The Best Green Salad in the World

For the last three years, I’ve been obsessed with a green salad.

Allow me to explain exactly how out of character this is: very! I love pasta, buttery garlic bread and deeply caramelized roasted vegetables. I love roast chicken, juicy summer tomatoes and carrot cake slathered with tangy cream-cheese frosting. I love bitter broccoli rabe tossed with Calabrian chiles and hidden under a mountain of snowy shaved Parmesan. I do not, however, typically feel deeply passionate about green salad. Sure, I eat it dutifully when it’s on the table — mostly so I can enjoy a brief sense of smug appreciation of my own virtue — but obsession is not my natural response to roughage.

Yet every time I’m in New York, I visit Via Carota, the charming West Village restaurant run by the partners Jody Williams and Rita Sodi — sometimes twice in a single day — just to order the insalata verde. For three years I’ve been eating this salad, and bite by bite, trying to decipher what makes it so unbelievably, mouth-smackingly perfect. The menu description gives little away: “leafy greens in sherry vinaigrette.” A visual inspection of the dish reveals only leaves of endive, butter lettuce, frisée and watercress all piled as high as gravity will allow, topped by a drizzle of dressing studded generously with shallots and mustard seeds. About a year into my obsession, an equally bedeviled friend suggested that there might be sugar in the vinaigrette. Thinking of the Mexican cook I’d met who sneaks a little Knorr seasoning into every salsa and salad dressing, I wondered: Maybe there was a tiny, secret pinch of MSG too? What else, besides such concessions to the dark arts, could make a green salad so appealing?

And then it occurred to me that I could just ask. I wrote to Williams, prepared to beg for the recipe, but she replied swiftly with a tidy typed copy of it. Quickly scanning the ingredient list, I was surprised: No sugar or MSG was included, but curiously, a tablespoon of warm water was, along with the option to add a little bit of honey. I briefly wondered if Williams had sent me a grandma-style recipe, with the real secret ingredient sneakily omitted.

It wasn’t until I stepped into the kitchen to test the recipe that I realized that all the secrets of this otherworldly salad lay in the graceful, unlikely application of a flavorless one: water — and not just that tablespoon.

First, washing the lettuces. As a student of Alice Waters, the patron saint of salad, I’m no stranger to the art of lettuce washing. Yet even I found the details in Williams’s instructions somewhat neurotic. In a recipe with just four steps, the longest and most precise one carefully details how to wash each of the five varieties of lettuce in three different temperatures of water. When, somewhat suspiciously, I asked Williams about her method, she responded: “We want a super happy salad. That’s why we’re so particular about cleaning each leaf of lettuce. Every piece has to be perfect — there can’t be any brown ends.”

With blue eyes glinting through her aviator eyeglasses, she explained that all the different varieties of greens are necessary for color, flavor and texture. “It goes from pale endive to watercress, which is important because it’s peppery,” she said. She loves the butter lettuce and heart of romaine for leafiness and crunch, but carefully limits the amount of frisée she uses. “I don’t want the mix to have too much frisée — eating it is like mowing my lawn! It doesn’t feel good — it gets caught in the throat!”

Water reappears in the next step, when Williams quickly rinses her minced shallots before assembling the vinaigrette. For the past 19 years, I’ve started nearly every salad dressing by dicing or mincing shallots and then bathing them in citrus juice or vinegar for 15 minutes or more. This steeping, or maceration, tames the shallot’s raw allium fire and turns each bit into a little, savory acid bomb that punctuates each bite of salad. Williams forgoes a long maceration in favor of a shock in cold water, which keeps the shallots shalloty and savory and prevents them from becoming too acidic, which could overwhelm the delicate lettuces.

Finally, and perhaps most surprising, Williams adds a spoonful of warm water to the vinaigrette. “We add warm water to make it more palatable,” she explained. “Pure vinegar is just too strong — it assaults the taste buds. We want a salad dressing so savory and delicious that you can eat spoonfuls of it. We want you to be able to drink it!” As a cook, I always push for the most intense flavors, so I’ve always thought of water as the enemy of vinaigrette — why would I want to dilute flavor? And yet, Williams is right; I do want to drink this dressing! It’s the only vinaigrette I make anymore, and I pour it liberally over everything from boiled asparagus to farro salad to steak and fish and roast chicken. I’m this close to pouring it into a glass and topping it off with sparkling water.

To serve the salad, Williams breaks yet another rule I was taught: She drizzles rather than dresses it. She piles layers of salad into the serving bowl, then spoons vinaigrette over each one, yielding pockets of drinkable dressing and some completely undressed leaves. “You have to spoon vigorously to get all of the chunky stuff — there are a lot of shallots in there,” she described. “I can be in the kitchen with my back turned, and I’ll know someone’s making that salad, because I can hear it: tak tak tak, tch tch tch,” she said, making a stirring gesture with her hand as she mimicked the sounds of whisking and ladling.

I asked her whether it was my imagination or if the salad has grown in size over the years. “No” she responded with a coy smile, “it just gets bigger and bigger — it’s what we want to eat, too.”

Recipe: Via Carota’s Insalata Verde

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/08/magazine/best-green-salad-recipe.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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