Anyone can see that a salad rises and falls on the quality of its ingredients. A withered leaf of lettuce, a tasteless tomato and a slapdash dressing do not a thing of delight make.
It’s a little easier to attain perfection with a green leafy salad. You make sure the greens (one type or many) are clean, crisp and dry; you nail the vinaigrette; you dress it lightly.
With a vegetable salad, especially a raw vegetable salad, the provenance, freshness and flavor of the individual ingredients are absolutely critical. Consider this summer mix. The list is short: corn, avocado, cucumber, cherry tomato and radish. (OK, botanically speaking, avocados are technically berries; cucumbers and tomatoes are fruits; and corn is a grain. But they’re vegetables in common parlance.)
Without sounding completely obsessive, here’s what I look for at the farmers’ market, in the garden or at the store. The corn, aside from being freshly picked, must have kernels that are small, sweet and, above all, tender, since they are to be eaten raw. If corn like that isn’t available, use cooked kernels instead.
I have a thing about avocados. To me, there is an ideal mythical avocado against which all avocados are judged. It is ripe but not overripe, firm but not too firm, unblemished and the most gorgeous shade of green. It is, of course, incredibly delicious, too. I like to slice these beauties at least a half-inch thick.
Summer cucumbers are the best. Look for smallish ones with shiny skin, firm flesh and barely formed seeds. There are lots of varieties: pale, frilly-edged Armenian; diminutive Persian; slender Japanese; English (sans shrink wrap); Kirby (not just for pickling); and the spheroid lemon, among others. If you haven’t tasted a freshly picked cucumber lately, you are in for a pleasant surprise.
Likewise, a ripe cherry tomato this time of year is in a class of its own. It has a deep, intoxicating, tomato-y aroma. Look for specimens that have their spiky green leaflike sepals attached to the top, which means they have just been harvested.
A round red radish, perfectly sweet and pleasantly spicy when small, is likely to be watery and unpleasant if it is more than an inch in diameter. Buy radishes in bunches with their greens in vibrant good shape.
My farmers’ market has several stalls selling purslane, that wonderful succulent that grows wild as a weed in most gardens but can also be cultivated. Both the stems and leaves have a refreshing juicy, sour aspect. In Mediterranean cuisines, purslane regularly shows up in tomato and cucumber salads.
Maniacal shopping advice aside (all in the name of flavor!), here is the bottom line: This is a very easy, and sensational, salad to make, as long as you’re willing to do a little hunting. And sometimes being finicky is what it’s all about.
Corn, avocado and cucumber salad
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
2 cups tender, small corn kernels
2 large firm-ripe avocados
2 cups sliced cucumbers
12 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
Small bunch purslane or watercress
Handful of mint leaves, roughly chopped
2 ounces queso fresco or mild feta, crumbled
Pinch of crushed red pepper
In a medium bowl, combine diced onion, lime juice and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Let macerate for 5 minutes, then whisk in olive oil and toasted cumin. Add corn kernels and a pinch of salt, and toss to coat.
Cut avocados in thick slices and divide among 4 plates, arranging them in a random pattern. Top with the cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Surround with sprigs of purslane.
To serve, spoon a quarter of the corn and juices over each salad. Garnish with mint, queso fresco and red pepper.