salad ˈsaləd/ noun
a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing and sometimes accompanied by meat, fish, or other ingredients. “a green salad”
a mixture containing a specified ingredient served with a dressing. “a red pepper filled with tuna salad”
a vegetable suitable for eating raw. “sow salads like lettuce, radish, and spring onion”
When I was young salads served in Britain were the stuff of legend. That is, they were notoriously awful, and they were typically served every Sunday afternoon. At home my mother would wheel out a trolley containing a plate of bread and butter, another with ham of the synthetic processed variety from a can, an equally processed plate of cheese and hard-boiled eggs. If we were at my grandmother’s house there would also be canned salmon, which was also placed on my plate and put me off canned fish for decades – long before the trend to canned tuna mayonnaise. These centrepieces never changed, and were probably the same thing back generations.
But the centrepiece was the salad, a bowl containing chopped round lettuce, the cheapest and nastiest kind, sliced cucumber and sliced tomatoes, the kind with flavour surgically removed and straight from the fridge so they numbed your mouth. Celery was served as sticks in a separate glass, eaten with salt only. As a special treat we occasionally had spring onions, served whole. Beetroot was of the pickled variety, served from the jar, and a common accompaniment was home-pickled onions. On occasion there might be a potato baked on the open coal fire, if we were very lucky.
Fruits were purely for dessert, so no-one would every remotely consider possible the inclusion of fruits in salads – but if they had, it would have been canned fruit, which had a tendency to turn up uninvited on many a 70s dinner plate.
And that was it – no dressing, no nothing. My parents hated oily dressings with a passion and therefore preferred just a dose of vinegar – the same malt vinegar you would put on your chips. If you were lucky there was a bottle of Heinz salad cream (vile stuff if you’ve never had it, though it attracted a cult following), though salads were often eaten dry. In hindsight, I shudder at the thought.
However in later years we saw the arrival of that American import coleslaw into British supermarkets, and indeed even potato salad to alleviate the boredom – though in truth both were pretty vile with the benefit of hindsight, including as they did a thin and insipid manufactured mayonnaise.
Why did people not think to make these for themselves? Maybe some did, but the only time I recall coleslaw being made from scratch in the 70s was when I worked on the deli counter at Safeway on a Saturday. The tub of coleslaw ran out, so the deli manager had me go on a tour of the store to buy white cabbage, carrots, onions and big jars of Hellman’s mayo, then use an industrial chopper to slice and dice before mixing together and selling to Joe Public. Not very sophisticated but it worked, and I’m damn sure the finished results were a distinct improvement on that manufactured in an anonymous factory by the million.
Given that any combination of fresh veg and fruit, pulses and grains can combine to make wonderful salads, cold and even warm, I realise we were hindered by tradition, conservative outlooks on food in the older generations, and the fact that nobody travelled or dined out to see the glorious salads that could be created with a little imagination. When you look at the recipe books of the era, it was quite clear they didn’t help either – vegetables frozen in aspic being one that sticks in my mind (see pics above.) All pictures of 70s cooking look so awful (see my blog on the subject here.)
The next wave of salad mania hit us in the late 70s and early 80s, another American invention. Yes, the help-yourself salad bar was the novelty of the era, though it had been popular in the States since the 50s – and cold buffets were also a common feature at weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and celebrations since forever. The novelty was allowing people to order their pizza or whatever, then go help themselves from the bar from a range of ingredients, pile the bowl high and add whichever dressing took their fancy. They could go once but for an extra price you could go unlimited, much like those all-you-can-eat restaurants that entice the greedy.
The downsides to this approach to DIY salads are many and varied. Worst of all is the risk people will be breathing germs over your shredded iceberg or whatever, which led to changes in etiquette at some restaurants to prevent people falling ill. Even disregarding that, never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width is not conducive to the palate”: piling up coleslaw, Waldorf salad, potato salad and several more ready-mixed ensembles, then tipping half a bottle of blue cheese dressing over the top does not fine dining make.
Worse still, the ingredients were measured in industrial quantities and chilled within an inch of their lives. None were varieties to tantalise the tastebuds. The aforementioned iceberg hit the right notes for texture, being a crispy variety that kept its shape, but you might just as well be eating a real iceberg for all the lettuce flavour it delivers. The funny thing is that gardeners had been growing the superior cos or romaine lettuce for generations, but the American chains told us iceberg is the way to go, so we meekly followed.
