"I don't know how I've gained so much weight," lamented my college roommate, marvelling at the bathroom scale. "All I eat is salad. Salad, salad, salad!" At lunch the next day, I watched as she judiciously constructed her meal on a standard off-white dining hall plate. First, she laid down a bed of limp, anaemic iceberg lettuce. Then, she plopped down a few sliced cucumbers, followed by a colourful smattering of corn kernels.
She tumbled a few cubes of pink meat over a heap of marinated artichoke hearts, showered it with shredded cheese, then finished the mess with a creamy, endless dollop of ranch dressing. I was reminded of a favourite quote of the American humorist Erma Bombeck: "I worry about scientists discovering that lettuce has been fattening all along." I'm not worried about lettuce, but there's no doubt about it: some salads are richer than others.
First coined by Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra, the term "salad days" refers to the bygone days of youth, verdant beginnings and general inexperience. It's a dated term, considering how few of us are purists when it comes to our five-servings-a-day intake of fruit and veg. Freshly pressed carrot juice, kale and avocado slaw flecked with sweet onion, borscht, crudités, salsas, vinegar-spiked gazpacho and pungent kimchi are personal favourites - but a day without salad is a rare one indeed.
Proclamations of "fresh greens" on a salad menu never fail to amuse - and bemuse - but freshness aside, it's balance that amounts to a salad's greatness. What is a Greek salad or a salade Niçoise without a bracing backbone of acidity? Babylonians dressed their greens with oil and vinegar 2,000 years ago, but until the last couple of hundred years, most cultures avoided raw vegetables for fear of getting sick from them, and in some parts of the world, vegetables are still preferred in their pickled state, or at the very least, cooked to the point of geriatric softness, often with a small piece of meat.
Until fairly recently in the New World, meatless vegetable or salad dishes were not intended to stand alone; nowadays, they are often among the strongest menu items. In the Arab world, meals often comprise mezze and platters of whole vegetables in lieu of a mixed salad - cucumbers, radishes, green onions, tomatoes and chilli peppers, meant to be eaten out of hand, like an apple. The restaurant Chez Sami in Jounieh, Lebanon, makes a stellar version of tabbouleh, to be heartily scooped up using whole leaves of romaine lettuce.
In addition to the benchmark ingredients of parsley, mint, bulghur wheat and minced white onion, Chez Sami's inspired version substitutes chopped serrano peppers for tomatoes. One bite turned me into a believer, particularly at this time of year, when tomatoes tend to be forgettable. Of all the Middle East's salads, though, it is fattoush that has captured the greatest - and greenest - chunk of my heart. I'd gladly give up Italian panzanella and all other bread salads for an endless supply of fresh fattoush - a dish so ephemeral that it barely remains edible through the course of the meal.
Within 15 minutes of being tossed, fattoush often grows soggy, its sumac-dusted shards of toasted Arabic bread beginning to wilt, clinging to the lettuce like little wet slugs. In some cultures, it is traditional to serve a salad before the meal, whereas others expect it to arrive afterwards. Like many home cooks who don't feel the need to provide coursed dinners, I often serve salads alongside the rest of the meal, and rarely on a separate plate.
Some people like salad as a palate-cleanser; others eat it to settle the stomach, and some find that it whets the appetite when served at the beginning of the meal. Of course, a salad can also be a main meal, even without the addition of a slab of grilled animal protein. The Caesar is one salad that takes well to additions, such as a neoclassical garnish of anchovies, and a great version of it is a thing of beauty - Mexican beauty, not Italian as is commonly and mistakenly believed.
In the US, salads developed mainstream popularity in the latter part of the 19th century; other regions of the world caught on to the craze during the second half of the 20th. In supermarkets, salad bars and pre-washed salad mixes abound for those who think they don't have the time to make one at home, but an excellent salad doesn't have to be time-consuming. In fact, my fallback dinner salad, which takes approximately 13 seconds to prepare, requires nothing more than a big wooden bowl, a pair of clean hands, some washed greens, a bottle of good olive oil, ordinary white balsamic vinegar, sea salt and a showering of freshly ground pepper. The composition is self-explanatory. Take no prisoners.
The Cobb salad, a ubiquitous lunch salad that also happens to be a cholesterol feast, functioned as a sort of self-congratulatory pat on the back for carb-naysayers. Much like my misguided college roommate, many people eat salads as a way of avoiding carbohydrates without realising, or conceding, that a salad used merely as a delivery system for unctuous ingredients is hardly a healthy alternative to a sandwich.
And let's not forget the carbohydrate salads: potato salads and pasta salads abound with mayonnaise, fruit salads, rice salads, Asian noodle salads, bean salads and congealed salads - typically made in a ring mould with some permutation of gelatin, mystery and green food colouring. Sound disgusting? It is! I happen to like the way unadulterated greens taste, but I also dream of Burmese tea-leaf salad, Puerto Rican chicken salad with pickled red onion and avocado, and wintry platters of escarole doused with fruity olive oil.
At this time of year, I'll make small aromatic platefuls of rocket, roasted dates, Marcona almonds and Manchego cheese to accompany lamb stew, or tender piles of kale, dripping with soy sauce and tahini, to eat with roasted salmon. Few things pair better with poultry than red endive, blood oranges and pistachios tossed with buttery green olives, while with Mediterranean food I like a salad of mache, roasted beets and tangy feta, or perhaps a dessert salad course of braised lettuce, roasted figs, candied walnuts and Roquefort.
As for iceberg lettuce, its only use, as far as I'm concerned, is to be sliced into a thick, chilled wedge, smothered with blue cheese dressing, and eaten with a steak.