When it comes to herbs, I have the ultimate seasonal affective disorder. In winter, I’m a complete conservative, rationing sage by the leaf and thyme by the sprig. But at the first sign of spring, I’m radical again, ready to toss around chives, dill and mint with abandon.
And nothing symbolizes abandon more extravagantly than a salad using fresh herbs not as a garnish, or even in the dressing, but as an essential ingredient. The ultimate spring shower is a heaping cupful of chopped tarragon, chervil, mint and more lavished on roughly the same quantity of tender lettuces. Every forkful is the antithesis of predictable mesclun and tired tricolore. Refreshing would be an understatement.
I’ve encountered the combination in restaurants over the years, especially since the widely imitated Parisian chef Joel Robuchon made his reputation as much with herb salad as he did with his alchemist’s mashed potatoes (potato converted to dairy). But it came home to me most recently while I was flipping through Alabama chef Frank Stitt’s newish cookbook, “Southern Table,” which is lavish enough to pass for the “Bouchon” of the South. His recipe blends spring lettuces with chives, dill, mint and parsley, and it sent me straight to the produce aisle for three of those herbs (workhorse parsley you can keep) and as many more as I could find. The result was sensational, every bite a little burst of vibrancy.
Similar recipes can be found in other cookbooks -- particularly Middle Eastern ones, but also Robuchon’s “Simply French,” in which minced black truffles are lavished unnecessarily on a mix of six lettuces and eight herbs. The plethora of herbs would outperform any amount of truffles this time of year.
No wonder Newman’s Own is now marketing an “herb salad” in a plastic box -- the most shelf-stable baby greens seem livelier with nothing more than dill and parsley tossed in.
The formula is infinitely variable, depending on what looks best in both categories of the two main ingredients. A simple mixture of two to five herbs with some lettuce tastes like the essence of spring. Mild greens are best: Bibb, Boston and mache, ideally, although a little watercress, completely stem-free, makes an excellent counterpoint. Regular romaine is too tough for my taste, but the baby version works.
You can mix and match the herbs, but more is always better. Chervil and tarragon have similar flavor but different texture, which justifies using both. (I’m no fan of aggressive tarragon, but in this variation on the classic French formula for fines herbes, it bows down and blends.) Mint can head toward overkill but somehow balances with the other two. Dill is easy to toss around without offending any palate, and so are chives.
All the greens need to be completely dry -- the tiniest bit of water on the leaves will weigh them down and dilute their jolt of flavor. I start with a salad spinner and blot with paper towels, then chill them in a salad bag in the refrigerator for about half an hour.
The lettuces should be torn into fine bits so they meld more easily, and the herbs need to be very roughly chopped to release the inherent oils that carry so much flavor and fragrance. I’ve tried using whole leaves of chervil and tarragon and one-inch segments of chives and mint in salads but have been surprised at how flat they tasted. A knife edge makes a big difference.
Gilding the lily
To improve on perfection, I add a few edamame to the salad; the salty soybeans have a sleek nuttiness that accentuates and prolongs the herbs’ flavor. (Stitt prescribes fresh peas with a few pea shoots, if you prefer.) Really tiny, very local asparagus tips are another alternative. Or you could sprinkle the salad with sieved hard-cooked eggs to produce a mimosa effect.
Because the herbs are so assertive, this is one salad that also takes well to richness, in a variation on the old warm goat cheese. I had a blue cheese beignet of sorts with a beet salad recently that has been haunting me; I’ve adapted it for an herb salad made with slightly stronger, tangier greens. The creamy cheese oozing over the whole blend was just decadent enough. I used Fourme d’Ambert, but other types would work, or you could just reach for that chevre.
With or without cheese, this splash of green should be served in a fairly dainty portion, the better to appreciate the contrasting flavors. Like spring itself, it should leave you wanting more.