In Cuba, there is no such thing as a salad course. With every part of a meal mingling on the same plate, salads are specifically designed to be a foil for other foods.
“The purpose is to create a symphony, for every flavor to work together,” says Cuban-born Maricel Presilla, author of the cookbook “Gran Cocina Latina.”
Her father was particularly fond of a salad she remembers vividly from her childhood: ensalada de aguacate, berro y piña, a simple yet vibrant combination of avocado, watercress and pineapple. But this is no fruit salad. Here, sweet is tempered by savory—the bracing bitterness of the greens, the cooling creaminess of the avocado and the tartness of the lime. It all comes together in a complex harmony of flavors that balance and enhance rich, meaty mains and starchy sides like rice and beans.
“It brightens everything with a jolt of acidity,” Presilla says.
The version she grew up with relied on extremely fresh ingredients. Locally grown pineapples. Avocados plucked from the tree. And watercress—an essential Cuban salad green with a sharp, peppery bite akin to a radish—gathered nearby, right from the side of the road.
In the U.S., however, just-picked ingredients are not always quite so easy to come by. So when Presilla put this salad on the menu at her restaurant Zafra, in Hoboken, New Jersey, she found creative ways to heighten the flavors.
For example, she likes to grill her pineapple, which imparts smoky depth. “In Cuba, people would not go to the trouble of grilling it, but I do,” she says. Or she might choose to add chili peppers for fruity heat.
She also likes her ingredients to be balanced visually. For a prettier plate, she uses red onions—rather than the Spanish onions typical to Cuban cuisine—that contrast with the greens. And she prefers the livelier green of Florida avocados. (However, she notes that creamier Haas avocados work perfectly well, too.) “This recipe reveals the way I cook,” Presilla says.
In our version, we reinforced the lime juice with a shot of vinegar, so the tangy flavors can cut through the richness of accompanying meat dishes even better. We then steeped our alliums—red onion and garlic—in that acid mixture to mellow their bite. We also swapped out watercress for arugula, which is more widely available and also peppery. And while we skipped the step of grilling the fresh pineapple, we took another cue from Presilla by incorporating Fresno chilies, letting their sweet, smoky heat add yet another note to this already-stirring symphony of flavor.
We love how this simple salad so beautifully maximizes flavors, for a vibrant dish that can brighten up a plate any time of year.