Friday, October 30, 2009

Waldorf Salad | Cookout . 3

What's in a name? Well, when it comes to food there are several possibilities.

The most common way of naming a dish or recipe is simply by describing its key ingredients - Red Beans and Rice or Baked Artichokes Stuffed with Anchovies and Garlic are two delicious examples.

Often the origin of the dish is indicated - Provencal Fish Stew or Greek Salad come to mind.

Sometimes the title is a fanciful metaphor - Ants Climbing a Tree (Chinese) or Toad in the Hole (English) are on the tip of my tongue.

Then there are the dishes named after chefs, celebrities or groups of people - Oysters Rockefeller, for John D. Rockefeller or Pasta alla Puttanesca, for the prostitutes of Naples.

The humble fresh green salad has four representatives employing this last naming strategy. They are the Caeser Salad, the Cobb Salad, The Chef Salad and The Top - as Cole Porter called it - the Waldorf Salad.

All four are both relatively recent inventions and American in origin, two from the east coast and two from the west. How did this come to be?

Salads - fresh leafy greens and uncooked garden vegetables with a dressing - have been eaten throughout recorded history, but their widespread popularity is relatively recent (the word salad bar only entered the language in 1976). In the past most people believed that eating raw vegetables was a health hazard and that all produce should be well-cooked. This belief was probably well-founded given the generally low levels of sanitation, polluted water supplies and poor farming practices such as the use of night soil (human waste).

America popularized the salad starting in the late 1800's and salads spread around the world with the beginning of the Cold War. Several factors contributed to the salad's rise: improved sanitation in the wake of the Civil War, the home economics and health movements of the 18th century, the railroads which made the distribution of fresh produce feasible and the growth of the restaurant business.

The Waldorf (1893-1896), Chef (circa 1940), Caeser (1924) and Cobb (1937) salads were all created in restaurants, the first two in hotel restaurants or dining rooms, the second two by restaurateurs in their own establishments. The mists of history, or maybe myth, shroud each one to some extent.

Unlike the other three signature salads, the Waldorf was not the work of a chef but created, apparently on the spur of the moment, by the maitre d'hotel of the Waldorf-Astoria, Oscar Tschirky, for a social register dinner with 1500 discerning guests as his taste testers. This isn't as unusual as it seems because in those less specialized times the maitre d' - in addition to playing the gracious host, managing the waitstaff, running the dining room and taking reservations - also boned fish and mixed salads tableside while bantering pleasantly with the patrons. In any case, the salad was an immediate hit and, imitation equalling flattery, quickly copied by other restaurants around the city and soon across the country.

Buoyed by the success his salad and other signature dishes he dreamed up for the hotel, Oscar of the Waldorf, as he styled himself, published a cookbook in 1896 which contains, without prelude, the original Waldorf Salad recipe.

Peel two raw apples and cut them into small pieces, say about half an inch square, also cut some celery the same way, and mix it with the apple. Be very careful not to let any seeds of the apples be mixed with it. The salad must be dressed with a good mayonnaise.

What could be simpler? Not even a leaf of lettuce to complicate things - although the way the salad is now usually presented it's just a bed of garnish anyway. The canonical walnuts? Merely an addition by competitors to differentiate their product (later adopted by hotel itself). No wonder he had a 50 year career at the Waldorf, from its opening in 1893 to his death (in the saddle) in 1943. There is longevity, as well as beauty, in the basics.

That said - times move on, things get more complex and tastes change. The Waldorf Salad which we've developed is a contemporary take on a classic. Some day it will be dated too, but for now it seems to feel of the moment.

Salad ingredients ...
1 head Romaine lettuce, thinly sliced crosswise
1 bunch watercress, coarsely chopped
1 tart apple; peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and tossed with lemon juice
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 pear; peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and tossed with lemon juice
2 pickling cucumbers; peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 grapefruit; sectioned, skinned and segments halved
24 red seedless grapes, halved
1 yellow pepper, finely chopped
6 dates dates, minced
2 scallions, chopped
6 sprigs mint
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cop parsley, finely chopped
Dressing ingredients ...
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 cup mayonaise
2 tablespoons juice and zest of one orange
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cajun seasoning, to taste (optional)

Preparation ...
1. Wash, thoroughly dry and prepare the salad ingredients as suggested. Toss together in a large salad bowl.
2. Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl. Allow to sit for 10 minutes.
3. Toss the dressing, in the quantity desired, with the salad ingredients to coat them evenly and thoroughly.

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