A thing is the sum of its parts. If the parts are crap…well then. But if the parts are stellar the whole can be a beautiful thing. Take Seven Layer Salad for example. A somewhat maligned American creation of the 1950’s borne out of someone’s need for “quick, tasty and feeds-a-crowd,” the salad has popped up at picnics, on home buffets and at community dinners ever since. Classically, it’s built in a glass dish (like the trifle dish you got at your bridal shower but never used) and includes layers of chopped lettuce, tomato, hard-cooked egg, cucumber, sharp cheddar cheese, bacon, green onion, a thick mayo-sour cream dressing and (my favorite part!) lots and lots of sweet peas. This salad’s recipe’s provenance is thought to be Southern, but it doesn’t appear in my regional cooking tomes (Clementine Paddleford, Helen Corbitt, etc.) just community cookbooks where it was initially referred to as “Seven Layer Pea Salad.”
Which brings us back to peas. I’ve always loved the “green” scent of them, their looks, their shape, their shoots, tendrils, flowers, how they “pop” when you bite ‘em. But there are so few recipes that really let peas shine: not overcooked, not mushy, not blended into oblivion in a soup. In this salad, they get to be their best. When your farmers market comes in with fresh ones, use those lightly steamed and cooled. (Otherwise, frozen/thawed will work.) As far as the other layers are concerned? There are so many fine examples of good sharp cheddar cheese and uncured hardwood smoked bacon, choose those. And experiment a little! Milky white goat-milk cheddar is delicious, and super-aged 10 year cheddars are amazing.
Texturally and from a color perspective, a balance of crunchy and soft lettuces is nice, so I use chopped heads of butter lettuce and chopped romaine. For the tomatoes? Grow them, or get them from your farmers market—this is the perfect place to use heirlooms that may be ugly fruits, but are loaded with flavor. I like Persian or young small cucumbers in this salad. For the onions? Scallions are fine—but if you have chives in the garden, those are nice, too. And for the topper: a batch of homemade mayonnaise blended with crème fraiche is lovely, garnished with fresh pea shoots for a little more of that green pea greenness. I’m also including my recipe for a fabulous garlicky Green Goddess dressing, which has more “oomph” than the crème fraiche with mayo and is my family’s favorite with this salad.
Seven-Layer Salad (A Classic Updated)
- Six cups sweet peas, steamed just until al dente, and cooled OR frozen peas, thawed
- Two small heads romaine lettuce, cleaned well and chopped into bite-sized pieces
- Two small heads butter lettuce, cleaned well and torn into bite-sized pieces
- One large, or two small heirloom tomatoes, washed and chopped
- 4 Persian cucumbers, washed, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped
- ½ pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated to make about 2 cups
- 1 pound uncured hardwood smoked bacon, cooked, cooled and chopped
- 2 green onions diced OR ½ cup snipped chives
- 1 cup pea shoots for garnish
- 1/2 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe follows) combined with 1/2 cup crème fraiche
1 cup Green Goddess Dressing
- Makes 1 ½ cups
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp sugar
- ¾ tsp dry mustard
- a few grains freshly ground pepper
- dash paprika
- dash cayenne
- 1 Tbsp vinegar
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 cup vegetable oil
Green Goddess Dressing ingredients
- 1 clove garlic, finely grated
- 2 Tbsp anchovy paste
- 3 Tbsp finely-snipped chives
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp wine vinegar
- ½ cup sour cream
- 1 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe above)
- 1/3 cup finely-chopped parsley
- Coarsely ground salt
- Coarsely ground black pepper
1. Make mayonnaise: Combine egg, salt, sugar, mustard, pepper, paprika and cayenne. Add vinegar and lemon juice. Add oil in drops/ very slow stream, while beating in bowl of stand mixer until the mayonnaise has whipped into fluffy consistency. Refrigerate.
2. Make crème fraiche/mayo dressing OR Green Goddess dressing: For the first option: Combine ½ cup of the mayonnaise with ½ cup crème fraiche. Whisk well until fluffy. Refrigerate. OR For the Green Goddess: combine 1 cup of the mayonnaise with Green Goddess Dressing ingredients to make Green Goddess Dressing.
3. Assemble Salad: Place 3 cups of peas in bottom of a large glass serving bowl or trifle dish. Combine chopped romaine and chopped butter lettuce; layer half of the lettuce over the peas in the bowl. Sprinkle chopped tomatoes over the lettuce. Sprinkle the chopped cucumbers over the tomatoes. Sprinkle the chopped egg over this layer. Add the remaining 3 cups of peas. Add the grated cheese and bacon. Add the remaining lettuce. Cover all with the dressing topper. (Your choice of homemade mayo with crème fraiche, or, Green Goddess. Sprinkle with the diced green onions or snipped chives. Garnish with pea shoots.