THE FOODIE’S WIFE
In a crazy salad daze about the braai season
In which we delve into matters of the unpeeled potato, feta cheeses and the crazy salad.
It’s certain that fine women eat a crazy salad with their meat, William Butler Yeats wrote in A Prayer for my Daughter. This came to mind when it dawned on me that the season that Coarse Cooks most dread is about to be upon us – the early summer entertainments leading up to the dreaded Festive Season.
Yes, the crazy salad season. I don’t know what Yeats meant exactly, except that it became the motivation for Nora Ephron’s wonderfully outrageous book of the same name. And a fitting description for what has become of the humble fresh side-dish meant to simply accompany foodstuff. Foodies have been challenged by the simplicity of this dish and the results are not always pretty.
At this time of year we have survived the smorgasbord that is the start of winter with large roasts, meaty stews and seasonal vegetables, not to mention all that citrus to be taken against the onset of flu and colds, to morph into the hearty soups and breads rich in grain and perhaps a pasta or two.
We can no longer hide behind the Dutch oven or slow cooker to percolate winter offerings but must emerge into the sunlight with plates of summer snacks, frothy starters and, of course, the salad.
Nowhere is the fraudulent cook more exposed than at the braai, which is where the Foodie perfects the meat on the fire and the Foodie’s Wife is left for an entire season to figure out what the hell will go with the chops.
Everybody is awestruck at the platter of lamb, chicken, pork, venison or whatever and the wors is always fallen upon, often as a lead-up to the main event.
But as an accompaniment to this feast there must be salads, sides, call them what you will, and they must sparkle in their range of colour, tastes, crunch and dressing. Seriously?
Back in the day when the Coarse Cook ruled, you took out the Iceland lettuce, a cucumber, tomatoes of course, perhaps onion rings or spring onions and poured a little oil and vinegar over the chopped result. An avocado was often added but this was problematic because if the offerings at the fire took too long to be judged to be absolutely perfect by at least 12 men drinking beer or spook en diesel, the avo would go soggy or turn black.
Forget the myth that placing the avo pip in the centre of the salad would prevent its swift rot. All you get when you try that is an ugly brown thing tinged with an unhealthy looking green in the middle of what you hope passes for an attractive green salad.
I tried putting lemon over the avo but I would find people picking lemon pips out of the salad – and no, Griselda, I do not get the sieve out and strain the lemon. Life is too short, and besides my wine would be getting warm while I pretended to have culinary expertise.
Another Coarse Cook ruse is to slap some large potatoes in tin foil, having energetically pricked them with a fork on both sides, and hand them to the cavemen at the fire to be blackened on the outside and hopefully soft on the inside. Put butter out (hell, just grab the marge, people only pretend to know the difference). Job done.
No, this will apparently not do.
The salad has become a battlefield, along the lines of a sort of culinary Duelling Banjos. People now try to outdo each other in what is really just a fresh side, meant to offset all the meat. Or as my grandmother used to say, “always have something green on the plate”.
It all began with the introduction of the Greek Salad into our repertoire. This was easily solved because simultaneously those rounds of feta cheese in some sort of liquid became widely available. Chop a couple of those and add to the basic salad. Grab a cheap packet of black olives, throw them in too and pour the feta’s liquid over as a dressing. Very convincing. Not to an actual Greek, of course, but authenticity is not the hallmark of the salad.
And did I say pit the olives? No, I did not, you would never hear those words from me. It’s up there with peeling a grape or stuffing a mushroom, and you all know what Shirley Conran thought of that.
Lettuce has become some sort of frilly green art form and the more kinds of green stuff you can get in one packet the better it seems. Let’s not forget rocket. That stuff pitches up everywhere, annoyingly draped over everything from a humble ham roll to a blistering curry.
Then there are the nuts, and the dried berries, whole swathes of vegetables, croutons for good measure and stuff pickled in jars that was really only intended in nature to be eaten by sheep.
Where we live in the Platteland, the women bring side-dishes that resemble whole meals. I am not, as I have pointed out, a delicate eater but it is hard to include those on a plate groaning with meat and potato.
Rice, pasta, potatoes and even couscous have become the recipients of the salad treatment. Stick in a red and green pepper or two, create a dressing and you have, yes, salad.
I am a great fan of the potato salad but even that has been subjected to some upgrading. Very far back in the day I used to make it out of tinned potatoes, chopped and smothered in mayonnaise and decorated with dried herbs. But eventually even my children objected and I resorted to using fresh ones. I still object to having to peel the damn things, and mostly I don’t. My argument is that they are healthier that way.
The potato salad of today has been subjected to the crunchie ingredient treatment. The simple onion has been swopped for spring onions and chopped green veggies and the delicious chopped egg sprinkle has been abandoned. It seems to have become a badge of honour to make your own mayo – why? Tons of the stuff can be found on supermarket shelves and you just seal up the jar and put it back in the fridge when you have enough on the spuds.
Where the Foodie and I have achieved a combined culinary coup is with the courgette. The Foodie has great success with growing vegetables and the courgettes grow at a rapid rate here in the Karoo, reaching sizes that rival melons and butternuts. We use them in everything, including once in a pâté to be served with parmesan biscuits but it didn’t quite have the cachet of its snoek and liver cousins.
Courgettes lose taste as they grow so I hit upon the idea of stuffing the large ones with feta and putting them on the braai in foil. It worked but I didn’t achieve the actual goal of doing away with the frilly lettuce concoction. It was worth a try.
Apples have pitched up in salads for a long time and pineapple has been an unwelcome entry in the battle for innovation. I am not averse to watermelon and feta with strong black pepper but when this pitches up next to a beetroot salad, the senses become alarmed.
It is no use as a Coarse Cook to beg for simplicity. That ship has long since sailed. But I do have one request – no bananas. If you have ever been presented with a rice and banana salad you will understand. May such a thing never cross your lips. DM
@ The Foodie’s Wife remains grateful to Michael Green for the “Coarse” series. He never wrote The Art of Coarse Cooking but I am sure he would have done in time.