Far too often, salads are viewed as mere token side dishes, thrown together to help us virtuously eat our greens and reach those five serves a day. But salads can make amazing appetisers, delicious side dishes, or even entirely satisfying main courses in their own right, given a little love, creativity and appreciation of the best seasonal produce.
In his beautifully presented and inspiring book, Salades, renowned chef and cookbook author Damien Pignolet challenges us to think outside of the boring iceberg box and, instead, explore the enticing world of "composed salads", "classic salads", main course and "special occasions salads" and even "sweet salads", with such mouth-watering dishes as warm salad of scallops, sorrel croutons and grilled red pepper with witlof or perhaps a confit duck leg salad with lentils and fried walnuts.
How to take salads from so-so to sublime
Here, Damien gives us his thoughts on how to lift the humble salad to new heights.How does the French conception of a salad differ from how Australians think of salad?
The French have a tradition of creating "composed" salads offered as entrée courses and sometimes to accompany a main course. An example of the latter might be a confit duck with sorrel sauce and sauté garlic potatoes served with a small beetroot, walnut and celery salad with walnut vinaigrette.
The Australians chose to serve salads as a summer dish, generally consisting of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, beetroot and a creamy dressing, often made with Carnation milk. It wasn’t until the early ’70’s that one could find cos and Mignonette lettuce, let alone radicchio and rocket.
Sure there were "composed" salads, such as those made with potatoes, rice and those from America – Waldorf and Caesar – but these salads were relegated to very simple combinations served in hot weather.What factors make for a perfect salad?
Like any dish, the secret of success is in the balance of flavour and texture. Whilst a hot main course relies on the sauce, so the vinaigrette is the link that connects the flavour and texture to create a balanced salad.What do home cooks usually get wrong when making salads?
"Less is more" should be the rule, but enthusiasm often leads to the use of too many ingredients. A good example of a balanced salad from the French repertoire is salad frisée lardons (Salades, p54).
Frisée lettuce is slightly crisp and bitter, lardons (batons) of smoked belly bacon are fried and served warm, a soft poached egg and some crunchy croutons are brought together with an eschalot and walnut oil vinaigrette. Crisp, bitter, rich from the egg and bacon and the earthiness of walnut oil – it’s the perfect balance.
The other common mistake is selecting the appropriate vinaigrette and, in particular, understanding how to use the acid – be it vinegar, citrus juice, verjuice, etc. I have been asked throughout my career to specify "how much" when, in the end, it is about tasting and thinking of the solid ingredients, which will tell you "how much".How do you get the right balance of flavour, texture and colour?
I have always followed the rule that flavour must be the first consideration. Texture should play a support role to develop contrast. Only then should one consider colour, since it is easy to let this rule, to the detriment of either flavour or texture.
An example of a good balance of these three elements is roast pumpkin (sweet), raw mushrooms (earthy and nutty), radicchio (bitter and crunchy), spinach (acidic) and the rich earthiness of a toasted almond vinaigrette.How do you choose the right sort of dressing to pair with your salad?
This is driven by experience, to be honest. The range of oils and acids, the use of cream, meat or fish/shellfish juices, spices other than pepper – all provide the most extensive range of choice.
Beetroot and walnut, hazelnut and pine nut work with cider vinegar or verjuice and limejuice. Olive oil and extra virgin olive oil with almost any acid; nut oils should be diluted with a neutral oil, and call for cider or sherry vinegar.
Herbs can play a fabulous role in supporting the flavours of prawns or crab, with the obvious addition of avocado, a bitter lettuce, crunchy croutons or celery for contrast. In this case, tarragon, chervil, chives, a touch of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, neutral oil, reduced prawn stock and tarragon vinegar make a perfect balance.What are some of your favourite, more unusual, flavour combinations?
- Witlof, hazelnut, scallops and Roquefort with hazelnut vinaigrette
- Cauliflower, beetroot and celeriac with horseradish cream (also includes cherry tomatoes)
- Waldorf salad – apples, celeriac and celery, walnuts, cos and mayonnaise
- Fennel, olive and orange with parmesan
- Duck salad chinoise – grilled duck breasts, red capsicums very finely cut julienne, Japanese pickled ginger, watercress, lychees, mango and snow pea julienne, with a soy, sesame oil, rice vinegar and sugar vinaigrette
What about main course salads and warm salads? What should people know?
- Mango julienne with Sauternes and freshly cracked white pepper
The best example of getting the best out of shellfish for a warm or room temperature salad is never
to refrigerate the shellfish after it is cooked, since the texture becomes tight and the flavour turns flat. I like to place the shelled shellfish in a bowl over another filled with ice, and then cover with plastic film.
Duck, game, chicken, liver, etc are all best kept warm, preferably dressed with a little of the vinaigrette then carved as the salad is assembled.
Choose firm lettuces such as cos, radicchio to support the heavier ingredients (e.g. duck) both in weight and texture. Rocket, fresh herbs and peeled grapes can be added as the final ingredients.How does one match wine to salads?
The greatest demon to wine is acid (vinegars) and sulphur (eggs). Extremely acidic ingredients, such as spinach, require balancing ingredients, such as pine nuts, sieved hard-boiled eggs, bacon and a non-acidic dressing in order to enjoy any wine.
By the same token, Champagne shouldn’t be served with a spinach salad since the acidity of the spinach destroys the balance in the Champagne.What should never be served in a salad?
Sloppy textured ingredients are often lost. This said, calf or lamb’s brains may be very soft, but work well as a "salad" with celeriac, witlof, radicchio and mushrooms, and utilise capers for the acidic element.What are your favourite salads?
Lobster salad with mango, avocado, tiny bitter lettuces and herbs, with crunchy cos and a coddled-egg vinaigrette. Or, scallop, witlof, hazelnut and Roquefort salad. Also, salad frisée lardons; beetroot and goat cheese salad and warm poultry salads.