Study Notes - Salads and Dressings
This title is meant, hopefully, to reassure those who find themselves rather confused about precisely what a well-dressed salad should actually be, something that has somehow eclipsed the simple joy of dressing and eating a salad.
Forty-five years ago olive oil was, in this country, medicinal and came from chemists, and because we are a beer-brewing country rather than a winemaking one, our vinegar was distilled from malt. Boots' olive oil and malt vinegar were, as you can imagine, not the desired components of a good salad dressing, and in the lean post-war years salads in ordinary households were served with a dressing of bottled salad cream, a modern commercial version of an 18th-century recipe for English salad sauce made with cream and egg yolks.
We have now, thankfully, moved on from there, but, in my opinion, we have perhaps gone too far. Yes, it's wonderful to have a choice of olive oils and a selection of wine vinegars, but supermarkets now have wall-to-wall oils and sometimes half as many vinegars. It seems that every country in the world can produce oils and vinegars, and not just from the humble olive or the grape but from everything under the sun - witness pumpkin seed oil, grapefruit oil, seaweed vinegar, rose petal vinegar! Even tourist and gift shops sell designer oils and vinegars, which are often made from some unlikely ingredients. They are utterly superfluous to most people's everyday needs and end up lurking unused and abandoned in the back of a cupboard. Even worse, I get letters asking me what to do with them! Because I feel that, were I a beginner today, I wouldn't actually know where to start learning, I thought it might be helpful to concentrate on basic everyday salads and dressings. Oils do not have a very long shelf life, so if we want to enjoy them at their best, having half a dozen varieties on the go is not helpful unless you are doing an awful lot of cooking on a daily basis. So let's start with what, in my opinion, is the best type of olive oil for a salad dressing, and tackle the most pertinent question first.
What is extra virgin olive oil?
Before we can understand 'extra virgin' we first have to clarify the word ‘virgin'. What it describes, quite simply, is oil pressed from the fruit of the olive tree under conditions that cause no deterioration of the finished oil the olives are not damaged, bruised or subjected to adverse temperatures or too much air, and they must not have undergone any additional treatment such as heat or blending (other than with other virgin olive oil). The supreme quality is measured by acidity or, more precisely, the lack of it too much acidity gives a harsher flavour, which can, with skill, be refined out. What is simply termed olive oil is often a blend of lesser-quality refined oils with some virgin added to give the right balance of flavour.
Extra virgin olive oil could, in fact, have another name - perfect virgin olive oil, because this is precisely what it is: virgin olive oil with no flaws whatsoever. By law the acidity of extra virgin olive oil is never more than 1 per cent, and what does this mean? Flavour. First there is an aromatic fragrance, then a sweetness not marred by acidity, and then an abundant taste of fruit, verdant and luscious, not tasting like olives exactly but like some other mysterious, unique fruit. Like very fine wine, extra virgin olive oil is both rich and flavoursome.
Which country produces the best olive oil?
Difficult to answer, this. The olives of each country have their own character and flavour, which will even vary from region to region: a Tuscan olive oil, for instance, is different to a Ligurian olive oil. If I were being a purist I would suggest that Provençal dishes should be made with oils made in Provence, and Italian, Greek or Spanish dishes made with the oil produced in that country. But unless you do masses of cooking it's best to find an olive oil you're happy with, and my recommendation is to have an extra virgin oil for special occasions, along with an everyday blended oil.
What about other oils?
What you need to be careful of is having endless bottles of oils that you hardly use, because, as I’ve said, the shelf life of any oil is never very long.
However, I would include the following in my store cupboard - along with olive oil - as a good selection for both cooking and making dressings.
An excellent all-rounder with the advantage of having no marked flavour yet at the same time being quite luscious. It is perfect for making mayonnaise, with just a little olive oil added for flavour, and it's an extremely useful oil for cooking - oriental dishes in particular, because with these the flavour of olive oil is alien and too strong. Warning: because groundnut oil is made from peanuts, people who suffer from any nut allergy should avoid it (and warn anyone cooking for them as well).
This is an alternative mildly flavoured oil. It's more expensive than groundnut oil, but if you are at all worried about the nut-allergy problem, grapeseed oil will do the same work both in dressings and in cooking.
An excellent oil, and rich in nutty sesame flavour. It's great in oriental dishes and dressings, but needs to be used very sparingly, as the flavour can be overwhelming.
This is a great addition to the repertoire of oils. It has all the flavour of crushed walnuts and is therefore particularly good in salads that contain walnuts. However, it does become rancid quite quickly, so monitor its shelf life once it's opened.
These are definitely not for me. Apart from the fact that they take up valuable storage space, it seems logical that if you want to incorporate other flavours in your oils, they are best added fresh. So add your own garlic, chilli, lemon or herbs and so on as and when you want to.
How to store oils
This has to be in the coolest-possible place, though not in the fridge, as oil solidifies when it gets too cold. Light is not good for oils, either, so a cool, dark corner would be the best place to store them. Most oils have date stamps, so watch these, and although it is more expensive to buy in smaller quantities, it is still cheaper than throwing out stale oil that never got used.
