Salads with Wine: Tossing Out Some New Ideas

I think we can all be pretty confident that Adam and Eve served wine in the Garden of Eden.  Otherwise, what kind of Paradise would it have been?

Eating ultra-fresh salad in the spring and early summer is often reminiscent of life in that primeval Garden, when young produce, designer vegetables (by the Ultimate Designer) and a cornucopia of color, flavor and nutrients are at their blessed best.

Greens and grapes can be—and should be—a match made in heaven, so long as couple of logical principals are kept in mind.

Foremost, since salad etiquette demands that you dress for dinner, you’ll find that any problems that arise from your salad/wine match-up usually begin with the dressing.  A basic vinaigrette, and all the fancy derivations thereof, start with a balanced emulsion two ingredients, one more inherently compatible to wine than the other.

The classic proportions are four parts oil to one part acid, and the problem is quickly apparent: when enjoying your salad days in Eden, the single, scariest serpent slithering through Shangri-la is vinegar.

Use the wrong vinegar, and you’ve just discovered the Antichrist.

Why?  A particularly devilish interpretation is that vinegar is simply screwed up wine: wine that’s strayed from the righteous path and gone bad.  Of course, vinegar visionaries will turn up their noses at such nonsense: of the two, they’ll tell you, wine is the one that’s alcohol-soused and intractably linked to women and song.  As far as they’re concerned, you can only improve a superlative wine by turning it into superlative vinegar, and vinegar can, of course, sell for more than the wine from which it’s made.  In order to achieve the end result of vinegar, a wine’s alcohol content must be transformed to acid by a secondary bacterial fermentation.

Turning alcohol into acid may seem like a negative metamorphosis—unless you’re still following the Grateful Dead in a microbus.

But when comes to matching wine with salad dressings, the interaction of flavors can make vinegar growl like Cinderella’s stepsisters, causing caustic, insufferably sour and really hard to please-type interchanges.  And on the other hand, a given wine may strike the vinegar as sappy, sweet and seriously immature.

Not to worry: to make sure everyone at the table gets along during family gatherings, you won’t need to turn any pumpkins into coaches.  Try using softer, well-aged, wood-mellowed vinegars like balsamic.  The best of the breed, of course, can be budget busters, costing well into three figures for a 3.4 ounce bottle, but less expensive versions will work nearly as well: just check the labels.  True balsamic vinegar can only be produced in the Italian regions of Modena and Reggio in Italy, and you should look for a minimum aging of about five years.

Likewise, rice vinegar keeps a lid on the bite, especially the milder and sweeter ‘red’ version (the white stuff is pretty close to regular vinegar, while black rice vinegar is similar in taste to balsamic).

Sherry vinegar—the Spanish counterpart to balsamic—carries nutty, toasty and essentially wine-friendly nuances based in it’s Jerez pedigree.  Equally, substituting lemon juice for a portion of your one-part-acid formula will not reduce the punch, but will add sensory citric notes to compliment those already present in many wines.

The root of the word salad is the Latin ‘sal’, for salt—the same derivation as for ‘salary’, stemming from days when Roman soldiers were paid with that precious condiment.  Nowadays, salty seasoning pays special dividends to salads, and a shivery, almost electrically charged Muscadet Sèvre et Maine from France’s Loire Valley often offers striking scents of brine behind the apple lemon flavors.  It’s an ideal match for seafood salads, particularly those made with oysters or clams.

The second essential ingredient in a salad’s dressing is oil.  Here, you have less worries of clashing with your wine choice and can spend a bit of time matching nuances of taste and particular styles.  If you’re a lover of oaky chardonnays, try using a nut oil like walnut or almond; and with a particularly fruity variety like Geyser Peak, an interesting choice is apricot oil, made from the fatty (but trans-fatty free) kernel inside the pit—the same product, interestingly, that’s used to make Amaretto.

Unlike vinegar, oil is a product that’s liable to spoilage, so particularly if you shell out for the big-ticket oils, store them in a cool dark environment.  Your wine cellar should do nicely.

Moving from palates to palettes, spring and summer salads present a wonderful opportunity for a chef to experiment with the multitude of colors available alongside of the produce plethora.  How much fun to match colors, as well as flavors, when pairing food and wine.

The following recipes have taken a special interest in combining colors as well as flavors to create top-of-the-season salads that are as visually stunning as they are delicious.

The Asparagus salad includes hemp seed as a paean to the aforementioned Dead and I’ve added a Waldorf for equally philosophical reasons:  Like we children of Adam and Eve have discovered to our sensory delight, one bad apple hasn’t spoiled the whole bunch.

WALDORF SALAD

  • 1 Granny Smith apple, 2 Fuji apples chopped, should total 2 cups
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • ½  cup walnut oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
  • ½  cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • Mixed salad greens or lettuce

Prep: Toss all ingredients together in a serving bowl.

Serve with a lightly oaked chardonnay;  for example, Antonin Rodet Mâcon Villages, 2007 or Rombauer Chardonnay, 2007.

WHITE AND GREEN ASPARAGUNS TOMATO ARUGULA SALAD WITH CREAM  DIJON MUSTARD DRESSING AND TOASTED HEMP SEEDS

  • 16 white asparagus stems, peeled and blanched and cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 16 green asparagus stems, peeled and blanched and cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 8  heirloom tomatoes cut into wedges
  • 1 ½  cups arugula

 Dressing: 

  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes in oil.
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3 T Low fat yogurt
  • 1 T Dijon mustard
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 T water
  • ¼  cup toasted hemp seeds (available at adventurechef.com )

Combine dressing ingredients in blender, blend and add water as needed for dressing consistency.  Toss in bowl with arugula and asparagus; top with toasted hemp seeds.

Serve with full-bore sauvignon blanc like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 or Château Sainte-Marie, 2008.

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