Salad Days are with us again….here are some ideas to breathe new life into tired old standard salads
I can’t ever consider making a salad without remembering my father’s withering comment each Sunday through June, July and August to my harassed mother “rabbit food”. That he said this was made ever more amusing since he spent much his free time in those summer months cultivating the very food he so disparaged. And in my memories his lettuce and radishes and beans taste as sweet and fresh as when he brought them into the kitchen each Sunday after lunch was done and dusted.
Nevertheless salads remain, like cold soups, a minefield to be negotiated with care by a sensitive cook. Most people have strong likes and dislikes…
To begin there’s salad dressing. My parents belonged to the generation who were deeply suspicious of oil and vinegar…the latter was used on chips from the local fish and chip shop but otherwise had no obvious place in cooking. The former, olive oil had to be purchased in a chemist. Its residence hardly spoke to its owning any culinary application. Today at the other extreme of experience salad dressings in their endless varieties can be pulled from any supermarket shelf. These gloopy manufactures that promise us the sun of Italy or the strength of Caesar or the sophistication of France but in reality they’ve done for dressings what Ryan Air has done for travel. The both deliver an experience we recall with grimaces through clenched teeth.
I firmly believe there’s nothing as delicious as the piquancy of extra virgin olive oil, powdered mustard, salt pepper a pinch of sugar and a slug of white wine vinegar. I always use an old jam jar – you’ll need to keep the lid – lid to emulsify the dressing. It also keeps in that jar for a week or more in the fridge. It can be livened-up with fresh herbs or garlic or even a little home-made mayonnaise. Add some blue cheese and croutons and you’ve that classic American blue cheese dressing. Use stilton and you’ve a dressing fir for lunch with crusty bread. Use it with mayonnaise and tomato paste and you’ve the equally classic Marie-Rose dressing beloved of prawns and lovers of prawn cocktail.
The basic rule forever remains: the better oil and the wine vinegar the better the dressing. The ratio usually about two to one, oil to vinegar….but why not taste it and see what you think. You add the dry mustard and sugar and salt as you prefer…this is an art not a culinary science. Different salad vegetables in their own season require a different balance of ingredients. A squeeze of lime or lemon can be great with chilli-hot food Watch for the sea salt it’s much stronger than table salt and has a habit of overwhelming decent dressing.
Once you make your own every cookbook assures that you will never return to shop bought. The evidence from the supermarket shelves contradicts this culinary optimism. But fresh Mayonnaise is such a wonderful thing it’s worth learning to make it and it is also the basis of many other cold sauces. It’s eminently worth some small effort.
I always make it in a Magi-mix – one whole egg at room temperature, one egg yolk, salt, white pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Vinegar is essential….three table spoons. Don’t be tempted with lemon juice it’s too strong and although lemon mayonnaise has its place on prawns I think a squeeze of fresh lemon juice over them is the better option. Finally I use one third extra virgin olive oil to two thirds grape-seed. Any light vegetable oil will do….these tend to give you a white mayonnaise. If you search for the golden colour all olive oil but uses a quarter extra virgin and some thinner second pressing olive oil which will be golden in colour as opposed to green.
Put all the eggs in the Magi-mix together with seasoning – Turn on the machine on leave it spin for twenty seconds BEFORE you start to add the oil. Use the mayonnaise dripper or pour in by hand SLOWLY…allowing all the oil to be absorbed before adding more….It will make a very, very thick sauce. This you can thin this with two tablespoons of hot water BEFORE you add the vinegar. If it is still too thick add more wine vinegar little by little until you achieve the consistency you are looking for…the hot water seems to give the mayonnaise a lighter creamier texture. Add vinegar to taste….the more you add the thinner the mayonnaise will become. Too much and you’ll get something that tastes more akin to Salad Cream…which some people love serve with chips!
You can use this method with a hand help electric mixer….and the balloon whisk will work too…. but in both these cases you must discard the white entirely and you just need to ensure you’ve whisked air into the yolks to lighten them before you start to add the oil the add the oil.
If it curdles…. a tea spoon of hot water may bring it back together….if not one egg yolk whisked as before and then slowly add the curdled mixture to that and everything should be fine.
If you add chopped gherkins and capers to this mixture you create the heaven of Sauce Tartare (Tartar Sauce)….all you need is the fish and chips. You need three gherkins and a tablespoon of capers. The best capers are those preserved in salt and washed before chopping. You can make this in one go in the same Magi-mix….adding the gherkins and capers at the end…using PULSE speed.
You can add mayonnaise to anything from egg through avocado to ham and chorizo to make a filling for a salad or a series of dishes for a cold buffet. A little over a quails’ egg in a baby vol-au-vent with a small amount of lumpfish caviare (or even better the real thing) and you’ve got a very classy little canapé starter to sit on some Endive (chicory) with radishes. Or use the larger vol-au-vents and a semi-soft boiled duck egg with home-made mayonnaise and some lumpfish caviare….that gives you a decent first course for a summer lunch or dinner party.
For Marie Rose sauce with home-made mayonnaise you can use Heinz Ketchup….it is fine and it’s dead quick. I think it’s less successful with bought mayonnaise when I definitely think the tomato paste and lemon juice route works much better.
Tomato and Onion Salad
One of the best salads of all time…great with chilli-con-carne, pasta, cold meats and pork pies or a big serving by itself with decent crusty bread and some cheddar cheese….heaven on earth…
Tomatoes are always a problem in England. There either under-ripe and flavourless or too soft….In Spain or Italy you can make this salad as quickly and robustly as you like and it will taste wonderful…but here in England we need to take a bit more care.
