Seduced by salt, but stung by vinegar

March 1 salad

March 1: Butter Leaf Salad, Shallot Vinaigrette, and Maldon Sea Salt

“Mom, always try to get some wood in a food shot,” instructs my daughter Anna as she pushes away the tablecloth and re-places the salad plate.

She got back yesterday from a month in Berlin learning the language, so she came for dinner – roast chicken, a favorite, plus roasted new potatoes with a drizzle of parsley-walnut pesto, and my first salad of salad month.

Unfortunately, the salad was judged more loser than winner, and will never be repeated… at least to the letter of the recipe, which I followed perfectly.

I blame my love of salt. This is where I found the recipe…

Salted over

“Mark Bitterman is a man truly possessed by salt.” – Book Description,

He conveys that enthusiasm so convincingly and in such detail, you are willing to give yourself over to his vision and recommendations. In the headnotes to the salad recipe, he wrote

Making your own vinaigrette is among the single biggest improvements you can do in the kitchen – it becomes a distillation of your aesthetic defined by acid, oil, sweetness, and salt. Jennifer’s mastery of the vinaigrette has done more to promote the advancement of cuisine in our house than anything else: the shallots discover a plump, inner sweetness in the vinegar; the olive oil expresses its spicy-green spirit in response to the pepper; and the mustard emulsifies so that the dressing coats the lettuce in silkiness. Then the Maldon, strewn across the surface of the dressed salad – a glittering fencework of flakes perched along the crests and vales of lettuce – snaps like static electricity to stimulate the palate – a flash of pungency that illuminates everything so quickly and clearly that it is gone before you have time to fully comprehend what happened. This is Maldon’s raison d’etre: to reveal and amplify, then vanish, leaving you with only the desire for another bite.

Wow. That is evocative and inspirational! It made me want to make and eat a salad.

And I realized that’s a feeling I almost never have. Which also made me realize how lazy and uninformed I am still, at this advanced age, about how to make and enjoy a good salad. “Salad” to me still carries a bit of prejudice leftover from childhood that it is just bland, crunchy iceberg lettuce with sweet, bright orange Wishbone French dressing. Even the word “salad” is slightly nasal and lands with a thud. Where did that word come from?

From I learned…

“The basis for the word salad is ‘sal’, meaning salt. This was chosen because in ancient times, salt was often an ingredient in the dressing.”

“Salad, a term derived from the Latin sal (salt), which yielded the form salata, ‘salted things’ such as the raw vegetables eaten in classical times with a dressing of oil, vinegar or salt. The word turns up in Old French as salade and then in late 14th century English as salad or sallet.”
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson

“Etymologically, the key ingredient of salad, and the reason for its getting its name, is the dressing. The Romans were enthusiastic eaters of salads, many of theirs differing hardly at all from present-day ones–a simple selection of raw vegetables…–and they always used a dressing of some sort: oil, vinegar, and often brine. And hence the name salad, which comes from Vulgar Latin Herba salata, literally ‘salted herb’.”
—An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto

I love salt! And, indeed, the addition of Maldon to this salad was a revelation. I cannot add anything to what Bitterman wrote (above) about the salt part, with which I agree but on a less poetical level. But the problem was the vinegar, specifically the ratio of vinegar to oil.

red wine vinegar and shallots

As per the recipe, I soaked chopped shallots in one quarter cup red wine vinegar (Fini) for more than an hour so their natural sugars would sweeten the vinegar. Then I whisked in one teaspoon of dijon mustard and three tablespoons of good olive oil. Then in a salad bowl I tossed to coat the leaves of two butter (Bibb) lettuce heads (not even using the whole batch of vinaigrette) and served on individual salad plates.

The vinaigrette was far too tart and pretty much overwhelmed the taste of the lettuce. At the table, my husband and daughter (both good cooks) and I discussed our understanding of customary ratios of oil to vinegar (or other acid) in making dressings and realized we were eating something with a 1:2 ratio instead of 3:1 or even 2:1.

Later on Facebook I asked: “Friends, when you are making a simple vinaigrette to dress a salad, what is your preferred ratio of oil (fat) to vinegar (acid)?” and the consensus (with lots of other comments and suggestions) was 3:1 or sometimes maybe 2:1.

The one way the salad was okay to eat, I tried, was to lightly dip a pure, clean, undressed leaf in the dressing and touch it to a few flakes of salt then consume. It was actually pretty good that way, but that wasn’t following the recipe.


Here is one pretty head of “butter leaf” (Boston, Bibb, butterhead) lettuce, before adulteration by the strange vinaigrette. It was grown hydroponically at Olivia’s Garden in New Gloucester, Maine, about 80 miles north of where I purchased it at Philbrick’s Fresh Market, in the town where I live, North Hampton, N.H.

According to Fine Cooking, butterhead lettuce is…

One of two major kinds of lettuce (the other being crisphead), butter lettuce’s silken leaves grow in softly folding heads. Two popular varieties of butter lettuce are Boston and Bibb; both have a delicate flavor and range from pale green to medium green. Great in salads, especially with creamy dressings, its pretty cupped leaves also make a good bed for other foods.

Here are some nice-looking varieties at Burpee: Butterhead Lettuce Seeds. I will definitely consider planting one or more of these varieties. And I will eat more of these lettuces… with a better dressing!

And after that experience, I wonder what else in Bitterman’s book I should more skeptical and less trusting about.

All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust. – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan