Salad Days

by: Susan Simon

A few weeks ago I was presented with a copy of Patricia Wells’ new book, “Salad as a Meal” (HarperCollins, 2011). Salad as a subject for meals have always held great interest for me so I dug into Wells’ book immediately, anxious to learn what brought this awardwinning author, journalist and teacher (at her schools in Paris and in Provençe) to her latest subject.

She writes, “The original inspiration ... comes from the simple, old-fashioned menu at Brasserie Lipp on Paris’s Left Bank. In big, bold red letters at the top of the French menu it proclaims in clear English:


She goes on to explain that the owners of Lipp were simply trying to prevent the ladies who lunch from ordering a simple tossed green salad as a meal. It was then that she started to think about what a salad is – and what one can be. “Today with heightened concern about nutrition as well as a great wealth of choice in what we eat – ultra-fresh seasonal produce, an ever-growing variety of greens, sparkling fish and shellfish, all manners of cheeses, oils, vinegars, nuts and seeds – I find at home (if not at Lipp) we are more likely to fashion a salad as an entire meal.”

In my book, “Insalate: Authentic Salads for All Seasons” (Chronicle Books, 2001), I delve into the history of salads to find that there was, in fact, a precedence for the kinds of salads that Ms. Wells includes her book to serve as a main course.

Through a series of introductions I came upon a book, published in Venice in 1627 whose title translates as “The First Course, or About Salad, About Its Use” by Salvatore Massonio. In the book Massonio references the even earlier writings of over one hundred other writers, including Aristotle and Pliny the Elder who talk about the importance of salad in the human diet.

... salad gets its name from the Latin word for salt, sal – or to salt – salare .
Massonio’s book has fifty-seven chapters devoted to individual salad ingredients from beets to truffles to sprouts to capers to tarragon and on and on. Massonio’s book inadvertently led me to another Italian chronicler of salads, Giacomo Castelvetro, who wrote letters to his fellow countrymen to persuade them to eat fresh food. In the letters he talks about basic hygiene and the need to thoroughly wash salad greens but also about the necessity to include other ingredients in salads. Castelvetro mentions mint, nasturtium, basil, citron, pimpernel flowers, violets, and hearts of lettuce. He suggests dressing the salad with salt – salad gets its name from the Latin word for salt, sal – or to salt – salare – and lots of oil. He even tells the reader that the most gracious way to eat a salad is with a fork and knife. Castelvetro wrote these suggestions in the early 17th century.

The writings of both Massonio and Castelvetro leave no doubt that salad is one of the most ancient foods that we consume. They both mention the Greek colonist on Sicily who tossed together some of the wild herbs and greens that covered the island, ingeniously creating the first salad and beginning a tradition that would evolve over time to include not only the original, simple salad of greens and herbs but more elaborate and ornate salads composed for Medici princes. Salads that were in the form of a tower with wild herbs, greens, sprouts, candied oranges, breast of penhen, and pomegranate seeds, decorated with olives, capers, and nuts.

Wells amplifies her definition of a salad from greens tossed with a vinaigrette, the kind that Brasserie Lipp frowns upon, “...a salad as a meal does not need to include lettuce or greens; it simply be a light and refreshing salad-related entity. A creamy chilled ricotta terrine, a protein-rich poached turkey breast dressed with herbs, a pasta flavored with a vinaigrette-like sauce of spicy mustard, a favorite chicken and tarragon terrine glistening in a sturdy gelatin, or such Middle Eastern classics as chickpea fritters – or falafel – teamed up with a gorgeous heirloom tomato salad and a healthy dose of tahini dressing are all salads as a meal in my book.”

And so, Wells includes chapters in her book for salads using Egg, Cheese, Bean, Grains, and Pasta; Fish and Shellfish; Poultry; and Classics, as well as chapters for Soup Sides; Appetizers; Bread; and an impressive collection of dressings – all recipes to pair with one and other in order to make a satisfying and nutritious meal.

Salads as we know them were not common on Nantucket until a few decades into the 20th century. While there is evidence that islanders were fond of pickling vegetables such as cucumbers or onions, lettuce salads weren’t served and the crop wasn’t cultivated. When salads finally became a menu item, dressings tended to mimic pickling methods, and lettuce was coated with sugar, salt and vinegar.

Now that salad is the food of the 21st century, Nantucket is brimming with farmers who accommodate the consuming public with a great variety of leaves, herbs and flowers (so, you too, can make a Renaissance salad), and shops selling just-caught seafood, and books like Wells’ “Salad as a Meal” and my own “Insalate,” there no reason that your next meal won’t have a salad as the starring course.

I’ve used only two books to find recipes for you to follow: Wells’ and mine. I’ve arranged the recipes in way so that there are comparable recipes from each book. For example, when I give you Wells’ recipe for the classic Salade Niçoise, a salad that combines the best ingredients of coastal southern France, I also give you my recipe for a specialty from the Italian Ligurian coast, Condijun. Both recipes include not only the best fresh ingredients of their areas but also the kind of preserved ingredients – capers, olives, etc. – that were vital parts of the galleys of the ships that plied out of the ports of those regions and were also present in the pantries of local kitchens. It’s interesting to note that Wells’ recipes are French in origin, while mine are Italian. As a blogger I just read said – “follow French recipes, use Italian ones as inspiration.” The statement is more or less true. Since there’s no real exact science to salads, use them all as inspiration, especially with the wealth of fresh food available right now!

Susan Simon is the author of several cookbooks including “The Nantucket Table,” “The Nantucket Holiday Table,” “Pasta Sfoglia,” a shopping guide to Morocco, and the recently-translated from Italian to English “Italy: Dish by Dish,” a comprehensive guide to eating in Italy.

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