Salad Bitch

Curly endive with egg and olives in red wine and red chili vinaigrette.

This gangster just finished off three plates of salad: endives, grapefruit, Kalamata Olives, pepperoncini, Myzithra and red wine-grapefruit vinaigrette. You may be asking yourself, “what kind of gangster eats loads of salad? Does he also carry a snubnose .38 that he just lobs at his rivals as he wheels away in terror?” No tough guy, I don’t. I vanquish my rivals with an assertive vinaigrette and equally assertive leaves. When I make salad a goddamn turf war is fought upon the plate. I eat salad because when it is made well, it’s delicious; and I know how to make salad.

And if you don’t know how to make salad, you can’t get good salad because, and I do not exaggerate here, there are no restaurants in this city, and mostly in this entire cheeseburger country, that make good salad. If by chance some clever restaurateur or chef type guy stumbles upon a good salad, they make sure to serve it in the tiniest portion imaginable so that no thinking person would ever order it. Many restaurants still serve that godawful mesclun mix that tastes of nothing and does even less to satisfy the stomach. I’m sure it’s wonderful in its original home of Provence, where it has a specific composition that inlcudes endives, chervil, arugula and lettuce, but have you ever seen chervil in a mesclun salad this side of the Pacific? No, and the reason is that people here perceive salad as something to be endured, a palliative for the guilt of consuming sugar with a side of fat and a protein garniture.

Restaurant chefs, accordingly, assign the youngest, newest and lowest-skilled employees to what is euphemistically referred to as the garde-manger, officially referred to as the “pantry”, and usually denigrated as the “salad bitch” station. The phrase “salad bitch” is a testament to both the implicit sexism of (most) restaurant kitchens and the disrespect thrusted toward cold, vegetal foods in our contemporary American understanding of cuisine. It’s a goddamn hate crime.

great iceberg salad

Iceberg lettuce, along with a little Romaine, at it's very best. Hey Madhur Jaffrey, check out my blog!

I found my time as a salad bitch extremely enlightening. It’s hard to make good cold food. It’s hard to make it look nice and taste nice and it’s even harder to garner a lick of respect for it. The fatty fat public remembers well their Brobdingnagian repast of starchy mounds of polysaccharides, dripping with flavor-enhancing salt and lipids. Who can soon forget the preternatural appeal of the cut of a hearty, tannic Barolo through the fat and blood ambrosia of a perfectly rare grilled porterhouse? Not this gangster. Dieters, with their obsessive- compulsive eating behaviors, existential ennui and irritability have done little positive for the genre’s reputation.

Let me give you a few ideas for a nice salad. Primarily, people like food to be, or at least appear to be, abundant. I personally recommend serving a lot of salad. Pile it high, put it on a plate, and avoid atrophied greens. I can’t stress enough how much pre-made mesclun sucks. If you think it’s good, you’re probably a foodie and should go read this site.

Dressing should be assertive, almost offensively so. Dressing should remind you of me after four or five drinks, not me after nine or ten; add sugar or fat if this becomes the case. The traditional ratio of vinaigrette is three parts oil to one of vinegar. Traditionally, one should rub the inside of the salad bowl with garlic and dispose of the clove, attend church every sunday and religious holidays, and beat one’s wife only in the privacy of home. Make it to taste, but don’t make it like the balsamic vinaigrette that came (hah!) on my greens last night: the oil masking the taste of the lettuce with the vinegar contributing little but a brownish color and an annoyingly subtle sweetness. Speaking of Balsamic vinegar, I recommend disposing of it. If you can afford it, it sucks. And it doesn’t belong in this country anyway. If you insist on using it, good luck. Caesar dressing and the like should be made with coddled whole eggs, put them in boiling water for one minute and stir gently, make sure to scrape out the cooked white from the shell when using. Don’t let your foodie sentiments get in the way of enjoying yourself; Thousand Island is possibly the best sauce for iceberg that god hath wrought.

curly endive salad

Curly endive with parmigiano and raw sliced matsutake. Raw matsutake is not for all stomachs.

I’ve been waiting to tell you about iceberg lettuce. Actually just one variety of “crisphead” or what used to be called “cabbage” lettuces, it is quite possibly the zenith of lettuce horticulture. I once grew a “chocolate iceberg” in my garden. It was good, but not great, because crisphead lettuces are so very difficult to grow. It has acquired a reputation amongst people who think about what they eat as a leper of lettuce, pariah of produce. This extreme prejudice is usually rationalized as a nutritional concern. “Iceberg has so little vitamins, why would I waste my valuable stomach space eating it?” the foodie whines. Because it’s delicious. And if you don’t believe some self-proclaimed gangster writing on the internet, you can ask Madhur Jaffrey what she thinks about it. What? you think you’re smarter than Madhur Jaffrey?

Who cares about the nutritional composition of lettuce? It’s just lettuce. It won’t fill you up, the 8 calories per serving can be empty without hurting your precious health. What may damage your health is the bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, diced beets (not so bad) and Thousand Island that I recommend slathering great wedges and torn shards of iceberg with. You should make your own Thousand Island as all bottled salad dressing is awful; it should include copious horseradish, lemon, tabasco and worcestershire.

The Holiday Salad: Bibb lettuce, Satsuma mandarins and candied pecans in poppy seed dressing with cranberry gelée (jello mold) garnish.

Endive (or chicory) whether curly, belgian, escarole, friseé, raddichio, treviso or otherwise, requires an assertive, really aggresive, dressing. Red wine vinegar, mustard (powdered or strong prepared), copious garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes (or, better yet, Tutto Calabrias) blended with a judicious measure of olive oil usually does the trick. Garnishes should include some combination of olives, garlicky croutons, pepperoncini, country ham, raw mushrooms, dry cheese, citrus fruit (probably best to hold back the garlic in this case) bacon or anchovies.

Like my German forebears, I pick dandelions in the earliest days of spring. These I toss in hot bacon dressing. Render bacon of its fat, add apple cider vinegar, sugar, mustard and scallions. Pour this immediately over the greens and serve post-haste.

Another derided tradition is the use of gelatin-set fruit juices as a garnish for salad. Salad serves, among other puposes, to make your mouth wet, and gelée, if you have to get fancy about it, makes your mouth wet without drenching the salad (although a salad should be, despite fancy chefs’ assertions to the contrary, a wet thing). The holiday salad here consisted of bib lettuce, satsuma mandarins and candied pecans dressed in a sweet- sour poppy seed dressing with a cranberry and white wine gelée for garnish. I can only tell you that it was fantastic.