Friday, February 23, 2007

It's Not Easy Eating Greens

How hard is it to make a decent salad?
Restaurant owners must not think it's very difficult, because they so often hire inexperienced cooks to assemble them. I may be wrong, but it's my impression that the salad maker is one of the lowest positions in a kitchen, just slightly above dishwasher.
Which is crazy, because salad is often the first thing in a diner's mouth.
Look at this picture of a deplorable salad, served at an upscale (although not high-end) place in Marin County. Absolutely no pride of presentation. Just a wet tangle of foliage tossed with a few chunks of avocado and some white beans.
It tasted terrible. Really terrible. Bitter!
I know radicchio is bitter. I know blue cheese can be bitter. But they should have been mitigated by the sweet crispness of the Romaine, the plump mealiness of the beans, the smooth butteriness of the avocado.
Nope. Just bitter.
And ugly.
What a waste of ingredients.
Stand-out salads — and I'm only talking about leaf-lettuce salads, not any other creation made from fruits and root vegetables and all — are such a rarity in restaurants that I can remember only a handful, going back a couple of decades.
I'm thinking of one now: It was on Martha's Vineyard back in the '80s, a plate of perfect limestone lettuce leaves dressed with a slightly garlicky emulsion of lemon juice and olive oil. Couldn't have been simpler, and it certainly wasn't trying to be fancy, but it was just right. I tried to find that restaurant again just so I could taste the salad one more time, but the place had closed.
I'm not asking for much. Please, I don't need the candied nuts in my salad, and I'll forego the croutons, too. Festive colors are not necessary, so leave out the carrot shavings. You might skip the frisee, too, because I can't stand the feeling of a scrubbing pad in my mouth.
All I want is pristine lettuce (I can't believe restaurants actually send out slimy black leaves, but they do) and a balanced dressing. Taste it! The one in the photo tasted like a can of scouring powder got tipped into the mix.
I also wouldn't mind if the salad was temptingly arranged on the plate, instead of looking like it was flung with a ladle.
I'm gonna go all girlie here: Listen up, restaurants. Ladies (and that might be half of your paying customers) like salads. Good ones.


Kevin said...

I'm with you on salads. And I left a link and description of the tuna deviled eggs following your comment on SG.

Dagny said...

I am so with you on this one since I eat a lot of salads for lunch. There should be a balance of texture and flavor. And maybe a little color. Hmmm. Actually the color thing is only really important to me if the salad is the only thing I am planning to eat.

I like the salads at Hotel Mac. They always look put together and are tasty to boot. Oh, and if you're eating salad, it sounds like your mouth is feeling better.

tammy said...

I don't eat a lot of salads (for shame), but when I do, I want them to be good. Hamersley's Bistro makes the best salad in Boston, far as I can tell. The next time you're out this way...

Passionate Eater said...

Point well taken!

. . . But, I am ashamed to admit that I actually like the salads drowned in excessive ranch dressing, bacon bits, croutons, and even canned green beans! Yes, it is a cacophony of ugly, sodium-intense flavors, but to me, it is a pleasant reminder of my childhood.

Beccy said...

A good, crispy lettuce is a must!

Stacie said...

yeah, dammit! Salad is a wonderous thing, and best served fresh and simple, as you said! Oh, it is nearly time to order the seeds... nothing in a restaurant can match a stroll-thru-the-garden salad.... mmmm....

Anna Haight said...

So true cookiecrumb! What's also disappointing is when a restaurant who usually had a good salad cuts back to save money and the formerly good one becomes terrible, a very nasty surprise.

Katie said...

I remember making salads in restaurant kitchens - it was usually a toss and dump precedure, and considered something to keep the people busy until the real food arrived.
I usually don't bother to order them in the U.S. any more - I've become so disillusioned.
So If you find a place that does good ones - please let the rest of us know.
Glad to see the mouth/tooth is working again ;)

Greg said...

My wife always craves a salad.I can't think of one local place that has a good salad at a reasonable price.Just got to make my own.

Lannae said...

Oh Honey, (as I say that with one hand on a hip, and a slight downward turned look) You think salads are bad in Marin Co, try getting a good salad in an average restaurant in the deep south. Salad here includes iceburg cut by a knife over 1 day earlier, so all the edges are rotting, and there is about 3/4 cup of dressing dumped on top. (still looking with hand on hip) Beat that.

cookiecrumb said...

Kevin: How hard is it?? (Thanks.) Oh, also thanks for the validation that it's not just females who want decent rabbit food.

Dagny: Oh boy! Hotel Mac is just over the bridge. (Yep, mouth is quite fine, though I'm not finished with the details.)

Tammy: I made an inferior choice last time I was in Boston, and skipped Hamersley's in favor of something that I hope has gone out of business. But. So, yeah! Next time!

PE: Well, that's a whole 'nother story. I'm a sucker for salad bar fixin's, with shitty industrial dressing and canned vegetables. But there has to be this whole mind set. Yeah, I can go there.

