Here’s a column I wrote in 2005 about Marcella Hazan’s tips for dressing salad. Hazan died yesterday at the age of 89.
Whenever I thumb through my worn-to-shreds copy of Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book” and see the boldface heading “Italian Dressing” on Page 404, I always have to get the instant associations out of mind. The tan gloss beading over fierce shards of iceberg. My mother shaking her cruet of Seven Seas with the snap-on lid. Paul Newman.
Hazan was referring to none of the above — nothing ladled, shaken or poured from a Newman-faced bottle. Marcella Hazan’s Italian dressing consisted solely of oil, vinegar and salt. “For Italians, ” she wrote, “salad dressing is not an element separate from the salad; it is not added on to the greens as you might add a sauce to pasta. Dressing is a process rather than an object, a verb rather than a noun. It is the act that transforms greens and vegetables into salad.”
I first read Hazan’s salad discourse about 15 years ago, and her charming, haughty chauvinism won me over instantly. I was happy to stop assembling and whisking all the ingredients for a vinaigrette that usually came out too sharp by half. How much easier it was to bring oil and vinegar to the table.
But I think it has taken the interim years for me to master this simple procedure. Three-ingredient recipes can be the trickiest.
The dressing process, according to Hazan, starts with a bowl of dry greens. The first ingredient to add is salt. This makes sense: Whatever little moisture on the greens will dissolve and distribute the salt.
Next up comes oil. You should add only enough, Hazan advised, to give the leaves a “surface gloss.” She approved only of dense, fruity olive oil and warned that so-called salad oils “merely grease the greens.”
Finally, Hazan wrote, you can add the vinegar with a “stingy” hand. Caveat dresser: “A few drops too much will ruin a salad.”
The vinegar must be “wine vinegar, preferably red, with all the characteristics of a good wine.” Flavored vinegars — popular when the book was first published in 1973 — were to be treated with contempt, an attitude that Hazan made no effort to disguise.
Then, you toss. Toss thoroughly and with utmost care “not to bruise and blacken delicate greens.” Once the salad is, well, salad, you can taste and adjust the flavor with salt, oil or vinegar. Don’t dare ask Hazan for proportions; only your specific ingredients can dictate amounts.
Over the past 15 years, I have made several modifications to Hazan’s salad, some of which might horrify her. Once when we were renting a beach house, I could only find these salad ingredients in the market: iceberg lettuce, Wesson oil, cider vinegar. No matter: I tore the tender, pale yellow heart of the lettuce into a bowl and dressed it with all the care I’d use for expensive ingredients. Salt first, oil to gloss, vinegar by the drop. Toss. Adjust seasoning. Toss again.
And I found it: that elusive salad synchronicity, that sense of salt and sourness traveling over the tongue together, propelled by oil, revealing a sweetness in the lettuce that wasn’t there before.
Since then, torn iceberg tossed in a nice, acidic vinegar has become a favorite and a cornerstone of my Grand Unified Theory of salad. Here’s the theory: When greens are more sweet than bitter (iceberg, mâche, Boston bibb), then use a sharp vinegar such as those made from red wine or Spanish sherry. When greens are more bitter (romaine, frisee, escarole), use a sweeter, softer vinegar such as balsamic or Japanese seasoned rice wine. Or lemon juice. When you find yourself faced with a pile of bitter arugula, you have no choice but lemon juice.
Once in a while I still make a French vinaigrette with minced shallots, mustard and a whole lot of whisking to keep the dressing (once again a noun) emulsified. And it can be delicious, particularly when applied to tender, sweet greens like red leaf or bibb. But that tastes exotic now; it’s no longer my salad.
And every now and then, I make it a point to reread Page 404 of “The Classic Italian Cook Book.” It’s not because I’m a salad fetishist or cannot remember a three-ingredient recipe. It’s because Marcella Hazan, in the way she describes the making of a salad, says something profound about cooks and their ingredients. Getting this one recipe right is what it’s all about.
- by John Kessler for the Food and More blog