced tomatoes and sliced boiled baby redskins and serve with dressing on the side.
Warm salads are those that suit the time between winter and spring. Think wilted spinach or steamed asparagus on greens with a hot mushroom dressing. My strange salads are generally ethnic in origin. One favorite is a Vietnamese-inspired green mango salad with shredded unripe green mango, toasted cashews and cilantro with lime and fish sauce.
If you like to improvise, salad is just the place. Here are some pointers that will steer your improvisations into tasty concoctions.
Simple spring arugula toss
A handful or two of clean and dry arugula leaves
The best extra virgin olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Optional ingredients: toasted walnuts, shredded carrots or sliced dried tomatoes
Toss the arugula in a bowl. Drizzle it with the oil and toss until lightly coated. Sprinkle and toss the greens with a little salt and fresh lemon juice, to taste. Pile this high on a plate or eat it right from the bowl. If you need the optional ingredients, toss those in too.
Mediterranean Spinach Wilt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 cup finely sliced red onion
1 teaspoon mixed finely minced fresh oregano and thyme
4 big handfuls fresh, clean and dry baby spinach leaves
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
more extra virgin olive oil as necessary
- Heat a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium to high heat and add the oil. When it is hot (don’t let it smoke), add the onions and fresh herbs. Sauté these until the onions begin to brown and the herbs soften and infuse the oil with their flavor and scent.
- Take the pan from the heat. Immediately add the spinach and, working quickly, turn it with tongs so that it cooks lightly and evenly--just enough to wilt but not enough to turn it to Popeye’s mush. Immediately arrange the spinach on a platter. Drizzle with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, salt and more olive oil, to taste. Serve now.
- Asian style: Wilt the spinach in a pan with a teaspoon water, turning with tongs so it cooks evenly. Drain spinach and toss with Asian sesame oil and soy sauce. Mound it on a plate and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
Asparagus, parsley and mushroom salad with wild leek dressing
6 to 8 servings
3 to 4 wild leeks, cleaned and white plus pale green thinly sliced
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
9 to 12 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
3 pounds asparagus, washed
1/2 pound very fresh domestic button mushrooms, finely sliced OR 1/2 pound fresh morels sliced in half and sautéed briefly in extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
- Heat a small sauté pan with 1 teaspoon olive oil and cook the leeks over medium heat until soft. Remove from heat and allow the leeks to cool slightly. Scrape the mustard into a blender or food processor with the vinegar. Puree. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, thin stream. Scrape the sauce into a bowl and stir in the cooked leeks. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.
- Bend the stalks of the asparagus at the bottom until they snap off naturally. Set up a steamer and bring the water to a boil. Add the asparagus and steam until tender but not mushy, about 4 to 5 minutes depending on the thickness of the asparagus. Arrange the warm asparagus and mushrooms on a platter and drizzle them with the dressing. Garnish with parsley and serve.
Braised wild or domestic leeks with sesame miso dressing
This dressing, minus the leeks, is a classic emulsified mustard vinaigrette.
4 large leeks or 20 wild leeks, trimmed of tough green and roots
5 1/2 tablespoons white miso
2 tablespoons dashi, vegetable broth or water
4 tablespoons sesame seeds
- If you are using domestic leeks, slice them in half the long way, from top to root. Wash the leaves well. Place the leeks (either) in a high sided sauté pan in one layer and pour in a teaspoon of rice vinegar and enough water to just come half way up the sides of the leeks. Bring the liquid to a simmer and simmer until the leeks are tender and easily pierceable with the tip of a knife. Drain them and arrange on serving plates.
- Place the white miso and dashi, broth or water in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until mixture stiffens slightly. Remove from heat. In a small non-teflon sauté pan, heat the sesame seeds until they smell toasty. Transfer them to a suribachi (a grooved Japanese grinding bowl) or a mortar and grind to a paste. Add the sesame seeds to the miso mixture and mix well. Thin with more liquid if necessary. Drizzle this over the leeks.
This dressing is also good tossed on cooked vegetables like steamed green beans or daikon radish or grilled eggplant cubes.
Asian sesame/rice vinegar vinaigrette
8 to 10 servings
Just about any combination of cooked or raw vegetables will become wildly appealing with this dressing. I like it with avocado and cucumbers.
1/4 cup Japanese brown rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce—I like San-J shoyu
1/4 cup Asian (roasted) sesame oil
Whisk together the ingredients.
About Nancy: Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. Allen graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 1987. She is the author of the textbook Discovering Global Cuisines and is currently at work on a CSA cookbook.
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