The Mozza chef loves salads but finds that restaurants don't always give them proper attention. She shares tips so that home cooks won't do the same.
If I were queen for a day, the first thing I would do is outlaw the serving of a traditional Caprese salad when tomatoes aren't in season, and the second thing I would do is put a moratorium on how many ingredients can go into a salad. Until recently I would have added banning the Caesar salad with chicken to my list of mandates, but I've since come around — sort of — and I'll get to that later. The point is that I have strong opinions when it comes to salads, mostly because, done right, I love them.
Lunch or dinner, I almost always order a salad when I eat out, and sadly, unless I am in a restaurant where the chef understands the art of the salad and also seems to love them as much as I do, I am all too often disappointed. Any number of things may be wrong, all of which could have been avoided if the chef were to apply the same passion and attention to detail in conceiving and executing salads that he or she does with other areas of the menu.
Here in Los Angeles, we practically invented the salad as entrée, and we certainly lead the pack in terms of eating them. Add to that the year-round bounty of fresh produce available at our farmers markets, and it seems we almost have a civic responsibility to make good, even great, salads.
So what makes a good salad?
First, it should start with quality, fresh ingredients. Many lettuces are available year-round, but other fresh ingredients, such as green beans and tomatoes, are so bad when out of season that using them will ruin anything you add them to.
A good salad should also have the right choice of vinaigrette or dressing for the greens, and the right amount — underdressing a salad is as much an offense as overdressing one.
A salad should have some crunch, either from the crispy lettuce with which it's made or from the addition of croutons or toasted nuts.
The ingredients in a salad should be cut or torn or crumbled to the appropriate size. For instance, a chopped salad is all about having same-size ingredients. With a salad such as the tricolore with anchovy dressing, which is really a Caesar salad in disguise, the Parmigiano-Reggiano needs to be finely grated so that it's light enough to stick to the dressing and coat the leaves.
And a good salad should have some concept behind it that dictates what ingredients you put in and, more important, what you leave out. My problem with the chicken Caesar salad, for instance, is that the chicken, which is often dry and flavorless to begin with, just sits up on top of the Caesar like an afterthought.
This all might sound like a lot of intellectualizing for a salad, but putting this kind of thought into making one means the difference between a salad that you want to eat again and one that you just plow through because you think it's good for your diet.
The last element to a good salad — and this may be the most important of all — is how the salad is made. In restaurants, it's no secret that the newest recruit is put on the salad station, the reasoning being that, because there's no heat involved, there are fewer things to mess up.
But, in fact, even when the recipes are in place and the ingredients therefore already decided upon, if every ingredient isn't treated with care, if all the ingredients aren't put together in the correct proportions, and if every step isn't done with attention to detail, even a well-conceived salad can quickly and easily slip from great to not very good.
At Osteria Mozza, we, too, often have our newest recruits make salads behind the Mozzarella Bar (that is, after they master making toast). If they come in thinking that there's not much to making salads, they're soon shown otherwise, as I am there, looking over their shoulder, putting them through my informal salad school.
One of the first things I show these newcomers is that when they go to make any salad, they need to look, really look, at the lettuce they are using. We've already sourced the ingredients, and the lettuces have all been washed and dried properly, so I know that they are starting with a good product. Nevertheless, they still need to pull off and discard the wilted outer leaves from a head of lettuce or pick through arugula and other greens for any leaves that are soggy or otherwise unappealing.
Once they have the greens in a bowl, I think they're always surprised when I have them salt the greens before dressing them. The dressing also contains salt, but tossing the greens with salt first ensures that the salad will be properly seasoned — and an improperly seasoned salad is one of the most common reasons for a mediocre salad.
Another frequent error, and one that can very easily be avoided, is improperly dressing a salad. In addition to the issues of too much or too little dressing, the dressing also must be distributed evenly.
I also like the auxiliary ingredients to be evenly distributed. For a salad such as the tricolore with anchovy dressing or Nancy's Chopped Salad, which is, essentially, a mountain of tossed salad, this happens organically.
But in the case of a salad such as the butter lettuce salad, I have to be more deliberate. The way I do it is to build the salad in layers. I start with the largest leaves on the bottom of the plate, nestling them together to create a foundation. Then I lay a few of the egg slices on top of that first layer — they would fall apart if I tossed them with the salad, crushing the eggs and muddling up the clean look of the lettuce leaves. Next, I scatter some bacon and then hazelnuts over the leaves, and then build two succeeding layers, using the medium leaves for the middle layer and the smallest for the top.
While the salad is built in three carefully constructed layers, it still looks natural, and adheres to my rule for plating anything, which is that I want it to look like it either fell from the sky or grew from the plate.
As much conviction as I have about what I like and what I don't like, I'm always pleasantly surprised when someone or something comes along and changes my mind.
Not long ago, I was at the restaurant in the afternoon and, as I usually do, wanted a salad for lunch. On this particular day, there happened to be some marinated chicken breasts that had just come off the grill. Matt Molina, our executive chef, was there. "Try this!" he said, handing me what looked like our tricolore. As I took a bite, he pointed out that he had cut one of the chicken breasts into cubes and tossed it into the mix. The chicken was juicy and flavorful to start with, and then Matt had tossed it with the lettuces, so the cubes were dressed, and also laced throughout, making the chicken integral to the salad. It was so delicious I asked him to make me one.
"It's a chicken Caesar!" he said, delighted with himself for tricking me into liking it. And I did. I loved it. This is a salad I would allow in my kingdom. Although I would want it to be called tricolore con pollo. And I would insist that it be eaten with fingers, not forks.