ROBERT ST. JOHN: Tossing out a few observations about salads

By Robert St. John

While traversing the European continent, my family and I fell in love with several international cuisines. However, many times the fare in our host country was not the best food we ate in that area.
In Budapest the local citizenry eat 95 percent of their meals at home. Therefore, most of the restaurants in Budapest are international in theme and scope as the locals have had their fill of Hungarian cuisine at home and, when dining out, look for anything but goulash and the like.
We ate one of the best Japanese meals ever at Nobu in Budapest. We had just come from three weeks in Greece, Turkey, Albania and Croatia and were looking for something light. Nobu – one of my favorite New York restaurants – was a much-needed deviation in the routine.
I found a Chinese restaurant in Athens that was more authentic than any restaurant I’ve eaten in Chinatown and we dined there three times.
Most of the time we stuck to local cuisine. For a 10-week span in Italy, I ate over 200 Italian meals. In Spain, I submerged myself in the tapas culture, and in France I always deferred to the locals.
On typical one-week trips and vacations, I always practice the eat-as-the-locals-do rule. Though it is tempting when so many food styles are available, many times within the same city block. Even in the European capitals where every imaginable food is available, the one ethnic cuisine missing is Mexican.
In Meteora, Greece, after a two-week run of too much lamb and potatoes, we found a restaurant on a town square that overlooked a park. The cuisine was Italian-Mexican, which we quickly learned are not two foods that should be fused. The next day at lunch we hopped back on the Greek-pita train and unfortunately ate a gyro filled with – you guessed it – lamb and fried potatoes.
family favorites
At home, my family’s go-to ethnic cuisine is Japanese. Running a very close second is Mexican.
In my hometown we have a couple of authentic Mexican restaurants and a dozen that seem to offer the same food from the same cans. The most authentic Mexican concept is a place called Mama Alma’s. A husband-and-wife team who are assisted by other members of their family operate it, and I am a huge fan. I can go in to Mama Alma’s and just say, “Fix me up, Mama,” and I know everything will be taken care of. Every time I’ve done it, I have been pleased.
Many times we eat Mexican because my daughter likes cheese quesadillas.
Note: I can make a cheese quesadilla at home that will be 10 times better than anything she gets in a Mexican restaurant, but for some reason – to her – cheese quesadillas taste better when served in a Mexican restaurant.
Last week, in one of the lesser Mexican restaurants my wife ordered a Fajita Salad. There was nothing authentically Mexican about this monstrosity. It was a salad in name only, and a salad in the sense that lettuce was probably involved somewhere in the preparation. I couldn’t see any lettuce, but it was in the menu description, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
This thing arrived at the table in a giant, flattened-at-the-bottom taco shell that sat flat on the plate, yet the sides were upright. It was a big as a baby’s head and was filled with layers of chicken, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, more cheese, and, I suppose, some lettuce. It was more of a jumbo taco than a salad.
I began to think that our culture may have moved a little too far away from the salad concept. How else can one explain chocolate pudding and Jell-O at a salad bar? Too many times lettuce is just used as a vessel to carry cheese and cream-based dressing.
Simple is best
My favorite salad is one of the simplest preparations on the planet – arugula, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. That’s it. It’s a very common salad in Tuscany, where arugula is sometimes called, “rocket” or “rucola.”
The arugula should be lightly dressed and tossed with the balsamic vinegar, first. Less is more. This makes sure that the flavor stays on the greens. Gently toss the almost-dry leaves in the vinegar and then add a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Extra-virgin olive oil is added last.
The typical 3-to-1 (oil over vinegar) rule for vinaigrette preparation should be reversed for this salad – three parts vinegar to one part oil. Even still, the arugula is barely dressed, still crisp, and not weighted down by liquid.
Arugula and frisee are my favorite lettuces. Both are peppery, have texture, and leave iceberg and its bland, watery cousins in their wake.
One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes involves a fight with George, Elaine, and another woman about a “big salad.” Maybe we should start focusing more on flavor than size. The jumbo fajita salad should be tossed (pun intended) along with salad-bar pudding and Jell-O into the waste disposal of history.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of the newly released “Dispatches From My South.”