I’m partial to a leaf. I’m less enamoured of long, tubular greens like spring onions because they remind me of those pointless salads people made in the mid-eighties. Little discs of white fire adorning a plate full of iceberg lettuce, which tasted of literally nothing at all, but may if you were lucky at least be cold and therefore have bite.* For no reason I can fathom, I mainly ate this salad in Stoke Newington, which was a terrifying place back then and required long bus journeys and an unhealthy wait at King’s Cross. I digress. Perhaps the problem is the rawness; to build an adequate salad there needs to be something other than texture and briskness and a deluge of greenery. Roasted salad doesn’t sound quite right though.
We went to the Santa Monica farmers’ market on Saturday and it was nice to be in the vicinity of the sea again. I say vicinity, because it is more of a backdrop, its vastness not inviting; it’s simply resolutely there, this dark blue mass that lies further out than you would wish. People continue about their business as if it was all just streets, the pier crammed full of sight-seers, the market selling greens and other colours. Nobody bothers with it. No one swims; to even discuss swimming with people here is to enter into a conversation laced with foreboding. If I mention that I swam in the English Channel in the autumn months I am eccentric but harmless. To talk about swimming here, even in August, is to invite gusts of disapproval and worry. Because the sea is cold and possibly dirty and may be dangerous. As I say, it’s a bit out there here to swim.
Perhaps they reserve their outlandishness for their market stalls. Garlic scapes and leek scapes, purple artichokes lavishly heaped and spiky, bunches of Italian dandelion. We were drawn in out of curiosity, the need to know, rather than out of necessity. I recognize that I don’t need to eat the long curling tails of garlic, fresh with engorged pod, or mulberries that look like worms, too young to taste of anything. I don’t need heirloom garlic, with its brown and clawed cloves, or garlic chives looking like a posy of mown grass. Or baby leeks, or the long rods of spring onion with their fussy little beards.
But the lady was nice. She explained what things were and how they tasted (or at least admitted when she couldn’t) and then asked where I was from. “I have family friends who live in a suburb of London,” she said. “Actually, we have just had friends to stay from Kent, England,” said another lady who was waiting to be served. “They loved making fun of our accents.” She looked at me as if I not only knew these people but had egged them on. I’m used to this by now – the inference being I know everyone in Kent and am responsible for a lot of other places in England too. But it’s conversation – something I discover I need. It’s rather like the sea, chatting with strangers here; a bit far out, an attractive but faintly alarming proposition. A little bit choppy.
Perhaps God is in the dressing. I like the idea of a gremolata – a dry ensemble of lemon zest and herbs and garlic – immersed in a simple dressing of oil and vinegar. Here I used the spring onions I bought and couldn’t find an adequate use for, with some fennel flowers (Joe: “Are you trying to recreate the past?”), some garlic chives and some shredded romaine lettuce. This was my dressing or vinaigrette for some baby leeks that I blanched. I ate the whole thing with a soft-boiled egg, because the baby leeks reminded me of asparagus and I did in fact do some dipping. It was a warm salad of sorts, with echoes of Simon Hopkinson’s lovely Leeks Vinaigrette. And yes, there were spring onions, but teased into oblivion, warmed through and roughed up. Sometimes you have to face your demons – though I hear Stoke Newington is now well and truly on the up and has a resident Wholefoods.
*I think this is the best description of the atrocious English salad of old I will ever read. Hope you do too.
“A few melancholy slices of cucumber, an approximately washed lettuce (iceberg, naturally), which appeared to have been shredded by wild dogs, two entire radish heads (served whole, presumably to avoid the risk of their proving edible in sliced form), a pale and watery quarter of tomato, the whole ensemble accompanied by a salad cream that at least had the virtue of tasting “like itself” – that’s to say, like the byproduct of an industrial accident. “
The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester