I grew up in New Orleans, and moved to New York in the 1980’s. I have two sisters and a brother, all of whom used to live so close to my parents that I referred to their neighborhood as “the compound.” Then there was Hurricane Katrina, and my brother and one of my sisters both moved to other states. Starting then, every summer, my parents rented a large house on the Florida panhandle and we (18 of us, give or take, depending on whose kids are available) gathered for a week. We all like to cook so we took turns making dinner, usually on the grill. I love to bake, so I was in charge of muffins, cookies, cakes (There are 3 July and 2 August birthdays so there’s always cake to bake.) and whatever desserts struck my fancy. I started making salad in self defense. While my siblings and their spouses are good cooks, they are a bit vegetable challenged, and I practically live on vegetables. So while my two older nephews will only eat romaine lettuce with bottled dressing, the rest of the family became accustomed to, and now even asks for my “wonderful salad.”
The salad is huge (We have very large bowls for tossing and serving.) but can easily be scaled down.
The ingredients are flexible based on what’s available in the grocery store and (limited) farm stands in the area. They’re also based on our family’s picky tastes. Someone usually brings or picks up home grown tomatoes. And while New Orleans French bread (which we can easily get there) is amazing, my mother found it too “bready,” and cleaned (literally, that’s what she called it) out the center of the bread. Rather than throw it away, I started tearing it into large breadcrumbs, toasting it, and tossing it on top of the salad. Even my mother liked that.
2019 note. While I still make this salad for family gatherings, we no longer go to the beach together. My mom died in October of 2017, and my dad, who is 94, now lives in assisted living. It’s sad, but it’s how life goes. We have the food, and our memories of cooking and eating together, and that’s one of the ways we define ourselves as family. —drbabs
10-15 as side salad
2 heads of romaine, cut or torn into small pieces
1 bunch of watercress, stems removed as much as possible (or about a cup of arugula, chopped--you want that peppery bite)
1 small head radicchio or red endive, shredded
1 bunch of Italian parsley, stems removed as much as possible, roughly chopped
1 cup of chopped fresh basil, oregano or mint (or-- go crazy--a combination!), roughly chopped
8-10 radishes, sliced thin
1 large jar (~16 ounces) marinated artichoke hearts, quartered
2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved (or as many as you like--3 or 4?-- large summer tomatoes, cut into ~3/4 inch dice)
2 bunches of scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced on the bias.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
(optional)--a few slices of crisply fried sliced bacon, crumbled
(optional) 1/2-3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (which is what we use, but feta or goat cheese would be good, too)
Soft insides of 2 loaves of New Orleans French bread (or just use fresh bread crumbs and toast them)
2 TB olive oil
FOR THE DRESSING
1/2 cup good olive oil
Combination of fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice, equal to ~ 1/2 cup (+/- depending on how tart you like your salad dressing--we like it tart)
2-3 large cloves of garlic, finely minced or put through a garlic press
Early in the day, make the salad dressing. (You want the garlic to mellow.) Mix all the ingredients together, taste, and adjust seasoning and acid to taste. If you refrigerate it, make sure to bring it to room temperature before serving.
Tear the soft bread into smallish pieces (or cut it into cubes), toss it with olive oil and a little salt and pepper, spread it on a cookie sheet, and bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes till crisp and starting to brown. Set aside.
Toss the salad ingredients together, seasoning as you go. I like to put the romaine in the bowl first and toss it with a little salt and pepper. Then I add the rest of the ingredients, taste and season as needed.
Just before serving, whisk the salad dressing well till blended. Toss salad with dressing a little at a time--you want every piece to be coated with dressing, but you don’t want the salad to swim in it. Divide salad among salad plates and top with toasted bread crumbs. Pass bacon and cheese to be added as desired.
(Actually, you could toss that in, but not everyone in our family eats bacon or cheese, so we pass it separately.)