Serious Salad: Waldorf Redux
"I'm giving the Waldorf another try."
As a child, I had a beloved Strawberry Shortcake doll long before I tried the actual dessert. Unfortunately, I found the fruity, frothy cake to be disappointingly cloying, spongy and sweet. I loved the idea of banana splits, until I discovered the slippery texture of the banana: unpleasant and slimy against the coolness of the ice cream.
When I was still part of the Shirley Temple set, pina coladas looked so festive and tropical clutched in the hands of overly happy adults. And the drinkers got a little paper doll umbrella with their vats of yellow goo! But when I was old enough to order them, Pina Coladas seemed overwhelming fruity and artificial. Besides, I have the alcohol tolerance of a flea.
Other foods you're convinced you'll hate, carrot cake, for example. I was sure it was just a sneaky way of trying to make me eat my vegetables. But when I actually tasted the honeyed moistness of the cake against the sharpness of the cream cheese and walnuts, I was hooked for life on those 400+ caloric slices of pure "health."
Waldorf Salad has always fallen in the category of "love the name, hate the entree."
The salad was first crafted by the maître d'hôtel of the Waldorf Astoria in 1893 and gained in popularity during the Roaring '20s. (Otherwise known as the "Age of Mayonnaise and Gelatin" in the history of salads). This was back when hotel dining in New York City was considered to epitomize class, style, and elegance.
Today, while many hotels boast fine restaurants, even professional reviewers occasionally feel the need to caution: "look, it may be in a hotel, but it's not THAT KIND of hotel restaurant," fearing that prospective diners will start to seize up, remembering their last overnight business conference at a motel with a budget breakfast buffet.
When I heard the name "Waldorf Salad" I was transported back in my mind to a time when members of the Algonquin Hotel Round Table met to exchange witty barbs. I was sure that one bite would turn me into Dorothy Parker and I would start spouting pithy aphorisms and begin carrying a flask full of gin in my garter belt. Well, OK—a flask full of Shirley Temples in my backpack.
However, when I tried the actual recipe for a Waldorf Salad, I discovered it was a mass of mayonnaise and bitter green apples, grapes, raisins, celery and walnuts. I like apples, but Granny Smiths can be too tart, and the wetness of the apple and grapes diluted the flavor of the dressing. Besides, grapes and raisins together? With celery? I had to agree with Basil Fawlty.
Still, I hate to consign a classic to the compost heap of history. I'm giving the Waldorf another try.
First of all, I'm nixing the mayo. For a vegetarian version, use Fage Greek yogurt with a squeeze of lemon juice. It's healthier and higher in protein, and tastes better. For a vegan (but sweeter version), coconut milk or soy yogurt can be substituted.
Mix the yogurt with walnuts and raspberries instead of grapes to vary the fruit profile. Instead of stirring in the apple, use the slices as a garnish around the salad. Sprinkle the raisins on the apple, or leave the dried fruit off altogether. Drizzle a tablespoon of honey on the outer circle of fruit. Instead of Granny Smith, use whatever is in season—or a slightly sweeter, less bitter eating apple like a Pink Lady or Honeycrisp.
Cocktails afterward are optional.