Sally Cameron October 2011
If you stick to the rules a salad is an assembly of cold or raw ingredients, often served, on the side, to cleanse the palate between meals or to aid digestion of the meal components being served. At its simplistic best salad or ‘sallets’ as described in Larousse Gastronomique, describes a dish of lettuce or tender young spring leaves tossed in oil to make them less bitter and more palatable. These days, we sauté, roast and dice protein-packed extras to make our salads more balanced, and complete meal solutions. A simple salad now blossoms into the bride and not just the bridesmaid. Good advice from Irma Rombauer in the Joy of cooking is that “ a well-made salad is never an afterthought but rather a carefully orchestrated part of the meal.”
In any number of different cuisines salads are similar but will be served at different times – the French always serve salads first, Italians serve salads after the pasta dish and in modern a la carte the salad is served after the main meal to ready the diner for the decadent dessert. Salads will also replace the vegetable sides of a main meal especially in our New Zealand spring and summer entertaining.
References for the humble salad can be found in historical food texts as far back as the Egyptian pharaohs. It was the best way of eating herbs, raw leaves and other tender vegetables to enrich the diet. Salads were basic apothecary, understanding that the human digestive system needs the vitamin rich cells from the leaves and the valuable fibre. Salads were often prescribed as natural tonics to cure common ailments, giving them an air of witchcraft rather than culinary flare.
In modern food fashions, salads are becoming the main meal. Innovative combinations of seafood, meats, cheeses, and nuts harmonise with the immature mesculun leaves and bittersweet dressings to replace the more traditional ‘meat-and-three-veg’ scenario. Almost anything can be added to a bowl of lettuce, and not necessarily just cold and raw but now warmed or fully cooked.
What is most important is that salads are seasonal combinations. It is the freshest vegetables, herbs, leaves and even certain types of proteins that are available from local resources that will create the best salads. Transitioning from winter to spring, and through to summer and the autumn harvest, the best of the garden should go into a salad. Often flavourings like for example, coriander and chilli or tomatoes and basil compliment each other because naturally their seasons collide together.
Adding starches or grains is another transformation. A platter made from pasta, rice, quinoa or bulger wheat is still a salad providing they are incorporated cold. The ‘carbohydrate’ portion of the salad should be balanced with the ‘green’ portion, to still provide the benefits of the salad, yet help the diner feel satisfied.
Special mention needs to be made about the importance of tossing the salad. What makes a salad sing is often the oil based dressing that is applied. It is key to coat every single piece of the ingredients with a well-seasoned dressing but just before serving and not before.
Good tips for making a salad
- Always choose fresh seasonal ingredients. Limp lettuce or vegetables will destroy the flavour of any salad. Vegetables that are imported or heavily chilled don’t have the same freshness, crunch and sweetness as freshly picked greens.
- Not too many different flavours on a plate. Keep the essential flavours simple and not too diverse from each other. Salads often avoid the richer or full-of-flavour ingredients. If they are to be included they are subtle rather than overpowering.
- Wash the ingredients well. No amount of salad dressing can hide the taste and feel of sand or grit.
- Dry the ingredients well to prevent soggy salad greens. Dressing can only cling to dry leaves, too much water on the greens or in the dressing can cause crisp greens to turn to mush, and will pickle rather than coat.
- Cut vegetables up as close to serving time as possible, and not before as they will dry out and go limp.
- Toss the salad ingredients with dressing just before serving. Resist the temptation to pour the liquid all over the salad and leave to rest. The fibrous nature of the ingredients means they suck up the oils and vinegars really well.
- If adding cooked ingredients such as meats, seafood and nuts always make sure they have cooled first. This is especially important for food safety, but also as hot foods can quickly destroy delicate raw leaves.
Dressing a salad
The dressing or vinaigrette is what makes a salad come together, sharing a small portion of similar flavour together. Where the textures of a salad can be varied and contrasting, a salad dressings goal is to be balanced, seasoned and flavoursome with out being overbearing.
Vinaigrette is an emulsified sauce made from an oil and vinegar mixture. They impart a tart flavour to the bittersweet vegetables. The standard proportions of vinaigrette are 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar and it is almost always uncooked.
