Lubing the Leaves

Ari LeVaux

Photo by Ari LeVaux
Photo by Ari LeVaux

If you scan the tables of America’s favorite eateries, from foodie to fast-casual, you’ll witness many variations of a certain salad. A base of leaves, piled high with chicken, shrimp, cheese and croutons, as well as other foods that may or may not be raw, and may or may not be vegetables. One gets the feeling these over-garnished deli platters are aimed less at “real” salad eaters and more at people who have been told by their families, friends and doctors to eat salad. If one isn’t so into raw veggies, this kind of salad allows one to eat salad by dipping a crouton into ranch dressing. 

While it may seem like cheating, there is actually historical precedent for such decadent interpretations of salad.  Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne, an authoritative encyclopedia of classic gastronomy published in 1938, defines salad as a dish “...made up of herbs, plants, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish.” You’d think Montagne wrote his book in a booth at the IHOP.

But there is an important caveat to his apparent condoning of busy salads. A good salad, Montagne writes, “...freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating.”  If all I ate were croutons and cheese, I’d feel more enfeebled and irritated. But if freshened and fortified are how you want your body to feel, definitely consider raw vegetables. 

We all ask different things of our salads. My wife is completely satisfied with raw leaves, in part because she is the salad whisperer and has the ability to make perfect salads with laser-leveled flavors. When it is time to make a salad, she thoughtfully analyzes the raw materials, and creates a game plan for an awesome salad, including a custom dressing. She uses a lot of olive oil to get there, but the amount of leaves she can eat would need units of cubic feet to describe. Me, I respect the leaves more than I love them. And with some delicious lube to make the leaves go down, I’m a happy salad eater.   For me, salad is not so much something that is made of raw vegetables, but a method of eating them. 

With their fibers and vitamins, raw plant parts are the best things you can eat. I’m just gonna come out and say it. The problem is, they don’t fill you up.   A good-sized salad will still leave your belly wanting more, unless the veggies are eclipsed by empty calories, or unless it’s followed by a serving of lasagna. If you eat enough leaves, of course, you will eventually get full. But the trick is to stay focused on the raw plant parts, and not the extra goodies that have been added to sweeten the deal. The way to do this, I have found, is to make a dressing that is extra decadent, and omit the other bells and whistles. 

For today’s first recipe I borrow the dressing she uses when she’s eating alone and too lazy to make a salad. At such times, she eats heads of straight radicchio, head after head, dipping the wedges or peeled-off leaves into a three-way mix of olive oil, soy sauce and vinegar. Radicchio disappears this way, as she dips it in dressing like chips in a bowl of salsa, and crunches them down. (If you wish to try something like this at home, keep olive oil on hand as you will have to replenish it; the oil floats on top, so it’s quickly depleted.)

In my recipe for Saucy Salad, I split her dressing up into parts, to be combined later. The vinegar part of the dressing goes onto the leaves, while the oil and soy sauce are added later with bits of meat and other chunks. In the Greasy Lettuce Boats recipe that follows, vinegar is omitted entirely. As my wife says, “salt can replace vinegar, but vinegar cannot replace salt.”

Saucy (Meaty Brussels-y Sprout-y) Salad

One softball-sized head of radicchio, sliced thin as if by deli machine. (Think coleslaw, but thinner.) 

Roughly the same amount of romaine lettuce, similarly cut (or use mostly romaine, if radicchio is too bitter for you)

A medium-sized sweet or yellow onion, sliced in half and then into thin arcs
Two cloves garlic: pressed, grated or pounded

Sliced cucumber, to taste

Half-pound lean ground red meat (or alternative meat or protein)

Twelve Brussels sprouts, trimmed and sliced lengthwise (or other vegetable like asparagus)

Olive oil (1/2 cup), soy sauce (1/4 cup) cider vinegar (2 Tablespoons)

Toss the radicchio and romaine with the vinegar, cucumber, half the macerated garlic and half the sliced onions, and set in the fridge. 
Pour the olive oil into a pan, and heat the meat, breaking it up into pieces with a spatula. Add the Brussels sprouts to the pan, cut sides down, and the rest of the onions on top. Cook slowly with the lid on, allowing the onions to give their moisture as the meat browns but doesn’t burn, and the Brussels sprouts soften. When the water is running low, add the soy sauce and the rest of the garlic, and stir. 

What you have, at this point, is a lusty sauce that could be poured over noodles or some other empty carb.  If the veggies sucked up too much oil, add more to the pan, so the dressing is as greasy as it is meaty and salty.   Let it cool for at least ten minutes, then spoon it onto your salad. 

Greasy Lettuce Boats

Another way to use that same chunky sauce on some leaves is to spoon small amounts of it into lettuce boats. They are an easy way to get kids to eat leaves, and can be busied up as much as the audience can handle.  Baby romaine, or other small lettuce heads, are especially well-suited for this task. (With larger leaves, consider making rolls).  

Deconstruct the lettuce, removing the leaves and filling them with greasy sauce and goodies. I begin with a dab of mayo (when I say mayo, I mean Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise). Shreds of radicchio or cabbage can be added to these boats as well, or pickle, for a splash of acid. 
Or not, because vinegar is expendable, because my little salty wife says so. But oil and sodium in this equation: completely non-negotiable. And for what it’s worth (a lot, I would argue), the salad listener approves of these recipes.