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Leaf Salads

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Leaf Salads

by Andy Lynes and chef Bruce Poole

Introduction

In the wrong hands, the salad bowl, like the stockpot, is at risk of becoming the dustbin of the kitchen, merely a receptacle for leftovers from the fridge drenched in bottled vinaigrette. A well made salad is a joy, but its creation demands as much thought and attention as any other area of cooking. A successful salad requires the application of a number of culinary fundamentals, such as the balancing of texture, flavors and tastes and it's these that will constitute the focus of this course.

A salad should be a simple thing, the combination of a few carefully chosen and prime ingredients with an appropriate dressing. Errors of judgment on the part of the cook will be quickly betrayed by the stripped back nature of the dish. Sounds like a culinary minefield doesn’t it? Well the good news is that once you have a few simple, basic rules under your belt, there are endless variations available to you and a world of creativity opens up.

There is very little that you cannot include in a leaf salad: pulses, grains, meat, fish, offal, vegetables, fruit, cheese and eggs all have their place. This course provides example recipes using most of those groups, just not all at once.

Its worth noting that some successful salads are somewhat more "busy" than the examples provided in this course. For example the classic American "Cobb Salad", with its chicken, avocado, tomato, bacon, cheese, various salad leaves and multi-ingredient dressing, appears to break all the rules.

But if you review the relatively long list of constituent parts you'll see that the all important balance of the dish has been maintained: crisp bacon against unctuous avocado, acidic tomato against creamy Roquefort cheese and so on. It's a personal favorite of mine and I had considered including a recipe for Cobb salad in this course, but I can really do no better than direct you to Arthur Schwartz's TheFoodMaven.com site, where he provides the definitive recipe, including the story of its creation.

Scope

This course will describe techniques for the construction of leaf salads. It will identify leaf types rather than attempt to provide a definitive catalogue of all those currently available. The most well known salads such as Caesar's and Nicoise will be conspicuous by their absence. Rather, I will present my own takes on the main styles of leaf salad and explain the reasons behind the choices I have made in terms of leaf, ingredient and dressing type. In addition, Michelin starred chef Bruce Poole of London's Chez Bruce has kindly contributed two recipes which provide another perspective.

Although this course contains recipes for a number of dressings, please refer to Jack Lang's Non-Stock Based Sauces for a definitive run down on oils, vinegars, vinaigrettes, mayonnaise and its derivatives.

Objectives

By use of annotated example recipes and supporting background material, the course will demonstrate methods for incorporating a wide range of groups of ingredients into a salad. By focusing on the balancing of flavors, textures and temperatures, the course is designed to provide you with the knowledge, skills and inspiration to create your own leaf salads.

Definition

Larousse Gastronomique defines salads as "a dish of raw, cold or warm cooked foods, usually dressed and seasoned, served as an appetizer, side dish or main course." Doesn't narrow things down too much does it? In order to make this course manageable therefore, I have simply added the restriction that the dish must include salad leaves.

Equipment

You won't need much, if any specific equipment over and above your usual batterie de cuisine. However, make sure you have:

  • a large bowl for mixing the salad
  • a small to medium sized bowl for preparing dressings
  • a whisk
  • serving spoons or salad tongs for mixing and serving
  • adequate pots and pans for blanching and sauteing
  • chef's knife and paring or turning knife

I try and minimize the amount of specialist kitchen equipment that I might only occasionaly use for three reasons: my kitchen is small and I simply don't have the room to keep a lot of non-essential items; my wallet is not overflowing with spare cash and I don't like washing up. So my philosophy is, wherever possible, do the task by hand.

You may however be feeling the need to purchase a salad spinner, which is a simple and effective device for drying salad leaves after they have been washed. I would not necessarily discourage you as I have used them in professional kitchens and found them to work very well where I have had an industrial sized sink full of wet leaves to deal with.

At home however, I find it just as efficient to wash and drain the leaves, transfer them to a clean cloth, create a sort of beggar's purse around the leaves and then step into the garden and swing the cloth around my head. Not only does this dry the leaves perfectly, it will provide you with some exercise and your neighbor's with some free entertainment.

Types of Leaf

Choosing the correct leaf type or mix of leaves for your salad is crucial. Whether you start from the leaf and build up your other ingredients around it, or select a leaf to accompany a main element, you need to bear in mind its flavor, particularly in terms of how bitter or peppery it is, physical make up (soft, crisp, or structured) and appearance (color, size and shape). I've divided the leaves that I would typically include in a salad into 5 groups:

Sweet and Buttery: the butterhead varieties including the likes of Bibb, Boston, Continuity and Red Oak Leaf. Although they may look rather floppy and perhaps therefore less appealing than the more crisp and structured varieties, used properly, they are as deserving of fridge-space as any other salad vegetable. Lambs lettuce and baby spinach, although dissimilar in appearance to the butterheads, are included in this category for their soft texture and sweet almost bland flavor.

