It’s no coincidence that artists love salad. “It’s visual, it’s tactile, it’s about how you combine and manipulate materials,” says Julia Sherman, a fine artist and the author of the blog Salad for President.
Since 2012, Sherman has been chronicling her culinary experiments with artists — big names such as William Wegman, Tauba Auerbach and Laurie Anderson. In 2014, Sherman installed a “salad garden” at MoMa PS1 in Queens. Now, she’s the creative director of Chop’t and the author of Salad for President, the book, which is out this month.
Why salad? “It’s just like starting with a table full of raw materials and creating something new out of it,” says Sherman. It’s also much more than a bunch of leafy greens. Serve a few varieties and you have a perfectly acceptable — and delicious, and healthy — dinner party spread. Below, some of Sherman’s tips for feeding friends with salad.
Go Beyond Greens
Sherman thinks of salads as “room-temperature offerings that are heavy on the vegetables.” Some of those will be leafy green salads, others might be built from a base of roasted root vegetables or cooked grains, and still others might contain a significant amount of animal protein. The Roast Chicken, Arugula and Citrus-Marinated Olives recipe below, for example, is mainly chicken, with some vegetal elements. Serve that with a grain salad and another vegetable salad and you’ve got a meal.
Variety Is Key
“Coming up with different ways of serving things makes it feel a little less monotonous,” says Sherman. This applies both to the elements in the bowl — shredded, shaved, chopped or whole vegetables — and how they arrive at the table and are consumed. Roasted asparagus with dip is a finger food, for example; you just pick up the spears with your hands. Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters gave Sherman the idea of salad tacos, wrapping dressed lettuces and melting cheese in corn tortillas. And the stuffed avocado in the book is presented just like that: an avocado half, cut side down, with some dressing drizzled over the round top.
Play with Color and Texture
This means layering and balancing volume — your heavy ingredients and light ingredients — dispersing your colorful ingredients, marinating some items and keeping others bright and fresh, adding grill marks and char flavor to some things, like the romaine in Sherman’s Greek salad… The list goes on. Like Sherman said above: variety, variety, variety.
Serve It All at Once
“It doesn’t have to escalate or progress into the main course,” says Sherman. “Personally, by the time I get to a main course, I’m over it. I’m either already full or just want another appetizer.” So serve a few salads at once. People will feast with their eyes first, and then they get to pick and choose — and maybe have seconds or thirds, if they’re hungry — among everything that’s in front of them. But remember that presenting and serving are two different things. Sherman presents her Watermelon Radishes and Spring Shoots, for example, in a shallow bowl with a puddle of cème fraîche in the bottom. “When guests come over, it looks really beautiful and fresh, and it’s all ready to go,” she says. “You don’t toss it until you’re at the table and ready to eat.” Served.
Composed salads are assembled, not tossed. As Sherman writes in the book, “Each element is allotted its own private real estate on the plate, not thrown together willy-nilly.” A Nicoise, for example, is a composed salad: It arrives to the table with green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, olives, lettuce and fish, each prepared separately and holding court on a designated part of the plate. Sherman chooses a tin of sardines instead of the classic tuna, and likes this recipe for a party because guests can choose their own adventure. “You don’t like tomatoes? You don’t take tomatoes,” she says.
This is the most important tip! At the end of the day, says Sherman, “it’s just a salad.”
Fancy Sardine Niçoise with Medium-Boiled Eggs and Fingerling Potatoes
Prep Time: 45 minutes
A niçoise salad is a fixture in the salad canon, but there are infinite variations on this salade composée. Its defining characteristic is that it is assembled. Each element is allotted its own private real estate on the plate, not thrown together willy-nilly. This is a purist’s approach to salad, and it requires each element be prepared with care and plated with intention.
My niçoise is pretty classic until we get to the fish. Once in a blue moon, I splurge on the shockingly expensive oil-packed tuna in a precious glass jar. But in general, I opt for small fish, which are lower in mercury and far more abundant in our imperiled ecosystem. As a salad pundit, I encourage you to do the same. Purchase the fanciest domestic brands on the shelf, or imported sardines from Spain or Portugal — countries where canned seafood is elevated to the point where it’s chic.
