'Cold dish of vegetables, raw or cooked, possibly with other non-vegetable additions, dressed in some way', does pretty well in most instances, but it excludes warm salads, fruit salads, mostly meat, fish or cheese salads, and those vile North American montages, jellied salads. Hot ratatouille is obviously not a salad, but when it is served cold, as it often is, it just about fits the description. And what of the dieter who refuses the dressing? Is he or she still eating a salad?
For the purposes of this article, however, I am sticking with the basic definition which still leaves ample room for manoeuvre. As far as I know, every culture worth its salt (a weak pun - salad derives from from the Latin salare, to season or salt) has come up with its own form of salad. Hardly surprising: it is the most effortless and obvious way to consume any vegetable that is edible raw, and is the best way to use up an excess of cooked vegetables. The range of vegetables used may vary wildly, but the real stamp of origin is the dressing.
The favourite European dressing is vinaigrette of one sort or another. At its purest, a mixture of oil and vinegar (I usually prefer a ratio of 4 or 5 to 1, but that depends both on the oil and vinegar, and the salad itself), salt and pepper, it can be embellished and permuted almost endlessly.
Include a dollop of mustard and you are probably in France; include lemon juice and garlic, and it is Greece; the addition of dill takes you to Scandinavia. Richer mayonnaise dressings come into the picture, too, hinting - though by no means exclusively - at Eastern Europe. Move round the Mediterranean to the Middle East and it is the abundant use of herbs - parsley, coriander and mint, in particular - and spices such as cumin that grab the attention.
The same herbs reappear in the Far East, differentiated by their partnership with chillis, pounded nuts, lemon grass, lime juice and other aromatics. Japanese dressings are notable for their use of dashi, a type of fish stock, rather than oil.
About the only common factor is a note of sharpness, bringing out the full flavour of the bulky ingredients, tempered in some way so that it harmonises with the whole rather than overwhelms it. Even so, I can think of two familiar exceptions. A plain grilled pepper salad, or a salad made with the best tomatoes, needs no more than olive oil, salt and pepper, though garlic, basil or parsley do not go amiss.
As a general rule, raw vegetables should be tossed with the dressing only at the very last minute, but cooked vegetables are best coated in dressing while still warm, then left to cool and to absorb. Again, exceptions spring to mind, but you have probably had enough of those by now.
Try as I will, I can come up with only one absolute hard and fast rule when it comes to salads: use only the choicest ingredients - really fresh vegetables, good oils and vinegars, fresh herbs, etc. Disguising the second-rate in cooking is rarely successful, and the salad bowl is a very exposed place.
Grilled fennel and orange salad
I love a plain salad of thinly sliced raw fennel, with lemon and olive oil, but this is something a little more complex. Grilling adds smokiness and partially cooks the fennel, leaving a crisp heart.
Ingredients: 2 heads of fennel
12 black olives
For the dressing:
1tbs lemon juice
4tbs olive oil
salt and pepper
Preparation: Trim the fennel, saving the feathery green fronds. Cut into wedges - you should get about 12 from one large bulb, about eight from smaller bulbs. Push a wooden cocktail stick through each wedge to keep the layers together. Whisk the dressing ingredients together and brush each wedge of fennel with it. Grill, turning two or three times, until browned and semi-tender. Toss in just enough of the remaining dressing to coat.
Peel the oranges, removing all the white pith. Slice across into rings. Arrange orange, fennel and olives on a serving dish, drizzle over a little more of the dressing and strew over a few of the fennel fronds.
Far Eastern-style salad with peanut dressing
The aim with any mixed vegetable salad should be a pleasing contrast of textures as well as flavours. Here you get both, with a mixture of cooked and raw vegetables, and a sweet/sour, oil-free, nutty dressing.
Ingredients: 6oz (170g) French beans, topped and tailed and cut into 1in lengths
6oz (170g) carrots, cut into matchsticks
4 sticks celery, thinly sliced
4oz (110g) radishes, sliced
10 mint leaves, roughly torn up
6 spring onions, sliced
For the dressing:
2oz (55g) unsalted shelled peanuts
1 clove garlic, crushed
4tbs rice vinegar or white wine
1 1/2 tbs fish sauce
4tsp dark muscovado sugar
Preparation: Blanch the beans and carrot in lightly salted water for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under the cold tap. Drain and cool.
To make the dressing, dry-fry the peanuts in a heavy-based frying pan until lightly browned. Either crush roughly in a mortar (the better option) or chop finely. Mix with the remaining dressing ingredients. Just before serving, toss all the salad ingredients with the dressing.
Grated carrot salad
I discovered the formula for the best carrot salad quite by accident. Grating carrots absent-mindedly, I realised halfway through the pile that I had used the fine holes of the grater rather than the coarse ones. I changed over and mixed the whole lot together. The resulting salad was a happy blend of soft and crunchy shreds.
Naturally, you also need some firm, sweet carrots. If yours are lacking in character, an extra pinch or two of sugar will compensate to some extent.
Ingredients: 4-5 large carrots
For the dressing:
1tbs white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
pinch of sugar
5tbs olive oil
salt and pepper
Preparation: Grate half the carrots finely and the other half coarsely and mix. Whisk the white wine vinegar with the mustard, sugar, salt and pepper. Whisk in the oil a tablespoon at a time. Mix enough of the dressing into the carrots to flavour and moisten without leaving the salad swimmingly greasy.
This salad comes originally from Lebanon. Burghul (or bulgar) is pre-boiled, dried cracked wheat, widely used throughout the Middle East. Most good health food shops here will stock it. It needs no cooking - just rehydrating. Be guided by taste rather than by exact quantities; the salad should be zinging with mint, fresh and full of zip.
Ingredients: 8oz (220g) burghul
8oz (220g) tomatoes, deseeded and finely diced
1/2 cucumber, finely diced
6 spring onions, chopped
1 bunch mint, chopped finely
1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
6-10tbs olive oil
juice of 1 to 2 lemons
salt and pepper
Preparation: Cover the burghul generously with warm water and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze out excess water with your hands. Mix with the remaining ingredients, adding oil and lemon juice to taste.
Leave for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. Then stir again, taste and adjust seasonings. Serve it as a first course or as a side-dish.