Last weekend, the weather here was peak summer. Full sun, 90-degree temps, humid, with infrequent, apathetic breezes ambling across my parents’ backyard. We kept cool in strategic shaded spots, including under the tree by the patio, its branches starting low, almost at ground level, and reaching out at a decidedly gentle, un-tree-like incline. You will be unsurprised to learn that this was the only tree my siblings and I ever climbed growing up. We were outdoor kids, but risk-averse. If our feet weren’t on the ground, we at least had a plan for how they’d reach it again in one piece. Scrambling up a few feet always satisfied my inner intrepid explorer – I always preferred reading in the shade anyway, maybe perched where two very moderate branches split off, but more likely on the thick, cool carpet of grass just under the tree.
We own sunscreen for Jack, but applying it is much easier said than done. He’s a squirmy one year-old who tries to taste anything you put near his face. So aside from slathering some on that morning while getting him dressed (I hummed a nonsense tune and massaged in the sun cream like it was a post-bath lotion sesh. I fooled him once, but I knew I couldn’t do it again), we went old-school in keeping him from getting too toasty: finding exciting snacks under the patio umbrella, popping indoors for the occasional blast of AC, and, in the grand tradition of his mom, aunts, and uncle, playing under the big tree.
Because of an insane work schedule the last few weeks, and because I have a love-hate relationship with Pinterest (OKAY FINE WHO DOESN’T), our theme for this party was pretty loose. We went for a camping/weenie roast sort of vibe – the kind of party where, if Jack were older and went to bed later, we’d roast actual marshmallows over an actual fire come actual sunset, catch fireflies, and maybe sing some vintage James Taylor/Carole King around the fire with a guitar. As it was, my wonderful mom – who, in a flash of desperation/genius, I named the Czar of Decor for the party – crafted a faux campfire surrounded by wooden stump stools with my equally wonderful sister, hung bunting made of maps, and speared marshmallows onto twigs she foraged from the backyard, turning them into admittedly adorable centerpieces.
For the food, we managed to pull together a shockingly easy menu, resplendent with many a low-maintenance campfire standby: grilled encased meats from our local beloved butcher shop, baked beans, and a roasted corn salad. (Okay, okay, and I also made a truly ridiculous double-tier s’more’s-themed cake, crowned with a single enormous marshmallow on a stick that we used as the candle. That’s another post for another time…)
But the dish that garnered the most compliments on that super-hot, super-swampy day was… a green salad.
Yes, the green salad that’s usually there as an obligation to what our mothers taught us and any potential health-conscious partygoers. The green salad that someone offered to make with a shrug and a question mark hanging in the air. The green salad generally thrown together with languishing, dried-out, woody vegetables and an ocean of ranch dressing.
This salad is not that salad.
This salad isn’t even the salad I planned to make, since the salad I planned to make involved some beloved basil vinaigrette that I managed to, like, boil in the microwave in an attempt to loosen it up after a few seconds, but totally forgot about instead.
This salad is what happens when you give in to an unexpected idea that assumes a universal love for a thing that YOU love but never see in salads (snap peas), then color the whole rest of the vision green (with a ton of fresh herbs), then kill your (beautiful, green) dressing and also discover there is zero vinegar in the house where you’re assembling the salad and making a new dressing on the fly.
In fact, this salad is not made with a vinaigrette at all. It plays on something my Grandma Eleanor used to do when making salad for my Grandpa Vince, whose tastebuds, long ago affected by the chemicals of old wars, no longer took kindly to acidic foods, including even the mildest vinegar tossed with olive oil in a salad. Instead, she’d use olive oil, then season the salad liberally with just salt and pepper. Not knowing the backstory for the longest time, I assumed growing up that this was a special method for a special salad, and loved eating salad at my grandparents’ house.
The result is old-school alchemy for me, like hanging out with my son under the tree on a hot day and making it seem for all the world like a magical, special place. With nice olive oil and decent flaky salt, it manages to be totally graceful, to seem totally intentional. The secret is, my shit was not together, but as we all do when we have to, I pulled it together anyway. The snap peas add a sweet, even a little juicy crunch that more than makes up for the absence of an acid (and probably would have competed with it anyway); the fresh herbs scream “summer,” and just-torn, fresh mozzarella, peeking out from behind a shower of green, gives you a cool, creamy hit that also adds a little – dare I say it? – rustic elegance.
- For the greens, I sold out and used a good packaged mix because this is a party and I am not Martha Stewart. Any tender greens or lettuces would be great here. Romaine might be too loud for this.
- For the cheese, ovoline are ideal (the bigger mozzarella balls). The smaller, bite-size ciliegine work too, but they don’t lend themselves as well to tearing.
- For the herbs, I used fresh dill and basil at the party, but made this salad again about two days later, with dill and parsley. Chives would be lovely, as would a little bit of tarragon or even mint. Pretty much any herbs, as long as they are fresh! (The only thing I’d maybe stay away from are hardier herbs like thyme or rosemary.)
- This is very quick and stupid-easy for a party, or you can throw some extra vegetables or chicken in this and call it dinner (or lunch).
- Serves 6 as a side salad; fewer if you’re chowing down or swearing off sausages and cake for a while.
- 6 cups mixed greens or lettuce
- 16 oz fresh mozzarella, drained and torn into bite-sized pieces
- 8 oz sugar snap peas, strings removed (or there is such a thing as stringless snap peas!), and cut in half on the diagonal
- scant cup of fresh chopped herbs, almost any kind
- olive oil, salt, and pepper
Combine the first four ingredients in a large bowl. Start with about 1/2 cup of olive oil and toss, aiming to coat all of the greens with the oil. Add about a teaspoon of salt, and as much black pepper as you like. Toss again, then taste. Add a splash of oil and a sprinkle of salt at a time, then toss and carefully taste until the flavor of the olive oil is pronounced, but before the salad itself becomes too oily. Toss one more time, bringing the snap peas and mozzarella nearer to the top of the salad, and serve.