Miner’s Lettuce & Mizuna Salad
With Rhubarb-Mustard Vinaigrette
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Salads are funny things to write about. I think they’ve reached a sort of ‘also-ran’ status in the world of food – not particularly interesting, never very challenging, yet surprisingly ubiquitous. In fact, I think the ubiquity of salads is somewhat responsible for the other two features; our default position seems to be ‘Too much meat? Slap a salad on that meal and call it a day!’
And while it’s true that salads are not particularly challenging to make, they aren’t being the care and attention they deserve. Chop up a head of iceberg lettuce, throw some frighteningly unhealthy store-bought dressing on it (plus or minus a tomato and a few croutons) and call it a day. But to me, a salad is a little like a deck – it’s sort of an add-on, and it’s not as hard to build as the house (main dish), but that’s not an excuse to slap it together an hope all goes well. Because let’s face it, we’ve all seen both salads and decks that don’t exactly exactly scream ‘safe and inviting.’ A little care and knowledge goes a long way towards putting a salad together properly, and the biggest key every step of the way is balance.
First things first, let’s take a look at the greens. Greens are not all created equal, so it’s not good sense to throw them together haphazardly in a salad. When that happens, the general approach seems to be smothering everything in dressing and calling it a day. Now, I’m not opposed to using very mild greens (even iceberg lettuce has its place as far as I’m concerned), but I do believe that the leafy component of a salad should be a flavour base, and not just a dressing delivery agent. My general approach is to mix a mild/sweet green with a bitter or peppery green. In this particular salad, the miner’s lettuce is the sweet/mild green while the mizuna (actually a type of mustard green) provides the pungent and slightly bitter bite. In fact, the entire idea for this salad was built around the fact that miner’s lettuce is a delicate, textural, delicious and highly seasonal green, and I wanted to feature it appropriately.
Alright (he said, rubbing his temples in frustration), now let’s talk about dressing. Salad dressing has become… well I don’t know what to call it. It should be a simple way to add complimentary flavours while highlighting the quality and character of the fresh ingredients. But more often than not, in homes and in many restaurants, it’s become a calorie-laden black-box cure-all used to drench and disguise the blandest of greens. Very few of us in North America bother to make our own dressings, and that’s rather odd because they’re ridiculously easy to whip up. Store-bought salad dressings might represent the pinnacle of manufactured convenience; they’re a product we all buy because we think we NEED to. Scratch-made alternatives are perceived to be too difficult or time consuming, though this is far from reality. Dressings (and especially vinaigrettes) seldom take more than a handful of ingredients, they’re endlessly adaptable, and they’re generally quite a bit healthier when homemade, yet we continue to buy bottled. What’s worse, we tend to use far too much of the aforementioned bottled dressings. In an earlier version of this article I professed my confusion about why this was the case, but in hindsight the reason is simple – these dressings are generally packed with our favourite things: sugar, fat, and salt. They are, in a more accurate sense, salad-sauces. And we all love sauce. But therein lies the problem – if your salad is so horrifically bland that it can only be saved by a swimming pool filled with creamy cool ranch, you need to go back to the drawing board. I’m not exaggerating this severity of this problem either – when I first wrote this article in 2016 there were several news articles calling attention to just how unfathomably unhealthy McDonald’s’ kale caesar salad is (NOTE: the salad is no longer offered, though a similar lettuce-based salad is still on the menu). Without exaggerating, you are literally making a healthier choice by choosing a double big mac. Now this salad has fried chicken on it (it’s kind of hilarious when you put it that way, isn’t it?) so that’s certainly a big part of the problem, but the dressing is what worries me the most. It’s not that the dressing is made with terrible ingredients (most of the ingredients are normal enough – cheese, eggs, oil, anchovies, etc.) – it’s the fact that we don’t give afford it the consideration it deserves within our diet, despite the fact that it adds a pretty hefty dose of fat and calories. You buy the salad, grab the little ‘individual serving,’ and starting dousing that bad boy in fat without batting an eye. One 40 g package of the Asiago Caesar dressing served along with the kale salad packs 210 calories, 270 mg of sodium, and 22 g of fat (that’s 34% of your recommended daily intake). Keep in mind, that’s JUST the dressing. To contrast, the same volume of McDonald’s McChicken sauce comes in at around 286 calories and 31 g of fat.
I’m not blaming McDonald’s for the calorie count of their dressing – it’s made with oil and cheese after all, and those things are very high in fat (and therefore calories). And McDonald’s does provide a lower calorie ‘lite’ version of the same dressing. But marketing pushes the notion that the salad is all about the kale – the word ‘cheese’ wasn’t included for a good reason. The healthy image that’s being sold to you when you buy a salad (or dressing) really only applies if the salad itself is centered around the taste and quality of the vegetables, and not around the dressing. 40 g of dressing is a LOT to put on one serving of dressing – it’s about two-and-a-half tablespoons. Let’s imagine that you’re preparing a Caesar salad for 4 people. If you were to use that volume, you’d need nearly 2/3 of a cup of dressing. Picture putting that much dressing on a salad for 4 people. It seems a little absurd, doesn’t it? It should, because at that point you’re not really eating salad – you’re eating salad dressing.
