Do you remember what salads used to be like? Hard-boiled eggs (with lovely grey rings round the yolk), limp leaves, woolly tomatoes, globes of pickled beetroot bleeding over everything and Heinz salad cream, drizzled Jackson Pollock style.
I do have some nostalgia for this (a love of food usually encompasses, after all, a fondness for the food of our past) but, my goodness, salads have changed. And, it has to be said, improved.
First, they stopped being just about vegetables (and certainly just about leaves). Goat’s cheese salad – a much-derided dish these days but still one of my favourites – hit our shores in about 1980.
Soon after it was warm salads. Salade tiede was, for some time, the height of chic. Lots of ingredients were acceptable – chicken hot off the griddle, sauteed livers, little burnished quail, sizzling bacon poured over the leaves along with its hot fat. This was a liberation.
After that, all sorts of non salad-like vegetables started appearing in them – roast parsnips, fried mushrooms, sautéed potatoes, they all leapt off dinner plates and into salads.
Over the years, grains (especially whole grains: bulgur wheat, quinoa and now cool freekeh – roasted green wheat) have appeared in salads too. Don’t think this is just new-fangled nonsense.
Because whole grains keep their shape and don’t become sticky like refined ones, they make terrific salads – they keep their shape, benefit from being soaked in dressing, and can sit in the fridge not just for hours but for a couple of days, without spoiling. The rice salad of old – splattered with frozen peas and sweetcorn – is not a dish whose passing I mourn.
This all begs the question ‘What is a salad?’
Well, in my book, it still has to have some leaves. Not just because that’s what we expect but because they give a salad its structure. This might sound pretentious but think about it: one of the best things about salads is their aliveness.
A main course with a hunk of meat and attendant veg is fine, but it can be, well, solid. A good salad, because leaves have movement, could almost take flight. That’s partly why they are uplifting to eat.
Clockwise from top left: scallop, bacon and pea salad, chicken salad with cherries, watercress and tarragon dressing, Japanese griddled chicken with bean and radish salad, fennel radish and cucumber salad
Eight exclusive Diana Henry salad recipes
Chicken salad with cherries, watercress and creamy tarragon dressing
Warm roast beetroot, watercress and smoked salmon salad
Japanese griddled chicken thighs with bean and radish salad
Baby gem, peashoot and radish salad
Asparagus, broad bean and cured ham salad
Green salad with hot Asian dressing
Scallop, bacon and pea salad
Fennel, radish and cucumber salad