Crisp and refreshing: Iceberg has its place of course, shredded in a burger perhaps, but your attention should go to Cos (or Romaine) and Little Gems. These are a highly adaptable variety with a mild nutty flavor that will lend bulk and interest but not overpower other ingredients. The weapon of choice for many everyday applications.

Bitter: approach with some caution, think carefully about an appropriate dressing and chicory (Belgian endive) curly endive, frisee and radicchio will add a huge amount of interest to your salads. Chicory and radicchio can also be braised very successfully and included in a warm salad.

Peppery: rocket (arugula), watercress, mizuna, mustard greens and cress all deliver that delicious peppery kick that partners well with goat's cheese or the sweetness of roasted vegetables.

"Structured Leaves": this final category overlaps the others and includes those leaves that can be employed to provide height and shape to a salad on the plate and include frisee, chicory and radicchio.

The recipes in this course will demonstrate how to select the right leaf for your dish and how to successfully combine the various types.

Queer Gear - The Lollo Rossa Effect

Some things just shouldn't be allowed: kissing in public, the British licensing laws and Christina Aguilera spring to mind. But I could put up with all of that if someone would do something about the dreaded Lollo Rossa. That this nasty looking, unnecessarily frilly yet limp and unappetizing excuse for a salad leaf should have been developed to honor the frankly gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida is sadly ironic and does an injustice to both actress and salad alike. A triumph of attempted style over substance but landing wide of the mark on both counts, Lollo Rossa is indicative of the still apparent need for novelty and variety for its own sake.

For a time, it was a badge of honor for chefs to include the most obscure and unusual leaves in their salads, identifiable and distinguishable only by the label on the packets they arrived in and colloquially referred to in the professional kitchen as "queer gear". For the most part, that type of needless one-upmanship is long gone, but wherever you go, you still run the risk of encountering Lollo Rossa. It might be lurking in supermarket ready-prepared-salad pillow packs or loitering with intent to garnish your plate of sandwiches in the pub. You however have it in your power to exclude it from you salads. I would urge you to do so.

Croutons - The Essential Crunch

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Croutons are one of life's small joys and can help bring a salad to life. Where, I ask myself, would Caesar's salad be without those little fried cubes of delight? I use two crouton making methods: deep frying and baking. Both are very simple and it's simply a matter of having the right bread for the job.

For deep frying I always use what Nigella Lawson so charmingly refers to as "plastic bread" i.e. the industrially produced sliced white supermarket loaf. Just trim the crusts, slice into cubes and deep fry in hot sunflower oil until brown. Drain on kitchen paper and season with salt and maybe some grated parmesan if appropriate whilst still warm. Once cooled, these will keep quite happily for a day or two in an air tight container. However, I've found that croutons tend to disappear pretty quickly so this will probably not be a problem for you.

For baking, you need to find the longest, skinniest baguette you can lay your hands on. Slice thinly on the bias and arrange on a wax paper lined baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over some good quality olive oil. Bake in a pre-heated medium oven until golden brown. Rub with a cut clove of garlic and allow to cool. Try and prevent your guest/children from scoffing the lot before you have a chance to get them into a salad.

A Word on Stalks

Before we move on to the recipes, I'd like to say a few words about stalks: ALWAYS REMOVE THEM. If you don't, your friends and family will think you are a lazy, no-account bum. They will stop returning your phone calls, people will point at you in the street, your reputation as a cook will be ruined and you will slip into a life of self pitying misery and alcoholism.

I can't stand it when I am served a plate of arugala or baby spinach or frisee that has not been properly trimmed. Stalks are simply too fibrous to be considered good to eat and they have little flavour. Yes they can be a pain to get rid of, but hey, you're making a salad, the whole idea is to stand in your kitchen and listen to the radio whilst you prepare the leaves with the sort of love and devotion the star of any show deserves.

Green Salad

Green salads are most often a mixture of a number of salad leaves, but here I'm just using two strongly contrasting types; the bitter flavored and structured frisee with the soft textured and blandly sweet tasting English round lettuce.

In the UK, round lettuce may be combined with a thinly sliced cucumber and insipid hothouse tomatoes to create the world's most boring salad. With this recipe I wanted to demonstrate that in the right company, it can shrug off years of misuse and be employed to good effect.

Here I'm using it as a foil to the stronger tasting frisee, which in turn adds some much needed textural interest and acts as a sort of skeleton to give the salad shape and height on the plate.

