Get the idea: substantial salads
Thinly sliced iceberg lettuce carefully layered with sliced cucumber, tomato and hard-boiled eggs, grated carrot, slices of canned beetroot (leaching fluoro-coloured juice into everything) and a dressing of English mustard-enhanced condensed milk and malt vinegar. This is what constituted a salad when I grew up. There was never any variation, that was a salad and that was that. Salads of any other sort were just not part of our culinary heritage and have suffered from all sorts of prejudice ever since. The most prevalent scoff at salad is that it is “rabbit food”, insubstantial and not food to be taken seriously.
Margaret Visser in her excellent book Much Depends on Dinner says, “Salads in our culture have always been considered women’s food. This taste preference is, of course, invisibly bolstered by the ancient categorisation of lettuce as ‘female’. French lettuces seem most often to be given girls’ names, such as Aurelie, Laura, Estelle, or Blonde de Paris. Light, green frilly lettuce goes with white wine, fish, chicken, souffles; red meat, potatoes, pies, red wine and heavy puddings have been thought typically male.”
How things have changed. Salads are now part of our culinary culture, possibly because of the influence of food writers and chefs, and the idea a salad is healthier than other food (note: all good food using natural ingredients is healthy). Salads are seen as “modern”. M. Visser in 1989 quoting a US survey: “Salad eaters were 41.5 per cent wine drinkers; ate in restaurants often, were single or came from households where the women had a job, were heavy spenders, saw themselves as adventuresome, and undertook lots of jogging and weightlifting”.By salads I mean any combination of not necessarily raw ingredients but with the unifying component of a dressing. There are two sorts of salad. The first (made from a contemporary range of greens which has gone off the graph when one considers the fact that 30 years ago the only salad green was iceberg) is a crunchy assembly of leafy greens dressed with a well-seasoned, tart mix of lemon or vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. It is eaten as a first course by Americans and after the main course by Europeans. This one could conceivably be described as “rabbit food” but the lightness is just what is wanted from such a palate-cleanser. The second sort of salad is more substantial, using all sorts of hot and raw ingredients from almost all food groups. This is usually a course in itself — or even a main course — and, though considered a lighter choice than meat and vegetables, is still a meal option. That is what I am concerned with here.
Pan-fry or barbecue your favourite cut of steak in a large piece, rest and slice thinly across the grain of the meat. Serve on wedges of iceberg lettuce with hot crushed boiled baby potatoes, capers, sliced canned artichoke hearts, sliced roasted red capsicum and a vinaigrette of extra virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar whipped with crumbled blue cheese. Sliced chives on top.
Barbecue or bake some skinned, boned salmon fillet brushed with vegetable oil until just cooked. Break the salmon into large bite-sized pieces and serve on lots of whole steamed green beans, sliced red onion, sliced red chilli and halved cherry tomatoes with a dressing of half rice vinegar and half fish sauce with a couple of tablespoons of water, a tablespoon of sesame oil and enough sugar to sweeten.
Sprinkle 3cm cubes of firm tofu with a little Japanese naturally brewed soy sauce, finely chopped ginger and garlic, a little sesame oil and Chinkiang black vinegar, mix gently and reserve. Blanch lots of mung bean sprouts for 10 seconds in boiling water, drain well and place on a serving platter with thin eggplant wedges that have been steamed until tender. Spoon the tofu mix over everything, sprinkle with coriander and serve warm. Good with noodles.
Gently boil a free-range chicken with a crushed 4cm piece of ginger, a peeled, halved onion, a carrot and a stick of celery until cooked, Drain (strain the stock and freeze for future use) and cool until able to be handled. Remove the skin and meat from the bones a (discard or freeze the bones for stock) and break into large bite-sized pieces. Make a slaw of finely sliced savoy cabbage, grated carrot, thinly sliced gherkins, garlic, mint, basil, coriander, sliced red chilli, dress with a generous mix of bought mayo, plain unsweetened yoghurt and a little hot sauce such as Huffmans or Kaitaia Fire. Fold the chicken into the slaw, sprinkle with chopped roasted unsalted peanuts and serve.
Cut the dark bits and fat off chicken livers. Dust each with flour, dip in beaten egg then pat well in breadcrumbs so they flatten slightly. Fry in extra virgin olive oil until golden brown on each side. Drain on paper towels and serve in a salad of baby cos leaves, watercress sprigs, toasted pine nuts, well-browned fried sliced button mushrooms and a dressing of plain unsweetened yoghurt well seasoned with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Gently boil some corned beef in plenty of water with a 4cm piece of crushed ginger, a generous dollop of golden syrup, a cinnamon stick, bay leaf, halved peeled onion, a carrot and a stick of celery. When tender, remove from the heat and cool in the liquid. Slice thinly and serve in a salad of warm boiled, drained, peeled, 4cm chunked agria potatoes, baby spinach leaves, warm sliced boiled green beans, finely chopped red onion and a dressing of bought mayo well flavoured with dijon mustard and chopped chives.
Fry fillets of John Dory or other firm white fish in extra virgin olive oil until browned and just cooked. Break up and serve on warmed drained canned cannellini beans, pitted kalamata olives, finely diced peel of preserved lemon, chopped parsley, sliced spring onions, rocket leaves and basil with lots of lemon wedges for squeezing and extra virgin olive oil for drizzling.
Put boneless chicken thighs into a mixing bowl with dried oregano, chopped garlic, extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and salt. Mix well then pan-fry or barbecue until cooked. Remove from the heat, slice and serve with sliced avocado, chopped tomatoes, baby cos leaves, sliced chilli, chopped red onion, oranges that have been peeled with a sharp knife and sliced, toasted walnut pieces and a dressing of sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
Sear extra virgin olive oil, garlic, black pepper and salt-rubbed kingfish fillet so it is medium rare. Slice and serve in a Nicoise salad of boiled green beans, chopped hard-boiled eggs, black olives, capers, anchovy fillets, tomato wedges and basil leaves with a white wine vinegar vinaigrette. Put lots of chopped raw tomatoes and fried zucchini slices in a bowl with salt, white wine vinegar, chopped garlic, a big pinch of chilli flakes, pitted olives, chopped rocket leaves, and plenty of extra virgin olive oil. Pour over hot, well-drained spaghetti to make “spaghetti in insalata”.