Tomatoes were the bouncing varieties, easy to grow, pick, wash, process and distribute but tasting of precisely nothing. On the continent shoppers chose their tomatoes from market stalls after a good poke around to find the best flavour and texture, but we Brits were generations behind and allowed ourselves to be dictated to by the industry. Latterly the oxymoron has been for supermarkets to sell “vine tomatoes” (all tomatoes are grown on vines), but particularly to package up varieties that provide a superior flavour, at a higher cost, naturally.
And so it went on. This was a phenomenon appealing greatly to the food retailers but never to foodies. Sad to say, my parents thought it was brilliant – which in light of the 70s experience you may not find surprising, though my mother always affected the outlook of a foodie. It took some while to find what a perfect food salads could be, but like many other foodstuffs we now find commonplace and commoditised it was led by the travel revolution and TV chefs travelling and cooking to give we Brits the best of both worlds.
For me Keith Floyd led the way, though scarcely an hour goes by without some chef travelling to one corner of the earth to unearth some exotic ingredient, cooking method used since the beginning of time, or recipe that will get pride of place on his (they are mostly male) restaurant menu.
Chefs were given columns in newspapers and gradually we got beyond the culture of salad meaning those plastic pots in supermarkets. Here was a new world of thrilling flavours, the first to capture our imaginations being the classic Greek salad, as more Brits went out to Aegean shores to worship the sun. The inclusion of olives and feta cheese was a breath of fresh air, since both would previously have been regarded with great suspicion – and I suspect olives are still an acquired taste for many.
Restaurants began to serve what the French call salades composées – that is, a combination of ingredients composed into a salad by a chef, dressed on a just-in-time basis and delivered without a moment’s delay to the diner. Even classic caesar salad, actually an American invention in the 20s, became trendy everywhere. From Wikipedia:
The salad’s creation is generally attributed to restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italianimmigrant who operated restaurants in Mexico and the United States. Cardini was living in San Diego but also working in Tijuanawhere he avoided the restrictions of Prohibition. His daughter Rosa (1928–2003) recounted that her father invented the dish when a Fourth of July 1924 rush depleted the kitchen’s supplies. Cardini made do with what he had, adding the dramatic flair of the table-side tossing “by the chef.” A number of Cardini’s staff have said that they invented the dish. Julia Child said that she had eaten a Caesar salad at Cardini’s restaurant when she was a child in the 1920s. The first documentation of Caesar salad dates to 1946, when the newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen wrote:
“The big food rage in Hollywood—the Caesar salad—will be introduced to New Yorkers by Gilmore’s Steak House. It’s an intricate concoction that takes ages to prepare and contains (zowie!) lots of garlic, raw or slightly coddled eggs, croutons, romaine, anchovies, parmeasan [sic] cheese, olive oil, vinegar and plenty of black pepper.”
Dressings became more adventurous as we started to understand how amazing real mayonnaise could be. Then we began buying extra virgin olive oil, having realised its health virtues as well as its superb qualities in salads and in cooking; we even became olive oil snobs and bought beautiful single estate oils for their magnificent peppery flavours. Indeed, my sister received as a present a share in an olive oil farm that allows her to receive a regular can every year. Brits took to balsamic vinegar like ducks to water, possibly because the gloriously sweet flavour coincided with the traditionally sweet British tooth, but also realised we were limited only by our imagination in how we dressed salads.
While the likes of Greek and Caesar salads filtered through into commoditised versions on the supermarket shelf, it still took some years before the explosion of health-conscious quality salads were mass-produced and became commonplace, using ingredients that until very recently were unheard of in British culinary circles, or at least in the home. We began to see various dressed bean salads, pasta salads, couscous salads – the whole section looked more enticing than ever it did before.
Given that I can’t get out much with my leg in a cast, I’ve been taking advantage of some of these via supermarket deliveries in recent weeks. They are undeniably a massive step up from what supermarkets used to sell, in quality, freshness and variety, albeit with a tendency towards “superfoods” that exercise the middle class conscience these days. For example:
- Freekeh, Giant Chick Pea & Kale
- Beetroot, Feta & Walnut Salad
- Wheatberry, Kale & Feta Salad
- Bulgar Wheat Giant Chickpea & Feta Salad
- Swedish Beetroot Salad
- Also one that included quinoa (keen-wah to the uninitiated) and was studded with pomegranate bombs.
