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Mr. Wilkinson's Well-Dressed Salads
Illustrated by Stanislava Pinchuk
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Guided by the seasons, award-winning chef Matt Wilkinson has always designed his recipes with vegetables as the foundation of the plate. In his latest cookbook, Matt takes this a step further by showing us how versatile salads can be in both form and flavor. With the garden’s yield as his inspiration, he pairs produce with grains, beans, cheeses, fish, and meat to create enticing, adaptable dishes. You’ll find a recipe to match each season’s bounty, from spring salads featuring early sprouting vegetables and herbs, and summer produce mixed with garden-fresh greens, to autumn roots tossed with hearty grains, and earthy winter noodle salads. In Mr. Wilkinson’s Well-Dressed Salads, recipes include light dishes such as Watermelon and Feta with a Shrimp Vinaigrette, and Iceberg, Mint and Radish Salad with Avocado Dressing. There is also heartier fare, such as Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Hot Red Turkish Peppers & Labneh (a Turkish yogurt), Brown Rice & Feta with Hot ‘n’ Sour Dressing, and Smashed Figs, Blue Cheese, and Walnut Salad with White Balsamic. Beautiful photography combined with vintage illustrations make for a book that is both timely and timeless.
SALADS ARE FOR CATERPILLARS
So where do we start? Simple, really. Let’s look at this book’s title: Mr. Wilkinson’s Well-Dressed Salads. It’s all in the name, they say. I can’t tell you how many different thoughts have gone through my head in order to get to this title, but as time passed, it was the first title that sat well with me.
My first book, Mr. Wilkinson’s Vegetables, was—like most things in life—about timing. It was my reflection, through recipes, of growing up, being in a kitchen and around food, and my philosophy (if we can use that word) about eating local and in-season food from a belief that these are the most flavorful and tastiest. It really is so simple: Buy the best tasty raw ingredients and foods from good producers, and the cook is already winning … then cook it properly and hey, you have delicious food! The same philosophy goes for this book—seasonal produce cooked well—but this time it’s me looking at what I eat the most: salads!
So, why salads? Let me digress. I think of most food groups as a salad. Really I do. Why?
Well, the salad is one of the most diverse food groups ever in some way or form. A burger is a burger, and a curry is a curry … but salads are so wonderfully variable and can be hot or cold. Any ingredient can be made into a salad—any vegetable, fruit, grain, pulse, seafood or meat—not just salad leaves. A salad to me is simply a marriage of flavors and textures that you bring together, dress it with the right vinaigrette or dressing, and there you have it. For me, a salad primarily is designed to share, but on occasion, can be brilliant on its own for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or any of the meals in between.
Which leads me to the question, do we all really think salads are just leaves or lettuce with other bits added? My little hooligan number 1, Finn Thomas, after asking him how he enjoyed the little pumpkin salad I made for our family dinner, replied, “No Dad, salad’s for caterpillars!” This resonates so strongly with me—that we all think salads are simply just salad leaves. Which really is crazy! The category for salad leaves is just that, a category. I don’t know any salad leaf called salad leaf. Arugula, witlof, mizuna, yes—but not salad leaf.
MY SALAD DAYS, AND A REVELATION
For those of you who don’t know, I grew up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in that country called England. My father lived in a pub for some time, where my hospitality and culinary career really started. I worked for Rob Jane (my father’s best mate Alan’s son); he was my start-of-life mentor, who taught me to think for myself, work hard, and have fun while doing it.
The Crown & Cushion was the pub I grew up in, and was my first look at adult life and the meaning of work. The food on offer was very similar to most other pub food—the plate generally consisted of a form of meat or fish taking pride of place on the whole plate, some form of potato (generally French fries; we all love them) to cover the rest of the plate, and then you got asked by the wait staff, “Veggies or salad?” These really just being a plate filler.
