Earlier this week, I watched an interview with legendary music producer Rick Rubin, in which he described himself as more of a “reducer” than a producer. When he’s in the studio, his aim 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 towards simplicity this year—whether it’s editing a story, styling a room, or creating a recipe, getting down to the essence of anything requires a commitment to dig deep. You can’t dial it in when something is made up of just a few parts—each one has to be necessary and it has to be great. One shining example of this approach is the simple green salad at beloved NYC restaurant Via Carota. If you know, you know.
Walking into Via Carota is like entering a friend’s home in the Italian countryside (the fantasy version.) You’re greeted by exposed brick walls, charming antiques, rustic plates of shared pasta, and most definitely a cluster of people waiting for a table. If you look closely, you’ll notice a plethora of towering green salads on the center of tables, with layers upon layers of ruffly Bibb, little gem, and frisée lettuces tossed with a shallot vinaigrette and artfully arranged on each plate. It’s striking in its simplicity, yet looks and tastes undeniably special. Those who frequent Via Carota know not to miss ordering what is truly the best simple green salad on the planet.
And now we interrupt my Via Carota fantasies and teleport 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’s favorite that I’ve been making nightly, tossing whatever mixed lettuces we have in the fridge together, then stacking them in my perfect wood salad bowl. We’ve started calling it our “House Salad,” and each Sunday, I blend up a batch of our House Vinaigrette and pour it into a mason jar so I have it at the ready for salads all week.
What makes this salad different from Via Carota’s Insalata Verde?
Although the simplicity and overall flavors of this salad is inspired by the one at Via Carota, I should make clear that this isn’t a copycat version—if you want the exact recipe, grab their cookbook and enjoy. As authors Jody Williams and Rita Sodi say, “We are devoted to this salad. We eat it every day. We crave it, and it’s at our dinner table nightly. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.”
I used their recipe as a jumping off point and made a few changes based on my own leanings:
The mixed lettuces
In Via Carota’s version, butter lettuce, frisée, little gem, watercress, and endive are tossed together. Here in Austin at least, it can be tricky to get my hands on Little Gem, and I’ve realized that a great substitution for Little Gem is to use the hearts (the inner leaves) of romaine, chopped into 3” lengths. I also don’t love buying tiny $5 heads of endive on the regular, so my version omits those and instead keeps it to three types of lettuces: Butter lettuce (often labeled Bibb or Boston lettuce), Romaine lettuce (inner leaves only), and arugula for its peppery kick. However, the beauty of having your own “House Salad” is that you can sub in whatever mixed lettuces you have in your produce drawer. Consider this your permission to add radicchio, baby spinach, iceberg lettuce, or red leaf lettuce—I’d probably stay away from the kale and other cruciferous greens for this one since we want the end result to be light and airy.
I’ve also take some liberty with the fresh herbs used, which give this salad its intriguing, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it specialness. 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), which means that 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 refrigerator.)
The salad dressing
I’ve shared my Sunday Night Vinaigrette in our 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 truly don’t think it could be better.
Okay, here’s where I took some real liberties—Via Carota’s green salad has absolutely no nuts whatsoever. No breadcrumbs, no seeds, no accoutrements. But for a salad to make it to “best green salad” standing at our house, I needed to add just a handful of crunch in the form of toasty, buttery, finely chopped walnuts that play so perfectly against the freshness of all those greens. If you’re now protesting that I’ve dramatically diverged from the original, you’re right—and you can leave them off. But I don’t recommend it (hehe.)
How to make the best simple green salad
Roll up your sleeves and prepare to use your hands—here are a few tips for success to nail the perfect green salad every time.
Make sure your lettuces are completely dry
The Via Carota recipe calls for a double wash and extensive drying regimen, which is great for a restaurant setup, but I am giving you permission to wash your lettuces once, then dry them in a salad spinner or in paper towels like a normal person at home. The key here is to just make sure they’re completely and totally dry, so I like to wrap them up in a clean dishtowel while I’m prepping 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 drizzling with the olive oil and vinegar based dressing.
Use your biggest bowl for tossing the lettuce with dressing
You guys know that I wouldn’t ask you to use two bowls unless it was absolutely necessary—I detest washing dishes and avoid dirtying extra dishes at all cost. However, here it’s a must. Use the biggest mixing bowl you own to add all your lettuces. You’ll use way more than you think you’ll need because they shrink down when coated with vinaigrette. Toss them thoroughly in this mixing bowl, then get out your handmade wood salad bowl and transfer by the handful, stacking up each bunch of lettuces into a ruffly tower.
Use your hands
Pull up your sleeves and use those hands to toss together the lettuces and herbs with the vinaigrette, plus the salt and liberal amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Trust me, you cannot get the same effect using tongs or spoons here—you’re kind of massaging the dressing and seasonings into the lettuce so that it barely coats each leaf and everything is completely evenly distributed.
Toss it with dressing right before serving
Although you can prep your lettuce in advance—wash, dry, and put in a big mixing bowl in the fridge—you’ll want to wait until right before serving to toss it with the vinaigrette and top with your walnuts so it stays fresh, perky, and not at all soggy.
Other ingredients that are amazing in this salad
One of the beautiful things about having a standby simple green salad recipe is that you can riff off the original and adapt it to be a first course or perfect side dish to whatever you’re making. Some of my favorite add-ins based on my mood are:
- Freshly shaved Parmesan
- Halved cherry tomatoes
- Finely chopped and toasted almonds, pecans, or sunflower seeds (in place 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’s it my friends! Scroll on for the recipe, can’t wait to hear if you make this, and for a little extra inspiration to make your own House Salad…
We’re offering 15% off our 12” handmade wood salad bowl at Casa Zuma using code HOUSESALAD until January 31! 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.