Anything-but-Boring Backyard Salad
By Stephanie Burt
You’ve lovingly selected plants, planted them, tended to them, and harvested food from the garden beds of your own backyard. So why would you put little-to-no thought in the best way to incorporate them in a salad?
That’s right -- you wouldn’t.
If you want to eat local from your own backyard, thinking beyond the boring garden salad is essential, says James Beard-nominated Chef Kevin Johnson of The Grocery in Charleston, S.C. Johnson’s veggie-forward menu features locally-sourced produce 12 months out of the year. He is also an advocate for using heirloom varietals, so he knows how to make vegetables shine beyond a side dish.
“Think of salad as more than lettuce,” Johnson says. “Beans, eggplant, peas and squash can all be used as a salad base, and it doesn’t have to be served hot.”
For example, the chef knows just what to do with all those squash and zucchini that seem to ripen overnight. He suggests serving raw, paper thin slices as a salad base (a mandoline can make easy work of this), then tossing other treats in from the garden with a light dressing and a copious amount of herbs.
Pre-roasting vegetables is another way to add depth and flavor to those garden veggies. Simply season with salt and pepper and roast on the grill or in the oven, then allow to come to room temperature before using as a base. The vegetables lose some moisture and deepen in flavor, and while eggplant and tomatoes are some of the easiest vegetables to roast, almost all vegetables taste delicious with a slight, smoky char, from sweet peppers and corn to carrots and okra.
And finally, don’t forget about grains! Sure, we’re all used to the pasta salad idea, but consider adding rice, quinoa, farro, couscous or even barley, pre-cooked and chilled. Whole grains give a satisfying toothiness and richness to an otherwise simple salad.
Here's a chef secret: don’t skimp on herbs in your salad.
“Be heavy-handed with the herbs,” Johnson explains. “Don’t necessarily mince them into the dressing, but instead rough chop or tear and mix into the salad itself. That way the essences are throughout, and there is more of a presence in every bite.”
The key to success here is to use soft herbs, such as basil, parsley, chervil, chives, mint, cilantro and any other herb growing in your garden that has soft leaves. They work great in combination with almost any bright vegetable, and if you steer clear of woodier herbs such as rosemary, thyme, or some of the oregano varieties, there won’t be any fear of overdoing it.
Forget the bottle. Great vinaigrettes are very easy to make, and the results are a delicious dividend on the small amount of time investment to whisk them together.
Speaking of investment, using high-quality ingredients means creating the best taste, and that goes for olive oil and vinegar, too. “Look for a good quality olive oil and a good vinegar,” says Johnson. He cautions against paying extra simply for the brand name and focuses instead on how the oil is produced. “Sure, some of the prices of the more expensive ones will be due to a little marketing, but mostly you will be paying for the different methods of production. For instance, you need to look for a cold-pressed olive oil for the quality depth of flavor.”
As for vinegar, Johnson enjoys incorporating champagne or banyuls varieties to create vinaigrettes for salads. However, he often substitutes another acid for the vinegar: lemon juice. Fresh-squeezed juice heightens the flavor of a salad and goes well with all of those soft herbs.
“If you use good vegetables, lots of herbs, a really nice cold-pressed olive oil and fresh lemon juice, you’re already way ahead of the game,” he adds.
Stephanie Burt grew up on good Southern cooking and reading lots of books. Stephanie runs the popular food website Southern Fork and writes online for The Home Depot on food, cooking, recipes and gardening. You can find more info on raised garden beds for growing herbs here and an infographic on growing veggies for salads here.