Now back to my own salad – there’s a reason that I made it so simple, without any added fruits, nuts, vegetables or cheeses: the greens are actually interesting all by themselves. They have flavour, and character, and dimension. If I’d drowned them in dressing (and it is a tasty, tasty dressing), they become nothing more than background. Instead by putting some attention and care into constructing something, even something as simple as this, you get to experience true dimension of flavour – the subtle sweet/sour taste of the rhubarb, the distinctive flavour of the poppy seeds, the pungent hit-to-the-sinuses of the mizuna and the mustard, and the mild, delightful taste of of the miner’s lettuce. Yes, there’s fat. And salt. And sugar. And they’re all delicious. But they’re all balanced as well. When you eat it, you’re struck by the fact that you’re actually eating a salad (and a delicious one at that). It’s not trying to be something else. No matter what kind of salad you’re eating, that should be your focus. Have a Caesar salad – but try to have it with the best lettuce you can find, an incredible (healthier) scratch dressing (like this awesome one from my friend Dana at Killing Thyme), and toppings designed to work in harmony, rather than overwhelm. Respect the salad.
This is very much a spring greens salad – miner’s lettuce and young mizuna are at their best early in the year. That being said, the dressing is great and could easily be used on a wide variety of greens. Shoot for something around a 50/50 balance between mild/sweet greens and bitter or pungent ones. You can adjust that balance depending on how strong any one ingredient is and/or your own personal tastes (for example, arugula is stronger and more peppery than mizuna, so you might use a little lest). My best advice is to grab a few leaves of the greens you’re using and taste them together to decide whether or not things seem balanced.
Because of the character of these particular greens, I chose to leave the salad fairly ‘nude.’ You could add toppings to this or a similar salad and I’m sure you’d end up with a great dish. Dried fruits and nuts (e.g. pecans) would be my first choice, plus or minus some cherry tomatoes and a bit of red onion. A little salty cheese might be nice too, but I wouldn’t overdo it as you risk losing the flavour of the miner’s lettuce.
As for the dressing, it’s easily made in advance if you want to whip up a salad on short notice. Make sure you give the cooked rhubarb enough time to sit and soak up the red wine vinegar. If you have trouble getting enough liquid out of the rhubarb, you can give it a good squeeze with something like a citrus juicer to try and extract some more, or you can add a splash more wine vinegar to the mash.
The dressing recipe makes much more dressing than you’ll need for one salad, but it will keep refrigerated very well for several months. If you want to make less, the recipe can be halved or even quartered fairly easily.
As a final note, there’s no need to let the rhubarb solids go to waste. Let them cool and serve them with ricotta or mascarpone cheese, some honey, and some chopped candied nuts for a simple but surprisingly complex dessert.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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- 1.5 cups rhubarb chopped
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup grapeseed oil
- 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp poppy seeds (optional)
- pinch black pepper freshly ground
- 250 g miner's lettuce
- 250 g mizuna
- black pepper
- optional toppings (cheese, nuts, red onion, etc.)
In a small saucepan, combine the rhubarb, water and sugar. Heat over a low flame, stirring occasionally. Once the rhubarb is soft, crush it with a potato masher and continue to simmer very gently for about 5 minutes, or until the rhubarb is broken down completely and fairly thick. Remove the stewed rhubarb from heat and strain the solids out (you can press on the solids with the back of spoon or the potato masher to speed the process up). Do NOT discard the solids. Set everything aside to cool.
Once the rhubarb solids have drained and cooled enough to touch, combine them with the red wine vinegar and let sit for 10 minutes or so. After the time has elapsed, give the rhubarb a squeeze or press on it with a spoon to extract the rhubarb-flavoured vinegar. Combine the liquid with the juice from step 1.
Measure the juice and red wine vinegar extracts - you should have a little over 1/4 cup. If you have more than this, either increase the other ingredients in the recipe or set a little aside.
Combine the juice/vinegar extract with the Dijon mustard and lemon juice and start slowly whisking in the olive oil. Whisk vigorously until the vinaigrette is glossy, thick, and well-combined.
Add the poppy seeds and black pepper and whisk briefly to combine. The vinaigrette can now be used, or stored in the fridge for up to a month. If the dressing separates in the fridge, allow it to come to room temperature then shake vigorously to recombine.
The dressing recipe makes much more dressing than you'll need for one salad, but it will keep refrigerated very well for several months. If you want to make less, the recipe can be halved or even quartered fairly easily.