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Salad, Salad Dressing, Vinaigrette, a Superstar Salad Chef, & the Mystery of Salade Niçoise

Cleopatra: My salad days, When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, To say as I said then!
Antony and Cleopatra, I, 5


salad and salad dressing recipes
by Diana viola with Elinoar Moore & Junior Trimmer

"Politeness is at the bottom of the salad bowl"

Old French Saying Why? See below

Summer, winter, spring or fall, salad is always on our menus. On a hot summer's day, salad spares the kitchen from excess heat and becomes a meal of its own, providing a light, but nutritious meal.

Whether we talk of hearty bean salads, of delicate concoctions of rice, of vegetables with marinated, grilled meats and fish incorporated, no discussion of salad can begin without the rightful ruler of the salad plate - lettuce. One way or another, the salad leaf has always been part of the human diet.

Neolithic humans, living as hunter-gatherers, would not have known a bowl of greens, but would have gathered edible wild leaves.

The ancient Sumerians had lettuce, cress and mustard, and the Egyptians put seeds in tombs as a gift to accompany the departed on that journey into the unknown. An Assyrian herbal listed lettuce as part of the garden of a Babylonian king. In Greece, Herodotus wrote that the kings of Persia had lettuce. In ancient Rome Apicius offered a recipe for a puree of cooked lettuce and onion, but the Romans generally ate lettuce as we do. The term salad comes from the Vulgar Roman herba salata, which translates as 'salted herb,' an indication of the way ancient Romans prepared salad greens .Through recorded history, lettuce and salad have always ranked high in nutritional esteem. Galen called it "the food of the wise," while both Galen and Hippocrates believed that salad passed through the system easily and had cleansing effect. In the time of Louis XIV, Brillat-Savarin wrote, "I commend salad to all those that have faith in me; it refreshes without weakening, and soothes without irritating I often call it the rejuvenator."

Food historians cannot trace the journey of salad across Europe, but we know that the English, whose climate was well suited to cool-loving greens, embraced lettuce by the 15th century. The French adopted salads in imitation of their king, Louis XIV, who was very fond of salad, especially when dressed with tarragon, basil or violets. The French writer, Rabelais, lists many salads, among them cress, asparagus, chervil. Over time, the list grew to include chicory, sorrel, dandelion, purslane, mallow, bugloss. Perhaps too many greens were tossed on the salad plate, for by the 18th century, the French disparaged salad, and used the word salade for anything that was messy.

Salad: Evolution and Revolution

Columbus reputedly introduced lettuce to the Americas, though only the wealthy landowners, such as Thomas Jefferson, a zealous agriculturist, were able to indulge in salad. Salads have lived through fads and the natural evolution of changing times. A century ago, there was only icebox lettuce, that stalwart friend who survived both early means of transport and crude refrigeration yet arrived intact. As refrigeration sophisticated, as transportation came to include the airplane flying round the globe, horizons widened, and heads of lettuce became jet set travelers, collecting more air miles than the busiest of businessman.

No evolving means of preservation has been as powerful as the revolution started by Alice Waters. She told us to go back to the beginning and be 'gatherers' of a more sophisticated sort. She insisted we eat food as freshly picked from the garden as possible, then introduced us to the glory of baby lettuce leaves. Food concepts are continually changing, and lettuce once meant iceberg, then changed to include iceberg's buttery, or red-leafed friends. Enterprising Italian-American growers watched, and gambled that Americans might like a lettuce known in Italy as radicchio and soon that became a delicious fad. Today we are entranced by mesclun a salad of small baby greens whose name comes from Provençe and means 'mixed.' Mâche, a hardy plant also called lamb's lettuce, is another current favorite. We now buy packaged, pre-washed baby lettuce for the most buttery of salads.

In the hands of great chefs, today's salads are imaginative combinations of vegetables with slices of grilled meat or fish artfully strewn on top. Reliable bean salads make nourishing vegetarian meals that even meat lovers enjoy, while rice salads make a nourishing side accompaniment to a meal. Using brown rice, those salads often stand in for meat.

How to make the Perfect Salad

As with all things culinary, we begin the art of making a salad by insisting on the best, freshest ingredients. For salad greens, we start in the garden. Plant a garden where you may pick a dewy fresh leaf. Lacking a garden, shop at a farmer's market that offers freshly picked produce. If that is difficult, become as demonic as a great chef and spend time in the supermarket selecting the best produce. Clean the leaves tenderly so as not to bruise them, then dry them very well so no moisture on the leaves dilutes the dressing.

