My husband, Giancarlo, and I love salads: the crunch of fresh vegetables, lively colorful leaves, and punchy dressings. They sharpen our minds and give us energy yet still fill us up without leaving us sluggish and tired. For years, Giancarlo, an Italian, was mainly a pasta man, but then he learned he has diabetes; he had to lose weight, give up sugar, and eat fewer carbohydrates. This meant less pasta, and no more cappuccino with sugar, cake, or cookies. Then, just weeks later, he was told he is intolerant to gluten. Poor Giancarlo! He had to give up conventional pasta, bread, and pizza—all the things a traditional Italian man loves. On the bright side, no one told him he shouldn’t eat vegetables, so he can eat salad!
Months later, we found out that our son, Giorgio, is also gluten intolerant; he had been experiencing headaches, migraines, and moments when he was so tired and weak he couldn’t get up. So now we are pretty much gluten free as a family, and vegetables take center stage. At our home in England, we grow plenty of our own, and try to buy local and organic when possible.
Salad is fresh, rich in nutrients, usually low in sugar, and often gluten free. The word “salad” comes from herbe salato, meaning “salted leaves,” referring to a bowl of dressed leaves, and dates back at least to ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder, the ancient-Roman writer, wrote to a friend about a salad kept cool with snow and reprimanded him for being too busy with dancing girls to notice this amazing phenomenon. The Italian gardener and writer Giacomo Castelvetro was horrified by the eating habits of the English in the 16oos and wrote a whole book about how they should eat more salad. He didn’t want us to waste the herbs and leaves around us and wanted us to use a greater variety of them.
To Castelvetro’s point, to make a great salad, you must first start with the ingredients: What’s in the fridge and needs to be used? What’s in season and at its prime in the market? Pick your ingredients from a shelf or a plant and assemble. That is salad.
We like to use a variety of textures to make our salads exciting, different, and generally more loved. It is essential to find a balance between wet and dry as well as soft and crunchy. For instance, we might start with a couple of carrots, grate them into a pile, season them, squeeze a lemon over the top, and then take a piece of cheese and use a peeler to make transparent shavings next to the carrots. Next we’ll tear a little cooked chicken into shreds, pour on olive oil, and add sea-salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper. Finally, we’ll mix it all with a handful of soft leaves, slices of bell pepper, chewy grains or cooked beans, crunchy toasted seeds or nuts, and some homemade dressing.
To be sure that our book was filled with a variety of inspiring salads, Giancarlo and I traveled to Southeast Asia, Morocco, Italy, and the United States to discover new ways of eating. We worked with family cooks and chefs from various countries, including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, North and South America, China, Japan, France, Kuwait, Greece, Peru, Korea, and more. As a result, all of the salads in our book, including the four you’ll find in the following pages, are vibrant, fresh, and balanced, with plenty of varying textures—perfect for family and guests who love healthful yet filling and flavorful summer fare.
How to Store Your Greens
Once you find a variety of leaves you like, handle them with care. Leaves should be stored, and served, dry. We use our salad spinner most days; you can also loosely wrap leaves in a towel, clutching the ends at arm’s distance—spin it around outdoors and watch the drips fly.
To prevent your herbs from turning into mush, first wash them immediately after purchasing by plunging them into a bowl full of ice-cold water. Then, for most herbs, trim the stems (repeat every two days), and refrigerate leaves in a vase or cut plastic bottle filled with cold water and covered loosely with a plastic or paper bag for insulation. Here, a few tips for caring for commonly used herbs:
Kale: Will soften when massaged for 5 minutes
Cilantro: Does best in the fridge
Mint (plant): Is happiest on a sunny windowsill
Parsley: Can be stored at room temperature
Rosemary and thyme: Fare best when kept cool
Make the Perfect Salad
Through teaching at their cooking school, La Cucina Caldesi, in London, the Caldesis have developed a simple set of questions for students to ask themselves when crafting a salad. Use these guidelines often, and they’ll soon become instinctive as they help you to create unique, beautiful dishes.
- Do I have varying textures? Do I have something soft, chewy, crunchy, wet, and dry?
- Would color help? Do I need berries, grated carrot, tomatoes, or edible flowers from the garden?
- For more zing, what about herbs such as mint, parsley, and cilantro?
- Should I add something creamy like a dip, Greek yogurt, or sour cream?
- Do I have a balance of sweet and sour? Is my dressing too sweet or too acidic? Taste it and see. Lemon will negate too much salt or sugar, while sugar alternatives like maple syrup will calm acidic flavors.
- Do I need a little mustard, garlic, or chile to give the salad some heat on a cold day, or to fire up bland beans?
- If the salad is intended for a main meal, does it include protein, carbohydrates, and fat?
- Finally, how does it look? All salads look and taste better finished with a twist of ground black pepper.