Tender leaf vegetables are very much a cool season crop in the South, and garden salads as we have come to know them now, largely comprised of lettuces of various and usually exotic natures, were unknown to earlier generations. Instead, fresh vegetables were used, typically those with a low starch content most often grown in a Southern garden, in particular cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. Though the rural people of the South were doubtless unfamiliar with the word “vinaigrette”, these three vegetables were almost always dressed with a simple mix of vinegar and oil, salt and pepper. Depending on the cook and the garden, fresh sweet peppers, young squash or lightly cooked (blanched) green beans might have been added, but the basic vegetable triad was never omitted.
This salad is best made with fresh summer vegetables. While vegetables imported from the West Coast or elsewhere in the winters will do, the tomatoes will not have a full share of that wonderful gelatin surrounding the seeds and the flesh of the cucumbers will be too watery. (Onions, on the other hand, tend to be onions.) Select large, plump ripe tomatoes and cucumbers that are small, firm and green, what many would call gherkins. As to onions, the smaller, white boiler onions, along with some of their stems, which are very firm, are the best. Sweet yellow onions spoil the bite and red onions become discolored and lend what I consider an unattractive hue to the liquid. A clove of crushed and very, very finely minced garlic is also in order, or you can do as I do and simply slice a very large clove to add to the mixture for flavor.
Cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces, place in a glass or ceramic bowl and toss with salt and pepper. Use a little bit more salt than you might feel comfortable with, because one objective is to get the vegetables themselves to leach out their juices. Use enough white vinegar to cover half the vegetables and about half that amount of oil. You can use olive oil, but I prefer polyunsaturated oil such as corn or canola to avoid solidification. A small amount of dried basil, thyme and oregano can be used, but do not use fresh herbs, as their oils will overpower the mixture. Juice leeched from the vegetables by the salt and vinegar produce a mild, very basic, exceedingly flavorful vinaigrette you can use on other salads or cold meats. I love to use it for the old three-bean-salad, and it’s great with cold cooked fish or shellfish. You can keep this basic mixture going in the fridge all summer by simply adding more vegetables, seasonings and liquids as needed; it just keeps getting better.