Salad days are here again
From an accompaniment to a meal, salads have come a long way. There is greater awareness about the world of greens which is now much wider and boasts of a myriad delicacies, some common others exotic, but all tempting and nourishing
Pushpesh Pant

when summer comes can salads be far behind? In our ‘salad days’, alas long slipped away, when we were wet behind ears, we hated uncooked vegetables. Greens were particularly abhorred. Mother who knew best, told us they were good for body, mind and soul and no leftovers on the plate were tolerated. How have the times changed.

When the mercury begins to shoot up and the sunshine begins to scorch, the appetite for substantial meals is lost. One yearns for a repast that can make eating, particularly lunches, enjoyable once again. This is where salads have come to our rescue. Recently, a lady friend who is extremely health conscious gave us a dirty look focusing on the round belly protruding from the XXL T-shirt and advised us to confine ourselves for a couple of months to salad for lunch. She ‘sugar coated’ the bitter medicine by offering us a large plate of a concoction created with khus khus, cherry tomatoes, mint and iceberg. We were surprised that we quite enjoyed it.

Summer special

We visited a few salad bars in the malls in the vicinity and ordered what was on offer. we may not have become wealthier but certainly feel healthier, and dare we add wiser? With the enthusiasm of the newly converted we take great pleasure in the hope that you too dear readers will celebrate summer with salads and regain (or retain) youth.

The word salaad derived from English salad in most of India evokes images of sliced onions and tomatoes with cucumbers in season accompanied by carrots and radish, occasionally beetroots too, with whole green chillies and lemon wedges maybe on a bed of lettuce leaves. Some eateries are generous to give a small plate gratis to their patrons when they order more than daal-roti others place a large plate pulled out from the fridge to nibble on till the food ordered reaches the table. Some serve salads as starters, appetisers to be precise, others as accompaniments to a main course dish while some salads are substantial enough to be placed on the table as a main course itself. Salads can be palate cleansers and fruit salad has enjoyed great popularity as a dessert.

Caesar salad gets its crunchiness from croutons. Parmesan cheese and eggs add to the flavour
Caesar salad gets its crunchiness from croutons. Parmesan cheese and eggs add to the flavour

Chicken salad is made from iceberg lettuce and pieces of sliced, grilled or tandoori chicken
Chicken salad is made from iceberg lettuce and pieces of sliced, grilled or tandoori chicken

Tomatoes and chunks of pineapple add punch to pineapple salad
Tomatoes and chunks of pineapple add punch to pineapple salad

Waldorf salad gets its name from the legendary hotel Waldorf-Astoria
Waldorf salad gets its name from the legendary hotel Waldorf-Astoria. A visiting chef combined apples and walnuts for the unique taste

One-dish meal

Russian salad is a m`E9lange of variety of boiled and raw vegetables, meat, eggs, apples, peas, green beans and is a tasty nutritious one dish meal. The same is true of a chicken or tuna salad. Neither requires elaborate preparation before production or back-breaking drudgery. As a matter of fact, both can be produced in a delicious incarnation with leftovers or from frozen or out of the tin ingredients. (Goes without saying that we favour fresh ingredients. But if you love tuna where will you source it in fresh form?). Chicken salad too can be "personalised," according to your taste or guest’s preference. We have enjoyed it in bland boiled, smoked-grilled and even shredded tandoori tikka avatar. Add a few chunks of pineapple and it can claim descent from Hawaiian ancestors. The beauty of a salad is in the infinite variety it can incorporate effortlessly. Salmagundi is literally a hodge-podge and the salad lives up to its name.

Regional variation

Many famous salads, food historians tell us were created by Prima Donna-like celebrity chefs in a crisis-management mode when valued patrons descended in the restaurants unexpectedly. Cedric Caesar’s name is linked with that simple yet sublime salad and Waldorf commemorates the legendary hotel that later became the Waldorf-Astoria, where a visiting chef gave birth to this one.

Gado-Gado is from Indonesia and features on the menu of many a pan-Asian restaurant these days. It has a unique taste that is contributed by spice peanut sauce and fish paste. You can enjoy it to your heart’s content sans the fish paste and substitute banana or jackfruit chips for the traditional tapioca chips. It makes for a nice healthy anytime snack. Thai green papaya salad doesn’t pretend to be anything more than an appetiser. What surprises is the savory tang of the fruit we are used to consuming ripe and sweet. Variations of this salad are encountered all over South-east Asia from Laos and Cambodia to Vietnam. The Mediterranean region is renowned for exceptional salads, many of them vegetarian. Eggplants, tomatoes, olives, cheeses, chickpeas and grapes are united in polygamous marriages to dazzle the diner. Tabouli is just one of these and this is what our hostess had served us.

A salad is possible without exotic ingredients. A simple grilled pineapple, paired with tomatoes, plays a duet that pleases both the eyes and the palate. For a substantial meal, you can fortify this unobtrusively with a little pan-grilled tofu or paneer, garnish it with a dollop of hung yogurt sprinkling it with herbs. Time has come to give the Americans their due for popularising salads. They may be embracing obesity from adolescence gorging on burgers and hot dogs but seldom forget to add a layer of coleslaw or sauerkraut. This is the most basic German salad. You can play around with colours, textures, shapes, and flavours, instead of sticking to basics.

Mix and match ingredients from beans and sweetcorn and a variety of greens to nuts and fruits, meats and sea food and design a dressing of your own.

Dressings galore

Dressing is no less important than the "main ingredients" used. A little effort spent to increase one’s awareness of "what suits what best" will never be wasted. Dressing is what accentuates a salad’s distinct personality. It is also the signature of the person creating this culinary work of art. You can buy Thousand Islands or Vinaigrette but nothing compares with an innovative home-made dressing.

For the Russian and the potato salads plain, good old mayo suffices but try substituting hung yogurt blended with goat cheese spiked a bit with freshly ground mustard and see how it enhances the ‘wow’! Olive oil, lemon juice, malt vinegar, mustard, black peppercorns, a trace of honey are all easily available and can be used in a myriad ways to transform a salad from the banal to sublime. You can multiply the delight manifold by adding bits of relish, grated cheese, dill pickle, a handful of exotic dried fruits like prunes and nuts.

Salad is mostly informal finger food. You can pick up a whole green leaf by its stem and enjoy its refreshing crunch by itself or take delight in contrasting texture of boiled potato or egg by alternating bites. Batons of radish or a stick of celery have seductions of their own. Let a straying pine nut or walnut kernel tease or tickle your palate.

Showcase your salad

But don’t let us lead you astray. You can, if you like, show off your "work of art in salad" elegantly in a salad bowl that matches its brilliance. Seasoned salad bowls in walnut wood delicately carved or sparkling metal, cut glass or earthenware — choose what strikes your fancy. Happy munching on salads this summer.