Summer Salads and Sauces

Summer Salads and Sauces

As a child, I thought “salad” was lettuce, cucumber and tomato. You could have different sorts of lettuce – cos, or butterhead, or Webbs wonder. I think the last was really a type of iceberg lettuce, but my dad grew it in the garden, so it was nothing like today’s supermarket plastic-wrapped item. Perhaps I should explain – when I was a child, there were almost no supermarkets in this country. You went into Sainsbury’s and bought butter that was cut off a huge block and was somehow “batted” between two wooden paddles with ridges, then wrapped in greaseproof paper. The price was jotted on the paper – obviously in shillings and pence – and you paid for it at a cash desk. No self-service, no wire baskets, no plastic bags of any description. You get the picture? It was a long, long time ago.

Back in the dark ages then, salad dressing came in strange-shaped glass bottles with either Heinz 57 or Crosse and Blackwell on the label. It was challenging getting it out of the bottle, so you didn’t eat very much of it. You could also buy bottles of mayonnaise from the same manufacturers. As far as I recall, the mayonnaise and the salad cream appeared almost indistinguishable one from the other, and tasted very much the same.

One day, I had a revelation. You could make mayonnaise! My father, who didn’t cook, called for egg yolks, salt, pepper, lemon juice and oh, strangest of things – olive oil. Panic must have ensued. We lived in a tiny rural village. No chemist shop for miles – how were we to conjure up olive oil? Of course, we had a minute bottle of olive oil in the medicine cupboard – every family did, in case of earache. That was the purpose of olive oil – you poured a teaspoonful into the afflicted ear. It didn’t have much effect on the ailment, but it made you almost totally deaf, which was, at least, a distraction.

Somehow, the olive oil was procured and I watched, fascinated, as Father, using a fork, stirred the egg yolks in a bowl with the salt, then, very slowly, a drip at a time, he added the oil. The egg yolks thickened, and a wonderful emulsion was created. A squeeze of lemon juice finished the mixture which we must have eaten with aforementioned lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber, potatoes and cold meat of some description. Though I cannot recall tasting the wonderful creation, the memory of my father making something you could eat – something completely different, has stayed with me ever since.

Today, supermarkets sell a variety of mayonnaises, as well as numerous other dressings, some with exotic-sounding names. If you have time, a stick-blender, egg yolks, and of course a decent bottle of oil (doesn’t have to be olive oil, but…) you can easily make your own mayo. However, bought options can be given zing! with the addition of fresh herbs, mustard, garlic, horseradish – the possibilities go as far as the imagination of the creative cook can stretch. Some suggestions will follow.

Also, let’s not forget basic French dressing. A fresh green salad is always made extra-good by simply tossing it in a mixture of best olive oil and Balsamic vinegar.

This week’s exciting item in our veg box was kohlrabi. In case this is new to you, it’s a large turnip with cabbage-like leaves forming a sort of corona around the top portion of the bulb. A great no-cook way to eat kohlrabi is to peel and grate it to make a salad. Caveat: You need a really sharp, heavy knife and plenty of wellie to cut off the root end, then a normal spud peeler to peel it. Next, I used a coarse grater then spooned in a good dollop of horseradish mayonnaise, salt and ground black pepper and mixed it through carefully. It’s a positively delicious quick version of coleslaw. Horseradish mayonnaise is very simple to knock together from supermarket mayo with a good spoonful of hot horseradish stirred in.

You can make a good mustard mayo by following the horseradish recipe and substituting a good Dijon mustard for the horseradish. Make your own aioli by crushing a clove or two of garlic and stirring this into the mayo. Create a delicious herb mayonnaise by fine-chopping marjoram or oregano (which are the same) with thyme leaves – remove the stem by running your fingers down the stalk, from growing tip to base – and some finely chopped lovage leaves or hyssop. Make a delicate dill mayonnaise by the addition of fresh dill leaves, and if the mayonnaise seems a little too thick, thin it down with two or three drops of water.

The French serve cucumber, very finely sliced, in a mixture of crème fraiche, salt and Dijon mustard. Go light on the mustard, you don’t want to overwhelm the cucumber.

And now for sweet, simple French dressing. My bête noire is cheap olive oil and of course there is no such animal as “cheap” olive oil now. Buy sunflower or golden rapeseed oil, and if you can, the most expensive olive oil your budget runs to. Use Balsamic vinegar, because it will elevate the flavour of the dressing. A compromise solution with expensive olive oil vs cheaper sunflower oil is to use mostly sunflower oil, and just add a few drops of the best olive oil. To make a decent dressing for a green salad, use a bowl large enough to accommodate the lettuce, rocket and salad leaves, or whatever. Start by pouring oil into the bowl, then add salt and black pepper and finally a few drops of Balsamic vinegar – red or white wine vinegar are very acceptable substitutes, by the way. Using an old-fashioned whisk, mix the vinaigrette thoroughly, then add the salad mix and fold it into the dressing. If you’re not going to eat the green salad more or less immediately, best not to stir the dressing through it until just before it will be eaten, or it will go floppy and unappetising.

Using up cooked left-over greens in salad provides a good no-waste option, and for this I often make a mustard vinaigrette, using about half a teaspoon of mustard then blending salt and oil through with a whisk, adding more oil as you go, and finish off with a splash of vinegar. It doesn’t matter if the oil and mustard separate, it will still taste lovely.

About this time of year the new crop potatoes come in. Spuds that were better mashed, fried or roasted are finished, and firmer, waxy ones are appearing on the shelves. Potato salad is something of a favourite in our household, and can be made using either mayonnaise or French dressing. Add plenty of chopped fresh chives, sliced spring onions or finely chopped shallots and chopped up hard-boiled eggs – it looks good, and will go down very well.

Finally, a reminder that whatever vegetables you use and whatever their provenance, they must be washed very thoroughly. The recent outbreak of E.coli has been traced back to a salad supplier. Unfortunately, we should all remember that bacteria may be present on the vegetables we use, and that the best way to avoid contamination is to wash vegetables very carefully indeed.