It was this “salad” that offered my first insight as to what a “salad” was. We must have all seen it: Iceberg lettuce cup filled with slices of onion, cucumber, tomato, radish, grated carrot, and some baby mustard cress on top, served with a side of creamy dressing. It was the staple salad for the masses in pubs, clubs, and I guess any food place that served a main meal. This was my first thought of a salad—boring but refreshing, something “healthy” on the side of the meat and fries. When clearing tables in the pub, it fascinated me just how many people would leave the salad. “Not eating that rabbit food crap!” they would say. Back then, I would’ve had to agree.
My first insight into the workings of a professional kitchen was in Kingston upon Thames, on the outskirts of London, in a place called Warren House, under the guidance of mentor, friend, and head chef Michael Taylor. It was here at Warren House, in my first job as a chef at seventeen, that I really saw what a salad could be. There were dishes named Waldorf, Niçoise, Caesar, Caprese, Panzanella, and Cobb, all foreign to me back then; saying that, you couldn’t get the old potato salad or coleslaw past me. In those two years of my life, I learned so much about cooking and being a chef, but the lunch salad section was my first real insight into a proper salad, how to make a dressing and the many different types, how to get the right ratio of dressing to the leaves or produce used, learning flavor combinations and textures that make for a better salad, and getting them all out on time.
However, it wasn’t until I was the head chef of Circa in Melbourne, Australia, that I realized how good a salad could be, and how often I was making them and putting them on the menu, and not just as a side. Salad of this, or blah blah salad and so on … until I stopped to think how deeply entwined the salad is within all cuisines and cultures. It makes sense to me to make and eat a lot of salads, so if you have to define me as a chef, I guess I’m really good at doing seasonal salads, leaning on the vegetable side.
I really do think the concept of “salad” is changing in everybody’s mind to be something other than just a leaf salad, and hopefully, the recipes that follow will help you think about salads a little differently too.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
I have divided the salads into four seasons, with a little introduction to each chapter as to what grows in each season and how I feel at that particular time of the year.
There are thirteen recipes per chapter as a guide to what to make during that season. Ideally I would love it if you made one salad a week, but see how you go. Please note that produce also often flows into the following season. Take tomatoes and basil, for example. These are a highlight of summer, but I was still picking stunning tomatoes in mid-autumn, and I made my last batch of pesto for the Mrs. and hooligans in late autumn.
At the end of each season is a dressings “family tree.” Why? Well it annoys me that in many a cookbook there are some great recipes that can be used in so many other ways, but they don’t tell you about it! I love Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion for this—how she notes what a certain item also goes well with—so I have included here, without recipes, a few other little things I would do with the dressings.
At the end of each season there is also a recipe for a fruit salad—simple fruits of the season that make for a delightful change to just a plain old fruit number. I love cordials, so I have also shared with you some different ones I make throughout the year, so you can capture the bounty of each season to enjoy at a later time.
A COUPLE OF TIPS TO FINISH
Sometimes it can feel like we’re all starting to take cooking a little too seriously, making it a lot harder work than it should be. Whenever this happens, I close my eyes and think of my Nanna Rita pottering around the kitchen, not a stress in the world. If you do stress in the kitchen or at times don’t enjoy the chore of cooking, try the following tips for size; it’s what we do at home …
Cooking starts with organization, so what we do at the start of each week (although you could do this on any day that best suits you) is to simply write a list of what we are going to eat, or would like to eat, for the week. It brings us together, makes us talk—the old art of conversation!—but then we also know what to buy throughout the week. We are all generally busy, and there isn’t anything worse than getting home, tired after work or from the kids, and figuring out what to bloody well cook.
And please, please, you don’t have to cook every night. Go out, get some take-out—but if you do, just make it a good ethical choice.
