The Ingredient That Unites My Favorite Salads

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

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.

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.

Labeled “LETTUCES” on the menu, Baumgart’s restaurant salad is sprightly but deeply savory, with a pile of Piave curls on top. If the soft bed of cheese is the protagonist, then the fresh herbs — tarragon, if you have it and love it, but basil works, too — are the supporting characters, giving this green salad verve. The herbs come in again through the housemade white-wine vinegar, in which Baumgart steeps all his remaining tarragon and basil for the week, until the sweet flavors of anise permeate. There is no dressing to make: just olive oil and that beautiful vinegar tossed through. Though it’s less traditional, the significant vinegar-to-oil ratio here means the lettuces stay peppy and crunchy. Don’t forget to season the leaves with salt, but “don’t go for broke with the dressing,” the chef, now 43, advises. You can always add more later.

If you’re a cook at heart, then the best restaurants are the ones that taste as if you’re eating in someone’s home. So as you get to the last verse of this recipe, holding a grater over your salad, remember what Ouriachi says: “Everything is better with cheese.”