Diet & Nutrition

Annabelle entertains: Dress to impress

Say goodbye to limp, soggy greens – Annabelle White explains how a little respect can perk up your leafy salad.
Leafy salad

The feeling of inadequacy starts as soon as the bowl is placed on the table. You are in a good restaurant and the salad you’ve just been served is glistening with oil and perfectly dressed. It’s as if the chef has lovingly turned each leaf, one by one, in the lightest of dressings.

The salads you make at home never resemble this – all the dressing ends up at the bottom of the bowl and the drowned greens look as though they had a nasty encounter en route to the table.

A salad may be simple, but we often get it so wrong. We might think, ‘Oh, just a side salad’ and whip it up in seconds – but the cos, rocket, mesclun and even sturdy old iceberg have had enough. Instead of being an afterthought, they want a little more respect.

If you grow your own greens, pick them as fresh as you can, wash thoroughly and serve as soon as possible. Give them a suitable fanfare: with a lowering of the voice and a sweep of your hand, announce: “These greens were in the garden growing” (avoid the word ‘alive’) “20 minutes ago – think of all that goodness!”

If you need to buy the greens, look at the back of the display. The freshest are hidden there – same with milk – sorry, supermarket stock rotation managers, but fresh is always best… except, curiously, with roasted coffee beans. You never want to use just-roasted coffee beans; they need a day or two to get the best results.

Now, washing and drying the greens – attention here is important. The reason why your beautiful dressing ends up at the bottom of the bowl is ‘slippage’. When water is left on washed greens, the dressing simply slips off.

The best way to dry your greens is either in a salad spinner or, my preferred system, with a clean tea towel. Stand before your guests and, with a flourish, flap a clean tea towel around in the air for dramatic effect. Place the towel on the bench, pop the greens in the centre, then pull up the sides and rotate this ‘parcel’ at high speed over your head.

If your company protests at the flying water and/or greens (who wears silk to a dinner chez vous anyway?), just tell them to relax, it’s only water… and make a note to self: never invite them back.

Next, grab a salad bowl and all the extra bits you want in your salad – perhaps tomatoes (never refrigerate), diced cucumber, cubes of feta, and finely chopped spring onion. Put these ‘extras’ in the bowl, drizzle with a little of your dressing and leave until serving time – ideally 20 minutes. This short association with the dressing gives the additions an extra charm. Just before serving, add the perfectly dried greens and, with clean hands, very gently mix so the leaves are coated ever so lightly.

Simplicity is the key – as with a pizza or pasta, less is more. Don’t add chopped egg, pineapple, diced gherkins, beetroot, grated cheese and bacon bits because you think it will make it better – it is often confusing and distracting.

And while feta and tomatoes are nice, one of the most delicious salads ever is just perfectly dressed cos lettuce… or what about a wedge of iceberg with a generous drizzle of blue cheese buttermilk dressing? Superb.

Wellington chef and restaurateur Julie Clark has decades of salad days behind her, and says her secret is not to overdress the greens; two tablespoons of dressing may be all you need. Also, always consider what you serve with the salad as a guide to the dressing – for example, if your salad is accompanying lamb, Julie recommends a dressing with anchovy, lemon and good wine vinegar. For chicken? Perhaps a tangelo and chilli dressing. Or consider making a warm salad by enhancing steamed broccoli with toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, crumbled feta and a citrus dressing. “That would liven up the whole dish,” says Julie.

Her great tip for salads at any time of year is to embrace the tender shoots and leaves in the heart of celery – they make a great salad with a light dressing.

So now you’ll have no more pursed lips and mutterings of ‘the poor thing – she can’t even make a salad’. Your salad bowl will be a triumph of taste, form and beauty – and just think of all that roughage and fibre!

Photos: Getty Images.

Related stories