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America’s Most Satisfying Salad

America’s Most Satisfying Salad
Photo: James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Eugene Jho, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart

VISUALIZE a salad. If you conjure a penitential bowl of cold lettuce—a bribe paid in roughage to gain access to the good part of the meal—then you haven’t tried kilt greens.

Also known as killed lettuce, this unabashedly indulgent sort of salad hails from Appalachia. “It’s a warm bacon salad, or wilted greens,” said Shelley Cooper, the chef at Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro in East Tennessee. “It’s just we call it kilt.”

Though this dish can be made at any time of year, in the mountain region where it originated, killed lettuce is a traditional sign of spring, when it’s made from the tender greens that break through the ground as the snow recedes. Families set out to gather the greens, then toss them with pert young scallions, vinegar and sometimes a shot of sweet sorghum syrup or honey. Just before serving, the cook crisps strips of bacon, pours the resulting hot rendered fat over the greens, and crumbles the bacon on top. The crunchy tangle of dressed greens and bacon typically comes to the table with a skillet of cornbread.

“In warm weather it’s light and crispy,” said Ms. Cooper. “In winter it’s heavier. Sometimes people put the greens in the pan, some people pour the grease over the greens. Every family is different.”

In the childhood home of Ronni Lundy, author of the award-winning 2016 cookbook “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes,” this simple dish was a favorite meal. “I would hear the bacon crackling and I would know what we were having,” she said. “The salad was served in a huge bowl, and we ate enough with the cornbread that it was supper.”

To Ms. Lundy, the complex flavors in kilt greens reflect Appalachia’s unique landscape and weather, which have made it perhaps the most diverse foodshed in North America. “The hills and hollows (or ‘hollers’) were never subject to monoculture and factory farming,” she said. “Our climate has a distinct winter, unlike other parts of the South.” This lush, rangy pocket of the country is finally being recognized as a culinary polestar, with chefs such Ms. Cooper, Tennessee’s Sean Brock and Virginia’s Travis Milton championing of Appalachian foodways to national acclaim.

After Ms. Lundy’s family left their tiny Kentucky mountain town to move to the city, they maintained their cooking traditions using what they found at the grocery store. The killed lettuce recipe in her cookbook (right) calls for iceberg lettuce, and the result is so good you may want to stop there. But if you want to mix it up, Ms. Lundy recommends a combination of mâche, arugula and young romaine. “The important thing,” she notes, “is to have a mix of crunch, flavor, and tang.”

The bacon lends fat and crunch, as well as a hit of umami—a defining presence in Appalachian food. For those who don’t eat pork, Ms. Lundy offers a substitute for the bacon and its rendered fat. “Make gomashio, the Japanese condiment of ground toasted sesame seeds and salt, and warm up some sesame oil. Or use warm sesame oil and a splash of ume plum vinegar.”

You can make kilt greens with most any green you have on hand. The formula breaks down to fresh greens, hot grease, vinegar and onions, plus something crunchy. All the better if you throw in what Ms. Lundy calls a “wang,” something with a distinct flavor and a bit of a bite, such as watercress.

Though all that hot fat may somewhat dim the virtuous image of a healthy salad, Ms. Cooper stands by the nourishing properties of kilt greens. And anyway, coming from a long line of long-lived Appalachians, she’s not overly concerned. “All my relatives had a hearty breakfast with pork every day, and they all smoked and drank moonshine,” she said. “How come they all lived for over a hundred years?”

America’s Most Satisfying Salad
Photo: James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Eugene Jho, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart
Ronnie Lundy’s Killed Lettuce

TOTAL TIME: 20 minutes SERVES: 4

In a large salad bowl, toss 8 cups torn crisp lettuce, such as iceberg or a mix of mâche, arugula and young romaine, with 2 whole scallions, finely chopped. In a skillet over medium heat, fry 4 bacon slices until very crisp, then transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Remove skillet from heat. Pour ¼ cup apple cider vinegar over lettuce and toss. Pour warm bacon grease from skillet over dressed lettuce and toss again. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Crumble bacon over greens and serve immediately.

—Adapted from “Victuals” by Ronni Lundy (Clarkson Potter)

America’s Most Satisfying Salad
Photo: James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Eugene Jho, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart
Kale and Apple

TOTAL TIME: 25 minutes SERVES: 4

In a large bowl, combine 1 bunch kale, stemmed and chopped small, ½ head radicchio, chopped small, 2 scallions, minced, and 1 sweet, crisp apple, sliced thin. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and ¼ cup apple cider vinegar. In a skillet over medium heat, fry 4 bacon slices until very crisp, then transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Remove skillet from the heat. Pour vinegar-mustard mixture over greens and toss. Pour warm bacon grease from skillet and toss again. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Crumble bacon over greens and serve immediately.

America’s Most Satisfying Salad
Photo: James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Eugene Jho, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart
Shiitake-Bacon and Mizuna

TOTAL TIME: 40 minutes SERVES: 4

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 2 cups very thinly sliced shiitake mushroom caps in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together 5 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon sesame oil and 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and pour it over shiitakes. Add a dash of salt, and toss until mushrooms have absorbed all liquid. Spread mushrooms in a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake 10 minutes. Toss and bake 10 minutes more. Continue baking, tossing every 5 minutes, until crisp, about 30 minutes total. // Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss together 8 cups mizuna, tat soi or mixed spring greens, 2 scallions, minced, 3 radishes, thinly sliced, and 1 teaspoon minced ginger. As soon as the mushrooms are done cooking, pour 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar over greens and toss. Scrape mushrooms and warm cooking oil from baking sheet over greens and toss again. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds. Top each serving with a soft-boiled egg (optional).

America’s Most Satisfying Salad
Photo: James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Eugene Jho, Prop Styling by Carla Gonzalez-Hart
Mediterranean Herb

TOTAL TIME: 45 minutes SERVES: 4

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add ½ cup short grain brown rice and boil, uncovered, until al dente, about 30 minutes. Drain, then return rice to pot and stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Turn heat to lowest setting, cover, and cook 10 minutes. // Make dressing: In a small bowl, mash together 2 anchovies and ½ clove garlic, minced, to form a paste. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil, 5 tablespoons lemon juice and a dash of salt, and whisk to emulsify. // Coarsely chop 4 cups mixed parsley and cilantro. Tear a handful each of basil and mint. In a large bowl, combine herbs with 3 cups romaine lettuce, ribbed and chopped small, and 2 scallions, minced. When rice is done, dress greens and toss. Add hot rice and toss again. Fold in 1 cup crumbled feta and ½ cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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