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Our salad days

As children my brothers and I loved our rare family outings to a salad bar; foods like artichokes, water chestnuts and sprouts were exotic to us, and we set upon them like locusts. As we piled mountains of garnishes onto our plates, we realised we loved salad – we just hated lettuce.

For some reason, “salad” in the modern Anglo world has come to mean iceberg lettuce, one of the few vegetables with almost no taste or nutritional value; it’s no wonder that so many people think of eating fresh vegetables as they would going to the dentist.

Romans must have eaten salad, for the word comes from the salt they added for flavour, and the old US motto “E Pluribus Unum” allegedly comes from a line describing salad dressing, in Virgil’s Poem “Moretus.” I don't see many references to them in recent centuries, however; Irish historian Olive Sharkey says salad was never part of the traditional Irish diet, and Ms. Beeton’s 1861 cookbook includes only one recipe for it out of hundreds. Perhaps food historians can tell me differently; if salads were rare, there must be a compelling reason, because wood or peat to cook food was often expensive.

Perhaps many people ate salad but thought it too commonplace to mention; old writings tend to leave out the details of everyday life. We often have to imagine what was commonplace from gaps in information; for example, a 19th-century cookbook begins a recipe or sheep’s head stew by noting, “First prepare the sheep’s head in the usual way,” implying no housewife needed to be told. Alternately, perhaps salad was looked down on as food for slaves and peasants, like lobsters and other forms of seafood used to be in Britain and the USA.

Or perhaps salad only caught on slowly because, until recently, almost no one had the sterilised tap water we take for granted. Leaves can carry parasites and must be washed, but if the water, too, is contaminated, the risks of salads might outweigh the health benefits. Also, perhaps the diners did not have the teeth we take for granted; dental care was almost nonexistent until recently, people lost teeth early, and even a century ago women sometimes had their teeth pre-emptively removed at 21 years of age, so as not to incur dental costs later in life. Overcooking food makes more sense when no one can chew.

Whatever the reason, modern Westerners were slow to embrace salad and its potential; as late as World War II in Britain, for example, salad was often a small bowl of plain lettuce before the meal, dipped in a side of mayonnaise. Even when wartime made fuel scarce and malnutrition rise, people seemed to have an unspoken taboo about raw vegetables, according to accounts of the time. Finally the government aimed propaganda campaigns at the nation’s female majority that promoted greens as the secret to beautiful skin, in the same way that advertisers in the US promoted yogurt first as a diet aid and then as a cure for constipation. Wartime housekeeping manuals told housewives how to boil and liquefy potatoes into a mayonnaise substitute; perhaps salad dressing was still too alien an idea.

Those of us with clean water and teeth can embrace salads as substantial meals, partly because “salad” can mean any raw food – and many cooked ones – held together with sauce. Like soup or quiche, salads can re-use leftovers -- meat, fruit, herbs, dried bread, seeds, sprouts, eggs, beans, nuts, berries, pasta or pickles – and mix them with whatever edible parts are flowering, budding, leafing, bulging or shooting in the nearest field, garden or woodland.

Here in Ireland, for example, March brought the first hawthorn shoots, along with the first dandelions, cowslips and primroses. A month later linden leaves could be taken right off the tree and chopped for salad, along with daisies, sorrel, parsley, bernard and clover. Then the red lettuces, green lettuces, mizuna and rocket came up, along with herbs like chives, borrage and coriander, and weeds like fat hen and Good King Henry. By June the kohlrabi, carrots and fennel could be uprooted, cleaned and grated. Right now the nasturtium, spinach and cabbages are ready and the dandelions and clover are still coming, and in winter we will turn to chicory and roots, while still growing other vegetables in the greenhouse.

Many people think root crops must be cooked, but I enjoy shredding them into salads. Beetroot makes a great mix with feta cheese in a sauce of soy sauce, spices, olive oil and vinegar. Celeriac, a celery relative bred for its bulbous roots, can be finely grated and mixed in a tangy sauce with lemon, sesame oil and cayenne pepper. 

Many people buy bottles of salad dressing from the store, but you can make your own dressings at home for a fraction of the price, and they are likely to be healthier and taste better. We make ours from home-made yogurt, which we make by putting a bit of plain natural yogurt as a starter into warmed milk and leaving it overnight in hot water. Or you can make your own mayonnaise by whipping 2 egg yolks, 20ml of lemon juice and a pinch of salt together in a bowl, and whisking the mix as you slowly pour in a cup of vegetable oil.

Many foods that do not taste great by themselves are rescued by the other ingredients in a salad; bitter dandelion leaves in spring, for example, and tart elderberries in the autumn. Other foods change their flavour when treated; we slice cucumbers and salt them to extract the astringent taste, soak the slices in water to wash off the salt, squeeze the water out of them, and mix them in a dill-and-yogurt dressing.

Traditionally heavy dishes like potato salad can be made surprisingly light for health or hot weather. My mother-in-law makes a very light summer potato salad with a small pot – say, 500ml -- of boiled waxy potatoes, and similarly-sized volumes of diced apples, diced hard-boiled eggs, and thinly-sliced celery. Mix together about 300 ml of dressing – for example, yogurt and lemon juice, mixed with lemon zest, sesame oil, cayenne powder and pepper, along with chopped mint, dill and chives. As soon as the potatoes are boiled, drained and chopped – when they are still hot – mix them into the dressing, and they will absorb the liquid as they cool. Then mix in the cold apples, eggs and celery for an all-in-one meal. This is a general recipe; experiment until you get it right for you.

Winter brings a dearth of light here, but some salads grow in darkness. Chicory grows outside in the summer and fall, and when winter comes you can chop off the leaves and place the roots in boxes of earth in the shed. The plants shoot up white heads of crunchy leaves, high in vitamins that would otherwise be scarce in the dark months. Bean sprouts also grow in darkness; mung beans work best, but I have sprouted seeds as small as broccoli and as large as adzuki beans. Growing darkness crops like these will be useful skills if climate change drives populations northward, and more of the world shares our long subarctic nights.

As fuel and electricity become more sporadic or expensive, we might want to get our hands used to preparing, and our bellies used to digesting, more foods that don’t require them. It makes a convenient way to slowly introduce a wider variety of species, flavours and techniques, and to discover the joys of finding food for free.

Photo: Salad of borrage, nasturtiums, dandelions, clover, daisies, lettuce, spinach, cornsalad and sorrel. 

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