Anyone spotting a trend here? I suspect supermarkets will continue to innovate, though chefs will probably stay 2-3 steps beyond them. The modern master of the salad is unquestionably Yottam Ottolenghi, fuelled by his middle-eastern influences (he was Israeli born) but a constant innovator. I’ve included a section of Ottolenghi’s Wikipedia biography below, demonstrating the accumulation of styles and a philosophy promoting the use of vegetables and native flavours from around the Middle East. He successfully popularised za’atar and sumac, both of which are now commonly available at your local supermarket, but best of all he proved that you don’t need lettuce or leaves to make a salad.
To give an idea of his salads, follow this link to his Guardian column. The thing about Ottolenghi salads is that they always look bright, colourful and incredibly appetising, are mostly comprised of ingredients widely available but which for the most part people had never considered putting together in salad form, and techniques not previously common in the melting pot of British cuisine. For example, this recipe called for burnt courgette, much as other recipes these days use char-grilled lettuce.
Burnt courgette with anchovies and pine nuts
5 courgettes (about 1.2kg in total)
2 anchovy fillets in oil, rinsed, patted dry and finely chopped
2½ tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
3 baby courgettes, sliced as thinly as possible on an angle (ideally about 1mm thick, so use a mandoline if you have one)
15g basil leaves, finely shredded
20g pine nuts, lightly crushed
10g parmesan, grated or finely crumbled by hand
Turn the grill to its highest setting. Put the big courgettes on a baking tray lined with foil, then cook them about 10cm below the grill for up to an hour, turning them halfway, until the skins are very crisp and brown. Set aside and, when cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the skin (or cut the courgettes in half and scoop out the flesh). Put the flesh in a colander for half an hour, to drain.
Put the drained courgette flesh in a medium bowl and mix in the anchovies, two tablespoons of oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, the garlic, sliced baby courgettes and two-thirds of the basil.
Heat the remaining half-tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan on a medium flame, then toast the pine nuts for two to three minutes, until golden-brown. Tip the nuts and their oil into the courgette mix, stir to combine, then transfer to a shallow serving bowl. Sprinkle with the parmesan and the remaining basil, and serve.
My favourite ever salad? I have fond memories of one eaten as a starter at Clarke’s restaurant many years ago, in the days when Sally Clarke offered a delectable no-choice dinner. I know it included half a tangerine but I can’t remember what else. What I can remember is that the flavours contained within this salad were a total revelation; they excited my tastebuds like no salad before. I dare say we’ve all had that moment.
Ottolenghi’s cooking style is rooted in his Middle Eastern upbringing: “a distinctive mix of Middle Eastern flavours – Syrian, Turkish, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli and Armenian – with a western twist”. His “particular skill” is in marrying the food of his native Israel with a wider range of textures and flavours from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia. His palate of flavours is unapologetically bold and loud: “noisy”. Signature dishes include butternut squash salad with red onion, tahini and za’atar, roasted aubergine with turmeric yogurt and pomegranate seeds, chargrilled broccoli with chilli and fried garlic and meringues.
Ottolenghi is known for emphasizing the use of vegetables at the same time as eating and loving meat. He defends the right to have an approach to cooking and eating that does not fit in with conventional distinctions and barriers: “You can be vegetarian and eat fish […] there are no hard core divisions any more”. This remark led to controversy within the vegetarian community encouraging Ottolenghi to later recant via Twitter: “To all, fish eaters are NOT vegetarians”. Author of “The New Vegetarian” column in The Guardian magazine from 1996 to 2010, his weekly recipe contributions were, at first, exclusively vegetarian although, again, he courted controversy by mentioning where a particular dish would work well with a cut of meat or fish. Maintaining his position against the traditional distinctions and barriers between meat and vegetables – “I’m not burdened by rules, I don’t think in terms of ideology” – his relationship with vegetables is to “celebrate vegetables or pulses without making them taste like meat, or as complements to meat, but to be what they are. It does no favour to vegetarians, making vegetables second best. Meat should be a celebration, not everyday. There is so much else out there”. The recipes in his column in The Guardian have been expanded to include meat since 2010. Plenty and Plenty More, Ottolenghi’s sole-authored recipe collections, are entirely vegetarian. His two books co-authored with Sami Tamimi, Ottolenghi and Jerusalem, include meat and fish dishes.