Here is an example of what a week in the Wilkinson–Gibb Clan household sometimes looks like.
|Tuesday||Dinner at Pope Joan|
|Wednesday||Free-range chicken schnitzel & zucchini salad (page 92)|
|Thursday||The Mrs’ silverbeet and feta pie (book 1) & egg salad (page 178)|
|Friday||Takeaway meal from one of our favorite spots|
|Saturday||Vegetable and chickpea curry & brown rice salad (page 142)|
|Sunday||Corned beef with white sauce & carrots cooked in their own juice (page 215)|
And lastly, please eat at the table and share food in the middle of the table. The most joyous part of dining is not the food itself—food is what we need to survive—but the table and the sharing of the food. To keep in contact and gather information, to spend some time with family or friends, to talk, laugh, and even cry—the table is where we get the chance to stop, catch up with our loved ones, then enjoy the food. The food is a tool: The more delicious it is, the easier it is to talk about it, but it’s just a tool in our life to talk to one another and enjoy each other’s company.
I truly hope you enjoy Mr. Wilkinson’s Well-Dressed Salads … and, like me, start to think of the salad as a truly unique and wonderful thing.
GROWING & USING SALAD LEAVES
Now that I’ve explained what a salad is to me, it would seem weird not to tell you a little bit of the history of the salad, give a little guide on how I grow salad leaves, and offer some basic salad dressings that go with different leaves and other tasty things.
MY POTTED HISTORY OF THE SALAD
There is surely a little history out there stating where the salad originated, but I will tell you my version and if I’m wrong, well, never mind.
Documentation tells us that the Egyptians and Greeks all had a version of salad, but I’m going to stick with the Romans—they did build great roads after all. Salad derives from the word “salt,” and it was believed Romans used to salt their vegetables and take them on their voyages of discovery, later rinsing off the salt and adding what are now known as edible weeds—basically, they foraged for green leaves to add to their veggies. These leaves were believed to be anything in the cabbage, knotweed, goosefoot, grass, legume, amaranth, and sunflower families, and many of these are what we use as salad leaves today.
In more recent times, and still in common practice today in many parts of the world, the salad is seen as a cleanser of sorts, taken after a meal to freshen the palate and help the digestive system relax a little before the next course—or, as seen on many a menu, it is enjoyed at the start of a meal as an appetizer.
In many a household or restaurant, the salad has become a name for a side or something to accompany your main meal—or the salad part is put at the end or beginning of a dish, when basically the chef hasn’t got a clue what to call the little devil of a dish. No matter where it came from, the salad is thankfully with us.
THE LEAVES OF THE SALAD
So I’m at the back door step—it truly doesn’t matter what season it is—bowl and scissors in hand, off to snip me some leaves.
We really do take salad leaves for granted. Just think, we all generally just grab a head of lettuce or bag some leaves from the supermarket or greengrocer, not really thinking about their taste—the most important factor in the food we prepare—or their texture. These are the two main features of a salad leaf.
Salad-leaf growing has changed a lot in the past decade or two, just as all of agriculture has changed, really—trying to grow for the mass population so we can have what we want, when we want it.
But take a minute, please … if we have the ability, or more importantly the space, I think we all should grow salad leaves and herbs in our garden, balcony, or yes, even our windowsills. The salad leaves we now see on the supermarket shelves are more often than not grown hydroponically, with quick production as the foremost principle, with little thought to its flavor and texture.
We’ve all done it: bought some leaves, placed them in our “crisper” in the fridge, then come back to them at a later stage, only to throw the limp leaves away.
When making a leaf salad, its freshness is surely more important than with any other vegetable or fruit we grow. Most other fresh produce can survive a bit but, in my opinion, not the salad leaf.
Here is something else to ponder: A single head of romaine lettuce (cos) costs substantially more than a tray of seedlings. A packet of seeds costs a few dollars at most and yields about 30–40 lettuces. I’m okay at math, and that adds up nicely to me (I am originally from Yorkshire, you know!). So basically I’m saying, grow your own …
GROW, YOU GOOD THINGS …
So how to grow these little beauties? Well, all my information here is just a guide. If you really want to learn more, there are many great books out there, or just head down to your local nursery and chat with the staff—they are full of information (more correct than I) appropriate for the season and climate you are in. I always leave a nursery thinking, “Damn, I should have known that!”
