Mouths to Feed: Herbal Essence

By Celia Barbour

Three years ago, when my son Henry turned 10, I took him on a trip to Italy. We traveled up and down the country and ate many amazing meals (no surprise there), including a bigoli with duck ragu that haunts me to this day — I can not figure out what made it taste so surpassingly good — tremendous pizza, and breathtaking filets of fish. But the dish Henry and I have talked about most since then is none of these. It is a green salad.

This salad was just one course of eight we were served at a farm-hotel outside Milan. The place was fantastical: built variously in the 13th, 16th and 18th centuries, it was part-mansion, part-convent, part-ruin, with peacocks rambling around the pea-graveled courtyard, a cow barn equipped with a medieval bell tower, and painted beams in the bedrooms.

herb salad 1In the basement, the proprietors cured culatello, the most highly-prized salumi in Italy. The cavernous, white-washed space hung with hundreds of tightly-bound pig rumps that lent the whole hotel an aroma a little like buttermilk, a little like mold, and a little like nothing I’d ever smelled before — wonderful and slightly disturbing.

That night, we began our dinner with a tasting of culatello, after which came soup and then the salad. On the menu it was called “salad of 100 herbs,” and although we did not keep count, it included a remarkable variety of cultivated and foraged herbs, some of which tasted thrilling, some flowery, some bitter, and one or two quite nasty — it was clear why these plants had never been welcomed into the herb garden. Still, the overall effect of the salad was to engender in us both a kind of hyper-alertness: Every mouthful — indeed, every moment of every bite of every mouthful — released a completely new aroma, and we ate it like explorers making our way wide-eyed through a new land, not wanting to miss a single sensation.

I’ve been eating both herbs and salads since my own salad days, but I had never encountered such a stunning marriage of the two. The very idea that the whole personality of a salad could rest on delicate little herbs, rather than on noisy, big components like tomatoes and onions, or radishes, pea shoots, and goat cheese was a revelation to me.

Since then, I’ve made many salads of just lettuce and herbs, often simply combining whatever tender herbs I have in the refrigerator. (“Tender herbs” are those with soft, delicate leaves, like basil, cilantro, tarragon, dill, parsley, chervil, and mint, plus very young thyme and oregano, and they work beautifully with spring’s supple, buttery lettuces. By contrast, hardy herbs tend to grow on woody stems, and have firm leaves; they’re the herbs you’d throw on a roast, and include rosemary, sage, and older sprigs of thyme and oregano.)

croutonsMostly I have served these salads as one course out of several, but there are days — and we’ve already had a few — when salad is all you want for a meal, and with a few tweaks, this one rises to the occasion. In fact, so potent is it that it can makean occasion out of even a dismal day, as I discovered last summer.

It happened during a week when everyone at camp went away on trips while the cooks stayed behind to scrub down, de-crud, reorganize, and sanitize the kitchen (which included scouring the grout between the floor tiles by hand). At lunchtime on the third day, I decided to make a big, herby salad. I asked my team if they wanted some, too, and all said yes, so I fried up bread to make croutons, mixed the salad, dressed it with oil and vinegar, then shaved Parmigiano Reggiano on top. I don’t know if it was simply our mood, but the salad seemed to transport my workmates right out of their greasy distress.

They raved on about it, repeatedly asking me what was in it, as if they could not believe the simple list of ingredients could turn out so good — as if they had forgotten (as have we all) that herbs are actually magical things, as capable of haunting the memory as, say, peacocks. Or duck ragu.

Salad of Many Herbs

You can use herbs that go together, like parsley, chervil, and dill, or cilantro and mint, but you can also just mix it up and let this dish become a kind of crazy sensory journey.

2-3 slices country bread

¼ cup olive oil

salt and pepper

2 cups loosely packed mixed tender herbs, such as basil, cilantro, tarragon, dill, parsley, chervil, and mint; inner celery leaves are also good

1 scallion, very thinly sliced

2 heads bibb lettuce, or other tender, mild lettuce

¼ cup salad dressing, or to taste (see below for recipe)

1 ounce Parmigiano Reggiano

  1. Tear the bread into bite-size pieces. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high until shimmering. Add the bread; immediately toss to coat with the oil, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Sauté the bread, stirring frequently, until golden brown. Remove from heat and toss with salt and pepper.
  2. Tear the largest-leafed herbs into medium pieces, and remove any thick stems. Combine the herbs, scallion, and lettuce in a large salad bowl. Add dressing and toss to combine. Shave the cheese on top using a vegetable peeler. Add the croutons and serve at once.

Simple Salad Dressing

For some reason I don’t understand, salads taste best to me when the oil and vinegar are poured directly onto the lettuce in that order, and then tossed, with salt and pepper added halfway. I don’t use ratios, but know that you need more oil than you think, less vinegar, and a generous hand with the salt. For those who want a recipe, try the one below, or see the one from June 27, 2013 (“Death Defiance”), omitting the herbs.

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon sea salt

pinch freshly ground pepper

tiny drop maple syrup or honey

3 tablespoons champagne vinegar or other mild vinegar, such as coconut or cider

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine the first five ingredients in a blender. While running the blade, slowly drizzle in the oil until emulsified. Store whatever you don’t use in a covered jar in the refrigerator for up to one week.

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