The Food Lab Thanksgiving Special: My Favorite Fall Salad
Why do salads get a such a bad rap on Thanksgiving? I know that on Turkey Day, most of us are in it for the carbs, and there's a lot to be said about stuffing yourself silly with stuffing or getting mashed on potatoes, and there's nothing wrong with that, but here's my theory as to why salad is so often shunned.
- At the first Thanksgiving, some astute pilgrim realized that you can't put gravy on salad.
- Because you can't put gravy on it, it only got eaten after all the gravy-smothered carbs were emptied from plates.
- Because it's the last dish that was eaten, whoever made it assumed that it was because nobody liked it.
- Because it was assumed that nobody liked the salad, no effort was put into making it the subsequent year.
- Because nobody put effort into making it, after the first Thanksgiving, not being graviable was not the only reason why the salad was left alone.
Well folks, it's time to break this vicious anti-salad Thanksgiving cycle, and there are two steps in the process.
- Give people side plates for salads.
- Make a salad worth eating.
You're on your own with #1, but I can help you with #2. This recipe just happens to be my favorite fall salad (and yeah, the one my mom asks me to make every year).
Salad Tip #1: Dressing is Key
There are a few keys to a great salad, but by far the most important factor is the dressing, in this case a vinaigrette. It may seem simple enough to just throw some oil and vinegar on top of your greens, but forming a proper vinaigrette with the right ratio of acid to fat and a good, relatively stable emulsion is key.
Why, you ask? Well, I wrote a whole article on the subject which you are welcome to peruse, but what it comes down to is the fact that emulsified vinaigrettes cling to vegetables and greens far better than broken or separated vinaigrettes do, which means more flavor in each bite, and salad greens that don't wilt as fast after being dressed. Both of these factors are vitally important for flavor.
For this particular salad, I use balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil as the base, adding in a bit of honey which acts both as a sweetener, and an effective emulsifier (other common emulsifiers include mustard or egg yolks). Toasted hazelnuts add crunch and flavor.
Salad Tip #2: Contrasts
Even a super-simple salad of greens tossed with a good vinaigrette can be great, but to really make your salad memorable, incorporate a number of contrasting but complementary textures and flavors. Besides my greens, I often like to add rich, pungent cheeses, crunchy nuts or croutons, and sweet or tart fruits.
In this case, since we're going all out, we'll add every one of these. Pea-sized chunks of sharp blue cabrales cheese from Spain is one of my favorite blue cheeses and excellent in salads (you can, of course, use any sharp cheese of your choice), and we've already got crunchy hazelnuts in our vinaigrette
For fruits I like to roast sliced pears in a bit of butter and sugar in a skillet until they get nice and caramelized on the surface but retain a slight crunch in the middle. The dark sugar adds some nice bitterness to the pears, which should be slightly underripe before you sauté them (fully ripe pears fall apart). If you are an apple eater, those would work well, and if you're lucky enough to find some quince, those would work even better.
Finally, it's pomegranate season, and there's almost never a reason to not use pomegranates, so we'll use them. If you're reluctant about seeding enough pomegranates for a salad, check out this video for a quick and easy method. (Sorry about the annoying ad. Seriously.)
Salad Tip #3: Pick Your Greens Wisely
I use the same strategy for picking my greens as I do for picking the other ingredients in a salad. Textural and flavor contrast are the way to go.
November is the start of the high season for Belgian endives, so it's a natural pick—crunchy, slightly watery, with a vaguely bitter-sweet flavor. To that, I add its cousin: fluffy, wiry frisée. It comes in large heads with lots of greens but with frisée, you actually want to use mostly pale yellow to pale green leaves at the core for the best flavor and most tender texture.
Sharp, spicy arugula greens are my third green of choice. Of course, you don't have to stick to these options. Radicchio, for example, would make a fine substitution for frisée, as would most other tender bitter greens. Mizuna or young mustard greens would make for an interesting variation to arugula. Just remember: you want a mix of bitter and hot, crisp and tender.
Salad Tip #4: Dress Well
Once you've assembled all your ingredients, the only thing left to do is dress them. To do this, you want a large, large bowl. Much larger than you think you need. Don't have one large enough to dress a salad for the whole family? That's OK. Just dress in batches.
I use my hands when dressing—it's the only way to be gentle but thorough. Put your ingredients along with a modest amount of dressing in a bowl (overdressed, soggy salads are nobody's idea of a good time), and—this is key—make sure to add some salt and pepper. Salads, just like any other dish, need to be properly seasoned. Use your hands to gently cascade the greens and other ingredients over each other until every single leaf is coated in a thin, thin layer of vinaigrette.
Bring this bad boy out to the Thanksgiving table and just dare your guests to skip it for more stuffing. Seriously, dare them.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.