Dressing up

"Vegetables or salad with your steak?" said the waitress in the small country pub – and at a stroke summed up our relationship to salads. Most Britons have salad securely pigeon-holed as something you only eat when you are on a diet – salads are the token greens, they tend to be meagre and medicinal, and when pushed you sometimes eat them instead of chips. It wasn't always thus; in the 17th century John Evelyn, a prolific Royal Academician, dedicated his book Acetaria – a discourse on sallets to "the right honourable John, Lord Somers of Evesham" who was not only the Lord High Chancellor of England but also President of the Royal Society. Evelyn must have been a bit of a bore on the subject of salads as he took a very dour line on the benefits of a healthy diet and was one of the first people to sing the praises of fresh green leaves and a decent dressing. His monster 82-section list of potential salad ingredients runs all the way from alexanders to wood sorrel by way of a host of current favourites – basil, cos lettuce, dandelion, radishes, rocket, oak leaf lettuce. And he was equally picky about the preparation of a perfect salad – leaves had to be washed in spring water and then swung in a napkin until dry; the oil should not be yellow but a pallid olive green; you should cut salad leaves with a silver knife ... on no account were you to use a steel one "which all acids are apt to corrode and retain a metallic relish of"; and you should pound your mustard seeds in a mortar with a "cannon-bullet"! It's comforting to see that the components of a good salad dressing are much the same today as they were 300 years ago, cannon balls excepted.

For the perfect dressing you need five elements – something oily; something acidic; something hot; something sweet; and some salt. Thereafter you're pretty much on your own; the oil could be good olive oil, or British rapeseed oil, and you'll need four times as much oil as lemon juice, cider vinegar, or white wine vinegar – whatever you choose for sharpness. The hot notes can come from mustard, pepper, or Worcestershire sauce. The sweetness from honey or sugar. Mix oil and acid, then add salt, sweet and hot to taste. Mix well. Only dress the salad when you are about to eat it. You can use any combination of crisp leaves: choose from the bewildering array in every grocer or supermarket; they all taste much better when they're well-dressed.

Salad days

A new edition of Jane Grigson's book Good Things (Grub Street Press, £14.99) came out in 2007 and it's full of good recipes. For a green salad, she suggests making the dressing in the salad bowl (she adds garlic, parsley and chopped shallots to the mix); then arrange the salad servers as a bridge in the bowl before adding leaves. When serving the salad, remove the servers so the leaves fall into the dressing, toss the salad; serve immediately.