To celebrate the end of the quarter, I watched the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” this weekend. In the final episode, Magnus Nilsson narrates his return from a trip throughout Scandanavia researching traditional cooking methods. He says, “The only way for traditions in food to be kept alive is to let them adapt.” For those of us thinking about traditions in food and their survival (or not), Nilsson’s perspective is an intriguing one. To what degree can these traditions adapt before they’re lost entirely? Is it possible to resurrect and then adapt a tradition that has been entirely lost? And conversely, what is the genealogy of the thing I’m cooking now?
So to that end, here’s a post on modernizing techniques rather than recreating an old recipe.
It’s blazing hot in my town, and we’re also at the height of the summer produce, which means an abundance of tasty and sun-warmed ingredients that don’t need to be cooked. I recently attended a lunch hosted by my professor that was entirely composed of various fancy salads, and I’ve taken that as my inspiration—and my justification not to turn the oven on—and made a whole slew of cold salads.
The principles of balance and taste that I’ve been interacting with—for example, what’s the ideal balance of grain to vegetables? What on earth do I do for dressing?—have reminded me of a section in Gervase Markham’s 1653 The English Hous-wife in which Markham discourses on the principles of salads (“sallets”) as a staple of the housewife’s repertoire. Rather than a series of recipes, a salad is a method, a principle, or a template.
“First then to speak of Sallets, there be some simple, and others compounded, some onley to furnish out the Table, and some both for use and adornation….your simple sallets are Chibols pilled, washt clean, and half of the green tops cut clean away, so served on a Fruit-dish, or Chives, Scallions, Radish-roots, boyled Carrets, Skirrets, and Turneps, with such like, served up simply; also all young Lettice, Cabbage-lettice, Purslane, and divers other herbs which may be served simply without any thing but a little Vinegar, Sallet Oyl, and Sugar; Onions boyled, and stript from their rinde, and surved up with Vinegar, Oyl, and Pepper is a good simple Sallat; so is Samphire, Bean-cods, Sparagus, and Cucumbers, served in likewise with Oyl, Vinegar, and Pepper, with a world of others; too tedious to nominate” (E2r-v).
A genre emerges: a variety of greens and herbs or a medley of vegetables, dressed; even a single ingredient prepared to highlight its flavor. The compound salads are much more complex, although the composition is similar: greens, small exotic flavory bits (capers, olives, currants, figs, almonds) layered attractively and dressed. The compound salads tend to have an astonishing amount of sugar layered into them, directly on top of the greens.
Markham’s cookbook also lists recipes for boiled salads and pickled salads, which seem to be a way to counteract the natural growing cycles and have herbs and vegetables throughout the year. Markham makes especial note that the preserved sallats, whether in a sugar brine or a salt brine, may be “used at pleasure, for they will last all the year” (E3r).
Nilsson’s restaurant, Faviken, similarly capitalizes on traditions of pickling and preserving as well—in a climate where things don’t grow six months out of the year, preserving is a way to “defeat the seasons,” as Nilsson says.
Although I’d like to try preserving a small “sallet” sometime this summer, right now the salads I’m making are all about celebrating what’s in season as well as the marvel of refrigeration (yet another form of artificially extending produce past its season).
Early modern salads, like today’s salads, motivate and highlight creativity; they are endlessly malleable and customizable. They’re also an interesting metaphor for genre: what are the identifying features of a sallet, if almost all of its components can change at the cook’s whim?
With the basic principles communicated, Markham leaves the rest to the housewife’s creativity: “A world of other Sallets there are, which time and experience may bring to our Hous-wifes eye, but the composition of them, and the serving of them differeth nothing from these already rehearsed” (E3v).
Here are three of the salads in that world:
Antipasta Salad (yup, that’s a pun)
1 head butter or red lettuce
small red and yellow tomatoes
fresh mozzarella, torn
Penne or other long pasta, boiled in well-salted water
1/4 c olive oil
1 tsp red wine vinegar (to taste—I don’t like vinegary things so I under-season and then add more vinegar)
oregano, salt, and pepper
Boil the penne in well-salted water; drain and rinse. Let cool a little; put into large bowl with mozzarella and tomatoes and add dressing. Toss. Add lettuce just before serving.
2 1/2 c chickpeas, rinsed and drained (about 2 cans)
2 1/2 c peeled & coarsely shredded carrots (about 4 medium carrots)
1 1/4 c cooked quinoa, optional
1/2 c raisins, optional
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1 c packed cilantro leaves and stems
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 c olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
Whisk dressing together; pour over all other ingredients combined; toss. Top with roasted pepitas just before serving.
Farro and Cucumber Salad
1 c farro, boiled in salted water
1 cucumber, diced in quarters
3-4 scallions, diced
Salt and pepper
Mix everything together and toss. Add avocado just before serving. It’s also possible to dress the plain farro and leave it in the fridge to rest before adding the other ingredients.