Today: The perfect holiday salad -- with 2 secret tricks for making all your salads better.
When we think about making our everyday salads better or swankier or more holiday-appropriate, we tend to think of what we can add. Expensive cheeses and pomegranate arils. Duck. Composed circles of persimmon, mohawks made of pear.
We build and layer, until our salad resembles leafy greens about as much as it does a 70s variety hour.
But the holidays have enough of that noise. Here, instead, is a more perfect salad for the holidays: it's one ingredient, plus dressing and cheese.
It comes from Portland's Toro Bravo restaurant (and cookbook, by chef-owner John Gorham and writer Liz Crain). Austere as it may seem, it's got 2 secret tricks that will make you better at making salads, during the holidays and forever after.
Here's the first stroke of genius. Everyone thinks they like slivers of raw onion and spicy pricks of garlic; nobody's too happy about it 30 minutes later. Toro Bravo's answer: infuse the vinegar with chopped red onion for an hour, then quietly remove it.
The vinegar is left with a richer, more complex flavor, without the oppressive oniony kickback. It also makes any old vinegar taste like something nuanced, purposeful, and, yes, expensive. As Gorham and Crain say in their headnote, the effect is subtle but doesn't go unnoticed: "It's one of those layers of flavor that can really stump you. You think, Where the fuck is that coming from?"
Don't toss out your soaked onion after you've had your way with it. Food52er hardlikearmour, who sent me this recipe, came up with this hack: "Bonus: if you add the honey to the vinegar when you steep the onions, you get some decent quick-pickled chopped onions to use as a condiment later."
Once your vinegar has steeped, and your pickled onions have been tucked away for tomorrow's sandwiches, you'll whisk together a simple vinaigrette and pour it over a pile of radicchio, whose bitter curls will shine against a little sweet honey and oniony balsamic and sherry.
But dressing tends to bounce off of radicchio leaves and other slippery, waxy types. This is where the second genius trick comes in. You'll toss the dressed leaves again with a dusting of finely grated Manchego to help the coating stick. (Gorham and Crain point out that we dredge things in flour before battering and deep-frying them for the same reason.)
At the restaurant, the salad is served with olive tapenade toasts, and -- if you want this to be your lunch or dinner -- go ahead. But not now, when there's potato gratin and porchetta right over there.
More: Still want the tapenade? OK, here's one: Josh Besh's Green Olive Tapenade
After this salad has served you through the holidays, as the foil to all your rich celebratory indiscretions, these are tricks you can keep at hand year-round. Try it with buttery new lettuces and lighter vinegars in spring, in summertime slaws and fall disbursements of kale. This can be your January cleanse, or your Valentine's splurge -- depending on how heavy-handed you are with the Manchego.
But resist the impulse to add noise. Everything you need is right here. You just need to know how to find it.
Adapted slightly from Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. (McSweeney's Insatiables, 2013)
Serves 4 to 8
2 to 3 heads radicchio (4 quarts, once chopped)
1/4 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup good-quality sherry vinegar
1 red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups Manchego, finely grated and divided
Salt and pepper
Photos by James Ransom