How salad became the star: Chefs are taking cold food to stratospheric new heights

Salads are emerging from the sidelines to become the main event on modern menus – and that means sprucing up. So it's out with austere lettuce and tomato and in with delicious roasted vegetables, fresh herbs and exotic grains and spices, says Sophie Morris
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When is a salad a salad, and when is it not a salad? The Collins English Dictionary defines a salad as a dish of raw vegetables "such as lettuce or tomatoes, etc"; a dish of cold vegetables or fruit, such as a potato or fruit salad; or any green vegetable used in a dish, "especially lettuce". The word comes from the Old Provençal "salada", which in turn comes from the Latin "sal" and "salar", meaning salt and to season with salt.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a little more detail: a salad is a cold dish, it claims, which can be a mix of raw or cooked vegetables, and is usually seasoned with oil, vinegar or another dressing.

Note that there is no mention of iceberg lettuce paired with slices of woolly hothoused tomato, shards of grey, cold boiled egg and a few shreds of grated carrot. And increasingly, that is not the way we think about salad.

A number of eating trends have somehow come together and exploded into an effusive love of salad on these shores, despite our unchanging weather. There's the renewed interest in health foods (including obsessions with green foods and raw diets); greater access to specific ingredients from the Middle East and South-East Asia; the determination to eat with the seasons; and a dedicated approach to trying out new grains such as quinoa and freekeh.

 

Arguably, Yotam Ottolenghi is to thank for much of this. The London-based, Jerusalem-born chef opened his first eponymous deli in 2002, and his best-selling books Plenty, Jerusalem and Plenty More have popularised his style of salad across the country: crisp, roasted butternut squash and scorched, soft aubergines smothered in tahini yoghurt, fresh herbs and pomegranate seeds dressed in a few leaves and a tangy vinaigrette are now menu regulars in all types of establishment.

"Ottolenghi said it's OK to have salads," says Chris Honor, an Australian chef whose north London neighbourhood cafe, Chriskitch, has grown remarkably quickly in stature, if not in eating space, since he opened a little over two years ago. "He's made the vegetable and the humble lettuce leaf the stars of the meal. We kind of do the same, but we do it on more of an advanced level," he adds, somewhat boldly. But then, Honor's own CV includes training with Gordon Ramsay before managing a team of more than 100 chefs at The Dorchester.

"Ottolenghi's salads are very much Middle Eastern-based in terms of style and ingredients. With [his restaurant] Nopi, he moves on a little bit, with South-East Asian ingredients as well, but we take other elements of cooking and put them all together. We take traditional French techniques, such as slow-braised celery, and we convert that, which is often used as a complement to a protein dish, into a salad."

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A dish being prepared in the kitchen at Chriskitch (Teri Pengilley)

No doubt Ottolenghi has braised the odd stick of celery in his time – but still, their work bears comparison. After years working in big and overpopulated kitchens in very smart hotels, Honor is currently master of his own kitchen and seems incredibly happy for it. Plus, there's another restaurant and a delivery box scheme on the horizon. At Chriskitch, there is none of the fuss of fine dining. The food is literally out front: on walking in, you are faced with a long table piled high with brightly coloured dishes of more taste, texture and cuisine combinations you could hope for in a lifetime, never mind one lunch sitting.

I wish I could talk you through the huge slab of banana bread draped in a sticky caramel blanket, and its neighbour, a beetroot and balsamic red velvet ring, but we're here to do salads.

Honor has a book out, Chriskitch: Big Flavours from a Small Kitchen (Mitchell Beazley, £25), written with food writer Laura Washburn Hutton, in which he separates the salads into "raw" and "cooked". There is blood orange, fennel, dill, feta and almond; blue cheese, rosemary, Cox's apple and walnut; seaweed, apple, poppy seed and balsamic. The cooked section brings us green beans, mint, lemon, camomile and dill; carrots are glazed in ginger, orange, coriander and linseed; while the potato salad is no ordinary example, blending tender new potatoes with black and yellow mustard seeds, capers, pickles, dill, chives and Dijon mustard – there are 15 ingredient altogether, including camomile tea.

Honor defends this great list of ingredients, arguing that you can buy nearly everything in local shops or supermarkets, as he does. Testing this would be a postcode lottery, but without these wide and very considered combinations of ingredients, he wouldn't achieve his lofty aim for each plate of salad. "When we construct menus and dishes, we work along a few principles," he explains. "Whether it's a dressing or a salad, we always have a sweet, a sour, a salty and a spicy flavour. These are tastes which the palate can differentiate without smell.

