Building a Better Salad
Summer is here, and in this part of Texas, that means temperatures that do the double dutch on either side of 100° F. When it gets that relentlessly hot around here, we turn to eating a lot of salads. Regular readers of this blog know that I am both a confirmed carnivore and a fan of really big flavors. That doesn’t sound like the description of a guy who loves salad, but when they are done right, salads can be very satisfying.
Many salads are meant to be very light, with only a few ingredients, meant to accentuate the natural flavor of the greens. To me, these make great sides or starters, but terrible meals by themselves. In this post we will only be dealing with salads that are the main course.
Usually, when I am thinking about making a salad, I decide upon a theme for it. No, I don’t mean, “We’ve Only Just Begun…” (the actual theme of Amy’s senior prom). I am talking about whether the salad will be Asian, Mediterranean, or Italian. This lets me pick ingredients for the salad and herbs for the dressing, as well as find a wine that goes well with it.
As I am a firm believer that a meal isn’t a real meal without wine (or beer now and then), that last part is very important to me. Pairing wine with vegetables is not always the easiest chore, so I work with the theme, while usually trying to avoid some of the more troublesome veggies like asparagus and artichokes. For the acid in my dressings, I use as much citrus juice as possible, and if I decide to use vinegar, at least a good portion of it will be either balsamic or rice wine vinegars. A little honey, when possible, as the emulsifier helps too. Keep those tips in mind and you will be well on your way to avoiding a lot of the more common salad and wine pairing disasters.
Those are the things that should be left out of a salad to help avoid ruining the wine pairing, but the success of the match will be determined by what is actually added to the salad. The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think of food that goes well with wine is cheese. While cheese and wine do go well together, matching the right wine to the right cheese is not as easy as most people think. The additions that really assist with the pairing are meat and nuts. When it comes to cheese, I try and keep it relatively simple. My ‘go-to’ cheeses for salad have the following characteristics, or a combination of them; salty, sharp or tangy, or fairly neutral. The ones I typically use are Parmesan, Chevre, Queso Fresca, Mozzarella, or Feta.
Now that wine has been taken into account with individual ingredients, we are back pairing with a theme. Too often a salad is an afterthought or wasn’t thought about at all. Some iceberg lettuce, a chopped tomato, and whatever else is on hand, slathered in some goop from a bottle…that’s what gives salad a bad name. Deciding on a theme, or style, for your salad avoids that palate-numbing boringness.
The next step is to work within the flavors and ingredients suggested by your theme to achieve balance and harmony. As zen as that sounds, it is really an easy thing to do. We want to make the salad satisfying, so it needs some fat and protein. Vegetables can be bitter, so we need minimize that with some sweet and sour. Pretty simple, really.
As an example, here is the recipe for the salad Amy mentioned in her recent review of Chalone Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.
Southwest Spinach Salad
Place the following ingredients into a food processor and pulse until a fairly fine paste comes together.
Zest of 3 limes
Juice of 6 limes
1 tbsp of honey
6 pieces of garlic, roughly chopped
Cilantro, fresh. I like it to be one of the primary flavors, so I put in the leaves of 1 and 1/2 bunches.
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp smoked salt
3/4 tsp hot smoked paprika
To the paste, I added a couple of drops of Tabasco, a few grinds of black pepper, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and a splash of red wine vinegar. Turn on the processor and slowly drizzle olive oil into the mixture until it comes together into a nice emulsion.
Pat the chicken breasts dry and season well with smoked salt, smoked paprika, ground cumin and black pepper. Cook in a heavy, hot pan in a little olive oil until cooked through. Set aside to rest and cool. Once cooled, slice.
Pile a mound of spinach on each plate and then top with the following items:
Onion, sliced very thin
Crumbled Queso Fresca
I usually put a small amount of dressing on the plate before piling on the spinach, then drizzle a little more on top before adding the other ingredients. Add the cheese last before arranging the chicken around the plate. The dressing is a bright, deep green, so I drizzle it in around on top for more color. Then for presentation I add finely diced tomatoes and onions to the middle and add a few cilantro sprigs.