What makes a salad, exactly? Don’t say lettuce. (More on that later.) Think of potato salad, hot beef noodle salad, or those that call for glossy olive oil and calamari. Is a salad just two ingredients or more sliced into a bowl? Chopped vegetables and/or fruit with dressing to pull it all together? Maybe it’s temperature dependent, too. Hot spaghetti and sauce is considered a main meal, but cold penne and sauce? Presto! Pasta salad.
French cooking bible Larousse Gastronomique pronounces that salads are “dishes made up of herbs, plants, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish, seasoned with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, with or without other ingredients.” To recap: any group of things, with or without other things. Indeed, judging by lists like this one, a salad is defined as such purely because you think it is.
Back to the lettuce. (Unfortunately.) Why is lettuce? Just, why? I don’t get it. Sure, at its best it can be crunchy, but how often have you bitten into a perfect, fresh, firm, full-flavoured lettuce leaf? And, as for the taste, it’s like water from a glass that previously held something else. Why not some peppery, cheeky rocket instead? Tender English spinach, mini lily pads of watercress, fragrant herbs or beautiful shoots? Hell, even slightly-rubbery-when-raw Swiss chard will do! What I cannot abide is those fancy leaves that float though life by virtue of their pretty frills, but taste like a drain and fall limp at the merest hint of a raised eyebrow. Pathetic. Grow a backbone, lettuce!
Plus, if you really want crunchy greens in your salad, you should consider sugar-snap peas, gherkins, cucumber, green peppers, mange tout, pickled jalapenos, broccoli florets, green beans, asparagus or spring onion. As for things that aren’t green but still deliver the crunch, the world is your oyster. (Apart from, um, your salad. That’s probably the only exception.)
Those containing bananas. Online editor Katharine Jacobs attests to this in her story on why bananas are the worst. A friend once showed me her mom’s 1970s Be Bold with Bananas cookbook bursting with tempting gems like curried banana salad, banana-devilled eggs, and my personal favourite, a whole banana served upright in a pineapple ring (from a can, natch) and drizzled in mayonnaise. In the office kitchen I have also heard horror stories of a particular banana, yoghurt and mayo salad at family braais. Get a grip, people.
Those garnishes at chain restaurants. I don’t like to dwell on it, but I’m pretty sure they just slide the garnish over, uneaten (we all know it’s not technically untouched), from one plate to another. Grainy, pale tomato slices, frilly bitter lettuce, and one raw onion ring to ruin them all.
Those going by the name of coleslaw. Cabbage in white sour sauce with peanuts and raisins that go soggy and swollen, respectively, and lurk in wait like malevolent Christmas beetles. Nightmarish. I’m slowly learning to love cabbage, but it’s an arranged marriage: I get one as big as my head in my weekly box of organic veggies from Harvest of Hope (when it’s in season) and I’m figuring out how to enjoy its best qualities without the consequences.
Those containing frilly lettuce. No.
Those containing cheese. I know 1997 called and wants its feta back, but I can’t resist glowing white chunks of it in a salad – and there’s no such thing as too much. Hard cheese like gruyère or parmesan is fantastic grated into a nutty salad, oozy blue is a French-inspired favourite with pears, and goat’s cheese is best friends with roasted beetroot and a dressing of garlic, ginger and honey. Maybe I should play around with a quattro formaggio salad? I’ll work on it and let you know.
Those with varying textures and colours
The heroes of the salad bowl strike a delicate balance between silky, crunchy and creamy, all while wowing with colours and shapes. Why not toss in some roasted cashews, almonds or pumpkin seeds? A handful of toasted ramen noodles broken into the bowl? Chickpeas, couscous or quinoa? Mini corn or spears of asparagus for some excitement? Also: buttery, crisp croutons. There’s really no excuse to resort to limp lettuce.
To inspire you to make sensational salads without those dangerous lettuce tendencies, try some of these recipes: