The famous gardener and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) observed that he could ‘by no means approve of the extravagant fancy of some, who tell us that a Fool is as fit to be the gatherer of Sallets as a wise man’. In putting together a salad he decides that ‘every Plant must bear its part and they must fall into their places like the Notes in Music, and there must be nothing harsh or grating.’
The word salad describes so many variations on a theme. And yet in most homes and restaurants the great British salad is a surprisingly uninteresting while ubiquitous performer. Amazingly, we still remain faithful to the lettuce, tomato, cucumber, pepper combination with some over-vinegary mustard dressing sloshing around. Albeit we’ve moved beyond iceberg to radiccio.
And how often it appears to make up plate space, bring something to life or act as pointless garnish for an otherwise dreary dish. The point the astute Evelyn makes is that the salad should be poised and well-appointed. Something to prepare the palate if it is the prelude, the enhancing accompaniment to something bigger, or the liberating finale. Whatever, less is certainly more. Every element should be present for a reason and not just flung in. Nowhere does the combination of flavours, textures and piquancy matter more. Too often our salads are reluctant interlopers, or just the old served cold.
But you can really let your imagination loose on salads. You can compose anything you want, from recreating a standard hot dish as a salad to combining the bizarre and the sublime in hitherto unknown combinations. Follow your own counsel here.
There are a few guidelines, common for a hotchpotch of ingredients in any dish, which will help you make a great salad. The central advice is not to fall into the trap of bringing too many individuals who don’t know each other to the party. You’ll start to find cliques and resentment brewing between rival ingredients. The salad risks being over-run and disaster ensues. If this does happen, throw it all in a pot and make soup.
The leafy bits of your salad, whatever they are, must be lively and fresh. You can always tell if a is salad thoughtlessly thrown together from one of those supermarket mix bags with a bottled dressing chucked over. So here’s a plea for imaginative and harmonious salads with elegant dressings. Choose your own leaves, find a balance of textures and flavours. Make sure they are washed and dried.
It’s worth preparing it carefully. This wants to be a vivifying dish. Raw vegetables are hard enough to digest and tomato cores, celery strings and cucumber skins are easily removed. Like most of the other unpalatable bits.
Don’t forget too that any eligible salad item can be served on its own. Sometimes a judicious bowl of sliced cucumber or fennel, lightly dressed, is the best antithesis to a stronger main course.
Most importantly, go in search of new ideas. And follow your desires.