The tomatoes make this a summer dish but if you have a hankering for niçoise any other time of year simply omit the tomato and you have still got a winning main course.
For the dressing
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
For the salad
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 small Yukon Gold potatoes
4 ounces (115 g) haricots verts, ends trimmed
2 large eggs
4 leaves Bibb lettuce
1 (4- to 5-ounce/115- to 140-g) can oil-packed sardines, drained
1⁄4 cup (40 g) niçoise olives or halved, pitted Kalamata olives
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced Vidalia onion
1 heirloom tomato, cut into wedges (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Make the dressing: Mince the anchovies and smear them into a paste using the side of a broad chef’s knife. Put the paste in a small bowl and whisk in the vinegar, mustard and oil until emulsified.
2. Make the salad: Bring a one-quart (960-ml) saucepan of water and the kosher salt to a boil. Drop the potatoes in the boiling water and boil for 20 minutes, or until tender. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the haricots verts to the boiling water. Cook for 30 seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon and place in the ice water.
3. Add the eggs (in the shell) to the boiling water and cook for eight minutes, until medium-boiled. Remove with a slotted spoon to the ice water and let them cool completely. Peel and cut into halves.
4. Cut the potatoes and each haricot vert into halves.
5. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a platter and compose the potatoes, haricots verts, egg, sardines, olives, onion and tomato in groupings on top. Spoon the dressing over the salad, season with sea salt and pepper and serve.
Roast Chicken, Arugula and Citrus-Marinated Olives
Serves 8 to 10
Prep Time: 45 minutes
If you cannot find pitted Castelvetrano olives, buy them whole and pit them yourself, just be sure to do so before marinating (it will be much more difficult later). These olives are great on their own, so make extra and refrigerate for a couple of weeks. Their flavor will only improve. Be sure to take them out of the fridge at least 15 minutes before serving, so the oil can come to room temperature.
Mature arugula (as opposed to the commonly bagged baby arugula) is spicy and hearty enough to hold its shape well after it has been dressed. If you can’t find it, substitute another spicy green like dandelion or mizuna.
1 1⁄2 Valencia oranges
3 cups (460 g) pitted Castelvetrano or other mild green olives
1⁄2 cup (120 ml) olive oil
3⁄4 cup plus 6 tablespoons (270 ml) grapeseed oil
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, crushed
4 tablespoons (13 g) chopped fresh tarragon
4 (7-ounce/200-g) boneless chicken breasts, skin on
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces (225 g) mature arugula, washed and dried
1. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the orange zest, leaving the white pith behind, then cut the zest into thin slivers. Heat the olives, orange zest, olive oil, 3⁄4 cup (180 ml) of the grapeseed oil, the bay leaf, and peppercorns in a saucepan. When the oil reaches a low boil, lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add two tablespoons of the tarragon and remove from the heat.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
3. Pat the chicken breasts dry with a paper towel and set aside. (Don’t skip this step, or you won’t get a nice crispy skin.)
4. Heat a large, oven-proof sauté pan or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. After five minutes, add the remaining six tablespoons (90 ml) of the grapeseed oil and swirl it around. Just before cooking, season the chicken breasts with salt and a light coating of pepper. Add the chicken breasts, skin side down, to the hot pan. To get a nice sear, push the breasts down in the pan for a few seconds and then allow the chicken to cook for 10 minutes without moving or flipping.
5. After 10 minutes, flip the breasts so the skin side is up and transfer the pan to the oven to cook for another eight to 10 minutes, until the internal temperature of the meat is 150°F to 160°F (66°C to 71°C). Remove from the oven, transfer the breasts to a cutting board and let rest for at least five minutes.
6. Put the arugula on a large, shallow platter or in a serving bowl. Squeeze the lemon over the arugula and drizzle it with one tablespoon of the oil from the marinated olives. Season with salt and pepper, and use your hands to gently toss, making sure all the leaves are coated.
7. Cut the chicken breasts into 1⁄2-inch (12-mm) slices and arrange on top of the arugula, tucking the slices into the leaves. Using a slotted spoon, top with the marinated olives. If you have extra, just place those in a separate bowl off to the side, so guests can add more if they like. Top with the remaining two tablespoons tarragon and serve.
Slideshow photos by Edith Young; recipe images by Julia Sherman.