What is a salad anyway? According to wikipedia, a salad is a dish consisting of small pieces of food mixed with a sauce. Is there such a thing as the perfect salad, or is there just perfect ingredient?
Have you ever had a salad that has chopped Belgium endive, radicchio or frisee lettuce? When it comes to selecting the perfect salad ingredient, you need to understand that texture will play an important role but so do the ingredients and process!
The ancient Egyptians ate, and probably cultivated, endive. The Greeks and Romans certainly did, as mentioned by Horace, Pliny and Dioscorides. They seemed to prefer it to chicory because it was slightly less bitter. They also likely blanched it, and were well aware of the procedure.
Chicory is one of my favorite vegetables for salad even though it is oddly often grown in the dark after the root is harvested. The discovery of chicory was by the head gardener at the Brussels Botanic Garden wanted. He lifted several roots, chopped off the foliage, and planted them. Soon small tight shoots appeared. The next season, he again repeated the process. He kept his discovery a secret during his lifetime but when he passed, his widow told her gardener, who passed it on.
When I make endive salad, I separate the stem from the leaves and if you slice it lengthways, you can easily see that the core is solid and should be treated differently than the branch leaves. Whenever you work with endive be sure to keep it relatively dry and cool. I use an ice water bath for most veggies until I am ready to work with them, but never leave them for one hour in water as the chlorine will affect their crispness.
The middle east region has a long-standing history with salads and we sometimes forget that western salad bars are just a twinkle in the eye when compared to the real thing. The idea of the salad bar has more to do with the idea of “mezze” found in Ottoman Empire, referring to taste-flavour-snack, and said to be borrowed from the Persian word “mazze” to taste.
Don’t forget a good knife is a key component to any salad and consider a ceramic blade as they are non reactive and do not impart and changes to veggies. The salad in Japan is often very detailed and is what has inspired many western chefs to work with tweezers. The Japanese do not use tweezers, in fact they use a pair of stainless sticks named moribashi. These sticks are used to take small ingredients to place them according to the chefs design.
The key to any salad is freshness, integrity of the vegetable and how you treat your veggies. So if you start with a head of lettuce and do as most do, pick the leafs by hand, you end up with a pile of leafy lettuce. This is what I call the farmers salad, pick and eat. But most lettuce is sprayed with chemicals to keep it fresh, and still in no time lettuce wilts, or becomes soggy from the acid in the dressing. I hate to think of how many times I wrestled lettuce. Those over-sized green leafs eventually get caught everywhere but in the right place.
So try to figure out what it takes to make the perfect salad, or if there is such a thing. So when you start to think about it, some countries like Greece have salad as one of their national symbols. In a Greek salad its the cheese, feta, once upon a time produced in Greece. Nowadays it is made almost everywhere except in Greece, and Greek feta is often exported and sold at a premium.
One time I was in Rome at a gourmet shop and I tried the feta. I was so impressed I carried a 5kg container to Greece thinking I would buy more there. After calling the producer, they refused and said they only sell export and supply is limited and the answer was no. The keynote to a Greek salad is the cheese!
A salad not only contains vegetables but often you’ll find protein or other ingredients. The modernist cuisine type salads can include almost any ingredient by way of powder. If you have a Pacojet, you can pulverize any food after dehydrating it, freezing it and thrashing it with a blade that turns at 2000rpm.
When you think about it, one of the most influential factors in any salad is anything but the vegetables. Think about it, how can a veggy compete with a cheese or a grain that adds a dimension of taste. But when a chef takes a powder and uses an accent it can deceive you and the salad that is sometimes unforgettable (in a good or bad way) and appear with a powder, or even a foam. I remember trying salad at Ferran’s as it was described as a “remote getaway island” and it had a palm tree and moss, it was an exotic and creative combination of texture. But not all molecular cuisine is as exciting on the table as it is on paper.
To keep a salad simple it doesn’t take a machine or a siphon to keep it to the point. Take it one step further, and add some stale bread as is done in Levantine culture as well as numerous middle eastern cultures. Salads can be simple or complex, and the composition and structure influences the end result including the delicate nature of the ingredients used. A salad can be a wonderful memory and it isn’t dependent on elaborate or sophisticated gelée or powder.
Sometimes a salad is just under an umbrella at the beach, or at the sea-side at ToThalassaki, or in a green field on grass in the Swiss Alps, or at a luxury table with pressed linen cloth. It doesn’t take much, a good bread, a fine piece of cheese and a glass of wine. There are so many varieties of salad that you can enjoy.
Salad is so important because it’s directly connected to mother nature, the mother nature of the place where you are. If you travel to countries where vegetables are grown farm fresh, you can understand the difference of mint from a garden, or a fresh piece of basil.
There is no doubt that some salads people never get bored with, and some are only made with vegetables while others are traditionally based on cheese. The insalata caprese salad, or a Bruschetta which is a “hand salad”, an antipasto is one of our favorite salads when traveling in Italy.
Sometimes a salad can be simple roasted vegetables served with virgin olive oil, a simple way of intensifying tastes and flavors.
Take the Take the perfect garden vegetable, make the perfect cut and add the perfect dressing. Don’t over think it, the basic ingredients are key but more critically is how you cut the vegetable and combinations creating texture. Be true and avoid being too inventive masking the vegetables integrity or be daring and use fruits. The salad of Cesare, an incredible winter dish served with ovoli mushrooms and sliced roasted duck, served with white truffles.
Ovoli are beautiful: https://mesubim.com/tag/ovoli/
Life without salad would be no life!…