Archive for October, 2009

The Salad Gets in Shape

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

We recently returned from Eric and Becky’s wonderful wedding weekend in southern California.  Among the sights I will never forget are Mandy Patinkin dancing the hora at the wedding (looking just like a regular guy and not at all like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride), a Bonobo mom and dad tossing their toddler offspring high into the air at the San Diego Zoo—and the salad we ate at the Beach House restaurant near La Jolla.

The menu called it a “chopped vegetable salad,” and listed the following ingredients:  romaine lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, corn, bacon and avocado.  Chicken, which we ordered, was an optional addition.  But, when the server brought our food, I thought that surely a mistake had been made.  To paraphrase Clara Peller in those 1980s Wendy’s commercials, where was the salad?

Chopped Vegetable Salad

Instead of a plate filled with lettuce and covered by the appropriate toppings, there was a multi-colored mound shaped like a two-inch high cylinder.  At the top was a handful of something crunchy-looking, which I later learned were crisply fried shoestring potatoes.  Upon further prodding with my fork, I saw that all the right salad ingredients seemed to be there, but that they must have first been chopped up, mixed with the vinaigrette dressing and then pressed into some kind of circular mold.

Several days later, I telephoned the Beach House, and spoke to James, one of the managers.  He told me that the recipe had belonged to Executive Chef Michael Ingino.  He also explained more about how the salad was made, including the fact that the bacon and avocado are not actually chopped with the other ingredients, but added later as separate layers.  Everything but the potatoes is smushed into a stainless steel cylinder that looks almost like a cookie cutter, but with more depth.  It’s actually probably more like a biscuit cutter.  Apparently there’s enough moisture, between the ingredients and dressing, for the molded product to easily enough slide out of the cylinder.  (I wish that my chocolate chip Bundt cake would do that.)

This so-called salad was so lovely that I was reluctant to deconstruct, let alone eat, it.  But, after hiking around lovely La Jolla all morning, I was pretty hungry.  And, not surprisingly, that perfectly shaped vegetable creation tasted as good as it looked.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,


The Salad as an Entree

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

When did the petite side salad served prior to the main course actually become the main course, morphing from bland iceberg and a few mainstream vegetables into healthy greens covered with sexier veggies and an array of cheeses, meats and things that crunch?

Big SaladIf Seinfeld is any gauge, it had happened by the early 1990s, when Elaine introduced us to the “big salad.” According to Jerry, it consisted of  “big lettuce, big carrots, tomatoes like volleyballs.” In another episode, Elaine attempts to order her big salad at a restaurant other than the usual Monk’s, and describes it to the edgy waitress as:  “…a salad, only bigger, with lots of stuff in it.” In the exchange that follows, vaguely reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, the server says that she can bring two small salads, but refuses to combine them into one big bowl.  A disgusted Elaine just orders a cup of decaf.

My first memory of a salad “with lots of stuff in it” is the Julienne.  Betty Crocker’s 1970s  cookbook calls it a “Chef’s Salad,” and proclaims:  “Crisp and cool, yet hearty and satisfying.  No wonder this meal-size salad is a first-choice favorite with men everywhere.”  Indeed.  The colorful full-page photograph shows both iceberg and romaine lettuce leaves, “julienne strips” of ham, turkey and Swiss cheese, green onions, celery, black olives, sliced hard boiled eggs and tomatoes cut into wedges.  It looks like something that even women might enjoy.  ;-)  BTW, to “julienne” means to cut into thin strips or small, match-like pieces.

A popular entree salad from the 1980s was Julia Child’s all-time favorite main course salad:  “The Nicoise” (meaning “in the style of Nice”).  She extolled “its fresh butter‑lettuce foundation; its carefully cooked, beautifully green green beans; its colorful contrast of halved hard‑boiled eggs, ripened tomatoes, and black olives; all fortified by chunks of tuna fish and freshly opened anchovies. It’s an…inspired combination that pleases everyone.”  While a salad nicoise may also contain boiled baby red potatoes (yay for simple carbs in salads!), this is not the authentic French preparation.  During a recent lunch at the Chicago Botanic Garden café, the Nicoise was quite nice–and you surely couldn’t find better scenery anywhere in France.

Yours till the laitue leaves,