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Food: Nicola Miller's autumnal salad for one

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The salads of my later childhood were what I’d describe as ‘serried’. They reflected the order of my grandfather’s vegetable garden, where the fruit and vegetables were planted in lines straighter than a meeting of Girl Guides. No carelessly artful cottage garden-like jumble of root and leaf for him. His was a working-class garden where organised chaos was to be feared; memories of childhood hunger and just getting by meant he could not risk crop failure. I told him about the back yards of Mexico where squash, corn and beans grew together- a place where legend and knowledge intertwined- but he wasn’t having any of it. Never the twain shall meet.

Picked at five-thirty and on the plate by a quarter to six, our plate of Saturday salad was a clockface of precision. Ham at six o’clock. Messier tomato slices at noon. Cress to the left, cucumber and lettuce to the right. A dollop of bottled salad cream was the pale gold sun around which every other component revolved. Sometimes we got a hardboiled egg, haslet or corned beef.

Apparently, this is known as a ‘composed salad’, which makes me come over all Wolfie Smith because it sounds so serious, so posh, so…. Elizabeth David. Our composed salad was stonkingly working class, a plate of food whose clingfilmed familiarity is all too often sneered at whenever one encounters it on a lunch counter. It is a salad beloved of institutions and all too often a healthy afterthought after one has filled a plate from steam trays filled with chips and giant mattresses of lasagne or pie. I always viewed it as a thing of simple beauty, a salad born of fiscal caution even when the summer garden was at its most generous. My youthful categorisation of the composed salad as the more straightforward option was wrong even though my grandparents would have seen today’s modern tossed salads as fancy, and a tiny part of me still does.

Nicola Miller's impressive salad for one for an autumn lunch
Nicola Miller's impressive salad for one for an autumn lunch

So what is a composed salad or, as Le French say, une salade composée? To put it simply, a composed salad is a salad arranged on a plate rather than one tossed in a bowl. The Americans do them well, but my grandparents would have been shocked to the back teeth by the variety of ingredients and portion size. To them, abundance was about the quality and freshness of ingredients and not the amount. I guess in this respect, my relatives have more in common with Elizabeth David than I thought.

What are those terrible ‘charcuterie boards’ that Pinterest loves so much but a composed salad of meat? I count nachos as a composed salad too. A classic Italian salad Tricolore with its flag rays of green basil, red tomatoes and milk-white mozzarella is composed instead of tossed. The French have the salade Lyonnaise- that staple of bouchons- and the Ethiopians sit down to a serried plateful of green lentils, chopped tomatoes, and onions called Azifa. In Poland, they love a Sałatka wiosennaIn and, in Russia, the layered Mimoza was borne from shortages of fresh fish in the early sixties and is, according to Olga and Pavel Syutkin, the authors of ‘CCCP Cookbook’, a way of transforming “everyday ingredients into an uplifting treat.”

In all of these salads, layering and placement are critical. They might look like a disorganised riot of colour and texture but look carefully, and you will see order. And if you are like me and see a tossed salad as an invitation to pick out your favourite bits-a behaviour which can render you rather unpopular at buffets as you selfishly fanny about with fork or tongs- an individual salad composed on a plate will solve any antisocial pico de gallo guest activities.

A plate of very uninspiring salad
A plate of very uninspiring salad

It’s also handy when some of the ingredients are expensive. I am an animal where parmesan cheese is concerned and lose what social graces I remain in possession of post-lockdown when presented with a communal bowl of tossed salad showered with shavings of this most blessed of ingredients. It’s hard to stop myself from taking more than my fair share. I know I am not the only one, so individual bowls of this, one of my favourite salads, is the way to go. It’s pretty autumnal-, packed with mushrooms and the incredibly sturdy lambs lettuce, which stands up to a boskier, heavier dressing of walnut oil, lemon and garlic, plus a topdressing of the aforementioned Cheese of Heaven. The mushrooms are raw because when H.E. Bates wrote that “cookery books will give you a thousand finicky devices, mushrooms in this, mushrooms in that, but there is only one way—to fry them, simply with bacon, until they swim in their black fragrant juice” he was wrong.

The dressing

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (You don’t want to use grassy, overly-peppery or astringent oils. I go for fruit and nuttiness- Nicolas Alziari Provence Fruity & Soft Olive Oil is a good option. A label will give a decent indication of an oil’s flavour notes.)

½ tbsp walnut oil

½ tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ crushed garlic clove

A little sprinkle of salt and ground black pepper to taste.

Whisk the ingredients together or pour into a jar and shake.

The salad

A good handful of lamb’s lettuce

3 button mushrooms, shaved into thin slices

Parmesan cheese to shave over

Place the lamb’s lettuce in a bowl and strew the slices of mushroom over the top. Now shave the parmesan over (quantities up to you!) and dress with the lemon and walnut oil. Do not toss together. I usually let it rest for a few minutes before eating. This recipe is easy to scale up.

NOTE: if you love reading about salad, I recommend subscribing to a newsletter called ‘The Department of Salad’. Find it at https://eatsomesalad.substack.com/

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