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Article Title: The Perfect SaladEdition: August 2001
Author: Edie Black Zfass
For the life of me, I can't summon the name of the play or the author, but I do recall that the stage is strewn with bodies lying about everywhere and the sweet young heroine whines, "I am not happy here." At which point the head of the virtually extinct household, an ancient patrician, inquires in a tremulous quiver, "Will there be a salad for supper?"
While whimpering anxiously about a salad for supper in the act of climbing over bodies might actually affect the appetite in a big way, to forego salad for supper or lunch is almost unthinkable for most of us.
There are three common and vital elements in the search for salad perfection: fresh, fresh and fresh. What is it about the perfect salad that makes it the pièce de résistance accompaniment, or even the entrée, for so many people in most countries? Each culture and each country lays claim to the perfect salad, and all are justified in claiming that gastronomic distinction. The varieties are limitless and incorporate ingredients and flavors that impart the distinctive essence of each region. That peak of freshness and flavor is not always available from your neighborhood green grocer, but restaurants often have the advantage of growing their own gardens, otherwise they have access to private growers.
Potato Salad, Molded Salad, Fruit Salad -- on it GoesToday the opportunities for variety are only as limited as the imagination. Gelatin offers possibilities for inspired molded salads, where creations of fruit, nuts, vegetables, chicken, meat or seafood suspended in colorful gelatin can pass the most stringent tests for taste and dramatic presentation. The necessary preparation to allow these salads to congeal is an advantage most cooks greatly appreciate, helping to avoid last minute frenzy. An important part of the meal is already staged in the refrigerator waiting for the surefire exclamations of admiration to come. An anonymous observer once said, "The hostess must be like the duck -- calm and unruffled on the surface, and paddling like hell underneath."
On the other hand, who doesn't love that good old standby, the potato salad? I'd like to meet that someone who doesn't think his/her special recipe is the world's greatest, and it probably is. I'd wager that those of you reading this have your own favorite variations of salads in all categories that have pleased many a palate. If you'd like to share your favorite salad recipes, we might publish a selection in a future edition of Horizons.
Green Gastronomic GratificationFortunate are you if you can step out to your own garden ten minutes before mealtime and pick varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, or anything else ready for harvesting, to compose the perfect salad. The ingredients may be pedestrian or exotic, but if they are just-picked garden fresh, perfection becomes only a matter of composition and dressing.
The major component of the perfect salad is lettuce. The numerous varieties often used together can make for a crisp, delicious base upon which a combination of other added ingredients creates an appetizing and refreshing burst for the palate. Loose-leaf lettuce, red-leaf chicory, romaine, iceberg, bib, curly endive, watercress, cabbage, kale and spinach are among the officers of the corps in a long lineup of choices.
In a tossed salad (loved by most Americans) the addition of an endless variety of accompaniments, such as carrots, cucumbers, red onions, spinach, peppers, hard-cooked eggs, radishes, olives, nuts, apples (for Waldorf salad), and chicken, meat, seafood or cheese, provides a symphony of tastes to please even the most discerning palates. However, adding tomatoes before the last minute is the inexcusable cardinal sin. Hint: Slice tomatoes vertically in the French manner, and they will not wilt your salad as rapidly as they might otherwise.
Lest you think your choices stop there, look out onto your lawn. Do those fluffy yellow dandelion pompoms annoy you? Do you want to mow them down? Those dandelion greens taken for granted here are prized throughout Europe. The French derivation of the name "dent de lion," means lion's tooth which is what the jagged-edged leaves look like. The slightly bitter leaves are used raw in salads or cooked as a green and if you're inclined to taste adventure, search out the young tender leaves, which tend to be sweeter.
What Does Salad Mean?Being the edible parts of herbs and plants, at one time salads were seasoned only with salt. Hence the source of the name salad, from the Latin word "sal" or "salata" meaning "having been salted." Today, salad cult followers have access to an infinite variety of dressings and seasonings impossible to envision by our forebears, who must have been appreciative of their "sal" to enhance their greens. Enumerating the abundance of choices we have today to dress our salads would take us to countries around the world, which would be nice, but
To mention only a few: French, Blue Cheese, Italian, Vinaigrette, Poppy Seed, Russian, Thousand Island, Oil & Vinegar (Balsamic, Tarragon, Rice among a broader selection) create an infinite variety of combinations and flavors.
A picturesque admonition about salad dressings cautions restraint: "Let the salad-maker be a spendthrift for oil, a miser for vinegar, a statesman for salt, a madman for mixing."
Gazpacho, with its origins in Spain, is salad in a cold soup with a tomato base. Another contribution from Spain is Ensalada Mixta, which is a marvelous combination of lettuce, asparagus, olives, cheese, onions and bonito (fresh tuna).
Oscar Tschirky, major domo of dining at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, created the Waldorf salad. Oscar was not a chef but he and his salad both achieved acclaim; he was known worldwide as "Oscar of the Waldorf" and his famous salad has not diminished in favor or flavor over this past century. As with many salads, the Waldorf also has numerous variations. Oscar's Waldorf creation was celery, apples, grapes, mayonnaise, and walnuts or pecans.
A Layered MasterpieceAnother famous establishment, the Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood, created a salad sensation named after its originator Robert Cobb. The Cobb salad is a layered masterpiece of boiled eggs, bacon, tomatoes, blue cheese, salad greens, avocados, and chicken. Imaginative designs in layering the Cobb salad delight the eye as it pleases the palate.
A hearty marinated salad composed of beans, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, olives, tuna, and anything else you can dream up, can serve as a delectable main course of contrasting colors and shapes. Bread, wine, and good conversation as the ultimate accompaniment would make for happy diners, to be sure.
Art and SaladJust as concerts and theater require an audience, cooking as an art form can generate the delighted admiration and response from guests [audience] that could cheer the heart of any cook. This positive reinforcement and the exhilaration of providing nourishment along with a gastronomic and visual feast are a labor of love that propels the cook's return to the sometimes-arduous kitchen day after day. The perfect salad helps a lot to make that labor of love lighthearted.
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