Summer’s here and the readers have been bugging, err, asking, me to write a piece on salads. As usual, I’m not happy giving you just a couple of recipes like a food magazine, so get ready to learn about how to say goodbye to limp, watery salads with dressing that pools at the bottom. I’ll give you some themes that you can mix and match to create your own fun variations.
A salad is a fairly broad class of food, with no clear definition even in the dictionary. You can find salads of leafy greens, other vegetables, root vegetables, meats, pasta, and more. While many are served cold, there are also warm salad recipes. Even salad dressings are optional. So let’s just settle on it being a dish served on the side apart from main course and work from there. The most common type of salad that pops into mind is, of course, the green leafy salad, and that’s what this column will focus on. Leaves are the most abundant parts of plants found in nature, so a salad was probably one of the earliest common foods available to man. While lettuce is often found in Western salads, plenty of other greens such as spinach, fenugreek, watercress, arugula, cabbage, etc., can be used as salad bases. (Just search for ‘‘salad greens” on www.foodsubs.com to get ideas.)
Ever wondered how salads in upmarket restaurants look so good, while your home salads don’t? There isn’t any magic there; it’s all about picking the right ingredients at their freshest and keeping them that way. When shopping for salad greens, pick the firmest, most vibrant leaves you can find. Ignore the ones that look limp or frayed at the edges. Avoid leaves that have been already separated.
Once you get home, it’s time to breathe new life into these greens that have been sitting out for so long. Giving them a cold water bath will do. Fill a large bowl with ice water and soak them in it for 20 minutes. This will restore some of the water in the leaves and make them crisp and tastier. It will also eliminate mud and grit from the leaves. Once you’ve soaked them, gently lift them out of the bowl with your hands (this is to avoid taking the mud along) and put them in a plastic tub with holes (the vegetable basket often found in Indian homes will work fine). Now we need to get rid of excess moisture before refrigerating the greens. Abroad, they’d use a salad spinner, but you can get this done the old-school way by gently placing your palm over the greens and vigorously shaking the basket up and down a few times. (If you don’t get rid of the water, your greens will rot in the fridge.)
To store the greens, wrap them in paper kitchen towel (not paper napkins). Just roll them in a nice big wad of kitchen towel, and then put them in a plastic zip-lock bag with all the air squeezed out. This will keep them happy in your fridge.
How about some salad recipes, eh? Instead of recipes, let me give you some salad composition tips instead. This way, you can mix and match a variety of ingredients to create interesting new mixes instead of being stuck on one or two salads.
A good salad should have a contrast in terms of both flavours and textures. Combine crisp with soft, spicy with mild, crunchy with leafy, sweet with tart, and so on. Don’t have too many assertive flavours that fight each other. For instance, don’t have two different kinds of strong cheese in the same salad.
Also avoid the ‘‘kitchen sink” approach of throwing everything from your vegetable drawer into your salads.
Too many ingredients create chaos on the tongue (this is frequently a problem with restaurant salads, sadly).
I like to keep the number of ingredients restricted to five-six.
And now here’s a list of ingredients to help you make some salads of your own:
Base greens: Lettuce (iceberg, romaine, chicory, radicchio), spinach, fenugreek, cabbage, pak choy, arugula
Fruits (soft): Orange, grape, melon, grapefruit, fig, mango, papaya, guava, berries
Fruits (crisp): Pear, apple, pineapple, coconut, pomegranate
Vegetables (raw): Broccoli, carrot, sprouts, cucumber, tomato, onion, radish, celery, fennel, zucchini.
Vegetables (cooked): Cauliflower, eggplant, beans,potato, beetroot, peas, mushrooms, asparagus, corn
Meats: Grilled chicken, bacon, ham, shrimp, pan-fried fish, squid, roasted beef, roasted duck, numerous cold cuts
Dried, cured, and pickled foods: Olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeños, gherkins
Cheeses: Goat cheese, mozzarella, cheddar, scamorza,brie, feta, bocconcini, parmesan, gouda, haloumi, gorgonzola, and loads more
This list is by no means exhaustive, but by mixing ingredients from each column, you can create several interesting salads that go beyond just throwing some cucumbers and tomatoes together. Just be careful when you combine two strongly flavoured ingredients, or two salty ingredients, or two acidic ingredients.
For instance, you don’t want to have feta cheese along with bacon in a salad. Both of them are very salty and will ruin the flavour balance. Balance is everything in food and cooking.
But hey, you want a bang for your buck from this column. Of course you also want to learn to make your own salad dressing. So I shall teach you a basic concept for a vinaigrette dressing and then show you how to vary them to create regional flavour profiles from other countries.
Vinaigrette is formed by mixing two ingredients— oil and vinegar—that don’t normally mix together.So we force them together by extreme agitation (in plain English, strong whisking or shaking). This brings them together as an ‘‘emulsion” even though it doesn’t last forever (the two will eventually separate). Just remember the 3:1 ratio for oil to vinegar. Right, so take a big steel bowl; add 150ml peanut/groundnut oil, 50ml plain vinegar, salt to taste, 1 tsp black pepper, and 1 tsp Dijon mustard. Tilt the bowl slightly, and with a wire whisk or fork, beat them vigorously for two minutes. It will change character and become a thick salad dressing. Ta da! Your basic vinaigrette is ready. No, seriously, that’s all. And if you don’t want to whisk it, you can also shake this in a glass bottle or in a cocktail shaker.
Now, that’s pretty plain and there are numerous variations on the theme. People add flavourings such
as minced onions, garlic, and herbs, or switch out the oil and the vinegar for different flavoured oils and vinegars. So here are some ideas for different flavor profiles to create interesting salad dressings:
Italian: Use extra virgin olive oil and/or balsamic vinegar. Add seasonings such as oregano, minced basil and garlic.
Indian: Use mustard oil or coconut oil. Add seasonings such as coriander seeds, chilli powder and lime juice with herbs such as coriander or mint.
Thai: Whisk some warmed peanut butter into the dressing along with some chilli garlic paste and 1tsp sugar.
American honey vinaigrette: Add 1tbsp of honey into the mixture and whisk. Honey vinaigrette actually stays together longer because honey is a great emulsifying agent.
French: Use extra virgin olive oil and red/white wine vinegar. Also add some garlic with herbs such as chervil, rosemary or tarragon.
Chinese: Replace one-quarter of the oil with sesame oil. Add some garlic and chilli flakes. Replace vinegar with rice wine vinegar.
Of course, these are not in any way the sole representatives of their respective countries, but just some starting points for you to adapt the same 3:1 formula to other flavours. With these ideas for the dressing, and the list of ingredients from the earlier list, there’s a lot you can do.
Before we leave, here are some final tips.
• Always tear salad greens either gently with your fingers or cut them with a sharp knife to avoid ‘‘bruising” at the edges.
• Never mix salad until just before serving. Salt in salad dressing will draw out moisture from the vegetables and you’ll have a pool of water in your salad bowl along with limp, soggy vegetables.
• Hands are actually the best way to combine salad ingredients with dressing. Do it gently with love. But make sure hands are clean first.
• Salad dressing will run off wet ingredients. Make sure everything in the salad is as dry as possible.
• Have fun coming up with your own variations. There are very few rules for salads.
I’m pretty sure I’ve given you enough ideas to last a few months, so go on and get experimenting with some sexy salads. I am very happy to receive pictures of your creations, so do email them in.
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer.
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