Monday, 8 June 2020

Herbs for Summer Salads

Herbs for Summer Salads

Some of what I've written here appeared in an article I wrote for Garden News in 2012, in it I looked at some of the tasty herbs we can use to make salads to add new textures and flavours to the summer salad bowl. Salads aren't modern, they've been served up on creative cooks for centuries, in the 14th Century Richard II's head chefs documented on a scroll what turns out to be one of the first dedicated cookery books The Forme of Cury (c. 1390) and salads are included but known then as salet or sallet, based on a selection of leafy edibles and were used to accompany meat and poultry.

In The Forme of Cury on such recipe includes Parsley, Sage, Garlic, Chives, Onions, Leeks, Borage, Mint, Cress, Fennel, Rue, Rosemary and Purslane. The Tudors liked their sallets to include flowers, dried and fresh fruit in particular lemons and oranges which they preserved and presented them studded with almonds, citrus fruits were first imported into England in the 13th century and were very expensive so they were pickled and preserved to ensure they lasted a long time.

John Gerard's Herball (1597) mentions many herbs 'sallet' uses including rocket and parsley. By the late 17th century the grand sallet had multiple ingredients, including Borage, Capers, Cowslips, Currants, marigold, Primrose and Violets. John Evelyn's Acetaria (1699) was the first salad book published in the English language. Evelyn defined sallet as "a particular Composition of certain Crude and fresh herbs, such as usually are, or may safely be eaten with some Acetous Juice, Oyl, Salt, &c. to give them a grateful Gust and Vehicle." He included roots, stalks, leaves and flower but strangely excluded fruit, although the juice and the grated rind of oranges and lemons were listed among the herbs. Evelyn's recipe for salad dressing says, "Take of clear, and perfectly good Oyl-Olive, three Parts; of sharpest Vinegar... Limon, or Juice of Orange, one Part; and therein let steep some Slices of Horse-Radish, with a little Salt".

Since then the salad has been in and out of vogue, but its a dish that most of us eat in the Summer because it means we don't need to but the oven on. Did you know that most of the standard salad ingredients double up as herbs? Lettuce, cucumber, radish, celery and tomato the ‘classic’ salad base all have medicinal properties so eating salads is not only good for the waistline they can boost your health to boot. Now that Summer is finally here and salads are something that become part of the daily menu for many of us when it’s too hot to cook, its time to redress the issue and show that salads that are often thought of as boring and 'green', can actually be colourful! Ideas for leafy herbs to grow that can add colour to salads include: -

Herbs for Summer Salads
A selection of salad herbs including: -
Red Orach, Nasturtium, Pineapple Sage
and Red Shiso.
Red Orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra), orach has been on the salad menu since Tudor times, the younger leaves are best in salads.

Red Veined Sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) has a mild lemony-apple flavour, which isn’t too lip pursing unlike other members of the sorrel family.

Red Mustard (Brassica juncea 'Rubra') when I was younger it was white mustard leaf (Sinapis alba) that was grown for throwing in the salad bowl, these red leaves have the same mild yet pungent flavour.

Tree Spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) eat the young leaves, older ones are great cooked like spinach. Be warned, if you let this one flower and set seed it’ll be part of the garden for a very long time to come!

To the reds you can add a selection of the following: - Salad Burnet with its delicate feathery leaves that taste mildy of cucumber, peppery Rocket, Mizuna, Nasturtium leaves and Watercress can add a peppery twist.

Lettuce Leaf Basil is also a winner with a mild clove taste, and adding Chervil, Dill, Fennel, Sweet Cicely or Tarragon leaves to your salad bowl will add varying degrees of aniseed flavours that will go exceptionally well with chicken or fish dishes. Broad Leaf Sorrel adds a sharp and refreshing lemony twist to salads, whilst young Lemon Balm leaves give a fresh lemony zing.

Green Salad Herbs
Green salad herbs including Salad Burnet,
Rocket and Sorrel.

John Evelyn listed over 50 herbs for using in salads, some of which have since fallen out of favour, including Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) and Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which were both very popular 17th century salad ingredients, both can be grown from seed and make interesting additions to any salad.

Once you have the leafy ‘bones’ of the salad, you can add smaller leaved herbs for flavour and fragrance. Many delicious combinations can be put together, be creative and experiment with combinations of herbs which enhance your main ingredients. Try to use flavours that compliment each other, too many flavours can confuse the palate.

Don’t forget to feed the eye as well as the palate by adding herb flowers to the salad. Sprinkle the flowers of Basil, Chives, Calendula, Mint, Nasturtium, Marjoram, Rose or Thyme to enhance the presentation of your dish as well as adding subtle flavour.

More Salad Herbs:- Borage (the young leaves, older leaves are hairy and not so kind to the palette), Buckler Leaf Sorrel, Celery Leaf, Chicory (the leaves, root & flowers), Chives, Coriander Leaf, Corn Salad (aka Lamb's Lettuce), Endive, Good King Henry, Hyssop, Land Cress, Lovage, Marjoram, Mint, Parsley, Summer Savory (very good with bean based salads) and Welsh Onion.

Herbs don't have to be just added to the salad as leaves,  they can be chopped, juiced and pounded used to make delicious dressings to drizzle over your salad. Note that dressings should always be added just before serving a leaf based salad, especially if they contain salt and vinegar, these two elements cause the leaves to 'wilt' and look tired.

Basic Herb Salad

80-100g fresh herb salad leaves such as Rocket, Watercress, Baby Spinach, Sorrel, Salad Burnet and Nasturtium leaves. Add a handful of chopped or shredded herb leaves such as basil, flat leaf parsley, coriander, chervil or marjoram. Throw in a few chive and nasturtium flowers and finish with my favourite salad dressing below.

Citrus Herb Dressing

100ml Orange Juice
50ml Lemon Juice
100ml Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp Chopped Lemon Thyme
2 Tbsp Chopped Lemon Verbena (if you can't find lemon verbena, lemon balm can be used instead).
1 Clove Garlic, crushed
Pinch Sugar
Sea Salt & Black Pepper to taste

Method - Make the dressing a few hours in advance for the flavours to infuse, if you can make it and leave it in the fridge overnight it will taste better. Finely chop the herbs, peel and crush the garlic and juice the citrus fruit. In a bowl, combine all the dressing ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour over your salad just before serving.

On a final note, there is a good choice of seasonal wild herbs that can be harvested from the hedgerow to add to your salads such as the young leaves of Dandelion, Chickweed, Garlic Mustard and Wild Garlic. N.B. DO NOT pick and eat any herb or plant that you are not 100% certain of, the mantra here should be "If in doubt, don’t!"

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