The secret ingredient your salads are missing
By Melissa Clark
My mother loved leftover salad. No matter what a long night in the fridge had inflicted upon the lettuce and the cress, she’d pile those saturated greens onto a toasted English muffin and swear it was a better breakfast than butter and jam.
It was a predilection I could never get behind. Unless, that is, there were tomatoes involved.
Chunks of ripe tomatoes are subtly improved by a short soak in a sweet, vinegary dressing. Time gives the salt a chance to work its magic, coaxing out the fruit’s nectar so it can mingle with the garlic and herbs. Left alone for a little while, a simple tomato salad will quietly transform into a deeply flavored, marinated one.
Marinated tomatoes are so good they’re worth making on purpose, so you don’t have to rely on leftovers. And you don’t even need to plan that far ahead. Anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours will do the trick, though the longer they sit, the softer and juicier they become.
In this recipe, I use those juicy marinated tomatoes as the foundation of a basil vinaigrette, tossing it with loads of crisp greens and freshly fried croutons for a generous and festive salad.
The croutons are key, absorbing any excess liquid that would otherwise make the lettuce soggy, and adding texture and heft.
There are myriad ways to make croutons, and, as a Caesar salad enthusiast, I’ve probably tried them all. My current favorite method is to start with fresh bread, rather than stale, so I can tear it to bits with my hands. (This is harder to do with a dried-out, days-old loaf.) Hand-torn, uneven bread chunks are more pleasing to eat than neatly sliced cubes, because their jagged surfaces capture loads of flavor.
I briefly bake the torn bread pieces to dehydrate them, then fry them over low heat along with smashed, peeled whole garlic cloves. The trick here is not to let the garlic burn. If you like, you can even add the golden fried garlic to the salad bowl, a move for only the most ardent of garlic lovers.
You can make the croutons a few days in advance and the tomatoes several hours ahead. But don’t toss everything together until just before serving. Unless you’re also a fan of soggy salad, in which case, be sure to save some for breakfast, too.
Green salad with tomato-basil vinaigrette
This ebullient green salad is dressed with ripe, sweet tomatoes marinated in sherry vinegar and fresh basil. The garlicky croutons add loads of crunchy texture, giving this a bit more staying power. Serve this as is for a substantial salad course or side dish, or bulk it up with the likes of cubed tofu or shredded chicken, avocado, jammy eggs, tuna, chickpeas, cheese or nuts and seeds.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
1 cup diced ripe tomatoes (or quartered cherry or grape tomatoes)
5 garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, more to taste
Fine sea salt
5 ounces fresh baguette, ciabatta or crusty sourdough bread, torn into bite-size pieces (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
2 quarts salad greens, such as mixed baby lettuces, mesclun, arugula or a combination
1/4 cup Parmesan shavings (optional)
1. In a large bowl, toss together tomatoes, 1 grated or minced garlic clove, basil, sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt. Set aside to marinate for at least 20 minutes (and up to 4 hours).
2. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread bread out on a baking sheet and bake until pale golden, 8 to 12 minutes.
3. Smash and peel remaining 4 garlic cloves. Put them in a pan along with 1/2 cup olive oil and place over medium-low heat. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the garlic turns pale golden in spots and starts to soften, 5 to 7 minutes. (Lower the heat if the garlic starts to brown.)
4. Add toasted bread and salt to the pan and fry until the bread is deeply golden and crunchy, 3 to 5 minutes. If the pan looks dry, add a little more oil. Transfer croutons to a paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle lightly with salt. Let cool.
5. Just before serving, whisk 3 tablespoons olive oil into the tomato and basil mixture. Taste and add more salt, vinegar or oil, if needed; it should taste bright and balanced. Add the greens, Parmesan (if using) and croutons (along with the fried garlic, if you like) to the tomato mixture, tossing gently to combine. Serve immediately.