Salad: dressed to kill

Not just a load of fresh lettuce

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A salad is a collection of raw vegetables drenched in oil and vinegar. Or so we’re lead to believe. The truth is entirely different: salads are potentially complex arrangements of fine ingredients, which are unashamedly healthy and filled with flavour, and – this is the biggie – can include non-vegetable constituents like biltong, tuna, thinly-sliced rare braaied steak and smoked chicken. The right dressing is a fine way to turn a bunch of lettuce leaves into something the standard South African carnivore would love to eat …

For a basic salad dressing, which you can personalise by determining portions according to your own taste, you will need:
• Extra-virgin olive oil

• Balsamic vinegar

• Brown sugar

• Salt

• A crushed clove of garlic.

In the world of salads, while naked is good, dressed is better. The most fundamental salad dressing contains the five ingredients listed above. quality and freshness of the olive oil is vital. From time to time there are olive oil scams in which lousy, low-grade olive pips are boiled in nuclear reactors to produce the vegetable version of sump oil, or stuff from unregulated Saharan countries is sold with beguiling European labels. I use only Cape olive oils, which best address the needs of my palate and my pocket. “Extra-virgin” is the only way to go. This curious appellation means the oil in the bottle is from the first, cold pressing. “First” and “cold” are very good things when it comes to flavour and general quality. In some factories, heat is applied during the pressing to express more oil from the used pulp.

This diminishes flavour and aroma, and in the tiny world of the perfect kitchen, flavour and aroma are king. Vinegar is also an issue. While vinegar’s primary function in a salad dressing is to acidify flavours and help form an emulsion, not all vinegars are equal. Vinegar can be a factory product, a by-product of various fruit fermentations, or even, in the extraordinary case of balsamic vinegar, a product fully the equal in cost and complexity of the best wine. Best balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, an apparently generic label actually restricted to balsamic vinegar produced in that specific location. How much should one spend on it? In my view three to five times the cost of ordinary vinegar is quite acceptable, given that vinegar is inexpensive to start with and that a fine balsamic goes a long, long way.

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For a good dressing, proportions are personal – you alone are the best judge, and the best way to judge is by tasting. When you get it right, it stays right, time after time. inally, turning your salad into a stand-alone meal: imagination is your best friend. There’s no law that a salad can’t combine hot and cold ingredients. Thinly-cut slices of rare braaied steak turn salad from rabbit food into real food, for real appetites.
– David Basckin |fw