Earlier this week I watched an interview with a legendary music producer Rick Rubin, where he described himself as more of a “reducer” than a producer. When he’s in the studio, his goal is to strip the music down, “just to see what’s actually necessary. Getting it down to that essence is really helpful in understanding what it is.” His words resonated with my own pull toward simplicity this year—whether it’s editing a story, styling a room, or creating a recipe, it takes a commitment to dig deep to get down to the essence of something. You can’t call it that when something only consists of a few parts – each one has to be necessary and it has to be great. A shining example of this approach is the simple green salad at a beloved NYC restaurant Via Carota. If you know it, you know it.
Entering Via Carota is like entering a friend’s home in the Italian countryside (the fantasy version). You are greeted by exposed brick walls, charming antiques, rustic plates and common pasta, and definitely a cluster of people waiting for a table. If you look closely, you’ll notice an abundance of towering green salads in the middle of the tables, with layers upon layers of frilly Bibb, Little Pearl and Frisée lettuce tossed with a shallot vinaigrette and artfully arranged on each plate. It is striking in its simplicity, but looks and tastes undeniably special. Those who visit Via Carota do not miss ordering what is truly the best simple green salad on the planet.
And now, interrupting my Via Carota fantasies and teleporting to my kitchen in Austin, I’ve been slowly perfecting my own version of the perfect simple green salad – very much inspired by Via Carota’s but with a few twists that make it my own. I’ve landed on our family favorite that I’ve been making every night, throwing together all the mixed salads we have in the fridge and then piling them into my perfect wooden salad bowl. We’ve started calling it our “house salad” and every Sunday I mix up a batch of our house vinaigrette and pour it into a mason jar so I have it ready for salads all week.
What makes this salad different from Via Carota’s Insalata Verde?
Although the simplicity and overall flavor of this salad is inspired by the one at Via Carota, I must make it clear that this is not a copycat version – if you want the exact recipe, grab their cookbook and enjoy. As authors Jody Williams and Rita Sodi say, “We’re devoted to this salad. We eat it every day. We crave it, and it’s at our dinner table every night. Spring summer fall winter.”
I used their recipe as a starting point and made a few changes based on my own opinions:
The mixed salads
In Via Carota’s version, butter lettuce, frisée, small pearl, watercress and endive are tossed together. Here in Austin anyway, Little Gem can be hard to come by, and I have found that a good substitute for Little Gem is to use the hearts (inner leaves) of romaine, cut into 3” lengths. I’m also not into buying small $5 endives on a regular basis, so my version leaves them out and instead keeps it to three types of lettuce: Butter lettuce (often labeled Bibb or Boston lettuce), Romaine lettuce (inner leaves only), and arugula for its peppery kick. The beauty of having your own “House Salad”, however, is that you can sub in any mixed salad you have in your produce drawer. Consider this your license to add radicchio, baby spinach, iceberg lettuce, or red leaf lettuce—I’d probably stay away from the kale and other cruciferous vegetables for this one, since we want the end result to be light and airy.
I’ve also taken some liberties with the fresh herbs used, which give this salad its exciting, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it specialty. I like to use mint and chives in this salad, but the sky is really the limit. You just want your herbs to be of the fresh variety (not woody), meaning cilantro, parsley, dill and basil are all fair game. Rosemary, thyme and sage are not. (See our handy guide to keeping herbs fresh in the fridge.)
The salad dressing
I’ve shared my Sunday Night Vinaigrette in ours The Breathing Space newsletter, but I think this is the first time I’ve posted it here on the site. Get excited because it’s my favorite dressing in the world. It shares the shallot-forward flavors of Via Carota’s vinaigrette, but adds Dijon mustard, apple cider vinaigrette and honey, and I really don’t think it could be better.
Okay, I took some real liberties here – Via Carota’s green salad has absolutely no nuts at all. No breadcrumbs, no seeds, no toppings. But for a salad to make it the “best green salad” in our house, I had to add just a handful of crunch in the form of toasted, buttery, finely chopped walnuts that play so perfectly against the freshness of the all the green. Now if you protest that I have deviated dramatically from the original, you are right – and you can leave them alone. But I don’t recommend it (hehe.)
How to make the best simple green salad
Roll up your sleeves and get ready to use your hands – here are a few success tips for getting the perfect green salad every time.
Make sure your salad is completely dry
The Via Carota recipe calls for a double wash and extensive drying process, which is great for a restaurant setup, but I give you permission to wash your salads once, then dry them in a salad spinner or paper towel like a normal person at home. The key here is just to make sure they’re completely and utterly dry, so I like to wrap them in a clean tea towel while I prep other ingredients to make sure they’re good to go. The reason for this is that we want the vinaigrette to lightly coat each leaf of lettuce, and since water and oil don’t mix, dryness is key before you drizzle with olive oil and vinegar-based dressing.
Use your largest bowl to toss the salad with dressing
You know I wouldn’t ask you to use two bowls unless absolutely necessary – I hate washing dishes and avoid dirtying extra dishes at all costs. But here it is a must. Use the largest mixing bowl you own to add to all your salads. You’ll use a lot more than you think you need because they shrink when coated in vinaigrette. Toss them thoroughly in this mixing bowl, then take yours out handmade wooden salad bowl and transfer by the handful, piling each bundle of lettuce into a ruffled tower.
Use your hands
Roll up your sleeves and use those hands to toss lettuce and herbs with the vinaigrette, plus salt and liberal amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Trust me, you can’t get the same effect using tongs or a spoon here – you’re kind of massaging the dressing and seasonings into the salad so that it barely covers each leaf and everything is completely evenly distributed.
Toss with dressing just before serving
While you can prepare your salad ahead of time—wash, dry, and put in a large mixing bowl in the fridge—you’ll want to wait until just before serving to toss it with the vinaigrette and top with your walnuts, so it stays fresh, cheery, and not at all drenched.
Other ingredients that are great in this salad
One of the beautiful things about having a simple green salad recipe on standby is that you can rip off the original and adapt it to be a first course or perfect accompaniment to whatever you’re cooking. Some of my favorite additions based on my mood are:
- Freshly shaved parmesan
- Halved cherry tomatoes
- Finely chopped and toasted almonds, pecans or sunflower seeds (instead of the walnuts)
- Crumbled goat cheese or feta
- Green olives (I like to use pitted and halved Castelvetrano olives)
- Thinly sliced red onion
- Shaved fennel
- Grated carrots
- Thinly sliced cucumber
And that is it my friends! Scroll on for the recipe, I look forward to hearing if you make this, and for some extra inspiration to make your own house salad…
We offer 15% discount on ours 12″ handmade wooden salad bowl at Casa Zuma using the code HOUSESALAD until January 31st! This is THE salad bowl I put on our table every night, and I designed it to be absolutely perfect.
Be sure to rate and leave a comment and tag us on Instagram so we can see your perfect simple green salad.