A salad can be many things, from a leafy vegan fiber-fest to almost anything that contains raw vegetables. The romaine and dandelion-based salad I'm about to show you—in all its greasy, leafy, protein-rich glory—is all of that, as well as a window into the inner workings of how flavor is built and perceived. It's also an example of how certain pairings can enhance one another's nutritional value. That's a lot for one salad to pull off, but then, it's a pretty good salad. Before I tell you how to make it, I'm going to preface the recipe with some science.
Our discussion begins with a review of the basic tastes: salty, sweet, acidic, bitter and umami. This elite circle continues to grow, with umami only recently making it into the club, and fat probably on deck, and some others, like calcium, not far behind. These tastes represent chemicals that our tongues are able to detect, and are, along with textures and aromas, the building blocks of flavor.
Often, if something is missing from a dish you are concocting, the answer can come from this list. A squeeze of lime or dash of vinegar to bring the acid into balance, for example. Maybe a dab of butter to raise the fat levels or a hit of fish sauce to crank up the umami or sugar to soften the bite of acid.
But while contrast is crucial, there is another, less heralded trick for creating flavor: redundancy.
Gail Vance Civille, president of the consulting firm Sensory Spectrum, first turned me on to the power of repetition among similar ingredients, by way of explaining the importance of mustard in a "well-
Both yolk and mustard contain sulfur, she explained, which can be a turn-off to many eaters, especially when it is perceived in egg yolk. In mayonnaise, the sulfurous notes of yolk and mustard blend into each other, dissolving the edges of one another, such that neither one sticks out.
"Mayonnaise is not as sulfury as it might be," Civille said, "because most of the mayonnaises do a good job of covering the egg with the mustard, which is part of what makes it so beautiful."
This beauty is more than just the absence of annoying sulfur, but the way multiple versions of similar elements of flavor can interact in concert, blending so smoothly with one another that the lines between them merge into a continuum of flavor.
Mayo not only benefits from this blend, but brings it to the foods to which it is applied. It contains all of the basic tastes, including a hint of bitter, thanks to that mustard. These tastes add redundancy and contrast to the flavors already present in the salad and its dressing.
I'm harping on mayo not only because it demonstrates some important flavor principles, but because it's present in this redundant dandelion salad. And being mostly fat, mayonnaise adds another important quality: It makes carotenes in the vegetables more accessible to the body. These molecules are fat-soluble, which means oils and fats can extract them from the food more effectively than if you chewed it in a fat-free context. The fat in mayo is joined by the olive oil in the dressing, as well as other fats in the many rich toppings that I recommend adding to the salad, such as anchovies and the oil they come packed in, as well as egg.
The many fats and proteins atop this salad allow you to add more bitterness than you might normally be able to handle. Indeed, without enough bitter greens, the salad would be too decadent. So the richness and complexity not only allows better absorption of nutrients, it allows high levels of bitterness to be tolerable. And bitterness in vegetables, as a general rule, is a marker of nutrient density. If dandelions are unavailable, other tough, bitter and spicy greens—like kale or arugula—can be used as well. In fact, diversity in bitterness will soften the impact, much the same way that diversity of sulfur compounds reduces their impact in mayo.
The bitter greens are bulked out with romaine and balanced with a medley of fats and proteins. One of my recommendations, as you will see below, is soft tofu, which must be tried at least once. Its creamy blandness provides a sanctuary in what is otherwise a sharp, spicy, bitter, acidic and all around feisty gang of flavors.