Lettuces can generally be grown all year round, except in the really hot months. A few years back, I bit into a butter lettuce—my favorite of all lettuces—in the height of summer, and it was bitter as all buggery. It was simply trying to keep its very being alive by going to seed, of course. The structure and taste of all plants change once they go to seed or are in the process of bolting and about to go to seed.
My rule of thumb for growing lettuces through summer and into early autumn is to pick a nice shaded area, which gets a little sun for a part of the day (ideally the first sun or late sun). If the lettuces are in full sun, they will more likely bolt and become bitter … but one way around this is to cover them with a shade cloth. In late autumn through spring, grow your lettuces in a nice sunny spot. And yes, they do grow in winter in cooler to mild climates, but not in areas where hard frost and snow occur, unless you have them covered (in a green house, for instance).
As a rule, for the “mustard leaves,” “soft leaves,” and “herbs,” I sow seeds directly into the ground. I keep them well watered until I see their heads pop up (roughly 4–10 days), then lightly water them every day or so, depending on the season—more in summer. Make sure you don’t directly water the leaves; in the past I have “burned” leaves by doing this, as they are fragile. I usually thin them (i.e. remove the excess seedlings, allowing the others to grow) at about 14 days, then most should be ready to harvest in another 14–40 days. Not bad, hey! Obviously, the timing will depend on the particular climate you are in.
For the “hearty & crunchy” and “bitter leaves,” I like to prepare a seed tray or an old polystyrene box filled with good seed-raising mix, which I keep watered until the seeds sprout. Then I generally transplant to the garden at 14–20 days, or until they look big enough to cope. Keep them tightly planted, I say—it gives them enough room to grow, but also keeps them from flopping over too far, and I like a smaller lettuce. When harvesting these, I like to take the outside leaves off rather than cutting off the whole head—and as a general rule I quickly run out the back and collect the leaves just before serving the meal, give them a quick wash under cold water, spin or dry lightly in a towel, then add my dressing and serve.
SALAD FRIENDS AND FOES
There are a few good tips when growing salad leaves. I like to put them in with marigolds, as these are a great companion plant—as are radishes, carrots, and onions. And my arugula (rocket) goes gangbusters near strawberries.
Remember slugs and snails love salad leaves. Scattering a few used coffee grounds around will help stop them, or go out late at night with a torch and collect them in a container, then place them on your bird feeder or on the lawn for the birds to enjoy the next morning.
In my head, I group salad leaves into the following categories; this is simply my thought process into them, rather than conventional wisdom. I’ve also given some examples as to what kind of leaves are in each category. My perfect salad would be a mixture of one or two or all of them.
I also love herbs in a leaf salad, especially mint, sorrel, and tarragon. They add such a delicate and interesting layer to the flavor.
HEARTY & CRUNCHY
- Romaine (cos) lettuce
- Boston (little gem) lettuce
- Speckled romaine (cos) lettuce
- Iceberg lettuce
- Butter lettuce (a favorite of mine)
- Mignonette lettuce (the bronze and green varieties)
- Witlof (Belgian endive/chicory)
- Radicchio (little Italian markets often sell a range of interesting radicchio seeds)
- Belgian endive
- Dandelions (which I always thought were best for rabbits!)
- Nasturtium leaves
- Upland cress
- Arugula (rocket)
- Baby green and red mustard leaves
- Lollo bianco and rosso lettuce
- Green and red oak leaf lettuce
- Baby spinach leaves
- Mâche (lamb’s lettuce/corn salad)
- Salad bowl lettuce (red and green varieties)
- Mint (I love its freshness in a salad!)
- Fava bean (broad bean) tops
- Pea tendrils
- Micro shoots, such as radish, beet, alfalfa, fenugreek, and kale
- On Sale
- May 5, 2015
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal