Somewhere on my bookshelves there’s a battered copy of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche by Bruce Feirstein, given to my parents in the early ’80s. My mother happily quizzed her dinner party guests about their real men status, though this backfired when my father felt that (being a real man) he could air his food grievances, which included crème caramel, stew – and salad. He had a point because at that time in the UK “salad” consisted of wet, flimsy, butterhead lettuce leaves, a sliced tomato and a few chunks of cucumber.
But Dad may have missed a trick, since Egyptians of the previous millennium – around 1980s BC – believed lettuce promoted virility. In the carved chapel at Karnak an image of Senusret I, the ruling Pharaoh at the time, stands against a background of three tall lettuces; he is making an offering to Min, the god of fertility and harvest and embodiment of the masculine principle. In ancient Egypt “lettuce opium” or lactucarium, from some lettuce varieties, was also thought to promote sleep and there is scientific evidence today to support its snooze-inducing side-effects. No-one who grew up listening to Beatrix Potter’s Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies can forget the nearly deadly consequences of lettuce-eating that befell Benjamin and the Flopsy Bunnies. Having feasted on Mr McGregor’s lettuces, “by degrees, one after another, they were overcome with slumber and lay down in the mown grass”, only to be bundled up by Mr McGregor, destined for stewpot or fur coat, an outcome they narrowly escaped.
Like many foods, salad has been in and out of fashion, restyled and rebranded. By the ’90s it was move over butterhead as we had fallen in love with “real lettuce”, which had to be curly, red or maybe blonde. Oakleaf, endive and frisée were the new kids on the block, served as a salade tiède with just-cooked chicken livers, slices of warm duck breast, and lardons, of course.
For a while the Dark Ages returned and salad was left to wilt on the compost heap of the culinary world – of no concern to my household, since my children had had a nasty shock in Northern Ireland, where the number one salad at that time was jellied beetroot. My gang had happily dug their spoons into some violent pink concoction, thinking Grandma had gone mad and was serving pudding with the main course.
Nowadays, with two veggies in my family, every day is salad day. Food writers such as Ella Woodward, the Hemsley Sisters and Madeleine Shaw, have shown it pays to be bold and adventurous, to raid the fridge and let your imagination run wild. Anyone for grilled broccoli with chilli and garlic and a tahini dressing? Sesame, aubergine and pepper noodle salad? Kale caesar salad? Not a butterhead leaf in sight.
Most salads reach their point of perfection when properly dressed and there’s no excuse for tasteless vinaigrette with so many delicious oils, vinegars and mustards on the market. Please, please don’t reach for a bottle of shop-bought dressing as they’re often packed full of unnecessary, unpleasant ingredients. At the supermarket recently I noticed that one brand of balsamic and olive oil dressing boasted twelve ingredients. Mine has just four, including salt and pepper.
Before dressing your salad, ensure all leaves and vegetables are dry after washing so that water doesn’t dilute the flavour. I usually put the dressing in first and then add the salad, which stops any delicate leaves being flattened or squashed. Serve immediately. And let the “real men” judge.
Honey and Mustard Vinaigrette
A good general-purpose dressing, perfect for a leaf salad alongside a slice of homemade quiche.
1 tbsp each Dijon mustard, runny honey and wine vinegar
6 tbsp sunflower or olive oil
Place the mustard, honey and vinegar in a small bowl. Whisk together until smooth and then, still whisking, add the oil in a slow steady stream. Season.
Blue Cheese Dressing
This is bold and gutsy, great with crunchy green lettuce and spicy ribs or grilled chicken breasts.
50g soured cream
1 tsp lemon juice
50g blue cheese, crumbled
1tbsp chives, snipped or chopped
In a medium-sized bowl combine the buttermilk, soured cream, mayonnaise, lemon juice and 50g of the blue cheese. Season and stir through the chives. Chill until ready to serve.
I love this on roasted veg, such as sweet potatoes, or with kale and broccoli salad.
1 garlic clove
1 tbsp olive oil
Squeeze the juice of the lemon into a small bowl, add the crushed garlic, tahini and olive oil. Stir in about 50ml cold water to make a smooth and creamy dressing.
Soy, garlic, ginger and sesame
This is perfect for finely shredded red cabbage, mushrooms, red peppers, spring onions. Serve with grilled king prawns or pork patties.
1tsp runny honey
1 garlic clove
2cm root ginger, peeled
2tbsp soy sauce
3tbsp sunflower oil
1tsp sesame oil
Place the honey in a bowl with the crushed garlic and grated ginger, add the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine.
Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com