Here’s the thing about salads. On the most basic level, I find them boring. I’d much rather order (and eat) a large bowl of steamed chard than graze upon a bed of butter lettuce.
But I have to apologize, for this is a gross stereotype. Not all salads are made equal. And as I’ve learned from watching various episodes of Top Chef, making an outstanding salad is one of the most difficult accomplishments on the cooking scale.
So why do I bring up this leafy subject? Well, there are two salads in my life that have almost brought tears to my eyes. Between flavor and presentation, these simple tosses of garden-fresh vegetables were so tasty that I prayed throughout that meal that they would last forever.
The first of these exemplary salads was created by the husband-wife team at New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in Talent, Oregon. In this hidden little gem, Vern mans the wood-worked, wine bar in the front, while his lovely lady, Charlene, makes magic in their kitchen and adjoining garden. It is a small restaurant with limited seating – so make reservations today – but this makes it possible for them to create special meals that meet even the most difficult dietary need. And upon our first (unplanned) visit, Charlene did just that.
As we ordered, and I went through my list of low sodium needs, Vern apologized that most of everything had already been blanched in salt water or seasoned and that the best they could do was to make a low sodium salad. My heart sank while my companion ordered a lobster ravioli (with some extraordinary butter and shellfish sauce), and I realized I was stuck with a bowl of rabbit food.
But when the plate arrived, my assumptions were shattered. The white basin (ok, it was a bowl, but a big bowl) was filled with chopped tomatoes, asparagus, yellow crookneck squash, avocado, and freshly-steamed corn. It was topped with a simple dressing of lemon and olive oil, and the presentation exploded with a confetti of garden-fresh herbs. Every bite was a journey through the seasons. I tasted summer, spring, and fall, and I desperately wanted time to stand still. My companion can vouch for me – the meal literally moved me to tears. One big, sweet tear to be exact.
So that was the day I decided to reassess my feelings on salads and accept that a well-made dish of garden vegetables could not only be filling but an extraordinary circus of flavors. But I hadn’t experienced a salad like Sammy’s since that fateful afternoon and it seemed like this may have been a once-in-a-lifetime meal. But then walked in Barndiva – a homey restaurant with spice and sass – and once again, I had to take back all of my criticisms of salads.
There I was, driving through downtown Healdsburg, looking for a place to grab some grub during my five-hour road trip. And there was Barndiva, an inviting wooden barn with a garden in the back that promised extraordinary food made of sustainable, seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients. But since I arrived unannounced, I was once again very limited in my low sodium choices, and the waiter apologized for the slim pickings of their offerings – another salad.
I thought my meal would be a snooze fest compared to the pickled beet salad,
chicken dumplings (with morel mushrooms),
and tempura asparagus that was steaming in front of my face.
But then, the plate arrived and I had in front of me a colorful palette of the freshest ingredients one could find on this side of the rainbow – golden and red beets, fava beans, asparagus, tomatoes, avocados, kumquats, grapefruits, Banyuls vinegar, and herbs. My options may have been slim pickings, but when the food is freshly plucked, it doesn’t matter. Every bite was filled with unexpected bursts of flavor, and I wanted the pops to never stop. For a second time in my life, a salad skyrocketed to the heights of my top ten list of best low sodium meals I’ve ever eaten.
So the lesson here is that simple food does not equal dull food. It can actually mean the exact opposite. For if you have the right ingredients, and interesting flavor combinations, the natural taste of the food really stands out, and it can blow you away. And when it comes to salads, don’t limit yourself to the basics, but be creative – like the rest of your low sodium cooking. Put blueberries with slices of beef or celery with garbanzo beans. Salads are a great place to test the boundaries of your imagination. And I think you’ll quickly find that, in reality, the rules of good food are boundless.