But to a certain extent, the leaves most important job in this very simple salad is to provide a vehicle for some top quality single estate extra virgin olive oil which plays such a vital role in the dish by adding its own fruity, peppery notes.

This recipe also demonstrates the very simple method of dressing salads in the mixing bowl. It's quick and easy and precludes the need for preparing a dressing separately and is also a very good way to build up your confidence in the kitchen when judging volumes and amounts by instinct.

Ingredients

yellow leaves from the heart of one large head of frisee

1 round lettuce (butterhead), outer leaves removed

best extra virgin olive oil

juice of half a lemon

salt and pepper

Wash and dry the leaves well and place in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over enough of the oil to coat the salad. Squeeze over enough lemon juice to cut through he oil, but not so much that the salad tastes acidic. This is a matter of trial and error and is down to practice and developing your culinary instincts. (Alternatively, follow the instructions for vinaigrette in the Non Stock based Sauces class and pour over sufficient to coat the leaves). Toss the leaves to distribute the dressing evenly and then correct the seasoning if necessary. Allowing one good handful per portion, mound the salad onto a plate and serve as a simple starter or as a side dish.

Herb Salad

This salad is designed as a garnish for starters or main courses. Treated like a vegetable, it should be integrated into the dish itself in order to provide a little explosion of herby flavor. It can be served on a risotto for example or to provide freshness to rich roasted or braised dishes. Most versions of this I have encountered includes frisee for body, but here I am just using soft herbs. You can pretty much use anything you like, but avoid the more woody varieties of herb like rosemary and thyme which will not work. Coriander should only be used in the context of Asian cuisine as its citrus, perfumed flavor can be overpowering.

Ingredients

1 bunch tarragon

1 bunch flat leaf (continental) parsley

1 bunch chives, chopped into 1 inch sticks

1 bunch basil

good quality extra virgin Olive Oil

white wine vinegar

salt and pepper

Pick the leaves from the stalks and combine in a bowl. Dress as per recipe for green salad above. Using your hands, form very gently into small balls use to garnish the dish of your choice.

Chicory, Caramelized Apple, Salted Pecan and Beenleigh Blue Salad with Mustard and Honey dressing

This recipe demonstrates the principle of substitution as a method for creating salads. The inspiration for this dish came from the classic combination of pear, blue cheese (normally Stilton) and walnut, and in particular chef Alfred Portale's recipe "Autumn Salad of pears, Gorgonzola and Walnut Vinaigrette" as published in the Gotham Bar and Grill Cook Book.

I wanted to showcase the unique bitter flavor of chicory (Belgian endive) but needed to find a way to moderate its impact whilst still retaining it as the main ingredient. The apple in its raw state would not have the required sweetness to balance the bitterness, but does the job when caramelized with butter and brown sugar. The loss of the fruit's crispness by cooking it is not an issue here as the chicory has sufficient crunch to carry the dish. I chose pecan over walnut for its smoother taste and the Beenleigh Blue over a Stilton or Roquefort for the same reason. This cheese from the South West of England is not as salty and has a more rounded flavor than most other blue cheeses and suits the dish perfectly.

The dressing introduces a note of spice and heat from the mustard which is carried on the back of the sweet honey which gives the vinaigrette some body and rounds out the salad nicely. Chives are included not only for a little extra contrasting color and decoration, but are also used to unify the flavors of the salad in a similar way that a chopped and sweated onion provides a unifying base for a sauce or stew.

Ingredients

4 heads of chicory

2 dessert apples

25g butter

25g dark brown sugar

30 pecan halves, salted

200g Beenliegh or other blue cheese

1 handful of chopped chives

for the dressing

1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon of honey

1 dessertspoon of red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

2floz extra virgin olive oil

2floz sunflower oil

Ingredients for the salad.

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Trim the end of the chicory with a small pairing or turning knife.

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Seperate the leaves.

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Peel, core and slice the apples into 16 segments.

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Place into a bowl of acidulated water if your not using them straight away.

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Melt the butter and brown sugar in a thick bottomed pan.

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Caramelise the apple over a medium heat then allow to cool completely.

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Ingredients for the dressing.

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Put the mustard honey, vinegar and salt and pepper in a small bowl.

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Whisk to an emulsion

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Whisk in the oils slowly. If the resultant dressing is too think, let it down with a little water.

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Chop the chives as finely as you can manage.

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Roughly chop 10 of the pecans and 12 of the apple slices and place in a bowl with the chicory. Crumble in half the cheese (dice the rest and reserve), then spoon in enough of the dressing just to coat the salad.