Olive oil for salads

There are delicate and highly perishable oils, such as hazelnut, walnut, almond, that may enhance particular salads, but the undisputed king of salad dressing, is olive oil. When you buy olive oil for salads, be luxurious and buy the best oil you can afford. The oil on a delicate leaf cannot be masked, and this is the place to stretch the budget to purchase cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. A robust fruity oil offers taste, and you need only a small amount to enhance a salad. There are many flavored oils available for salad as well. It is wise to purchase commercially made oils if you want a flavored oil, rather than do this yourself. Oil is dense and has low acidity, the perfect breeding ground for botulism. Manufacturers add acid to the oils they produce to kill any devilish bacteria introduced by the leaves of herbs.

Vinegar for salads

Though we attempt to give exact measures for vinegar in salad dressing recipes, the best guide is taste. This vital element of salad dressing is often not understood. Vinegars range in their acidity from 4 to 7.5 percent. The best vinegars fall into the middle range, but if you find your salad too acid or not bright enough, check the side of the vinegar bottle and adjust accordingly. There are many flavored vinegars on the market to enhance a salad.

Politeness at the bottom of the bowl

Danger awaits a freshly picked, carefully washed, delicately dried leaf of lettuce, and that danger is salad dressing. No unsuspecting leaf is strong enough to resist the overwhelming force of dressing. Like the ladies of Victorian times, the leaf will swoon and wilt when assaulted by dressing. An old French custom (and the source of the saying) may be, not only the polite way, but also the perfect way to dress salad so that leaves avoid both swooning and wilting. Mix the dressing in the bottom of the bowl, then take your serving utensils and cross them over the dressing, as if to protect it. At the last minute, add the leaves and toss the salad. If a leaf now falls to swooning, it is from the aphrodisiac quality of the dressing. It is polite to serve oneself first, since those leaves are the least dressed, while the ones at the bottom pick up more dressing. Be a generous host, and save them for your guests.

The First Superstar Chef - A Salad Maker?

Brillat-Savarin tells of one d'Albignac, a Frenchman who had made his reputation in England because of his skill in mixing salad. D'Albignac had a following of worshipful Englishmen who believed the French more skilled in the kitchen. Like many superstar chefs today, he had an eye for public relations, and soon he owned a luxurious carriage, and had at least one servant, if not an entourage, responsible for carrying his suitcase of secret ingredients. The case held different vinegars, various oils, soy, caviare, truffles, anchovies, ketchup, meat extracts, and egg yolks. As his reputation grew, he added an eye for marketing to that of public relations. He marketed his name and had the case reproduced. He sold the cases by the hundreds. D'Albignac returned to his native country a star.

The presence of eggs yolk probably signified mayonnaise. Writing between 1820 and 1911, the early Italian cookbook writer, Pellegrino Artusi, said of mayonnaise salads: "Some cooks who suffer from poor taste will present this salad with such a mix of ingredients that the next day you have to turn to Hungarian water or castor oil for relief." Perhaps we need our superstar chefs, after all.

The Mystery of Niçoise Salad

If one salad dominates a world of salads, it is the Niçoise. The term Niçoise refers to any of the dishes created by the good women of Nice. This salad has many variations in terms of its ingredients and remains a dish that is argued over. Two of the warring parties are the food historian, Waverly Root, and the great and justifiably dictatorial Julia Child.

Julia tells us to arrange lettuce leaves around the outside of the bowl, but Waverly asserts that there is no lettuce in this salad.

Julia calls for green beans and potatoes in her list of ingredients, while Waverly tell us that a purist would be horrified by the addition of green beans and potatoes.

Julia, writing at a time when French food was being introduced never mentions pissala, but Waverly says the salad is laced with it. Pissala is merely the result of pounding anchovies in a mortar, but is the addition to a vinaigrette that makes it sublime. Julia ignores pissala, but lays strips of anchovy across the top. Waverly concedes that whole filets are acceptable, but only in addition to pissala.

Both finally agree that the tomatoes for this salad must be quartered. Considering the strength of this agreement, we beg you to never slice your tomatoes.

What is a good Niçoise then? We are on the side of the good Madame Child and put potato and green beans in our Niçoise, but have had the pleasure of making pissala and have been born again. While we may continue to lay strips of anchovy across the salad, we can never abandon the mortar and pestle. Pissala is ours forever. For the best Niçoise, we also like Child's dictum that each element should be tossed in seasoning separately.

also check our page - what to do with leftover Easter eggs - lots of nice egg recipes

Recipes for vegetable salads:

Recipes for meat salads, fish salads, bean salads & grain salads


Recipes for Salad Dressing and Vinaigrette





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