Beccy: Problem solved! Oh, then there's the dressing. Still...

Stacie: Do restaurants not realize people want to eat good salads? Why do they put salads on the menu?

Anna: Oh, bummer. What else are they economizing on? I guess fresh produce has a difficult shelf life, but -- please!

Katie: "Toss and dump." Bingo!
Um, I liked the salad I had last fall at Cafe Rouge in Berkeley. Oh, and I had the sweetest, most naive salad at Sol Food in San Rafael the other day.

Greg: Is it a sex preference? I think Cranky is good for a salad or two, but no, I don't see him ordering them in restaurants much. (And this is not about dieting, by the way.)

Lannae: Oh, you sassy thing. Around here, the wedge of lettuce with a dump of dressing is considered "ironic." Y'know, Frank Sinatra, goofy, retro. Expensive.... Yup, and no less bruised around the edges. Aarrgh.

lucette said...

I agree with Stacie--the stroll-through-the-garden salad is the acme and epiphany of salads. But I do like a candied nut now and again (no ranch).

cookiecrumb said...

Hi Lucette: One thing I've learned (from a previous post I wrote about salad dressings), we've all got different tastes in that department.
Boy, I'm just a-hankerin' for spring, all this talk about lettuce.

drbiggles said...

Salads? I don't like the feel of them in my mowf.


cookiecrumb said...

Biggles: I don't know why you're still alive. In retrospect, it was awfully considerate of you to eat the cole slaw at my house a few months back. Jeez. Still, I caught you looking at it funny.

Anonymous said...

I have been saying the same thing for years, sister! as a restaurant cook for over 12 years, i have never been able to understand why so few care about making a good salad. I always thought maybe it was because i live in central Illinois, but sadly, i realize it's theory I have is that many chefs - and restaurant cooks, for that matter, are male and more concerned with the "manly dishes" i.e., big hunks of meat. Not that it doesn't take skill to grill a piece of flesh, but achieving the right ratio of dressing to delicate greens, in my opinion, takes much more. Don't even get me started on toppings! As a vegetarian, I am finding it near impossible to find a restaurant salad that isn't topped with fried chicken strips or steak (and the price is usually the same if you ask them to leave the meat off)! When are the folks who create these menus going to realize that a lot more of their customers than they seem to realize are healthy eaters, vegetarian, or both?! It's a lot harder to convince a group of meat-eaters to go to a healthier restaurant(almost an oxymoron these days) than it is to just suck it up and say, "I can find something on the menu", knowing it will be an iceberg salad or a few greasy appetizers...

cookiecrumb said...

Hey, Anonymous! I'm so glad you dropped by and validated my observations. Yes, there seems to be some sexism in the trade. My husband used to work in a restaurant, and the salad maker was called the "salad girl."
So, yeah, now they drape meat over the salad and charge you more. How butch.
Thanks also for your remark on how difficult it is to achieve a good dressing/lettuce balance.

Steen said...

I think it's true that the simplest things are the easiest to ruin. Since a great salad is really just lettuce and dressing (plus a few other things...) if the two mains aren't perfect, you're in for trouble.

On a happy note, I had one of the best salads of my life at Mario Battali's new LA restaurant Mozza. Tricolore with Parmigiano Reggiano and anchovy dressing. I'm not ordinarily a fan of scouring pads either, but the greens were really wonderful this time around. If you're in LA, I recommend it!

mama o' the matrices said...

I once watched my mother in law make salad: she handpicked her lettuce, sliced the veggies, then used her hands to toss the stuff first with the spices, then with oil, then with the was a salad massage of the gentlest sort.

Slightly disturbing in someone whose son you've only just met, but a delightful sign for a salad-eater.

Yes, finding the right balance of rich, bitter, sharp, sweet, crunch and oily ooze - tough one. My childhood salads were a 'what's in the fridge' ginormous bowl of stuff, and they always worked. Food chemistry, that's what it is - and when it's good, ahhhh.

But then, I have a five year old who will debate crunchy versus non crunchy lettuce with you, so my rabbit-food bias is pretty obvious!

cookiecrumb said...

Mama: Wow, the way you described your MIL making the salad...! It's really smart to get the oil on the leaves before the vinegar. But I had never thought of spicing first. (I tend to shake up a simple vinaigrette in a jar and slosh it on.)
BTW, is your son spoken for? Oh, wait, I'm already married. :D

mama o' the matrices said...

Hmm. Actually, I think there's a shadchan (matchmaker) somewhere who has a claim on the kid..but his little brother has potential.

ccokiecrumb, I'd say that if your dressing is really well emulsified - the oil has been frothed (like in a food processor) until it's nearly white - then you don't have to oil the greens before adding vinegar.

What's interesting is that a really well emulsified dressing also tastes milder, initially. I put three cloves of raw garlic into my favorite dressing, and just lean on the food processor until it's white with froth.

My anti-garlic parents love my salads...heh.