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

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.