Confessions of a salad convert.
by Judyth Hill
I never understood salad. Or, why "Soup or salad?" is the most frequently asked dining question except in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the official state query of "Red or green?" has been replaced by "Do you want foie gras with that?"
Salad has a certain inevitability, like taxes and your own website. You can run, but you can't hide.
Clearly, it was personal: Most folk seem to enjoy cold, crunchy, wet stuff with their perfectly delicious potatoes and whatever. I used to wonder if they were faking it, afraid to be the one who just eats the gnocchi and the chocolate mousse. This is probably connected to my mother; everything else seems to be.
But she would feed us arugula and radicchio. What kind of food is that for children? Thrusting bitter greens on tender, innocent palates that were still exploring the complexities of Bosco.
She never cut the crusts off our sandwiches either; she was tough. She figured we'd have a long time at her table, and come hell or high water, we were going to eat her way. She told us the sweetbreads were chicken. She didn't need to tell us what sushi was, we had already guessed.
At our house, salad was brought after the main course had been served and my priorities already set. I liked picking up the stuff with the heavy wooden spoon and fork; it felt cultured, as if I were at table in a Jane Austen novel.
I'd help myself with vigor, but what to do with it? Back in the '60s, my mother led the pack on balsamic vinegars. She loved vinegar actually, and lemon juice, under the commonly held theory of various Vogue diets, that anything with lemon was unfattening – how's that for a word?
She built salads around mysterious items, endive and hearts of palm, finocchio. How could I trust her? The day I found an anchovy draped languidly along the flip side of a lacy frond, I became hypervigilant. My sister cheerfully ate these things; she actually serves them in her home. I wrote about them.
But darlings, I've changed.
Since acquiring my own plot of loamy (ok, it's actually clay, but I am bio-remediating the heck out of it) heaven, I go somewhat bonkers with the joy of greens.
It started with seed catalogues. While skeptical about vegetables, I'm a sucker for adjectives. Descriptions of greens, found haiku, wove their way into my heart and mind, and thence my garden:
"Frilly leaves of endive,
Fast-growing beauties, Cream-colored hearts."
Pure seduction! Italian arugula -"leaves of deep, dark wine, midribs of pearly white" – made me woozy with desire. After these temptations, it was merely compost, peat moss, three bags full, and I had greens. And not just greens, but early greens.
These days you can find escarole at convience stores, right there with the 46 brands of energy drinks (are we tired or what? And should we maybe consider resting as an option?), and thanks to Paul Newman's mini-empire, tender gourmet greens, washed and rarin'-to-go, are de rigueur.
Historically, Santa Fe was one of the epicenters of the culinary horticultural revolution. A trend, begun in the '80s by Alice Waters at her San Francisco eatery, Chez Panisse, was carried to us by way of Coyote Cafe's Mark Miller, who cut his "think global, buy local" chef-ing teeth in her kitchens. Nouvelle greens took American dining by storm, and, way back when, were first grown for Santa Fe restaurants by Gallina Canyon (near Georgia O'Keeffe's Abiquiu abode) rancher, Elizabeth Berry. Elizabeth's delectable radicchio, tender arugula and baby endive began to win my stony heart.
Mirabile dictu, salad turns out to be the ultimo enthronement for the food closest to my heart, and my raison d'etre at table: cheese. Or, as Clifton Fadiman once gushed, "milk's leap to immortality." Lasciviously creamy chunks of gorgonzola, the velvety startle of bleu, the headstrong rush of a sultry Camembert; these fairly cry out for the crisp, lucent flavor of a fresh leaf.
In France, the earliest suggestions of spring are celebrated with a special first salad, a hardy rosette of green, called mâche, sprinkled with grated sweet white beets that have overwintered in the garden.
Don't you love it ? NYC born and bred and now I am overwintering heirloom beets to serve on my mâche.
Mâche, known by various names: lamb's lettuce, feld salat, and "corn salad," grows in a beauteous circle of deep green rounded leaves, and fairly melts, buttery, in your mouth.
Should you have somehow (tsk, tsk) neglected to plant beets, mâche's soft, rich-tasting leaves are magnificent, lightly tossed with toasted walnuts, topped with a finely chopped hard-boiled egg, a generous shower of crumbled feta, and a très simple raspberry vinaigrette. How my mother would have loved this!
The appearance of mâche, which once barely emergent I monitor ardently, is incandescently celebratory. Kneeling in the still cold earth, filling my colander, I can't resist caressing tiny cotyledons, the first-to-show paired leaves, of the "Sparkler" radishes, snow peas, tidy rows of sweet Dutch "Wolter" spinach, alternating with burgeoning mounds of sorrel, whose lemony twang I am already imagining into soup.
And the gift of early wild greens: lambs-quarter and most welcome, the salutary bitter leaves of the dent de lion. And we would be remiss, no? not to add a few vivid blossoms: pansies and a flutter of daisy petals.
Nothing will suffice but to dash my treasures into the kitchen.
Something in the dining room, however, is amiss. With the new season's Puckish mood, the table is just Wrong. Time to clear that many-candled center, the once fragrant boughs of pine, the slab of lichen-covered sandstone that just lately seemed so correctly gnomish. Out with 'em! We must refresh the eye as well the palate. A pot or two of tulips, just beginning, that go into the garden after their graceful blooms drop, and curvaceous branches of red willow, set, very Zenishy, in low water. These will make roots and also find a permanent home outdoors. Candles return, thick cubes of beeswax, to remind us of summer's sweet buzz soon to be upon us.
Early April is when to plant the important greens of summer: the romaines. This year, I shall give myself over to a swoony "heritage" red lettuce, deep-hearted, as we say, with large, broad leaves that color to a rich ruby, gorgeous in the garden, dramatic on your plate. And what could be more suited to the rebellious spirit of this salad convert, than a gently tweaked (no egg yolks!) version of that old standby, the noble Caesar.
I admit I love a dressing I can measure – it's the baker in me. Salad dressings that are described by proportion drive me to distraction, adding oil and then vinegar, then more oil, and so forth, until I have a veritable vat of an utterly inedible potion, destined to haunt the back corner of my refrigerator for months.
My beloved friend, landscape painter Joseph Biggert, has whipped up this potent salad on amany a summer's eve, to repose side by side, in equal glory, with a whole side of salmon, marinated in a pungent drench of garlic, ginger and extra virgin olive oil, then tenderly lain above a bed of coals to sear and just slightly char.
Luscious as these greens are, they answer the question of what shall we happily eat, and a meal might be well made with a crusty loaf, spread with good, sweet butter, a glass or two of sturdy Pinot, and of course, thou.
Judyth Hill is a stand-up poet, living at Rockmirth, her 111 acre Eco-Arts Atelier in Northern New Mexico. She is the author of six books and the internationally acclaimed poem, "Wage Peace."