"Salad" means different things to different people.
For some, salad is an obligation, a kind of alimentary gesture toward healthy living. For others, it's the thing you eat with ranch, because ranch dressing is undeniably delicious, and vegetables, well, yuck.
Still for others, salad is a joy, and I fall squarely into this camp. Although I have no issues at all with people who think ranch is delicious—it is!—I do believe all vegetables have their tasty place on any table, and I'd say about 50 percent of the meals I'm most excited about eating are salad.
For example, for last year's Serious Eats holiday party, we all went to the newly reopened Una Pizza Napoletana, where Anthony Mangieri puts out pies that, in Ed's opinion, are some of the best in New York City. But while everyone was focused on the pizza, which is undeniably good, I couldn't stop eating the salad we'd ordered for the table. It was a mix of, I think, Trevisano (a variety of radicchio), Belgian endive, and fennel, strewn with bread crumbs so crunchy they cut the roof of your mouth if you bit down at the wrong angle. In the mix was some shaved cheese and some fancy, flaky salt, and at the bottom of the bowl was an emulsified dressing into which the cooks had blitzed what seemed like a fistful of anchovy fillets. My side of the table ended up ordering two more, mostly because I kept shoveling the stuff in my mouth.
In the days and weeks after that dinner, I kept thinking about the salad, and one day I decided I'd try to make it or something like it. There were a couple elements about it I found interesting, and they had to do with the way the salad was constructed.
When it arrived at the table, the first thing that jumped out at me was how the pretty mix of purplish red and pale yellow chicories was made more vivid by the juxtaposition with the paler curls of shaved cheese, a testament to the inherent beauty of this specific family of leafy "greens." But what struck me next was the line of creamy emulsified dressing that ringed the serving bowl, not along the rim, but lower down, a kind of visual cue that there was something more interesting going on below.
Picking through the pile, it became clear that what looked like one salad was in fact two—the lower one coated in a heavier anchovy vinaigrette and the upper one dressed more more lightly with oil—all of it layered with a generous sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs, cheese, and crunchy salt.
Finally, the salad was salty, but not in an off-putting way. Something about the combination of the cheese, the salt, the anchovy dressing, and the bitter Trevisano and endive made that bitterness seem more tame, and when combined with bites of fennel, a natural sweetness came to the fore.
I should note that Anthony Mangieri opened the rebooted Una Pizza Napoletana with Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske Valtierra, and the thoughtfulness of the salad's construction is typical of the food those chefs serve at Contra and Wildair, their other restaurants. And while it is a very "cheffy" salad, there isn't anything particularly difficult or pricey about it. There's no reason we all can't enjoy a similarly delicious salad at home. It's just a matter of getting a few small details right.
I decided to make one using radicchio, Belgian endive, fennel, celery, and parsley, but I want to emphasize all the salad components as well as their quantities in the recipe are merely suggestions; this is more a salad idea than a salad recipe.
You can use different types of radicchio (like Trevisano) if you have a variety available to you; you could also use frisée instead of the endive; you could use a mix of all of them. Same goes for the salad in the bottom of the bowl: You could use fennel and celery, as I do, or you can use other crisp and watery vegetables (or even a fruit, like apple, as Sasha suggested to me when we were testing this salad). Broccoli stems work well, too. You don't have to use the parsley at all, or you could double up on the quantity of parsley leaves if you want to heighten the herbal and bitter flavors. In the same parsley-leaf vein, celery leaves would be a nice addition.
And you can, of course, do whatever you want about the quantity of the anchovies in the dressing. If you don't like anchovies, you can just use a single fillet or none at all, I suppose. But when riffing on this salad, I urge you to keep in mind that the original's allure stemmed from how it pushed the envelope in terms of saltiness and the savory funk of the anchovies. That's kind of the magic of it, really—the vegetables in the salad bring both bitterness and a certain amount of wateriness that gets released as you chew them, which can make a lot of more basic vinaigrettes taste weak. But with a more assertive dressing, one that plays its bright and briny notes louder than one might think is prudent, you can keep those bitter greens in check.
In testing this recipe out, I found that I could add a seemingly absurd amount of anchovy fillets to the dressing without the resulting salad tasting anything less than delicious (one might argue that the more anchovies I added, the more delicious it got). Of course, not all anchovies are the same when it comes to salinity and funkiness, so you may want to start conservatively and then add more to taste. I use an immersion blender to pull it all together into a smooth and creamy sauce, so it's easy enough to drop additional fillets in as you go. This thicker dressing goes on the crisp vegetables (like fennel and celery), which make up the lower portion of the salad.
The upper leafy part of the salad, on the other hand, is lightly dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. By constructing it in this specific way (with the thicker anchovy dressing on the bottom portion and the lightly dressed leafy greens on top), the overall effect is a more interesting and delicious combination of textures and tastes, one that is far more complex than if the vegetables had all been tossed in the same dressing.
Part of why this construction works so well is that, by keeping the heavier anchovy dressing off the leafy greens, they remain more delicate and light, not gloppy and weighed down. But it also plays into the overall strategy, which is to push the anchovy flavor forward without the salad tasting like it came out of a tin of salt-cured fish, by reserving the anchovy one for what amounts to only half the salad. There's enough of it to get on all the other parts as you eat it, even tempting you to slide the radicchio and other greens through any excess sauce in the bottom, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.
For the bread crumbs, meanwhile, I use panko, since it's what I tend to have on hand, but you could easily use homemade bread crumbs; just keep in mind the bread crumbs need to provide crunch, so they can't have too fine a texture, like some of the bread dust that's sold in grocery stores.
Constructing the salad goes like this: First, I add sliced fennel and celery to the bottom of a serving bowl and then add the anchovy dressing to that. In a nod to that nice visual cue in the original salad, I spoon the dressing along the sides of the bowl, but this is entirely optional. I toss the celery and fennel in the dressing to ensure they're thoroughly coated. They will look overdressed, but that is what you want.
Then I put down a layer of the dressed greens, over which I scatter the bread crumbs, flaky salt, and shaved Parmigiano cheese. I repeat the layering of greens, bread crumbs, salt, and cheese once more, and that's it.
One final note about the number of layers and serving size, which are related: The salad suffers if you create any more than two layers of dressed leaves. Ideally, a forkful of the salad will have bread crumbs and cheese and flaky salt sandwiched between two layers of lightly dressed bitter greens along with a few bits of crisp, overdressed fennel and celery. The combination is carefully calibrated, so you want to avoid adding any extra layers.
Keeping that in mind you'll want to adjust the way you construct the salad based on the way you plan to serve it. No matter how you serve it—whether it's in a large, shallow serving bowl, in bowls that fit two or more servings, or in individual bowls or on individual plates—you'll want to retain a similar structure: crisp vegetables heavily dressed with anchovy vinaigrette on the bottom and two layers of lightly dressed bitter greens, with a generous amount of bread crumbs, shaved cheese, and flaky salt scattered between the layers and on top.