Monday, September 24, 2012

How to make really good salads

Salads 102: The Fire and Ice Factor
By: Chef Cristian Feher

In a previous article I wrote about what makes a salad healthy and unhealthy. But today’s article deals with aesthetics; texture, taste, and most importantly - a factor that you may never have thought about when it comes to making salads - temperature.

Cooking is an art. One of the first things that an artist learns is balancing out a dichotomy. Big and small, light and dark, bright and dull, sweet and salty, these are all dichotomies. And as I mentioned above, so is the relationship between hot and cold.

Some of the best salads that I make and enjoy have a carefully balanced temperature between the different ingredients that make up the salad.

I really enjoy a salad that has cold, crisp lettuce, chilled avocadoes and cooled onion slices, with a the contrast of room-temperature, ripe tomatoes, and juicy room-temperature cucumbers. The differences in temperature make a great distinction in flavors and textures on your palate and allow you to really experience the different components crisply and clearly.

I rarely make salads with more than five different ingredients together on one plate. Adding too many ingredients tends to confuse the palate, and you end up homogenizing all of the different flavors that would otherwise pop out individually.

Cold vegetables tend to crisp up, have a firmer texture, and seem more dense to the palate. The flavor of cold vegetables becomes subdued, which can be a good thing when serving strong-flavored vegetables that would overpower the salad if served room temperature (anise, carrots, onions, and beets to name a few).

Avocado, being a unique, fatty vegetable, works well both hot and cold, as they provide a different experience in taste and texture at both ends of the temperature spectrum.

Serving vegetables at room temperature creates the opposite effect. The texture becomes softer, lighter and easier on the palate. The true flavor of the vegetable also blossoms as the temperature rises. There is nothing tastier in a salad than field-fresh, ripe tomatoes served slightly warm. Or the refreshing taste of a warm, juicy slice of cucumber.

You can even go a step further by serving some of the vegetables hot. Fire roasted peppers, grilled squashes and seared cherry tomatoes, for example, add a bold, flavorful contrast to a salad of cold greens. Be sure to serve this type of salad right away to keep the cold cold, and the hot hot. Once the temperature equalizes, you end up with a bland, mushy salad. So, time, in this case, is of the essence.

Dressings and vinaigrettes are also affected by temperature.  A cold salty and acidic vinaigrette works great on a hot day. Conversely, a thick dressing like egg yolk and garlic aioli with tarragon is a great example of a dressing best served warm.

The next time you make a salad, keep in mind the balance within hot and cold. You may start to enjoy salads more, and more, by adding a new dimension to your salad-making - temperature.

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