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Arrange 5 apple slices, 5 pecan halves and 5 cubes of cheese on each plate, then divide the salad mixture evenly and pile it into the centre.

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Bruce Poole's Salad of Young English Vegetables with Tarragon Cream

It seems to me that there is something quintessentially English about a salad. The word seems to conjure up picnics on a summer day in the Sussex Downs or on the South Coast's stony but packed beaches. The reality of those al fresco meals however is probably not quite as romantic as one would like to imagine. Sand in your sandwiches, scotch eggs and a flask of tea are the stuff of culinary nightmare, not dreams.

It's fortunate then that I can draw on another memory to illustrate my point. Dining in London's Chez Bruce restaurant a few April's ago, I had the opportunity to sample chef Bruce Pooles spring vegetable salad. The flavors were piercingly clear and made me realize how delicious a plate of food without meat or fish can really be.

The recipe calls for the vegetables to blanched and refreshed. This simply means plunging them in to boiling, salted water and cooking them until tender then draining them and "shocking" them in a bowl of iced water to arrest the cooking process.

Chef Bruce Poole introduces the recipe:

"This is totally delicious with romaine lettuce hearts or any good crunchy leaves. The spring vegetables are simply blanched and refreshed then dressed to order. Good vegetables to use are carrots, radishes, tomato concasse, turnips, broad beans, green beans, peas, leeks and beets (dressed separately)."

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Ingredients

1 head of romaine lettuce, trimmed of outer leaves and separated

20 baby carrots, peeled, blanched until tender then refreshed in ice cold water

20 radishes trimmed

2 tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and cut into concasse

20 baby or 4 small young turnips quartered, blanched until tender then refreshed in ice cold water

250g broad beans, blanched until tender then refreshed in ice cold water

250g peas, blanched until tender then refreshed in ice cold water

8 baby leeks (or 2 medium young leeks sliced into rounds), blanched until tender then refreshed in ice cold water

extra virgin olive oil

white wine vinegar

salt and pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and dress as per green salad recipe above. Divide the salad equally amongst four plates and arrange attractively. Spoon over the tarragon cream dressing (recipe follows).

Tarragon Cream

Ingredients

yolks from 2 hard boiled eggs, sieved

1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar

150ml double (heavy) cream

1 small bunch of tarragon, finely chopped

Mix the yolks, mustard and vinegar in a bowl, whisk in the cream then stir in the chopped tarragon.

Bruce Poole's Salad of Soft Boiled Eggs, Leeks and Anchovies

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4 soft boiled eggs

12 baby leeks or 4 medium young leeks sliced into rounds, blanched until tender then refreshed in ice cold water

1 250 gram tin of salted anchovies

2 baby gem lettuces, trimmed of outer leaves and cut into quarters

1 quantity of tarragon cream (see recipe above)

Cook the eggs according to the instructions in the Hard Cooked Eggs course. Slice into quarters and arrange on 4 plates along with 2 lettuce quarters, 3 leeks and some of the anchovies. Spoon over the tarragon cream and serve as a starter.

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Warm salad of orange and chicken livers with watercress and sherry vinegar dressing

This recipe illustrates the principle of combining warm ingredients with salad leaves to provide a contrast of temperature within the dish. It is inspired by chef Nico Ladenis' famous "Hot Foie gras with Caramelized Oranges on Toasted Brioche". We are using the slightly more affordable but no less delicious offal of chicken livers rather than the expensive and tricky to handle foie gras. These are paired with fresh, rather than cooked orange segments which would overpower the more delicate flavour of the chicken liver. The sherry and walnut flavors in the dressing marry well with the liver and the peppery leaves, and the croutons provide that "essential crunch".

Ingredients

500g fresh chicken livers

Vegetable oil for frying

50ml of sherry for deglazing

1 orange peeled and cut into skinless segments and sliced into halves

1 large bunch of watercress, stalks trimmed

20 baked croutons (see recipe above)

for the dressing

1 crushed and minced clove of garlic

salt and pepper

1 teaspoon of mustard

1 dessertspoon of sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon of walnut oil

75ml of olive oil

To make the dressing, combine the first 4 ingredients in a bowl and whisk together. Whisk in the oils and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large think bottomed pan until smoking. Season the livers then sauté for a few minutes. They should still be pink in the middle. Deglaze the pan with the sherry. Combine the water cress and orange segments in a bowl and toss with the dressing to coat.

Divide the salad between 4 plates, piling it into the centre. Arrange 5 croutons over and around the salad, then divide the livers equally between the plates and arrange around the salad. Drizzle over the juices from the pan and a little more of the dressing. Serve immediately.

Post your questions on Leaf Salads here.

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