Excuse my French – literally. But I’m actually not just showing off. The expression “raconter des salades” – literally, “telling salads” – means telling lies, in the same way the English might tell “porky pies”. In this 19th century expression, the French allude to the necessity of combining numerous ingredients to tell a successful lie; some humour, some imaginary excuses, a little truth and a little untruth, all seasoned with a convincing tone. I love a good expression, and I believe there can be much to love about a good salad.
One thing I always say when people panic about eating out is that, if the worst comes to the worst, I can always have bread and salad. Or chips and salad. Basically, salad is something of a last resort to me.
Which is a bit unfair, because I’ve had some really memorable meals that have been salads – I look forward to my mum’s salads at home, and I get excited looking through my parents’ fridge at all the tasty ingredients at my disposal to make a good salad. At GBK I always go for a salad rather than one of their burgers, and just the other day I made eyes at Steph’s pick of the chef’s salad at Manna. As much as I outwardly resent salads, when I’m invited to a food-related gathering I almost always bring a salad, and one of my first thoughts when I get my hands on an avocado is that I have a chance to make a good “massaged” kale salad (google it). Hell, my cover photo is a damn salad!
Meanwhile, I manage to make myself the most rotten salads. In my day-to-day eating, salads are reserved for when I want to eat but I’m not really hungry. They are usually some sad assortment of baby spinach, chopped peppers, maybe some sliced mushrooms if they need using, balsamic vinegar, a small drizzle of oil, and maybe some nuts if I’m feeling fancy. My excuse is that I don’t have the storage space for an array of fancy little additions, and as nobody else would eat them I’d get food panic where I worry about things getting thrown out. Of course, a humble green salad with a simple dressing can also be a thing of crisp fresh beauty, but it’s an extra step to the cooking process, it’s an extra bowl or two to wash up, it’s another bag of unsubstantial green stuff taking up precious fridge space – so I never even make a little side salad for myself.
Now, one thing I just don’t get is a salad recipe. I’m all for inspiration, clever combinations, pretty pictures of healthy food – but I don’t need a recipe for a salad any more than I need an instructional diagram for Jenga. What I do need, however, is to be reminded of a few key points to make a successful salad. Remember, we need a balanced combination of some key ingredients, and a dressing to bring it all together – the variables are up to you.
1. Base! How low can you go?
I always do this; fill my bowl with leaves, then by the time I’ve added ingredients, I have a monster salad that cost a tenner to make and nothing left in the fridge. Start with a small amount of leaves (or rice, quinoa, pasta, or whatever else you are using as a base ingredient to soak up flavours and add bulk), and you can always add more if you want.
2. Taste the rainbow
Different colours mean different tastes. I normally get about 3 colours into my salads. This is completely arbitrary, but they do say you eat with your eyes.
3. Snap, crackle, and pop
Texture is key. We’re not aiming for rabbit food here. There’s obviously going to be some crispiness in there; now you need something silky like an oil or an avocado, and something crackly crunchy like a handful of nuts or seeds. Personally, I also like something chewy in there, something like sundried tomatoes or a even handful of raisins where appropriate.
4. Square pegs, round holes
This might just be me, but I like to chop ingredients into different shapes and sizes. It’s both a visual and a textural thing. I don’t want it to look like a bag of frozen mixed veg – I might cut peppers into long strips, dice roasted sweet potato, halve cherry tomatoes into hemispheres… Like a lie should never sound too rehearsed, a salad should never look manufactured.
5. Sugar and spice and everything nice
You don’t just want a mouthful of vinegar or vegetable water. I need something salty like sundried tomatoes or olives (capers would be good too), something sharp like vinegar or lemon juice, something mild like avocado or tahini or nuts, and I really can’t think where I wouldn’t want something sweet like roasted sweet potato, apple, cranberries, raisins, or strawberries.
6. Shoot the messenger
You’ve gone to the effort of making a beautiful, colourful, appealing salad, don’t go and chuck it into some sad cafeteria-style bowl and hope it shines (believe me – until recently all our bowls sucked except the ones I kept in hiding from housemates and from lack of space – I think this is a big part of the reason I was so uninspired to make good salads. Don’t laugh!).
7. Delicious with bells on
If you get nothing else from this, just remember the golden rule: don’t skimp on nice ingredients. Even just a couple little pieces of chopped sundried tomato, just a few minced olives, or taking the time to toast some nuts will make a huge difference. A big part of our problem with health and obesity these days is due to our disconnection from our food, with factory farms and fast food outlets and ready meals. Love your food and it will love you back.
I know I said that thing about salad recipes, but I do still like reading them for inspiration. Like a smoothly told lie, the component parts all need to make sense, all need to be small cogs making the big picture work – and sometimes, it helps to know someone has put all those parts together before and they work. So please don’t be scared to share your recipes with me, I’d love to know your favourite combinations and as you can tell, I need some inspiration!