Bit on the side

Food - Bee Wilson on the careful art of making a good salad

One of the worst rip-offs in the modern British restaurant is surely the rocket and Parmesan side salad, an overpriced mixture of limp leaves and dry old cheese clippings. Such a good combination when made well; but mostly, it's flung out of a catering bag and on to a plate, undressed, unseasoned and unseasonal, a sop to the anxiety of diners who feel that their meals might not otherwise be healthy enough. Restaurant side salads in general are depressing and become more so than usual in winter, when there are so many good alternatives available to those dreary mixtures of "colourful" leaves.

Here are some examples:

- Chicory dressed with a mustard cream of two tablespoons of Dijon mustard and four tablespoons of thick creme fraiche, with pepper, a drop of lemon if it needs it, and salt.

- Finely sliced fennel mixed with anchovy dressing, made from two sieved anchovies, some oil and vinegar to taste, pepper, perhaps a little crushed garlic and salt.

- Radishes, finely chopped, with their leaves minced, mixed with a dressing of one tablespoon of lemon juice, three of olive oil, pepper, salt.

- Carrots cooked whole, then cut into pieces and dressed with lemon, crushed garlic, plain oil and salt (this is an idea from the Moro cookbook).

- Shredded red cabbage dressed with oil, lemon and salt, as eaten in Turkey.

- Cooked green lentils mixed with a pungent vinaigrette, chopped tarragon and salt.

- Watercress arranged with sliced oranges, or by itself, salted.

- Lamb's lettuce and little sticks of celery dressed with oil, vinegar, shallots and salt.

If you are observant, you may have noticed a common element running through these salads: salt. The word "salad" derives from the Latin sal (salata means "salted things"), an etymological fact that might also be taken as a culinary prescription. Salads come to life only when they are well seasoned, and this is especially true in winter, when their refreshing properties are not so important. Vinegar or lemon juice, the acidic component, is also more essential than some cooks allow. Elizabeth David was writing at a time when it was common to over-vinegar salads and, as a result, may have over-emphasised how sparing one must be with the vinegar bottle. She gives proportions of six parts oil to one part vinegar, in contrast to the usual three-to-one ratio, but the right ratio greatly depends on how mellow your vinegar is. Many English people make salad as if it were a dry Martini, treating the oil as gin and the vinegar as vermouth, adding it to the dressing with a caution verging on paranoia. This is all wrong. It is true that there are few things more inedible than a salad over-soused in vinegar, but it needs some bite.

A Frenchman called Monsieur Chaptal invented the perfect solution for those who fear over-vinegaring their salad, as described by Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers). It's worth practising with a floppy English round lettuce, the kind that cost about 35p in supermarkets. First, prepare your lettuce. Then, mix a little oil, salt and pepper into it, until all the leaves are coated. (This is easiest to do with your hands.) "The vinegar then slips off each of the oily leaves so that if one puts too much vinegar on a salad, which happens often as we all know, one never has to rue this, because the vinegar falls to the bottom of the salad bowl." This recipe illustrates that, apart from salt, the other indispensable ingredient in a good salad is a little care. (Dumas concludes his own elaborate instructions for salad-making by saying: "Finally, I put the salad back into the salad bowl and let my servant toss it.")

The reason why it's frequently disappointing ordering side salads when eating out in this country is that so little attention is paid to them, even in expensive places. My own favourite side salad in all of Britain is to be found not in a grand restaurant, but in a smoky little cafe frequented by students. Clown's cafe in King's Street, Cambridge, is not a de luxe establishment. The Italian family who runs it specialises in good strong coffee and toasted sandwiches. The walls are plastered with children's drawings. But they understand here the two rules of salad-making: salt and care. The Clown's salad costs £2.50 and consists of: a mound of finely grated carrot, a few slices of tomato, some dressed raw mushrooms and, the best bit, a generous spoonful of finely shredded, lightly pickled red cabbage, as purple as a Monseigneur's socks. The whole composition is served on one of those crescent moon-shaped china salad plates. Logically, it oughtn't to be as good as it is: the salt comes out of a shaker and the tomatoes are not the ripest you've ever tasted. But it's a salad just as pleasing in winter as in summer. Each component has been properly seasoned and, just before they serve it, they sprinkle over a little more oil and seasoning. There is a sense that trouble has been taken. Sometimes that is all you need.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick