Composed salad. The very name is enough to kill your appetite. Visions of white-gloved matrons sitting around after bridge eating sliced canned peaches artfully arranged over slivered iceberg lettuce and decorated with cream cheese rosettes.
In the minds of most people, composed salads are antiques from the old-fashioned school of cooking that valued form over function, that was concerned more with the way dishes looked than how they tasted.
After all, why arrange all of those ingredients so carefully if you’re just going to toss them together at the table? Along with fluted mushrooms and chaud-froid, composed salads are almost too easy to ridicule.
But let’s not be too hasty to poke fun. There’s nothing wrong with composed salads that updating won’t cure. Like much of classical cuisine, when stripped to their barest components, there is good, sensible food behind the stilted prettiness.
In fact, with good cooks, the decoration has never been the dish’s main virtue. In that bible of old-fashioned French cooking, the “Larousse Gastronomique,” the name salades composees is translated “combination salads” as opposed to “simple salads,” emphasizing the mix of raw and cooked ingredients rather than their artistic arrangement.
Escoffier went one step further, speaking out forcefully against the over-decoration of the dish. “The increased appetizing look resulting therefrom is small compared with the loss in the taste of the preparation,” he wrote in “The Escoffier Cook Book.” “The simplest form of serving is the best, and fancifulness should not be indulged in.”
So forget about separating the meat, vegetables and greens into little decorative piles. Arrange them in a more modern, naturalistic way, and you’ve got something delicious that is beautiful without being contrived.
Even better, what you’ve got is dinner. Because when you get right down to it, a composed salad is the perfect meal for these hot summer nights.
Take a small portion of fish, meat or cheese and arrange it on a colorful bed of vegetables, greens and herbs. Bind the whole thing together with a bold dressing of some sort. What could be better?
Actually, you’re probably already making composed salads right now without even thinking about it. Ever slice ripe tomatoes and dripping fresh mozzarella, decorate it with dark green fresh basil, and then serve it with good olive oil and a loaf of crusty bread? Is there a better--or prettier--dinner on a sweltering weeknight?
That’s a very basic example. How about tossing together canned white beans and tuna? A little olive oil and lemon juice, some sharp bites of chopped red onion ... or what about thinly sliced steak and room-temperature steamed potatoes, bound with a mustardy vinaigrette.
You see where we’re going with this.
The definition of a composed salad has changed. Where once composition may have referred to how the salad was arranged (preferably in as static and staid a way as possible), now it has more to do with flavor and the interplay of taste and texture.
While presentation is still important, the fashion today is for salads that look like food, rather than a painstakingly arranged still-life.
In the Edgewater book, a veritable Vogue magazine of arcane salad fashions, there is something called a Lady Windermere: romaine, cucumbers, cream cheese, and red and green peppers all arranged to look like a fan.
Today, we’re more likely to be impressed by the way the pale pink of a piece of shrimp stands out against the vivid green of fresh herbs, or the way crisp red coins of radishes balance creamy, dark orange egg yolks and thin slices of char-grilled steak.
What may be even more impressive is the way these salads adapt to what you already have in the pantry and refrigerator.
Canned white or garbanzo beans, tuna and smoked salmon; leftover grilled chicken or steak and the vegetables from a big Sunday dinner. All you need is some sturdy greens, a good dressing and a few condiments and you’re in business.
Since these salads are served at room temperature, it’s best to use meat that is fairly lean. So remove the skin from the chicken. If you’re using beef, flank steak is always a good choice. Lately, with more and more groceries stocking meat cut for customers from Mexico, you can also find very thinly sliced sheets of skirt steak--the kind that’s usually used for carne asada.
Through the summer, try to keep at least one head of watercress, frisee, radicchio or curly endive in the crisper. These greens have the strength--both in structure and flavor--to match up to almost anything you can throw in the bowl.
Make sure the meat and all the vegetables are cut into bite-size pieces, preferably of a similar size. These salads are about balanced combinations of flavors: Don’t let any one ingredient dominate.
The dressing is the unifying factor for composed salads. For lighter combinations, such as tuna and garbanzo beans, a simple mixture of olive oil and lemon juice is all that’s needed to point up the flavors.
As the ingredients get heavier and bolder, so should the dressing. Adding a little Dijon mustard and some minced shallots to that vinaigrette will make a nice accompaniment to a salad made with grilled beef.
You can even go so far as an old-fashioned sauce gribiche--a kind of tart mustard-vinaigrette flavored with minced herbs, cornichons and capers and given a chunky, slightly thickened texture from finely chopped hard-boiled egg yolks and whites.
Flavored mayonnaises are always good. Start with either homemade or a good commercial brand (Best Foods, sold as Hellmann’s on the East Coast, is the perennial first choice). Then add minced herbs, pureed roasted peppers or whatever else strikes your fancy. Even the best of the prepared mayonnaises will benefit from the addition of a little acidity: lemon juice or a vinegar of some sort.
Whichever dressing you choose, use just enough to season the salad and give it cohesiveness, but don’t overdo it. When you taste the salad, the main flavor should be the ingredients, not the dressing. And a good salad should never be gloppy.
A good rule of thumb is to add half the dressing and toss well, then add the rest a tablespoon at a time. Remember you can always pass more dressing at the table.
Also remember that if you’re using starchy ingredients--beans, rice or potatoes, for example--they’ll absorb the flavors better if you mix them with a little bit of dressing while they’re still hot.
Depending on the occasion, these salads can be served either on individual plates or mounded in a platter. Some decoration is necessary, but keep it natural. Save out half of the most colorful ingredients so you can scatter them over the salad a little more artfully.
Obviously, you wouldn’t want to trust the way your dinner looks to the random effects of gravity. But neither should you labor over the appearance. After all, it’s a meal, not a mosaic.