WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A pizza run on a recent night yielded an unexpected, luxurious moment with a salad.
What made this salad moment unexpected is that it happened at a neighborhood spot that’s known best for its coal-fired pizza, not its fresh greens.
What made it luxurious is that each simple element of this cool, crisp salad – the romaine, tomatoes, thin celery slices, Kalamata olives, chickpeas and quartered eggs – wore the sheerest veil of dressing. And it was a humble vinaigrette, an easy balance of oil, red wine vinegar and a sprinkle of dried herbs.
The pizza, by the way, was delicious. But in the rising temps of May, it was the salad I returned for twice within days.
It’s just that time, the first days of true swelter, when salad becomes more than a starter – it becomes our salvation.
I’m not talking about salad that’s hastily assembled or tossed together by rote, as if meant to be ignored or consumed by obligation. I’m referring to salads that are meant to be explored – they can be tossed or deconstructed, dressed or left to shine on their own. These are compositions of contrasting texture, color and flavor notes: crunchy with smooth, salty with tangy, variations of green with deepening hues of red.
What’s seasonal, fresh, magnificent in color? This is what goes into the most tempting salad bowl. And this bowl is no mere saucer, but an ample vessel worthy of main-plate status.
At a recent salad-making session in our borrowed test kitchen – personal chef Lenore Pinello’s cook shop and work space in Tequesta, Fla. – a bounty of fresh veggies and herbs filled bowls, waiting to be plucked and paired.
Meaty little Campari tomatoes, thick-sliced cukes, chopped mint, parsley, chickpeas and chunky feta would come to mingle with buttery avocado in a Greek salad with a twist. Pinello whisked together a dreamy tahini dressing that was brightened with a squeeze of lemon and made even more intriguing by a dash of cumin.
Fresh spinach, roasted red peppers, watercress, radicchio leaves and artichoke hearts would share platter space with see-through prosciutto slices, shaved pecorino in a light antipasto salad that needed just a drizzle of olive oil and lemon dressing. The chef grilled a strip of churrasco (skirt steak), seasoned simply with salt, sliced it against the grain and added it to this salad – the hot-cold combo made for a perfect (and perfectly shareable) lunch entree.
In another combo, sweet watermelon wedges found their delicious contrast in peppery arugula and thinly shaved fennel, all beneath a goat cheese-buttermilk ranch dressing. To deepen its flavors, Pinello grated fresh garlic and sweet onion into the dressing and stirred in finely chopped basil, chives, parsley and fennel fronds. The result was an herby, creamy dressing that was both light in body and flavorful in structure.
Such combos are endless. A creative cook might be boggled at the salad and dressing possibilities. But really, why stress over salad? There’s plenty of time to experiment in the long, hot summer ahead.