Vinegars for salads
Personally I would want to have about half a dozen vinegars available. They keep better and for longer than oils, so it's good to have a varied selection suitable for different kinds of salads, confits and sometimes cooked dishes. You will find dozens of designer varieties available but, as always, I say keep it simple and buy the best quality you can afford - some cheaper vinegars are too acidic and lacking in flavour.
Originally the French word vinaigre, from which we get our word vinegar, meant sour wine, but now it embraces all similar liquids where alcohol is turned into acetic acid. As you might expect, wine vinegar comes either red or white, and the best quality is that made by the Orléans method, which, because of its long, slow fermentation in oak casks, has depth of flavour without the overpowering acidity.
After struggling in the past to find good-quality wine vinegar, when aceto balsamico (as it's called in Italy) appeared, it was like discovering heaven. It is not a wine vinegar but a grape vinegar, made from fresh-pressed grape juice, aged in barrels of oak, ash, cherry wood, mulberry and juniper - all contributing to its unique flavour. Each year new grape juice is added and skilfully blended over a period of 8 to 12 years to produce the dark, sweet-sour amber liquid that makes one of the best salad dressings of all.
A very special vinegar made, if I may say, from a very special drink. I love Spanish sherry, both to drink and to cook with, and the vinegar from the sherry grape must has its own delightfully rich, sweet, nutty flavour. Though quite different from balsamico, it is equally good sprinkled over salads and cooked vegetables just by itself.
As you'd expect, a vinegar distilled from cider, milder and less acidic than wine vinegar. It has a lovely fragrant apple flavour and is good for salad dressings, particularly if the salad contains fruit.
It's marvellous how vinegar turns up around the world distilled from whatever grows locally, so it's not surprising that in the Far East vinegar is made from rice. The Japanese have the best quality, and I always have some handy for making oriental salads and dipping sauces.
Lemons and limes
There are times when vinegar can be dispensed with and the acidic content of a salad dressing can be provided by lemon or lime juice. In fact I would say that if you want to cut the fat in your diet for any reason, lemon and lime juice alone squeezed over salad ingredients give a lovely zest and piquancy of their own. Lime is especially good for oriental dressings, while the combination of lemons and olive oil gives the classic flavours of the Mediterranean to a bowl of very simple salad leaves.
If you think about it, mustard is the one and only homegrown English spice, and for my money it's the best. I admit this is a personal thing: I like the ferocious kick of English mustard that makes its presence felt even when only very little is used. Although it comes in powdered form, it does have a good shelf life and can be made up as and when you require.
From Burgundy, in France, this is not as fiery as English mustard, tempered by the mixture of unripe grape juice (verjuice) or diluted wine vinegar. It is extremely good but it's very difficult to keep it fragranced once opened.
This is a mixture of mustard seeds, spices and wine vinegar, milder than straight made-up mustard but very good for the store cupboard as it not only adds flavour to dressings and sauces but also a lovely seedy texture. It keeps better than Dijon, but still replace the lid quickly to prevent the air from affecting it.
Like olive oils and wine vinegars, mustard suffers greatly from the designer effect, with every flavour, colour and texture under the sun creeping into the mustard jar. My advice is, don't bother. Even if you like the flavour of dill mustard or similar, once opened it will deteriorate very quickly. So don't make the mistakes I've made: one spoonful of some exotic mustard today and the whole lot thrown out several weeks later. If you want dill or tarragon or anything else in your dressing, it's best to add it yourself.
Mustard, both plain and wholegrain, have an emulsifying effect that thickens the dressing. Garlic, if you like it, adds flavour, and sea salt and freshly milled black pepper are two absolute essentials.
What makes the perfect dressing?
For once there are no rules. Food snobs sometimes like to make them, but the truth is it's about personal taste: some like more vinegar, some less, some like to add sugar, others (me) never do. So when you begin to make salad dressings, it's you who should taste and you who should decide just how much of this or that you want.
Do invest in a pestle and mortar, a simple time-honoured item that will serve you for a lifetime. With a pestle and mortar you can pound and crush the ingredients needed for making most salad dressings. Blenders will do the job and are occasionally preferable for large quantities, but you don't always want to be bothered with them for small amounts. Once you have blended your dressing, a mini whisk, will combine it quickly and efficiently; alternatively you can keep a small screw-top jar handy and use it to shake and amalgamate the ingredients together.
Most ingredients can be made into salads - meat, fish, vegetables, rice and so on. Here I will confine myself to specific salad vegetables, starting with a very pertinent point.
Lettuce or leaves?
For me it would be lettuce all the way; a salad needs bite, crunchiness and some substance. Yes, there are leaves that make good salads, but there are now too many kinds of designer leaves grown, bought and used merely for their looks. That's OK up to a point - we can all appreciate a pretty garnish of colourful leaves - but delicate leaves that get soggy when they're washed, before being packed in plastic bags, and just disintegrate once they meet with a dressing are, in my opinion, to be avoided (except for garnishing).
