For a truly memorable side salad, forget everything you ever learned at the salad bar and let the lettuce take the lead.

By Lauren Grant; Photographer: Blaine Moats
Spring salad

Italian stamps fill chef Nick Strawhecker's passport. His annual trips inspire the menu at Dante in Omaha, where authentic ingredients star: Guanciale. Caciocavallo. Soppressata. Lettuce.

Yes, lettuce. Many Americans view greens as just a landing pad for the good stuff-thick dressings and hearty toppings. But Nick's side salad takes a European approach. The vinaigrette is light. A fine dusting of pistachios and cheese clings to the leaves for crunch, salt and umami. Every bite is balanced. You can taste the lettuce.

And it's good. Delivered daily from an Iowa farm, the mix might include turnip tops, juvenile chard or frilly red leaf. Nick believes that hyper-seasonality-the idea that each season contains mini seasons-should guide ingredients: "Crafting a salad around what's available inevitably creates quality. That's what I love about Italy. It isn't a choice to cook and eat locally; it's a way of life."

Ready to give your salad a spring clean? Sow seeds, visit farmers markets or explore the produce aisle for interesting picks like butter lettuce. Then whisk up Nick's dressing and dare yourself to do almost nothing else.

Spring Salad with Lemon-Thyme Dressing

Spring salad

Prepare the Dressing Remove 12 teaspoon zest from a lemon; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 12 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar and 1 teaspoon honey. Whisking constantly, drizzle in 3 tablespoons each canola and grapeseed oil until emulsified. Stir in 1 teaspoon snipped fresh thyme, the zest, and salt and pepper to taste.

Tip: You might expect olive oil in an Italian-inspired salad-and it's fine to swap it in-but Nick prefers grapeseed and canola because they are more neutral. The flavors of the greens and lemon star.

Assemble the Salad Place 8 cups of assorted fresh greens in a large bowl. Drizzle dressing over salad, letting most of it run down the sides of the bowl. Gently toss greens with your hands. (This tongs-free method avoids over-dressing or bruising the leaves.) Top with 14 cup finely grated Grana Padano cheese and 2 tablespoons coarsely ground pistachios.

Tip: Large toppings just fall to the bottom of the bowl, so Nick recommends finely shredding, grating or chopping anything you add to a salad. The ingredients will stick to the leaves.

Get a printable version of this recipe here.

Make it Your Own

This recipe is just a blueprint: Have fun improvising! You can substitute a different nut, firm cheese or herb. Or skip the nuts, and toast some panko in olive oil to make a crisp breadcrumb rubble (like crumbled croutons) that will get caught in the lettuce. You can even add another vegetable-fine slivers of shallot, snap pea or radish. Just remember, you want to enhance the lettuce, not compete with it.

Tip: Grana Padano is a hard Italian cheese that adds a sharp salty-savory note to the salad. If you can't find it, substitute with Parmesan.

Nick Strawhecker

Get to know

Nick Strawhecker Opened Dante in 2009. Learned to make sausage from his Italian grandfather. Worked in a Michelin-rated restaurant in Tuscany.

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