Sensuous Salads

Figs, seafood, vodka and even chocolate are redefining the old composition of iceberg lettuce and orange goop

February 23, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

When is a salad not a salad?

Actually never, if you enter the brave new world of chefs who are taking a mundane concept (iceberg lettuce on a plate with orange goop on top) to strato- spheric heights.

They're doing it with mangoes. With shrimp. Habanero peppers. Figs. Shaved fennel. Nectarines. Chocolate.

Chocolate? That would be Thomas Keller's "Salad" Ile Flottante: slow-baked meringues stuffed with chocolate mousse in a pool of creme anglaise, topped with bittersweet chocolate "frisee" on top, drizzled with mint oil and sea salt.

Keller, chef-owner of the French Laundry restaurant in California's Napa Valley, offers a gentle understatement: "The idea of salad has been expanded a lot in the last 10 years."

In the past, he says, you would think of greens, maybe herbs. Maybe vinegar.

But these days he makes a salad of figs, roasted bell peppers and shaved fennel. And another of sliced green beans on a bed of oven-roasted tomatoes. And one of sliced and "reconstructed" nectarines, with green-tomato confiture and hazelnut sabayon. And that chocolate one. (All the recipes are in his new book, "The French Laundry Cookbook," Artisan, 1999, $50.)

"We try to broaden our minds and say, 'What can we do?' " says Keller, a mostly self-trained chef who recently has captured the hearts and minds of culinary cognoscenti.

Since he is one of those lucky Californians who can get 16 kinds of teeny tomatoes, six colors of potatoes and 40 different kinds of lettuce (more or less), he has no problem being seasonal with his salads: asparagus with summer truffles for summer, figs and fennel for fall.

But he's not choosy. "There's nothing I can think of that I wouldn't put in a salad."

And why not? Shirley Corriher, Atlanta-based food chemist and cookbook author, notes that there really are very few rules for what defines a salad. "It's not just cold. It can be either hot or cold. It's not the lettuce, because you may not have lettuce. I guess you could equivocate and say, 'Most salads have things in bite-sized pieces, and most salads have a mix of ingredients. And most salads have dressings.' "

What does Corriher like in salad? She mixes greens with walnuts; spinach, oranges, pine nuts with a mustard-cider-honey dressing; and fresh fruit with ginger in her book "Cookwise" (Morrow, 1997, $28.50).

Some salads have almost everything; some are minimal. Corriher recalls a coleslaw at a popular restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., which consisted solely of a plate of cabbage sliced extremely thin. "On the table was a bottle of dressing, sort of like Thousand Island, that you poured over it," she says. "Some people came just for that slaw."

Barry Rumsey, a London-born chef who runs the Kitchen stand at Cross Street Market (and the soon-to-open Bicycle at 1444 Light St.), concedes, "In the U.S., when you think of salad, you usually think of lettuce." But he doesn't offer the usual. "When I make potato salad, I use a feta-cheese dressing, quarters of eggs, and I slice the potatoes. And there's no lettuce involved at all."

He also combines mangoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, carrots, vodka, red peppers and spices with steamed or cooked seafood in a layered "martini" salad. "You can use anything you want. People will believe it's a salad when they're told it's a salad," he says.

Ellen Haas, a former undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture who championed nutrition in school lunches, sees the salad bowl as a boat to sail away on flavor adventures.

"Salads allow you to be spontaneous and creative," she says. "Using a framework of greens, you can add whatever is in season. In the winter, it could be roast beets with goat cheese and pine nuts, and in the summer, asparagus. You can play around with things in the market."

She is also in favor of expanding salad's role in the menu. "They can go from desserts to side dishes to main dishes." She's particularly fond of the Orange on Orange dessert salad in her new book, "Great Adventures in Food" (St. Martin's, 1999, $25). "What's so wonderful is you get all that intense orange flavor.

"Most Americans consume far too few vegetables and fruits," says Haas, who currently is creating a helpful food Web site, "Salads are a perfect place to add them in an engaging and healthful way."

Making a fun salad is also a good way to introduce children to a variety of foods, she says, especially if you involve the child in producing the dish. Smaller children can tear lettuce; older ones can grate or slice vegetables, or crumble cheese.

"So many people are intimidated by complex food," she says. "But salads are very sensuous -- they feel good and look good and taste good."

Seafood Salad Martini With Vodka Habanero Dressing

Serves 8

1 whole, fresh habanero chili pepper or Scotch bonnet chili, seeded and chopped, (see note)

1 ripe mangoe, peeled and cubed

1 sweet red pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced

1/2 can ( (28-ounce) crushed tomatoes or 1 1/2 locally grown tomatoes, chopped

2 carrot, peeled and diced

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