Field of Greens
The right way to work meat into your lettuce
Commercial salads these days seem designed for people who don't like salad. They're essentially meat entrées served on a bed of leaves, minus the baked potato. And if you watch a server removing plates from the table, you'll see they usually aren't empty. The cold cuts, cheese, croutons, shrimp and/or chicken are gone, but the greenery is left behind like an abandoned garnish. The very fact that the proteins and fat are presented on top, rather than mixed in, seems to ensure an errant leaf won’t be inadvertently consumed.
This isn't to say that animal products have no place in a good pile of greens. According to Larousse Gastronomique, long an authoritative encyclopedia of food, a salad is "made up of herbs, plants, vegetables, eggs, meat and fish." Today's gluttonous Atkins-friendly compositions certainly qualify for the salad banner under this definition, but they don't wear it gracefully.
For a meaty salad to work, animal and vegetable should bring out the best in each other, rather than simply share the same plate. Here are two meat salads that work together like oil and vinegar, playing harmoniously off of their differences.
Exhibit A comes from a farmer friend who spits out the word "Mutton!" with the same pleasure a fifth grader takes from four-letter words. To him, saying "mutton" corrects a terrible error in the world.
"Nobody wants to say 'Mutton!' anymore," he once complained to me. "As a society, we've shunned the eating of grown-up sheep in favor of young lambs to the point where even saying the word 'mutton' is like talking filth in some circles."
In fact, mutton is so frowned upon in our culture that it's difficult to find. If you can get it and have any say in the way it's processed, make sure the fat is well-trimmed when the sheep is butchered. This will temper the meat's famously strong flavor. While this may appease some finicky palates, the pea-mutton salad this farmer and his family make in the height of summer uses that strong taste as an asset, the way crumbles from a gamy piece of blue cheese absorb the spiciness of raw onion.
For a meaty salad to work, animal and vegetable should bring out the best in each other, rather than simply share the same plate.
The salad's components are bonded together by a family dressing known simply as “Creamy.” For enough Creamy to dress a family-sized bowl of salad, mix 2/3 cup of mayo, 1/3 cup of yogurt, three to six cloves of shredded garlic, one to two tablespoons of horseradish, a tablespoon of curry powder, 1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese, a teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper. This will dress a salad of two heads romaine, two cucumbers, an onion, 1/2 pound of shelled peas and a pound of mutton (or another red meat of your choice). The strong-flavored mutton, the spicy and creamy Creamy, the crisp textures of the romaine and peas, and the earthy sweetness of the onions come together majestically.
Because sheep becomes chewy with age, mutton should be braised at 300 degrees in a covered vessel with water and wine. Season with salt and bay leaves, adding additional fluids as necessary until it's falling-apart soft. Remove from the oven and let the meat cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, chop the romaine into bite-sized chunks, thin-slice the cucumber and onion, and shell the peas. Cut or shred the meat and toss it all together with fresh dill and Creamy. Stand on your chair, yell "MUTTON!" and dig in.
I first served this next salad—tossed with a simple vinaigrette and salmon jerky—at a bachelorette party I catered. It was a bigger hit than the sarongs my fellow cater-boys and I were wearing.
The salmon is prepared two days ahead of time in roughly twice the quantity you intend to add to the salad, because jerky sampling is inevitable. A smoker or dehydrator with sliding trays is ideal, but the oven on the lowest setting with the door ajar will also work.
Squeeze lime on the salmon, and let it marinate in the fridge for a half-hour. Then rub it with fresh, chopped dill. Covered the fish in a mixture of equal parts soy sauce, liquid amino acids and brown sugar, and leave it in the fridge overnight. The next day, put it in the dehydrator, smoker or oven until it's hard and dry.
The salad itself is a mixture of four parts romaine and green leaf lettuce, plus one part watercress and endive. Cut the leaves coarsely and toss them with two cloves pressed garlic. Add a chopped medium onion and dress with a mixture of equal parts safflower oil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Then toss in two sliced medium tomatoes and chunks of salmon jerky. Serve the salad with olives and feta cheese on the side. The vinaigrette cuts through the sweet, oily fish and builds a bridge between the salad's plant and animal components, as the Creamy does in the pea and mutton salad.
Larousse Gastronomique says a good salad "freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating," and my marvelous meat salads do justice to that statement. They'll give you healthy doses of quality nutrients and fill you up without weighing you down.