A mayonnaise is also a 3:1 combination but by whipping in egg protein, a light and creamy dressing is created. It is important to note that the eggs and the water-based components of the mayonnaise should be in total about one third of the volume of the oil.
The acid base of any emulsification aids in bringing out the zest in foods and this doesn’t just have to come from vinegar. Lemon, lime or other fruit juices can also give the same zing. The oil holds the water-based acid in droplets. When stirred, shaken or whisked the droplets become finer long enough to be applied to the salad. What is important about using an emulsion based sauce like vinaigrette or mayonnaise is that it provides a very thin and delicate coating on the lettuce leaves or vegetables.
To make a vinaigrette it is important to be able to mix well immediately before applying to the salad. Some techniques include making the vinaigrette in the salad bowl that the greens are to be tossed in. It pays to coat the outside of the bowl with the oil for this and flip the salad leaves with fingers or delicately with salad tossers bringing the dressing in from the outside. Mixing the ingredients in a small jar with a lid is also ideal because the mixture can be shaken vigorously to get plenty of emulsion going on.
Mayonnaises although given a robust whipping to create the texture of the sauce, are very fragile and need to be treated with care. Too much vinegar and the proteins will split away from the oil and create an unpalatable mess. Too much oil and the texture takes on a very plastic filmy taste and consistency.
Beyond the oil vinegar combo flavourings can be added to give extra punch. Different grades of sugar, nut oils, flavoured mustards, herbs, seasonings, spices, meat jus or even fruit juices can be added to change out any sauce.
So too with mayonnaise which can be transformed into aioli simply by adding roasted garlic, or spiced up with roasted capsicums and chilli peppers. Herb dressings can be made with an oil vinegar base or a less calorific option of unsweetened yogurt.
Are salad spinners useful?
Yes and no – They can work well to remove excess water. But avoid overcrowding or the leaves will be bruised. Alternatively, salad leaves can easily left to drain in a colander or sieve and then patted dry between absorbent kitchen paper, just be careful not to crush the leaves.
How do I keep lettuce fresh?
Avoid washing or getting wet before placing in a plastic bag and keeping in cool but not icy part of fridge. Remember lettuce leaves especially contain a high percentage of water than can freeze easily.
What portion of salad does the average person eat?
There are no limits to the amount of healthy salad leaves someone may eat, but when preparing salads for guests the rule of thumb, is generally about 2 cup full’s per person is enough. The amount of protein to be added is dependent on if the salad is a main meal or a side, but usually no more than 100g per person is needed.
What does emulsion mean?
An emulsion is a term used to describe a mixture of two liquids that don’t dissolve into each other. Oil and water is the most perfect example of an emulsion because no matter the amount of mixing the water particles will not mix freely. For the ingredients to combine vigorous beating whisking or shaking is needed and even then if left to ret they will more than likely split again. Proteins such as egg yolks can assist the moisture molecules to adhere to the oil particles and give the perception that they are combined as in a mayonnaise.
How much dressing is needed?
In a good salad each leaf should glisten with dressing, but should not appear soggy. Too much dressing left at the bottom of the bowl means to much dressing added or not tossed well enough. Always start with a little and add more if needed. Plus, respect your diners. Some tastebuds don’t like the tart taste that vinaigrette imparts and would rather chew through vegetables in their complete naked and raw state.
What is pomegranate molasses?
The pomegranate fruit is made up of a shell encasing hundreds of small sacs of juice. Each sac holds a seed as well which often means pomegranates are processed into juices rather than eaten fresh. The juice can then be cooked down to make a syrup or “molasses” which has a concentrated flavour of the fruit. Pomegranate molasses is great in salad dressings and readily available at good supermarkets, delicatessens and speciality food stores.
What’s the difference between aioli and mayonnaise?
Aioli is a rich, garlic mayonnaise, which can have other ingredients, added, making it a useful accompaniment to serve with meats, fish and vegetables – or as a dip. Commonly the garlic needs to be roasted and pureed before adding. Like mayonnaise the secret of success when making aioli is to add the oil very slowly. Add too much too quickly and it will separate.
Check out our salad recipes here on foodlovers