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Chriskitch is owned by chef Chris Honor (Teri Pengilley)

"So whenever we work on these, we're trying to engage every single sense, including sight, smell and touch. All these things are important. People say to me: 'Touch, Chris? What are you talking about?' But you don't just touch with your hands. You touch with the roof of your mouth and with your lips. All these things are critical to us and we design salads around this idea. Even if something is all soft and smooth, that's the way it's been designed. Even hearing is important. Think about when you bite into an apple: crrrrr-cr-crunch."

Supermarket shelves also show evidence of our growing sophistication in salads. Marks & Spencer sells squat tubs of wholesome treats such as sprouted pea and bean salad, nutty grain vegetable salad and fireburst rice salad, all in tasty dressings. In Waitrose, you'll find broccoli, kale and quinoa, and adzuki and edamame beans next to pesto, spinach and pine nut salad – a long way from the claggy mayo, tuna and sweetcorn pasta salads that still sell in great volume.

I'm not suggesting we haven't done interesting things with salads for centuries, much less that we haven't openly stolen the best ones from other cuisines. Niçoise, Caesar, Waldorf, Tabbouleh, Caprese and Greek salads have all been co-opted into our culture, yet we've struggled to compose a salad without a very clear blueprint, or to coax winter produce into the sort of vivid, fresh, crunchy and satisfying salads we munch through the summer.

Barnsley-born Matt Wilkinson aims to demystify unusual salad leaves and other ingredients in his book, Mr Wilkinson's Simply Dressed Salads (Hardie Grant, £19.99). He divides it into seasons and, as he now works in Australia, has access to a greater choice of leaves (mizuna and amaranth, for example) than are typically available in the UK. His imagination is fluid in terms of what a salad can be, describing it as "one of the most diverse food groups ever. A burger is a burger, and a curry is a curry... but salads are so wonderfully variable and can be hot or cold".

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The Collins English Dictionary defines a salad as a dish of raw vegetables “such as lettuce or tomatoes, etc”; a dish of cold vegetables or fruit, such as a potato or fruit salad; or any green vegetable used in a dish, “especially lettuce”. (Teri Pengilley)

After categorising different types of leaf, Wilkinson gives recipes for his five essential dressings, including a simple lemon dressing and salad cream, before launching into recipes that sound complex and exotic but are technically simple and incredibly inventive: sesame-fried asparagus with sashimi and miso, radishes and chilli, pickled octopus, avocado and cauliflower.

As well as a shift in thinking of what can go into a salad, we are also changing the place it commands on our tables. Restaurants and cooks are catching on to serving salads as the main event, a convivial sharing set-up that makes for a much more social meal. And we seem prepared to try more unusual flavours: more sweet items such as fruit and nuts from our North American friends, smoked fish and pickled vegetables from our increasing appetite for Asian and Scandinavian flavours, more spice from the Middle East and North Africa.

Meanwhile, if you're still wedded to the idea of salad as a healthy dish, you need to give Brazil's Salpicao a try. It's a chicken salad made with apple, raisins and lots of mayonnaise – and is typically served strewn with chips.

chriskitch.com

Green Bean, Mint, Lemon, Camomile and Dill Seed salad By Chris Honor

Serves 4–6

A very green salad of beans punctuated with a subtle hit of chilli and camomile. It is important to use only a pinch of the latter, as camomile is quite strong. It can pervade everything, so use sparingly.

Exceptionally, this salad contains no acidic element in the form of lemon juice or vinegar. I find it makes the green beans turn an unappealing shade of green-grey, so I leave it out, which does not affect the taste in the slightest. This is one of our most popular salads

100g fine green French beans
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g sugar snap peas
100g runner beans, topped  and cut into lozenges
50g frozen green baby peas, defrosted
50g frozen soya beans, defrosted
1 bunch of fresh mint,  finely chopped
Zest of 2 lemons
A pinch of camomile tea
2 pinches of dill seeds
2 pinches of coriander seeds
50ml extra virgin olive oil
Half a fresh red chilli,  deseeded and thinly sliced

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add some salt, then the French beans, sugar snaps and runner beans.

Blanch for 30 seconds, then drain immediately and either transfer to a bowl of iced water or drain in a  sieve and place under cold running water for 1-2 minutes. Drain well.

Put all the peas and beans into a large bowl. Add the mint, lemon zest, camomile tea, dill seeds, coriander seeds, oil, chilli, salt and pepper. Toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then transfer to a platter to serve.

Note: when available, we also make this salad with stink beans, sourced from Chinese greengrocers.

 

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