What kind of lettuce?
Again, it's what you personally like, but my own recommendations would be as follows.
Sometimes called Butterhead, it may not look very promising, but usually has a cluster of crisp, sweet leaves nestling in the centre that partner most dressings very well.
Sometimes called Romaine, when fresh, this is reliably crisp and crunchy, with a good flavour, and can take strong, thick, creamy dressings such as Caesar.
As good as its name, this is a lettuce with good flavour and lots of crunch.
Escarole lettuce and Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons)
A colourful pair, the former has pale-green leaves and the latter pinkish-red edges. They are not crisp, but their flavour is good as long as you give them lighter dressings.
This comes with very crunchy, curly leaves, but because it is related to the chicory family, it has a slightly bitter taste, which is fine if matched with highly flavoured dressings.
I make no secret of the fact that this is one of my favourite salad leaves. Not the stalky wild variety but the lovely fat, very green leaves. Why? It's traditionally English and has been used in salads since Elizabethan times. It has a lovely concentrated buttery flavour and goes with any dressing. Not, I think, good as a salad leaf just on its own, because it's not crisp, and a lot of it seems somehow to be too concentrated and 'in your face'. However, added fifty-fifty to crisp lettuce, it makes, I think, one of the nicest green salads of all.
This leaf, sometimes known as corn salad, comes in delicate little sprigs with clusters of leaves, and is good both for garnishing and mixing with other lettuce types. Because it does not keep well, it needs to be used fairly quickly.
Popular with everyone, watercress is a bit like rocket, with its own distinctive, fresh, peppery flavour. I think it's too strong to be used on its own, but it's wonderful combined with lettuce, used as a garnish and for giving its own unmatched flavour to soups and sauces.
Given that everything is largely a matter of personal taste, I would nevertheless explain why I would not recommend certain lettuces and leaves. Iceberg is crunchy but that's all: it tastes of absolutely nothing.
As for Little Gem, I have a feeling this was originally grown for its long shelf life. For housebound people, a Little Gem is better than no lettuce at all, but for those who have a choice I would give it a miss; it's rather tough and stalky, with an earthy flavour. Lollo Rosso, Lollo Biondo, Oak Leaf and others are good to look at but pretty dull to eat.
How to prepare salad leaves
All lettuces and salad leaves should be eaten as fresh as possible, but first of all I've found the best way to store lettuces is to remove the root, but otherwise leave them whole and enclose them in a polythene bag in the lowest part of the fridge. I believe washing should be avoided if possible, as once the leaves are wet it's difficult to dry them again and you simply can't get dressing on to wet salad leaves. What I prefer to do is take a damp piece of kitchen paper and wipe each leaf- this way the lettuce leaves remain dry and can more easily be coated with dressing. Now, I realise many people will not agree with me here and will want to wash the leaves: in that case plunge the separated leaves briefly into cold water and place them in a salad basket, then either hang them up after a good shaking or else swing the basket round and round out-of-doors. Finish off by drying the leaves carefully with kitchen paper. Never use a knife when you prepare lettuce, because cutting tends to brown the edges of the leaves. Breaking up the leaves too soon can cause them to go limp quickly, so always leave them whole, if possible, until you're ready to serve the salad (and even then use your hands to tear them rather than a knife).
Other salad ingredients
A ripe, buttery-textured avocado, served with a really good vinaigrette, is simplicity itself. The way to tell if an avocado is ripe is to hold it in the palm of your hand and give it some gentle pressure; if ripe, you'll feel it 'give' slightly.
Salad or spring onions
Indispensable in the kitchen, and especially in salads. You won't find the best kind in the supermarket, but if you are near a farm shop, tiny, thin, very young spring onions are delicious served whole with just the root trimmed.
A home-grown cucumber in the late-English summer is a luxury for its fragrant, cool, pronounced cucumber flavour - if you can get hold of one. In any case, English home-grown cucumbers do have the best flavour and it's difficult to find a well-flavoured imported cucumber in the winter. For the best results, and if you have time, salting, as you would an aubergine, does draw out some of the excess water content and helps concentrate the flavour.
What about the seeds? No problem. These are part and parcel of the cucumber, so I never bother to remove them. Then there's the question of whether to peel or not to peel. I say not, because I like the colour, texture and flavour of the peel, but if the cucumber has a very tough skin, use a potato peeler so only the outer skin is pared off. It's also possible to just pare off strips of skin, a kind of halfway house. The exception is small, ridged cucumbers, which sometimes have quite knobbly skins and are usually best peeled.
Tight little buds of crunchy leaves, sometimes with pale-green edges, sometimes pink-edged. They have a slightly bitter taste that calls for a flavourful dressing.
This is brilliant cooked, but sliced very thinly it's also lovely raw in a salad.
This can be added to salads cooked, or else raw and thinly shredded into julienne strips.