The anti-salad

by Ari LeVaux

The salad choices at many restaurants these days seem designed for people who don’t like salad. They’re essentially meat entrees served on a bed of leaves, minus the baked potato. And if you watch the servers removing plates from the table you’ll see they usually aren’t even empty. The cold cuts, cheese, croutons, shrimp, chicken, or whatever was on top of the leaves is gone, but the greenery is left behind like an abandoned garnish. The very fact that the proteins and fat are presented on top, rather than mixed in, seems to ensure against the possibility that an errant leaf might be inadvertently consumed.

This isn’t to say that animal products have no place in a good salad. According to Larousse Gastronomique, an authoritative encyclopedia of food, a salad is “made up of herbs, plants, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish.” Today’s gluttonous Atkins-friendly salads certainly qualify for the salad banner under this definition, but they don’t wear it gracefully.

For a meaty salad to work, the animal and vegetable parts should bring out the best in each other, rather than simply share the same plate. To illustrate, here are two examples of meaty salads that work together as elegantly as like oil and vinegar, playing harmoniously off of their differences.

Exhibit A comes from a farmer friend who spits out the word “mutton!” with the same pleasure a fifth grader takes from four-letter words. To him, saying “mutton!” corrects a terrible error in the world.

“Nobody wants to say ‘mutton!’ anymore,” he complained to me once. “As a society we’ve shunned the eating of grown-up sheep in favor of young lambs to the point where even saying the word ‘mutton!’ is like talking filth in some circles.”

In fact, mutton is so frowned upon in our culture that it’s difficult to find. If you can get it, and have any say in the way it’s processed, make sure the fat is well trimmed when the animal is butchered. This will temper the meat’s famously strong flavor.

While this may appease some finicky palates, the pea/mutton salad this farmer and his family make in the height of summer uses that strong taste as an asset, the way crumbles from a gamey piece of blue cheese absorb the spiciness of raw onion.

The salad’s components are bonded together by a family salad dressing known as Creamy. For enough Creamy to dress a family-sized bowl of salad, mix 2/3 cup of mayo, 1/3 cup yogurt, 3-6 cloves of shredded garlic, 1-2 tablespoons horseradish, a tablespoon of curry powder, a half-cup of grated cheddar cheese, a teaspoon of salt, and a half-teaspoon of black pepper. This will dress a salad of two heads romaine, two cucumbers, an onion, a half-pound of shelled peas, and a pound of mutton – or another red meat of your choice. The strong-flavored mutton, the spicy and creamy Creamy, the crisp textures of the romaine and peas, and the earthy sweetness of the onions come together irresistibly.

Because sheep becomes chewy with age, mutton should be braised at 300 degrees in a covered vessel, covered in water and wine. Season with salt and bay leaves, adding additional fluids as necessary, until it’s falling-apart soft. Remove from the oven and let the meat cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, chop the romaine into bite-sized chunks, thin-slice the cucumber and onion, and shell the peas. Cut or shred the meat and toss it all together with fresh dill and Creamy. Stand on your chair, yell “MUTTON!” and dig in.

In our next salad, leaves are tossed with a simple vinaigrette and salmon jerky. I first served this at a bachelorette party I catered, and it was a bigger hit than the sarongs my fellow cater-boys and I were wearing.

The salmon should be prepared two days ahead of time, in roughly twice the quantity you intend to add to the salad, because jerky sampling is inevitable. This time of year I often take advantage of salmon’s seasonal availability and buy several whole fish or fillets and make a pile of salmon jerky for year-round enjoyment. A smoker or dehydrator with sliding trays is ideal for this, but the oven on the lowest setting with the door ajar will also work.

Squeeze lime on the salmon. After half an hour, rub it with fresh chopped dill. Then marinate the fish in equal parts soy sauce, liquid amino acids, and brown sugar. Leave the salmon in the marinade overnight, and then jerk it in the dehydrator, smoker, or oven until it’s hard and dry.

The salad is a mixture of romaine and green leaf lettuce, watercress, and endive. Cut the leaves coarsely and toss them with pressed garlic. Then add chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, and chunks of salmon jerky. Dress with equal parts safflower oil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar, and serve with olives and feta cheese on the side. The vinaigrette cuts into the oily fish, as do the juicy tomato slices. As with the Creamy in the pea/mutton salad, the dressing builds a bridge between the salad’s plant and animal components and brings them together.

Larousse Gastronomique says a good salad “freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating,” and the above salads do justice to this statement. They’ll give you healthy doses of quality nutrients, and fill you up without weighing you down. •