Salads, a great vehicle for flavour balancing

Salads, a great vehicle for flavour balancing

I'm often asked about the process I go through to create a recipe and have been giving this some thought over the past couple of weeks.  And I've realised it's quite hard to articulate!

However, things started to become clearer last week after attending a mobile phone photography workshop run by Matt Inwood . Matt took us through some key principles to help us compose better images, using only the technology and editing suite on our phones. So expect some improvements in the coming weeks....  (not the salad images included in this blog btw!)

After realising that light itself was the most important consideration in producing a decent image, another big takeaway for me was the 'rule of thirds'.  This rule stiplulates that your composition should be made up of 3 distinct equal sections within a grid. Working in this way helps the audeience navigate an image, ensuring the right elements pop out and a sense of balance is achieved.

As a photography novice, I'm going to be sticking close to these core principles over the next few weeks and months as I develop my skill.  But for a well seasoned pro, like Matt, this is all second nature now. Matt uses more of an intuitive approach relying a lot of the time on gut instinct. However, that instinct is still grounded in those same rules and requirements - he's just able to do it in a slightly more freehand kind of way.

So, back on the recipe creation, I realised that just like anyone who's been honing a skill for years, whether it's a photographer or a violinist, I too have become reliant on my intinct when I create a dish.  But that instinct is still based on some core principles.

The first thing I'm going to tell you is that creating recipes isn't hard.  It's simply about balancing the building blocks of flavour, texture and colour and overlaying them with a touch of seasonality.   A doddle! And in order to understand the building blocks, I'm going to share with you what I think of as my 'flavour axis'.

When I create a recipe, I have a strong sense of a horizontal axis representing neutrality across flavour, tetxure, colour and, often temperature. Ingredients sit above or below the line depending on how far away from the neutral point they are. The further an ingredient sits away from the neutral line, the stronger the other ingredients will need to be to balance it (this strength can come from a single ingredient, or be the cumulative effect of several).   Some flavours naturally banance eachother - like salt versus sweet. But sweet also can balance with sour and bitter flavours. Salads offer a great vehicle for this kind of thinking, so that's where we are going to start.

Salads can be dull, lacking in flavour and nothing more than a random selection of fridge cold ingredients thrown together and coated in a nondescript dressing.  But with the right care and attention, they can be the heart of a delicious meal where a few choice ingredients are brought together sensitively to create a meningful plate of food; and I'd like to help you do this.

Firstly, choose your leaf.  Think of your leaf as the central part to your salad.  It's so important and so much more than simply a filler. Sadly we aren't blessed in the majority of shops in the UK with interesting salad leaves.  indeed, you tend to have to go to specialist greengrocer for something a bit more risqué than cos or oak leaf.  But it's definitely worth your while searching out some different leaves. I'm a big fan of escarole, it has a lovely balance of crunchy and soft leaves and a slight bitterness without the intensity of radicchio or curly endive.

Lettuces often taste quite different the further you get towards its heart.  So I'd recommend using a mix of outer and inner leaves when you're working with a whole lettuce - it'll add more contrast in terms of flavour and texture to your finished salad.

Because esarole is only mildly bitter, it sits just sligthly above that neutral axis line - so it doesn't need to be balanced with an overly sweet ingredient. I'd be inclined to pair it with a dressing made with a slightly sweet vinegar, or perhaps some honey or sugar mixed in - or what about mixing in a little apricot jam or quince cheese to your dressing? It's all about mirroring the bitterness with a sweetness that's an equal distance away from the other side of the neutral axis line.

Salt helps also to balance bitterness.  So you could balance the leaf here with with a hard salty sheep's cheese or from a couple of anchovies blended into your salad dressing. Be aware of what ingredients you pair together however. Here, escarole combined with the salty cheese and a dressing incorporating quince or apricot jam would be a lovely mix. However, anchovies with quince would certainly not be a match made in heaven!

In terms of acidity, if you wanted to use some fruit in a salad, like pears of dried apricots and figs, your salad would benefit from a little more acidity in its dressing and also some saltiness from cheese...  Nuts also help to balance acidity, their creaminess sitting towards the neutral point of the flavour axis, helping to temper any sharp acidic notes.

And then on the texture front, it's always nice to have a bit of crunch.  So whilst thinking about the different flavours an ingredient adds, think also about what texture it gives to your salad. Crisp salty lardons atop the escarole leaves would be a delight, and probably a better fit than some pieces of soft salty parma ham (which would taste good nonetheless!).   Of course, you don't always need a crunch - take the classic tomato salad - delicious tomatoes with basil, good olive oil, vinegar and salt is quite good enough... Sprinkle on some lemon zest and basil pan grattato too, now theres a thought....  It's all about building up the layers...

The key for me is to not overwhelm with too many ingredients, you simply need a few carefully selected elemets and bring them together with a dressing.  Remember, there is no right or wrong, each to their own - but the above guidelines hopefully give you some ideas.

Over the past few weeks I've been playing around with a few different salads...

Radicchio with quince, toasted pecans & Pecorino - here the extremely salty cheese balances the quite bitter leaf.  Ive also added some poached quince to the salad and a little membrillo to my salad dressing. The marked bitterness of the leaf warrants that level of sweetness and salt.  The nuts add texture and temper the salt and bitterness.  In terms of the flavour axis, this one has lots of peaks on both sides of the neutral line.

Escarole and radicchio with roast squash, chorizo and freekah.  Here, sweetness from the roast squash and saltiness from the panfried chorizo balance the bitterness from the two leaves.   I used gutsy sherry vinegar and honey in my dressing to nod to Spain and also to build on acid and sweet notes to further balance the bitter leaves and richness from the squash and chorizo.

Escarole with dill, boiled aggs, capers and smoked sprats. The slightly bitter leaves here are balanced by the mildy salty and smokey fish.  Dill adds another flavour profile, pairing well with the fish.  The eggs add a creaminess to the whole salad and the the dressing is made with some delciiosu savoury celery salt which works so well with eggs.

Salade aux lardons - a French classic.  Here, the escarole is balanced with salty lardons and rich toasted pecans.  I've added interest to the dressing by incorporating some chopped tarragon.

Escarole with smoked sprats, pomelo, fennel and lovage - once again the salty fish pairing with the slightly bitter leaf. Here I've added acidity in the way of pomelo to the salad to balance the fattiness from the fish.  It also works fantastically with fennel, its aniseedy notes and crunch also working well with the celery notes from the lovage leaves.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg, but let me know if you've found this post useful.  I'd love to hear your thoughts!





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