Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Salad Daze

Thanksgiving is close at hand, and my aunt is having all sixteen of us at her house this year. About two weeks ago she gave out the assignments for contributions. My other aunt is bringing pecan pie, my grandmother is bringing a crudités platter, my cousin is bringing a vegetable, and I was assigned a salad. When she asked me if I would bring it, my aunt said, “Not really a green salad—we’ll have vegetables—but, well, I don’t know. Do whatever you think is best.”

That uncertainty struck me. Just what is a salad these days? I’ve been pondering this. The first order of business was to check out what the various accepted definitions of the word are. According to The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (I haven’t yet taken the plunge and subscribed to the OED online), there are several variations:

1. a usually cold dish consisting of vegetables, as lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, covered with a dressing and sometimes containing seafood, meat, or eggs.

2. any of various dishes consisting of foods, as meat, seafood, eggs, pasta, or fruit, prepared singly or combined, usually cut up, mixed with a dressing, and served cold: chicken salad; potato salad.

3. any herb or green vegetable, as lettuce, used for salads or eaten raw.

4. South Midland and Southern U.S. greens.

Any of various dishes consisting of foods…prepared singly or combined, usually cut up, mixed with a dressing, and served cold? It seems that we’ve expanded the definition of salad to include just about anything mixed with dressing, so long as it's served cold.

The Oxford Companion to Food starts with the derivation of the word, from the vernacular Latin sal, meaning salt. The first salads were raw vegetables dipped in salt. From there it moves to several early definitions of a salad as being a mixture of herbs, other greens, and a dressing. Herbs and being served cold seem to be the common thread in the Oxford Guide. Even when speaking of chicken salad, it’s described as chicken cut up small with, among other things, herbs, and served cold (or at room temperature; in any case, not hot).

I combed through my (greatly reduced) cookbook selection and found that salad pretty much runs the gamut. Chilled salads, warm salads, room temperature salads, salads that did contain lettuce, herbs or greens of some kind, salads that contained no lettuce, herbs or greens. Truly, as the Random House Unabridged Dictionary says, it’s just about any food cut up and mixed with dressing.

So where does that leave an overanalytical food freak? Well, I was considering a Brussels sprout salad with a warm bacon dressing and maybe some pine nuts. But I hesitate because I’ve been to lots of Thanksgiving dinners over the years (38 in fact) and at not one of them did we ever eat at the time the hostess was planning we would eat. It’s always at least a half an hour to 45 minutes later. Not that I’m criticizing my hostesses, because I’ve been the hostess who served Thanksgiving dinner half an hour to 45 minutes later than originally planned. I’m worried that the salad would be fine when we arrived, but that the bacon fat would congeal and become downright unappealing during the wait for dinner. So I think that’s out. Plus I wouldn’t want to seem like I was competing with the green vegetable category (not that my cousin would see it that way, but I’m very sensitive about stuff like that when it comes to food).

I also thought about something like a spinach salad with goat cheese, and perhaps some crumbled bacon in a vinaigrette dressing (bacon again—it’s kind of an obsession of mine). My concern is that with the cheese and the bacon, the salad might be too heavy. We want something on the light side because it is, after all, Thanksgiving dinner.

I can always go with the basic green salad—mixed greens, maybe some baby greens or arugula—with my standard blue cheese dressing. I think everyone in my family likes blue cheese (the adults, anyway), but I can’t be sure. I have one uncle who will literally eat anything (and has), and I know both my aunts and one of my cousins love blue cheese, but I’m not completely certain on the rest of the family. And I know the kids don’t like it (not that I really expect the kids to eat salad in the first place—most five year olds aren’t huge consumers of salad). Of course, to be safe, I could always just use a vinaigrette dressing. But that’s so boring. And besides, my aunt kind of said she was thinking of something other than a green salad.

I toyed briefly with a shredded carrot salad with some Middle Eastern flavors, but that’s just not Thanksgiving-y. And things like cole slaw and similar are right out—too summery. Potato salad would compete with the mashed potatoes, and again, too summery.

A Google search for “salad recipes” turned up approximately 2 million hits. The first are obvious enough—, something called, Then we move into the magazine hits—Real Simple, Eating Well. The choices quickly get very specific—cajun recipes, potato salad recipes, fruit salad recipes.

Let me digress right here and say that I don’t really care for fruit salad and I don’t think it belongs at Thanksgiving dinner. The husband of one of my closest friends completely disagrees, and always requests it be served, but I think that’s just wrong. Fruit salad is more of a summer dish, more of a breakfast, or possibly lunch dish, and really has no companions on a plate with turkey, stuffing, gravy and the like. It’s out of place. It just doesn’t go.

But none of this solved my problem of what kind of salad to take to Thanksgiving. I want a salad that’s suitable to the season—uses fall vegetables and doesn’t have too many out of season flavors. I also want one that’s not too heavy so that we won’t all be loaded down when dinner is over. And then too, I want one that doesn’t seem to be competing with any of the other components of the meal. I finally found what I think will be perfect in the Bon Appetit Cookbook.

Fennel, Watercress, Radicchio, and Parmesan Salad

¼ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 large fresh fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 large bunch watercress, thick stems trimmed
1 small head of radicchio, thinly sliced

1 4-ounce piece Parmesan cheese

Whisk oil, vinegar, 2 tablespoons grated cheese, and fennel seeds in a small bowl to blend. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Toss sliced fennel, watercress, and radicchio in a large bowl. (Can be prepared 8 hours ahead. Cover dressing and salad mixture separately. Refrigerate salad mixture.)

Using vegetable peeler, shave cheese pieces into strips. Rewhisk dressing to blen. Toss fennel, watercress, and radicchio with enough dressing to coat lightly. Add cheese strips and toss to blend. Serve, passing remaining dressing separately.

Serves 4.

So I think this will be perfect—cool, crisp fennel, slightly peppery watercress, slightly bitter radicchio, all of which will balance the rich butter and gravy dishes that are the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. Then the Parmesan is there to make things a little interesting. It’s not just a plate of greens with vinaigrette dressing. Yet there’s not so much extra stuff that we’ll get filled up on salad and not be able to eat dinner, or that the salad will feel heavy and too entrée-like. Nor will it compete with the green vegetable dishes. The fact that it can be prepped 8 hours ahead is a bonus too. No need to worry about vegetables discoloring or wilting. Problem solved!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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