When I was 16, at a pizzeria at the end of a strip mall in Norcross, Ga., I worked as a garde manger. I had just been promoted from dishwasher and was newly in charge of assembling salads to order from an array of decrepit vegetables that were stored in a walk-in fridge, which was kept a few degrees too cold: iceberg lettuce that was frozen in spots, pale tomatoes with powdery edges, canned black olives and raw red onions, thinly sliced with a very blunt knife. The oil-and-vinegar dressing came in a little container on the side, as did a couple of pepperoncini. This salad was not the star menu item at the restaurant, as evidenced by the many plates that came back with dirty napkins and used silverware stacked atop the clunky iceberg swimming in vinegar.
I think of that salad every time I eat a bad one, and every time I eat a good one too. Green salads are a lot like broccoli or brussels sprouts: A mediocre experience can turn you off the stuff. But a great version of anything can be mind-altering. I’ll always remember the Little Gem Caesar I ate at Mustards Grill in Napa, Calif. Here were some of the freshest leaves I’d ever eaten, their vegetal beauty staying with me for miles along the St. Helena Highway after I left the restaurant. I didn’t know lettuce could taste like that, so crisp, juicy and full of natural sweetness. That was the day I learned that a green salad’s power can come from its simplicity.
Keep in mind that simple does not mean effortless. When it comes to making a great salad, knowing which levers to suppress is as important as knowing which ones to pull. Though a restaurant green salad can often be a throwaway dish, it can also be a crunchy, nuanced dream — a paradigm of balanced flavor.
Sohui Kim, a chef and partner at the steakhouse Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, views the green salad not as a compulsory menu item but as an opportunity to perfect a classic, something she learned how to do on the job at Blue Hill restaurant and later at Annisa (now closed), both in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. It’s also a barometer for how good a restaurant is. “If you can make the simplest things shine, then that bodes well for everything else you’re about to have at that place,” she says.
The salad leaves used at Gage & Tollner come from local farms and change every week. Sometimes it’s beautiful radicchio, other times it’s frisée; mustard greens are often featured. “Each leaf has its own integrity and flavor and composition,” Kim says, which is why when you’re making a salad, you should taste the leaves as you go. Such careful consideration is essential to finding the right dressing; at Gage & Tollner, that’s an aged sherry vinegar with a smattering of shallots that gives the mixed greens, in Kim’s words, “that je ne sais quoi.”
At Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Philadelphia, the culinary director Jim Burke leans into a kaleidoscopic mix of lettuces. “There are so many different varieties, and they have such different characteristics, each one of them,” he says. “So by mixing and matching, you can really curate the kind of flavor and texture profiles you’re looking for.” And to dress? Lemon, roasted garlic, olive oil and salt. No pepper. “Pepper I don’t use freely,” he says. “I think a lot of restaurants do that, where you have salt and previously ground pepper right next to each other all the time. But pepper is an extraordinarily assertive flavor. It doesn’t have a place in everything, especially with delicate leaves.”
The variety of textures and flavors in Burke’s green salad is a delight, but even more delicious is how cold the vegetables are when they land on your plate. That’s because after washing the greens, he chills them in wide containers in the refrigerator, so they’re not piled on top of one another and can dry effectively. This may be the best trick in Burke’s green-salad playbook, a quiet but powerful extra step to elevate your salads at home: After washing and drying your greens, pop them in the refrigerator, covered with a tea towel, and keep them chilled until right before you’re ready to dress them. While the washed lettuce hangs out in the fridge, you can continue preparing the rest of dinner. By the time everything has cooked, your salad leaves will be crisper than crisp and cooler than cool, a pleasurable cacophony of textures, shyly slicked with a film of salt, acid and oil.
The keyword here is slicked, not drowned. One of the most common errors home cooks make with salad is overdressing it, says Andrew Taylor, a chef and owner of Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine. Spicy greens, in particular, can be delicate. “If you overdo it, you’ll just find yourself with a sodden mass of greens,” he says. He has also noticed that a lot of home cooks are afraid of oil and don’t use enough of it — and worse, use too much vinegar, which causes the flavor to be overly harsh, plus the acid quickly deteriorates the greens. He recommends a classic ratio for vinaigrettes: one part vinegar (or citrus juice) to three parts oil. At Eventide, the green salad is dressed in a light nori vinaigrette, echoing the sea with each saline bite. The salad is bejeweled with pickled vegetables, which are reminiscent of the sweet radishes that come with Korean fried chicken. I’d never had a green salad that tasted so much like home.
Taylor used to think of the green salad as a dull, obligatory dish. But years ago, after cooking at the now-closed Boston restaurant Clio, he saw how the garde-manger chef laboriously processed the many vegetables required for the green salad — “17 or so,” he guessed. “You had to really layer the salad very carefully and build it beautifully,” he says. This approach, giving a humble green salad the care and attention that any dish on the menu should have, resonated with him. The salad he serves now at Eventide is in many ways a homage to the one from Clio, which had a soy vinaigrette and let the vegetables speak for themselves.
Unless you know your salad chef directly, or make salads yourself — a skill worth mastering — it can be hard to know what you’re going to get. Green salad is the Russian roulette of restaurant orders, a game I play often. I especially love ordering it when the menu says just “green salad” and nothing else. More often than not, I’m rewarded for my blind faith: lush lettuce, delicate dressing, transformational in every way.
Recipe: Green Salad With Dill Vinaigrette