Salad ingredients and their preparation
Lettuce: I could never recommend one particular kind of lettuce, because I like to ring the changes in my salads, and each variety has a different charm of its own.
However, I do have firm opinions on how a lettuce should be treated, whatever the variety. 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 is so difficult to get them dry again. What I prefer to do is take a damp piece of kitchen paper and wipe each leaf, removing any specks of dust (and crawly things) – 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 outdoors.
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 we always leave them whole, if possible, until you’re ready to serve the salad (and even then use your hands rather than a knife). Click here to read more about lettuce
Chinese leaf: This looks like a cross between a cabbage and a head of celery – thick white ribs edged with a green leaf. It is marvellous for winter salads when imported lettuces are thin and travel-weary. Just slice it whole, horizontally, as and when you need it, storing the rest in a polythene bag. The very stalky bits at the base, in fact, are delicious lightly fried and served as a vegetable.
Chicory: These are tight little buds of very crisp leaves (sometimes white, sometimes a reddish colour). Since light spoils the leaves they are usually wrapped in tissue paper, and are best kept in this until needed. They can be braised and cooked as a vegetable, but I think are best sliced horizontally and used to give a salad extra crunchiness. The leaves are slightly bitter-tasting and therefore need a well-flavoured dressing. Click here to read more about chicory
Beetroot: This is a salad vegetable that suffers either from having no flavour if it’s served alone, or from being totally overpowered by malt vinegar. I prefer to buy it cooked, chop it up with a generous sprinkling of raw shallot or onion and serve it in a vinaigrette dressing. If you want to cook it yourself, it needs washing before boiling for 1½-2 hours with root, skin and a little of the stalk intact (as it’s important not to let any of the juice ‘bleed’ out). It’s ready when the skin slips off easily.
Cabbage: Most varieties of cabbage make good salad ingredients if the stalks are removed and the leaves are very finely shredded. Click here to read more about cabbage
Fennel: A bulbous-looking vegetable, similar in texture to celery but with a distinctive aniseed flavour. Sliced raw and separated into strips in a salad, it responds beautifully to a well-flavoured olive oil dressing or some very garlicky mayonnaise. Click here to read more about fennel
Cucumber: There’s nothing nicer than a firm, young cucumber eaten the day it’s picked with its flower still intact at the end. However, if you’re obliged to buy a plastic-wrapped one, do try to feel whether the stalk end is soft – if it is, that cucumber’s past its peak.
I never peel cucumbers because, as with many other vegetables, I like the appearance and flavour of the skins. If you prefer to peel them, use a potato peeler (which will only pare off the outer skin). Ever since I discovered them on holiday in Greece, I’ve loved the crunchiness of ridge cucumbers. These are shorter and fatter than ordinary cucumbers, with little prickles along the ridges. The tough skins of this variety do have to be peeled. Click here to read more about cucumbers
Spring onions: Finely chopped (including most of the green parts as well), these are the best onions for salads – or whole, to be taken on picnics and dipped in salt. Welsh onion – which resembles the green part of the spring onion – grows happily in our herb bed through the winter, too. It has a stronger flavour than chives but, finely chopped, it makes an excellent winter substitute for chives. Click here to read more about spring onions
Watercress: I love watercress in a green salad, and now that it can be bought ready picked-over and vacuum-packed, it saves such a lot of time (even if it’s a little more expensive). Inside the unopened pack, watercress will keep for about 5 days, but once exposed to the air it wilts extremely quickly. For this reason, if you use it for a salad or garnish, don’t put it on until the last moment. Watercress bought in bunches should be first picked-over and de-stalked, then stored upside down with the leaves submerged in cold water. Click here to read more about watercress
Green salad: The nicest green salads are the simplest, those with the least ingredients: crisp, dry lettuce leaves alone, or perhaps with some watercress, a little finely chopped spring onion (or shallot), and a plain vinaigrette dressing. Or possibly one with a few fresh chopped herbs added. You can watch how to make your own homemade vinagrette dressing in our Cookery School Video
Tomato salad: A tomato salad needs careful preparation and, properly made, it makes a good starter before a meal served with some crusty French bread and fresh butter. Choose firm but ripe tomatoes. Pour some boiling water over them and in a minute or two the skins will slip off very easily. Click here to watch how to remove tomato skins.
Never prepare a tomato salad too far in advance, because once you slice tomatoes they go a bit woolly. Another important point is that you should use a large flat plate for them – or else smaller individual plates – because the slices shouldn’t overlap each other, another thing that causes sogginess.
For my tomato salad, I like to sprinkle on some very finely chopped raw onion and lots of fresh chopped parsley and perhaps a mere trace of sugar – and some fresh chopped basil leaves would be a luxurious addition. Do not dress the salad until the last minute before serving.