The Ingredient That Unites My Favorite Salads

Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times. Food stylist: Sue Li. Prop stylist: Sophia Eleni Pappas.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I bused tables at a restaurant by the water in St. Augustine, Fla. Parched and sticky with sweat, I watched one particular salad — huge, geometric chunks of watermelon and feta, stacked on a plate with basil — go to nearly every table. I cleared those plates, tempted every time to sneak a rehydrating taste when there were leftovers. On my last day, the managers said I could order anything I wanted: I sat at a table, a diner for the first time, and ordered the salad. It was a revelation. The salty feta cut through the refreshing fruit not like a sword, but like the higher note in a two-part harmony — the Paul McCartney to the John Lennon, the Michelle Branch to the Jessica Harp.

The salads of my youth, the ones I most remember, all have this effect — and they all have cheese. The contrast between cool, anchoring base note (fruit, vegetable or lettuce) and salty, creamy accent (cheese) is what makes a bite of these salads feel like more than just salad. The day I interviewed for my first food-writing job, even before getting the offer, I celebrated with a glass of rosé and a Caesar salad. A tall stack of romaine hearts, absolutely showered in Parmigiano-Reggiano and strewed with a laurel of fried parsley, was exactly how I wanted to mark that pivotal day.

Food doesn’t always have to be the measurement by which you track your life, but like a song, a good dish — even a salad — can bring you back to past versions of yourself. In 2001, Adam Baumgart, a 20-year-old Wisconsinite, moved to New York City to cook at fine-dining restaurants, but those jobs weren’t the ones that stayed with him. Instead, what did was his work at local spots like Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune (preparing brunches as a lead cook) and Franny’s, the beloved Brooklyn pizzeria (making and eating many a salad). In those roles, he was cooking what he calls “food I want to eat every day,” honestly prepared food like pizza with homemade crust and simply dressed greens with cheese.

Recipe: Lettuces With Fresh Herbs and Cheese

Unlike steak frites, a perfect salad is democratic: Done well, it can be the stuff of restaurants and homes. The house salad at Baumgart’s first restaurant, Oma Grassa, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, straddles both the salads he grew up eating in Wisconsin, in dedicated vessels — thin fake-wood bowls that found their place next to the plates — and the salads he eats now, with his partner, Alex Ouriachi. Both he and Ouriachi spend many a night at Oma Grassa — he in the kitchen, she at the front of the restaurant, helping in many ways, as she has since it opened. But in their Brooklyn home, their salads are crisper-drawer fridge raids that start with good lettuce, a vegetable or two and some cheese.

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