During the lockdown my closest friend and I decided to keep each other company, mostly over dinners, watching the news and a cocktail. We are both single, without kids, and everything seemed so bleak and uncertain that having company became an essential thing. And we are both serious home cooks, though with quite different approaches. This cooking became a highlight of the day and we made some seriously good things, including expanding our concepts of what a great salad is.
Salads, for our generation (late Boomers), all too often meant iceberg, a few wan tomatoes, and hunks of cucumber dosed with ‘italian’ dressing from a jar. Those days are fortunately long gone but our forays into expanding the definition of salads have changed my overall perception of them. They went from an excuse to eat something cold and green but otherwise unexciting, to the salad I’m writing about now, which is, to use a cliche of food writing, summer on a plate. A cliche but nevertheless an accurate description.
Faced with a fridge full of seasonal local stuff from the huge farmer’s market nearby, my salad lightbulb went off and I began imagining something new, beautiful, and delicious, a layering of flavors, colors, texture, and contrast. Part of our meal routine is only cooking fresh ingredients and plating the food like a restaurant, perhaps a response to being unable to eat out for months. So the sweet watery watermelon, sharp radish, and citrusy acid of oranges with a simple oil and vinegar dressing combined both the opportunity to make something good to eat and an exercise in plating.
The way you cut things up for a salad, or virtually any other dish, is a key to blending flavors and textures. The orange gets peeled and sliced crosswise into rounds, the watermelon in bite-sized chunks, and the radishes sliced translucently thin, in this case with my handy bennie*, a cheap Japanese mandolin that is a staple in restaurant kitchens. These are layered on a plate, cubes of cucumber are scattered over, and it is finished with a grating of lime zest, a squeeze of juice from the lime, a spritz of vinegar to cut the sweetness and a drizzle of olive oil. I had basil in a window box so small leaves of that went on top, adding another layer of fragrance. That’s basically the recipe but here is a more formal accounting of ingredients and prep.
Serves two generously.
Two naval oranges, peel and pith removed and sliced crosswise into thin rounds
One cup of watermelon, sliced into bite size chunks
Three large radishes sliced very thin
½ cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into half inch cubes
Zest and juice of ½ lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh Basil leaves, whole if small, torn if larger (optional)
Red wine vinegar
Prep all the ingredients first (mise en place). Layer in order on a large plate, grate zest over all and squeeze the lime juice on everything. Season and with your finger over the bottle spout, lightly sprinkle with vinegar and oil. Finally, garnish with basil. It occurred to me later that a few thin slices of jalapeno would work too and add a little heat. Maybe next time.
This can be dressed ahead and chilled before eating. We had it last night on a sultry evening with some pasta and a simple tomato sauce. My cocktail choice last night was a dirty martini, but a cold rose would be a good match.
*Benrinner Vegetable Slicer, affectionately known as a bennie by the pros. About $20. Not an essential but I’ve had a lot of fun with it. One caveat: These things are sharp and you need to pay attention because you can slice yourself open if you’re not watching carefully. They come with a gizmo to protect your fingers but honestly it does not work. My tip for small items like radishes is to stick the tines of a fork into one end, just enough to hold it firmly, and use it as a handle to slice. With hard root vegetables like potatoes or radishes, a quick firm sweep and setting the blade to very thin helps.
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