19 May 2008

Salad Rant

We were having deep discussions about salad (in a group of friends, of course), when I found myself silently twitching. I hear the poor salad being maligned, because many people have been presented with horrible representatives of it. You can't call all vegetables terrible based on the horrible, overcooked, grey, mushy nonsense you were served as a kid. It's not fair to say that an entire country sucks, based on the actions of a few primo assholes. Similarly, it's unfair to say that you dislike salads, based on the actions of a few misguided people.

First, let's get into what a salad is not:

1. Mayonnaise. Adding mayonnaise to something does not make it a salad. Mayo is a sauce. It's to enhance the flavours of the rest of the food, not overpower them. A salad should taste like the vegetables that you're eating. Instead of using mayo in a salad, the next time, use a bit of balsamic or wine vinegar, and a bit of olive oil. The tastes will be complemented, rather than drowned out.

2. Jello. Whoever thought that suspending fruits or vegetables in Jello is a good idea really needs a firm shaking. I didn't like it as a pregan, and I don't have to eat it anymore, as it contains animal scraps.

3. Limp, watery iceberg lettuce, with a few scraps of what could be vegetables. The only reason to use iceberg lettuce is as a filler for more expensive greens, like arugula (or rocket), watercress, baby spinach, or romaine. If you can't afford too much of the expensive greens (like field greens or the others I just mentioned), feel free to shred up some iceberg, and bulk it up. You'll get the same flavour, but without having to buy so much of it. Don't try to use iceberg by itself. It doesn't have much in the way of nutrition, and it doesn't taste like anything.

4. Raw broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower. Seriously, people. What are you thinking?

A salad should be a celebration of the different tastes, textures, and colours that your food has. That is, it should be so bursting with taste, that you barely need a scant dab of flavouring to make it outstanding. A salad should be a combination of the finest, freshest ingredients you can find, because the bulk of them are going to be raw, and the bulk of them don't have fancy sauces, spices, and other veiling techniques to hide poor quality.

Let me explain. Suppose you bring home a bunch of vegetables. You find that some of them have bad parts, or have become dodgy looking. This is fine, as long as you can cook it well enough (after cutting out the bad parts). When you're done, you can always sneak the final product into a heavier sauce, or gravy, or get it so mixed up into other ingredients, that you never have to notice them standing out. Or, in cases like smooth soups, you puree the whole mess, so nothing has to stand out at all!

With a salad, however, every blemish and shortcoming of the ingredients you buy will come forward.

Another consideration is the size of the vegetables. Everything should be chopped small enough to fit at the end of a salad fork. I haven't seen people offering salad knives in a very long time, and seeing giant pieces of lettuce sticking out of someone's mouth is decidedly disgusting to look at. Similarly, any accompanying vegetables need to be chopped up into relatively small pieces, so that you can get a little bit of everything in one bite. If you're done one with (for example): romaine, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, bean sprouts, and olives, here's what you'd do:

- Slice the cucumbers in half lengthways, then slice it into thin half-moon slices
- Cut the tomato into wedges, then slice the wedges into thin triangular slices
- Grate the carrots and beets
- Remove the pit from the olives. Cut each olive into four or five pieces
- Cut the romaine into 4 long spears lengthways, and then chop it into bite sized pieces

This mode of preparation may take a little longer with chopping, but will be much more kind to your guests. This way, with every bite, they'll be getting a little bit of everything, and won't have to struggle with individual ingredients. Also, because the colours will be so vibrant, you'll not want to disguise everything with a smothering dressing.

Finally, the vegetables you include should require roughly the same amount of chewing. That is, if you're putting in broccoli, you want it at least steamed, so that you don't spend so long chewing the broccoli that it becomes the overwhelming flavour in your mouth. Instead, when you spend equal time chewing each ingredient, the flavours mingle in your mouth, and each has a chance to stand out on its own for a little while. This is why I discourage raw cauliflower and broccoli, or mushrooms (which really suck out the flavours from the surrounding areas). Try to sauté these first before adding to your salad.

The point is that you should try to make your salads so interesting and varied that you feel like eating it. We all should be eating more fresh vegetables anyway, and a salad is the perfect way to get it in there. Try to make it so that when you (or others) are eating it, you have an easy time of it. Soon, you'll look forward to salad!