Using a recipe for a salad always seems silly: it’s just tossing a bunch of greens in a bowl, right? To be honest, my answer is yes—in terms of ingredient choices and their proportions. But the quality of those ingredients, how you toss them, and especially how you toss them in dressing can result in a soggy mess or a crisp, fresh delight.
My favorite salads have always been more stuff than greens. Even buried under a dozen freshly harvested vegetables, I can’t get excited about iceberg, Romine, or most leaf lettuces. I didn’t discover the appeal of salad greens until I lived in London and had my first taste of arugula or, as the Brits call it, rocket. Only recently sold in the United States as a loose salad green instead of in tiny, overpriced portions as an herb, arugula’s spicy, slightly bitter bite becomes the star on the salad plate. But you’ll still be disappointed in a light arugula salad—and heavier tuber-based ones—unless you dress it right.
4 ounces arugula (about 4 cups)
2-1/4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Spicy German-Style Mustard
1 small clove garlic, smashed
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1-1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces Parmesan cheese or toasted sliced almonds
Snap the tough bottom ends from the asparagus, adding these to your compost. Bring a medium-size pan of water to a boil and blanch the asparagus for 2–4 minutes, depending on the thickness, until they are just tender. While they are in the blanching water, fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. As soon as the asparagus spears begin to soften, remove them from the boiling water and plunge them immediately into the ice bath. Transfer the cooled spears to a colander or cooling rack and let them drain completely. Wash the arugula under cold running water and then spin until completely dry.
Prepare the salad dressing as you would any vinegary base, by combining the vinegar, mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper in a small bottle or jar. Screw on the lid and shake briskly until combined. Add the oil, reseal, and shake again until the oil emulsifies.
If eating immediately, add the asparagus to a large bowl and use your hands to toss it with just enough dressing to coat the spears. Add the greens and toss again, drizzling in a little more dressing if necessary. Divide among plates and top with freshly shaved cheese or toasted almonds. If packing the salad to eat later, combine the arugula, asparagus, and grated parmesan in a travel container and carry the dressing separately. Reshake the dressing and sprinkle it over the salad when ready to eat. Serves 2–3.
Tips & Tricks
- Once I always blanched the asparagus, but lately I’ve been grilling it. The charred flavor enhances the greens, and it makes a tasty lunchtime salad the day after a grilled dinner.
- Salad spinners are too bulky for my tiny kitchen. But dry greens are essential to crisp salads. So I use a small mesh laundry bag, like you’d use to wash lingerie. Take it outside to let centrifugal motion fling the water from it.
- Don’t drop the mustard from the dressing; it’s the glue that holds the oil and vinegar together, whether you’re dressing greens or spuds (see below). Homemade mustards are easy to make, are cheap, and store well, but it’s better to substitute store-bought whole-grain mustard than leave it out.
- You’ll get the brightest salad if you make it fresh and don’t serve the dressing on the side. But in London I loved to take it to work for lunch, along with an apple and hunk of fresh bread. Keep it crisp until lunchtime buy ensuring everything in the salad container is completely dry.
Twice as Tasty
Once I discovered arugula and other spicy greens, like mizuna, as well as mild yet flavorful ones, like butter lettuce, I started making far more light, simple salads. But I often eat salads as standalone meals, and even the tastiest greens won’t fill the tummy for long. Sometimes you want a heavy, hearty salad that you can run on for hours.
To most people, heavy salad means potatoes, and potato salad means mayonnaise. I’ve never been a fan of the stuff: freshly made, extremely garlicy and lemony aioli I love, but Miracle Whip I find anything but miraculous. I’m a vinegar fan, the more bite the better, so I decided to toss my favorite balsamic–mustard dressing with a room-temperature root vegetable and call it salad. Adding other sturdy ingredients, like mushrooms, to the container makes a filling, packable lunch for a hike, a regatta, or just a concert in a park.
Mushroom–Sweet Potato Salad
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/3 pound cremini mushrooms
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Spicy German-Style Mustard
2 large cloves garlic, smashed
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
pinch of ultrafine sugar (optional)
red pepper flakes (optional)
1 small red onion
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley
Add an inch or so of water to a large pot with a steamer basket and tight-fitting lid. Bring the water to a boil, ensuring it’s still below the basket. Cut the sweet potatoes into quarters or, if long, eighths. Add them to the steamer, replace the lid, and steam over medium-high heat for 15–20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the sweet potatoes and let them cool slightly.
Wipe any dirt from the mushrooms with a damp cloth or paper towel, and then cut them into quarters or, if large, bite-size pieces. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the same pot or a large sauté pan and warm over medium-high heat. Sauté the mushrooms for about 5 minutes, until just cooked.
In a clean jar, mix the vinegar, garlic, and mustard. Slowly add the remaining oil while whisking with a fork. Add the remaining seasonings as desired, and then taste and adjust as needed.
Remove the sweet potato skins and cut the flesh into 1/2-inch cubes; chop the onion and parsley. Put the potato cubes in a large bowl. Pour on half the dressing, and then add the remaining ingredients, mixing gently. Taste, adding more dressing as needed, before serving warm or cooled. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- Cremini mushrooms may look like button mushrooms, but they’re actually tiny portobellos—that’s why they have so much more flavor. I like them in this dish because their meaty texture holds up well to being tossed around with the sweet potatoes and dressing.
- The steaming pot can be reused to sauté the mushrooms if it’s wide. More water will evaporate if you cook the mushrooms quickly over higher heat but don’t crowd the pan.
- The balsamic–mustard vinaigrette is the same dressing used for Arugula–Asparagus Salad, but you can toss in more and add it before serving to let it soak in. If the flavor is too strong, toss the dressing with the salad ingredients just before serving or substitute a little tap water for some of the vinegar.
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