It's Too Darn Hot!

I'd like to sup with my baby tonight,
Refill the cup with my baby tonight,
But I ain't up to my baby tonight
'Cause it's too darn hot!

My phone tells me the current temperature is 29℃ outside. Like Cole Porter's chorus in Kiss Me Kate, I've no interest in cooking, dining or much else in this weather. In the summer months, I rely quite heavily on salads for my evening meals. An interesting salad can be thrown together with little thought and served cold as the day starts to cool, but there's no reason it shouldn't be part of an hospitable dinner, either.

American hospitality is generous and welcoming. Virtually every dinner begins with a dish of salad, and their variety seems to know no bounds. Europeans may be surprised by the Southern and Mid-West delight in jello (fruit jelly) salads, but we still have much to learn from the inventiveness of our friends across the Atlantic and their ability to deliver freshness, punchy flavours and lively colours time after time. Imagine this: a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce, some chopped dill or chervil, fine slices of melon and segments of mandarin, all dressed with a mixture of buttermilk, sunflower oil and honey. To my mind, that's calling out for dry, sparkling wine or a fine cider.

By toasting hazelnuts and blending them with the dressing, you can add textural interest and depth of flavour to many salads. Use sweetened chilli vinegar and corn oil, some chopped spring (green) onions and those nuts. Mix in a blender for a good minute or more, and the emulsion will hold without you needing to keep re-mixing it. A dressing like this can take some big flavours. Try it with bitter leaves, chopped apple and a handful of raisins or chopped dates. The American sweet tooth is famous, and honey finds its way into many salads. Recently I tried a recipe for a salad of leaves, smoked cheese, apples confit in oil and pecans candied in brown sugar, salt & cayenne. The dressing was made from mead, honey, vinegar, chives and corn oil. It was sublime! In this context, the thought of a little lemon, lime or orange jelly isn't so weird after all.

Mayonnaise-based salads can be found everywhere. From coleslaw to Russian salad and Waldorf salad. The creamy texture of mayonnaise is a perfect foil for crunchy fresh vegetables. Once again, the USA leads the way in creating new varieties. Thousand Island dressing is a spiced cousin of the French sauce gribiche and is perfect with all kinds of shellfish. Blue cheese dressings abound and are great with mixed vegetables. Every region state and county seems to have its favourite mixture of meat or fish with peppers (capsicum), onions, vegetables or spices, all bound in mayonnaise or a mixture of mayo and cream. They are often served with crackers at a buffet, but are just as delicious with a bed of mixed leaves as a starter. I wrote in May about the very English Coronation chicken starter that we served at our Jubilee luncheon, and that is another example of this style of dish. Mayonnaise needs something quite acid to cut through its richness. Oh dear! That'll mean more champagne, then.

Not all great salads come from America, though. A trip to South Africa will introduce you to chakalaka, a spicy bean and vegetable relish that's a staple at any buffet or braai (barbecue). There isn't a strict recipe, but every cook mixes their own version with whatever is to hand. Onions, green pepper, cabbage, chilies, carrots and spices are added to cooked beans and left to stand overnight. The beans could be boiled, tinned or even baked in tomato sauce from Heinz. Spices could be simple curry powder, or a bespoke mix with plenty of heat. Although this is usually served with big chunks of grilled red meat, it livens up any dish of leaves, fish or vegetables. Serve something a little sweeter than usual to off-set the heat of the spices.

French hosts often serve a very simple salad after the main course: just lettuce, shallot, parley and vinaigrette. However, they also glory in a range of salades composées, which are more complex affairs, often served as a starter of main course. A good salade niçoise is a spectacular love-song to the produce of Provence. Full of sun-ripened tomatoes, basil and olives, and enriched with tuna and anchovies from the Mediterranean and eggs from local farms, it is served everywhere in France but not always well. Too many chefs imagine ordinary ingredients can make an extraordinary dish. By choosing the best quality ingredients at their peak and dressing them with really good olive oil and sharp vinegar, you will recognise immediately why this salad has conquered the hearts and palates of all comers.

Further west, salade périgourdine is loaded with ingredients typical of the region: smoked duck breast, confit duck gizzards, walnuts and sometimes truffle. Such a salad demands a full bodied white wine or, conversely, a light red. Serve the wine lightly chilled (yes, the red, too) and the meats warm. The north of France is home to endives, the firm, bitter leaf the English call chicory. It goes as well with blue cheese, bacon and pears as it does with pickled herrings, chopped onion, apple and crème fraîche. You might want to try that typically Flemish combination with a pale beer or cider.

Ultimately, a good salad depends on two things: good salad veg and a creative cook. Let your imagination run wild and see what surprises you can wake your taste buds with. Keep it fresh, keep it colourful and have fun.


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