Making salad may seem like the simplest thing, but I thought it was a worthy subject for my "food appreciation" classes. When you think about it, there are some important skills and health considerations involved in the handling of tender greens.
All produce should be washed before eating. Even some of the kids in my classes had heard of instances of e. coli poisoning from salad. At home, I like to fill my kitchen sink with cold water and let my greens soak. I break head lettuces apart so that individual leaves all get a good wash. Agitate the greens with your hands. Any sand or grit will sink to the bottom. It's suprising what you find sometimes when you drain the sink.
For classroom purposes, I filled a big bowl of water and soaked our lettuces in that. Meanwhile, I had each of the kids peel a clementine and practice separating the fruit into individual sections and removing all the little white fibers from the fruit. Who wants to find a hairy piece of fruit in their salad? The idea is to show the kids in a hands-on way the importance of visual appeal in food, taking care to make things look good.
I've been introducing the kids slowly to working with kitchen knives. Some felt confident enough to slice radishes. It's important for them to learn how to create a safe, stable cutting environment. That means putting a cloth of some sort under the cutting board so that it doesn't slide around, and trimming certain vegetables so they aren't rolling across the cutting board. Cut a radish (or onion, for instance) in half first, so that it lays flat. Then it can be sliced safely.
Some kids were slicing. Others were peeling and grating carrots. We also cut a Belgian endive into rings. After soaking and cleaning watercress and two types of lettuce, the kids took turns tearing the lettuce into bite-size pieces and running the greens through a salad spinner. Kids love turning the spinner. Even more, they love it when you remove the top while the basket is spinning madly inside. A piece of lettuce goes flying and the class dissolves in a fit of laughter.
And just what is all that spinning about? Can you say centrifugal force? Here's where making salad turns into a science lesson.
There's also science in making a dressing. What happens when you mix oil and vinegar? Nothing much. The oil just sits on top of the vinegar. We have to create an emulsion, wherein the oil and vinegar are bound together. Mustard helps as a binder. We place a heaping teaspoon at the bottom of a large bowl, then add a teaspoon of honey. Add about 1/4 teaspoon salt, a generous pinch of ground pepper and 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar.
Now this is the important part. Mix the mustard, honey, salt, pepper and vinegar with the whisk and add just a drop or two of extra-virgin olive oil. Whisk vigorously until the oil is completely distributed. This is the start of the emulsion. Now we whisk in several more tablespoons of olive oil. For a mellow vinaigrette, the proportions usually are three parts olive oil to one part vinegar.
We pass the bowl around the class so that everyone can experience the whisking and see the vinaigrette thicken. Before long, we have a lovely dressing with just the right balance of sweet and sour. The finished salad is practically a work of art, with all the different colors and shapes and flavors. Suddenly, silence: The kids are all busy eating.