Salad should not be a side dish.
For one, it’s not a good side dish. The texture and form of a light, simple salad is not complementary to sharing space on a plate. Its flavor can rarely stand up to robust main courses. Even a heavily-dressed salad doesn’t mix well, and, more importantly, a salad should never be heavily-dressed.
Salad should stand for itself. It should be more than an easy way to pile fiber and hypothetical nutrients onto dinner. A simple spring salad asserts its own flavor. You should taste the leaves. They should be fresh and crisp and full, either slightly sweet, slightly bitter, or both. They should recall the location, the time of day, and the soil from which they were picked. They should not just be vehicles for dressing.
So long as you’re eating a real salad. So much salad these days is a pile of bland leaves plastered in oil. But good greens exist, and good greens change everything about your salad. Good greens do not come in bags, even ones labeled “organic.” They have to be bought fresh, which is to say local, which you’ll find at the farmers market.
And they must be mixed well. I follow the Italian rule in salad dressing, which means only salt, pepper, olive oil and red wine vinegar. I’m not going to mandate that you follow this rule, but I will say it’s the best and it would be wrong to do otherwise. Assemble your greens — and, if you really must, any supplementary ingredients — and add a pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Add enough oil to make the leaves glisten slightly (but only slightly) when tossed. Add 1/4 as much red-wine vinegar as oil, and toss it all together, lightly. Serve it immediately, because the leaves will wilt quickly.
When, finally, everyone’s had enough, you can move on to the rest of your meal.
Recipe: Pear and Arugula Salad
Active time: 20 minutes. Actual time: 20 minutes. Serves 6.
1/2 lb loose arugula, or 2 bunches arugula with stems
3 pears, preferably Bosc or red Bartlett
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, crumbled or sliced with a fruit peeler
Red wine vinegar
Salt, preferably coarse sea-salt
1. If the arugula has stems, trim them and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. Soak all the leaves in a large bowl of cold water for 10-15 minutes, turning leaves or changing water as necessary (i.e. if the arugula is especially gritty). Transfer leaves to a salad spinner and dry, or wrap them in a kitchen towel and shake dry.
2. Halve pears, remove stems and core, and cut into thin slices.
3. Assemble arugula and pear slices in a wide bowl. Add a pinch of salt (I used 1 tsp) and a few grindings of pepper. Add oil to taste, but use enough to give the leaves a very light shimmer (I used 1/3 cup). Add vinegar to taste, but use at least 1/4 as much vinegar as the amount of oil you added (I used 2 tbsp). Toss well, sprinkle cheese over top, and serve immediately, preferably as a course by itself.