Many sauces include herbs as a key flavor agent — hollandaise and pesto are just the beginning — so why not lighten things up and use just the herbs? It’s less crazy than it seems once you’ve tried it. Plus, a little pile of lightly dressed greenery is a lovely addition to a plate.
I’ve long been crazy about herbs, particularly the soft herbs that work in an herb salad. Compared to the usual greens, herbs have forward flavors and interesting shapes that lend themselves to salad. All that’s needed is a vinaigrette that’s on the sharp side to tame some of the more assertive herb flavors.
While herbs are available in most markets, they’re so easy to grow that I’ve had a little herb garden for years. It’s fun to sashay out to the front yard and snip what’s needed for whatever I’m cooking, although farmers markets are probably your best bet for the quantity of fresh herbs needed for a salad.
The dressing below — based on a recipe from Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld — is flavored with shallots, which lose some of their pungency and turn sweet when marinated in vinegar. However, I recommend experimenting with vinegars to achieve whatever effect is desired. For example, a balsamic or sweeter vinegar would also be tasty with an herb salad, as would fresh lemon juice.
The reason herb salads work as a sauce is because of the flavor of the herbs, naturally, but also because of the acidity of the dressing, which — like many sauces — helps balance richness in whatever the salad might accompany. Herb salads used as a sauce are wonderful with grilled fish — or any grilled meat. I recently paired an herb salad with a green garlic panisse (sort of like intense french fries) recipe from chef David Kinch. The tartness hit of the salad was perfect with the rich, oily, savory flavors of the panisse.
An herb salad with, say, crumb-coated, baked goat cheese would make a nice starter course. Or pair a little salad with a piece of smoked fish. Consider plopping a scoop of herb salad to top of homemade pizza. Basically, herb salads go with most anything.
What herbs to use?
Here’s where it gets fun, but keep some basic rules in mind first. Hard or tough herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and the like aren’t good for a salad, although a few thyme leaves (they’re tiny) or a touch of chopped, super-fresh oregano or marjoram can be included if you must.
A better choice is to select a background herb like Italian parsley that tastes good in larger quantities (not all herbs do) and add other herbs as desired. My choices include tarragon, mint, chives and chervil (the latter can be used in larger quantities because of its subtle flavor), but experiment with the basil family (green basils taste better than the strong purple ones), watercress (the larger-leafed hot-house variety is preferable), cilantro, dill, fennel fronds and any softer herb that is easily chewable. Herbs like sage, savory and lovage aren’t good choices because they’re too tough.
Experiment with mixtures to find what works best with the accompanying dish. For visual appeal, I add some finely shredded bright-red orach leaves that I get from Heirloom Organics, which sell their greens at several local farmers markets. This vendor has a wealth of good options to try like mustard greens, peppercress, fava leaf, dandelion and much more. If an herb mixture is too assertive for you, dilute it a bit with shredded lettuce or other standard salad greens.
Consider adding edible flowers to your salad to pump up the visual appeal even more. Good choices are nasturtium petals, chive blossoms and my favorite, pretty blue borage flowers, which taste great. Even if a little herb salad isn’t intended as a sauce stand-in, a couple of heaping tablespoons on a dinner plate make an enjoyable and delicious addition that contributes much more to a meal than the usual wilted sprig of parsley.
Herb Salad Dressing
3 shallots, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons sherry or tarragon vinegar (or vinegar of your choice)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup plus more to taste of good-quality olive oil like that from California Olive Oil Co.
Basic Herb Mixture
1/4 cup small mint leaves
1/4 cup tarragon leaves
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/2 cup torn basil leaves
1/2 cup watercress or chervil leaves
2-3 T snipped chives
In a medium bowl, combine the shallots with the vinegar and lemon zest and let marinate at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Whisk in oil until blended, adding salt and pepper to taste.
Herbs should be de-stemmed, washed and roughly shopped.
Spoon dressing on herb mixture, until the amount seems right.