With all the beautiful produce showing up recently, it's been hard not to have salad on the brain. In fact, it's easy to start daydreaming about being Yotam Ottolenghi, the vegetable master, flipping all sorts of gorgeous possibilities around in my mind. Red chile? Snap peas? Feta? Yes.
There is much to hope for in a good salad. When seasonings and textures are in harmony and the freshest ingredients used, a salad can be invigorating. Uplifting, even. This is especially true on those hot days when we feel droopy to the point of not wanting to eat - or hope for - much of anything.
Salads can veer off into wild exuberance, with acidity, for instance, nearly taking over only to be pulled back from the edge by just the right amount of salt. Crunch can get piled on top of more crunchiness and crispness, each element steeped in its individual flavor. If they are put together right, a mouthful is bliss on a sunny day.
I know people like my neighbor, Heather, however, who dreads putting a salad together for fear of not doing it right or making it "too bland." I'm not sure where this fear comes from, but it must be set it aside.
Those intimidated, would-be vegetable artists need to step up to the task of salad making with courage and determination. Not to do so would mean missing out on life.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people," writes the very wise Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird.
But really, when it comes to warm weather produce and what to do with it, this line could be rewritten as: "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the salad."
This means, be brave and pull it together. Don't be afraid of making a salad with what you have. Don't worry too much about the outcome. Dare to let your veggies be great.
Walk through the farmer's market or the produce section and grab what pleases you. If you are fortunate enough to be asked by a neighbor (such as mine) to water her garden while she is visiting Southern California or even have a small plot of your very own, pick what is ready and calling out to you.
Step back and gaze at the pile of things you have collected and thunked down on the counter. In what ways could they possibly be encouraged to live happily together?
Maybe just a dressing will do? The simplest one I can think of for a large head of lettuce washed, torn, and thrown into a bowl is made with the juice of half a lemon, a few glugs of good olive oil (twice as much as the juice) and a generous pinch of salt.
Knit them together with a quick, energetic whisking. If no lemon is in sight, a lime will work just as well. Or use a vinegar instead.
Taste as you go along. Make sure that you have yin to balance out the yang of your vegetables. If something is crisp, add an element that may be soft or silky. Tart? Add sour. Bitterness? Add sweetness. And so on. Just have fun with it and should anything go amiss, it can always be corrected.
In the worst case, when you can't quite figure it out (with practice, this will happen with less and less frequency until it becomes a non-concern) you will at the very least, still have something fresh and healthy to eat.
Snap Pea Salad with Red Chile, Feta, Mint and Lettuce
Our neighbors did ask me to water their veggie garden while they were away for ten days recently. They had plenty of snap peas, which I had to snatch away from Kingston, who ate them out of hand. I had the lettuce, chile, onion and a hunk of feta in the fridge already. Mint and tarragon were in my herb box on the back deck. So, this was a salad about using what I had. These, for me, are always the most enjoyable kinds of meals. Simplicity itself.
Serves 3 to 4.
2 cups snap peas
1 small fresh red chile
1 small fresh banana pepper (optional)
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
6 or 7 Boston or Butter lettuce leaves (larger, outer leaves)
Fresh mint, enough leaves to make 1 teaspoon when roughly chopped
Fresh tarragon, 1 sprig, leaves torn off
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds, plus more
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
Cut snap peas on the diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces. Mince the red chile. Cut banana pepper lengthwise then again crosswise into thin pieces, about 1/8-inch each (if using). Roughly chop mint and tear or cut tarragon into small pieces.
Whisk together lemon juice and olive oil. Add salt to taste, keeping in mind hat the feta will add saltiness as well. Just a small pinch was enough for me.
Add torn lettuce pieces to the snap peas and peppers. Drizzle dressing over the veggies and scatter sesame seeds and then the feta. Add a grind or two of fresh black pepper. Toss salad gently but thoroughly with your hands or with tongs. Make sure all of the vegetables are coated with a bit of the dressing.
Serve in a big salad bowl or on individual plates. Scatter a pinch more of the sesame seeds over the salad before serving. Eat immediately.