Let’s start with the cheaper version made with ‘basic’ or the standard supermarket tomatoes. Buy these they can be fine to use in salad but two things. First leave them out of the fridge to ripen. Depending on the weather in a couple of days they will have ripened further and will taste of tomato! Second de-seed the tomatoes…it’s a mini faff but it’s worth the effort. You’ll need five tomatoes for a decent salad. Once deseeded, chop the tomatoes into chunky bits. Peel and chop a large onion…hot English onions are great too…use two or three of them depending on size. Add a good pinch of salt and half a tea spoon of sugar and toss everything gently. Add a dessertspoon of decent olive oil and some fresh ground black pepper. Leave this, rather like fresh strawberries, for at least an hour and the sugar and salt will draw out the tomatoes’ yummy juices.
That’s it….to make a fancier salad use better quality tomatoes… please, please keep at least half of your tomatoes at room temperature… otherwise you forget how a tomato tastes. For a fancy salad remove the tomatoes skins as well as deseeding the tomatoes. This is easily achieved by placing them in boiling water. It takes a few minutes… wait another minute once removed from water and the skins will rub off in your fingers. By the way tomatoes that have been skinned and deseeded and coarsely chopped together with a dash of Tabasco really liven up scrambled eggs.
In the tomato and onion salad use spring onions (scallions) instead of white onions…some people like red onions about which I’m personally neutral…and use a tablespoon of red wine vinegar with the other ingredients and you’ve a salad worthy of a dinner party. Put a soft boiled duck egg covered with freshly grated parmesan cheese into a nest of the tomato and onion salad garnished with a blob or mayonnaise and sprinkled with fresh parsley or crumbled grilled streaky bacon… and you’ve a very elegant starter for a summer dinner.
I love cucumber but lots of people don’t. This preparation makes them more fragrant and more easily digestible. For this salad you’ll need 2 medium cucumbers; 1 1/4 teaspoons of table salt; 1 ½ teaspoons on freshly chopped green chillies…about 2 chillies; 1 large clove of garlic; the stained juice of two limes. Pinch of sugar and chopped parsley or coriander to garnish.
Peel and cut the cucumbers in half…lengthways. Using a teaspoon tip down deseed the cucumber by running the spoon down the centre of the cucumber.
Chop the remaining cucumber into slices no more than ¼ inch (1/2 cm) thick. Place in a bowl add the salt and turn over the cucumbers until well mixed. Set aside for an hour or longer. The salt will draw out excess water. This will leave enhance the delicate flavour of cucumber in the salad. After an hour drain off the excess liquid and pour out the cucumber slices on the kitchen paper and pat dry.
Place the cucumber in a serving bowl and the garlic, lime juice and chillies and toss. Leave to marinade for another hour. Finally just before serving use a table spoon – no more- of French dressing and a handful of coriander or parsley, toss again and serve with slices of French bread. This salad is great with any chilli con carne or curry. It makes a wonderful salad to serve with prawns or crab or crayfish tails. It also works as the accompaniment for scampi…together with the Sauce Tartare…you’ve another elegant first course.
Chicory and Radish Salad served with walnuts and apples and celery in mayonnaise (Waldorf salad)
The slightly bitter leaf of the chicory(endive) makes them something of an acquired taste. But chicory’s firm leaves look wonderful on a plate, and just served and with a little salt and a glass of dry sherry they really are delicious. The humble radish is another neglected salad vegetable. I love to eat them fresh pulled from the bunch. The crisp crunchy slightly hot taste is lovely. You can serve them too with a little sat and a glass of dry (sercial) Madeira as an appetiser before lunch. Both are also delightfully enhanced by a little extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of cider vinegar for a simple side salad with a rich lasagne.They really don’t need the full Monty of French dressing you might give to say a mixed or green salad.
But chopped chicory and finely sliced radishes tossed in olive oil, salt, and black pepper with a tablespoon of olive oil provides a perfect complement to the richness of the Waldorf salad.
For the Waldorf salad use a decent green desert apple like a Granny Smith. Make sure the walnuts are blanched – covering them in boiling water and leaving for at least a couple of minutes. Then rinse the walnuts under cold water and dry with kitchen towel. The celery is washed, dried and finely sliced. The apples (two) are peeled and chopped more crudely. Add the walnuts…three ounces or a full pack from the supermarket. Toss the ingredients adding a little salt and white pepper to taste. Add three tablespoons on mayonnaise and mix thoroughly. The salad should be lightly coated and not covered in mayonnaise. Some like to add raisins to this salad. If you do make sure that they too have been blanched….as above…
Just before serving add a tablespoon or so of French dressing and turn the ingredients with the same spoon. It gives depth to the salad. Serve with a Pinot Grigio or Frascati and eat outside in the garden!
Beetroot – the forgotten salad vegetable
Fresh beetroot is one of the most delightful vegetables you can put into any salad. Boiled until tender, peeled and simply sliced its delicate perfume and sweetness goes well with almost anything. Is there anything better than fresh beetroot with red Leicester or crumbly white Lancashire cheese? Well, actually yes there is…fresh beetroot roughly mashed and chopped…using a hand masher… once crudely mashed stir in four heaped teaspoons of strong horseradish sauce…Sainsbury’s is particularly good. Serve this with thin slices of baguette or water biscuits or lightly salted tortilla chips. Great dip to have on the coffee table as a snack. And it goes well with red, white or sparking wine or even beer. As far as I know this is a staple in Eastern Europe….