Last month, I wrote about herbs in general and promised that I would give you some recipes, which would put them to use. Here, I want to dwell on salads.
In preparation for this short article, I have been giving thought to the influences, which have formed my fundamental approach to salads and cold food. As a young boy, my parents sent me to France to learn French. I stayed with a family, who had a wonderful country house on the Rhone, some 50 kilometres south of Lyon. There, I spent many summer months swimming in that mighty river – no longer possible because of pollution – and lazing about in that decadent, French, teenage way. Papa was a charming man, who was much loved by us youngsters. Maman was something else. She was the disciplinarian, who infused the large household with her sense of what was right and wrong and what was correct and what was not. Always perfectly groomed, she was full of rectitude and intimidated both her children and their guests. But all that could be forgiven because she was a wonderful cook. To her, I owe food memories, which to this day inspire my cooking, and nowhere is this influence more prevalent than in my appreciation of cold food.
My Mother was the other great mentor. Up to the day she died, she had a profound dislike of sandwiches, a dislike that was not uncommon in past generations. On the other hand, she loved picnics, which for her always involved elaborate preparations. They were sumptuous banquets and perhaps because of this, they were not often put before us. Indeed, their rarity value probably heightened the enormous pleasure, which they gave us children.
What do I remember about all this cold food of my childhood? In those far off summer days in France, Sundays were invariably given up to huge lunches, which went on all afternoon. If we did not go to the home of some relative or other, they came to us and when they did, the large country house was thronged with milling uncles, aunts, cousins and friends and Maman went into high gear. Trestle tables were put up under the trees in the garden and the kitchen became a hive of activity. Huge platters of cold food were laid out and I can’t tell you how delicious everything tasted and yet it was by and large, simple fare. Of course, we were in the Rhone Valley, where the most wonderful fruit and vegetables are grown and Maman therefore had a head wind behind her.
However, she also knew so well as a cook that it was best not to tamper too much with the local produce; it spoke for itself. I can still see the luscious, red salade de tomates, the rice and black olive salad, new potatoes, spring onions and parsley swimming in olive oil and huge bowls of crisp lettuce tossed in French dressing. All these side dishes were served to accompany an amazing array of charcuterie and quiches, the latter always the classic Quiche Lorraine made with nothing more than eggs, cream and bacon.
To wash down our food, Papa served a local white wine, which came from a vineyard that sloped down in terraces to the Rhone a few kilometres upstream from the house. These terraces dated back to Roman times. My Mother’s picnics were also “simple”. One of her great specialities was Scotch eggs and these she served with a salad dressing made from sour cream. Alas, while nowadays a recipe for Scotch eggs is readily generated with Google’s assistance, that for the salad dressing is forever lost.
Cold sausages were a must and she also liked to serve cold chicken which, forty or fifty years ago, was a great treat. Today, most people minded to follow in my Mother’s footsteps would buy a barbequed chicken in the nearest fish and chipper or supermarket. That wasn’t possible in years gone by but, oddly enough, my Mother didn’t roast the chickens, which she served on her picnics; she boiled them. Try that sometime as, apart from anything else, one is left with the most delicious stock, which can always be popped into the freezer for another day. She usually threw in a large box of coleslaw, a vaguely sophisticated dish half a century ago. There were also tomato, lettuce and potato salads, scallions, radishes and hard boiled eggs. What a feast !
And so with all that influence in the background, you will not be surprised to learn that my cold meals are also simple. I do not like complicated salads with strange ingredients. Give me the old faithfuls. However, I really do try to use the best of fresh produce. The visual impact created by this food is an essential part of the culinary experience. Thus, it is important, for example, to choose serving dishes that will show off the different salads to best advantage. Over the years, I have amassed an array of dishes just for this purpose.
As for what accompanies the salads, I favour ham and, although I adore Scotch eggs, these are usually excluded because of pressure of time. A bit of salami doesn’t go amiss or indeed some cold beef or turkey, if you have a good deli near you. I like a bit of variety and only this week, thanks to a kind sister, who had just returned from a holiday in Spain, I threw in a few slices of smoked tuna.
I would also recommend a quiche of some kind. I like the simple variety but I also make one with roast tomatoes and crème fraiche. Then, to put your newly grown herbs to use, chop a bit of fresh dill into the potato salad together with some scallions and parsley. I never use mayonnaise. Instead, I favour a French dressing (green olive oil, red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard) which should always be applied when the potatoes (new, as prescribed by Maman !) are still hot.
There should be a green salad and for that try and serve a mixture of those leaves, which are readily available in our vegetable shops and supermarkets. No cold meal is complete without a good tomato salad. Remember to have the tomatoes at room temperature. I just slice them thinly and lay them out carefully in a flat dish. A generous glug of olive oil is followed by a good seasoning of salt and freshly ground black pepper topped off with a handful of chopped basil.
I love hard-boiled eggs and my children always demand eggs mimosa. Halve the cooked eggs and remove the hard yolks, which you then mash with a fork before mixing in a little mayonnaise. To ensure that the halved eggs sit upwards, cut a little off the bottom of each white and then spoon in the egg yolk paste. Scatter with chopped parsley or chives. Voila my four basic salads, which are a must.
To these you could add mushrooms and/or green lentils. For the mushroom salad, fry a little garlic and finely chopped onion in some olive oil. When cooked, add thinly sliced, button mushrooms and toss them for a few moments and no more than a few moments. Season with salt and pepper, throw in a generous handful of chopped parsley, squeeze in a little lemon juice and allow to cool.
For the lentil salad, again cook some garlic and chopped onion in olive oil. Add the green lentils, cover with water and cook for about 50 minutes. Season and then add some more olive oil and lemon juice to taste. At this juncture, I sometimes also add some feta cheese. You may accuse me of straying into the realm of the exotic, but with a Greek son-in-law in the family what was once foreign and strange has become commonplace.