'Salad' is a funny word. I don't think there's any word in the entire realm of gastronomic lexicon so versatile as 'salad'. Originating from the Latin word 'sal', meaning 'salt', salads were originally assortments of raw vegetables liberally dressed with oil and salt. Today, the Italian word for salted - salata - is very similar to that for salad: insalata.
Yet in this modern day and age, the word 'salad' can be applied to pretty much anything. Without even thinking about it, I titled this recipe a 'salad'. It got me thinking a bit more about the word, and what sort of rhyme and reason lies behind the labelling of something as a salad.
At your most basic and primitive, you have the simple green salad. An assortment of leaves, dressed with a simple blend of vinegar, oil, and seasoning. This sort of salad is all about the dressing. Without it, you have a bowlful of slightly bitter greenery that is only going to be palatable in company with an onslaught of meat, cheese or carbs (or all of the above). Coat each leaf in a light film of tangy oil, however, and you transform it from worthy to worth eating, on its own, rather than as an afterthought during a mouthful of something more tasty.
To upgrade the green salad, you might want to add some protein. Meat or fish, for example - like a classic Caesar salad, or tuna nicoise. You could throw in some croutons - this turns it from a side dish to a main meal. Do you serve your choice of protein in chunks - flaked tuna, maybe, or shreds of chicken - or serve it whole, perched on top of its bed of leaves? Does this make it more of a meat/fish dish with a salad accompaniment, rather than a salad?
Do salads even have to have leaves in them? I've certainly made and eaten a few salads that lacked any leafy component whatsoever. A robust medley of roasted beetroot, carrot, flaked mackerel and orange slices, for example - no leaves there. I still called it a salad, though. What about carbohydrates? Does a bowl of couscous count as a salad if it contains vegetables? What about beans or lentils? Their comforting earthiness is about as far as you can get from a springy, sprightly bowl of leaves.
Thinking about it, I'd say there were two hard and fast rules, at least in my book, behind terming something a salad. Firstly, it has to contain at least two different vegetables, leafy or otherwise. Secondly, its ingredients have to be mostly cut into similar sized pieces, so the eye is presented with an agreeable colourful medley. Other than that, though, I really can't think of anything definitive about a salad. It can be hot or cold, with protein or without, involving carbs or not, leafy or decidedly lacking in greenery...the possibilities are pretty much endless.
Even the dressing issue doesn't seem to define a salad. We are no longer in those Roman times, where salt was the main crucial component. Some salads, if their ingredients pack enough of a punch, need nothing more than a slick of olive oil or a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten them up and make them tasty.
Some, however, just need that dressing - Vietnamese and Thai salads, for example, where a selection of otherwise lacklustre raw crunchy vegetables take on a new character when liberally soused in tangy fish sauce or rice vinegar, lime juice and brown sugar.
I used to think the word 'salad' meant 'boring'. This was before I thought outside the green salad box, before I realised the endless possibilities conjured up by the word 'salad'. If you don't limit yourself to leaves, there's a whole world of delicious potential out there. I love experimenting with salads, throwing things together often out of a desire to use up the contents of the fridge or fruit bowl. You can be pretty creative, adding a bit of fruit here, some canned pulses there, maybe some nuts or herbs.
This is one of those dishes that I've termed 'salad' due to not really knowing what else to call it. It's more substantial than your average leafy salad, because it contains quinoa. If you haven't tried quinoa, it's a little like couscous, only with a slightly firmer texture and delicious nutty flavour. It's also one of those healthy 'superfood' type things, which unfortunately means it's often extortionately priced, but supermarkets do sometimes sell it for a reasonable amount.
If you didn't think salad could be sexy, this might just make you rethink. The colours alone whisper of exotic eastern promise: the bold scarlet of pomegranate seeds, the blushing magenta interior of ripe fresh figs, the jade green of chopped pistachios. It's an absolute beauty to look at, perfect for brightening up the depths of winter. It also uses some of my absolute favourite ingredients, ones that remind me of hot and heady days spent travelling the Middle East: dark, unctuous pomegranate molasses; bulgingly ripe fresh figs; toasty pistachios and beautiful sparkling pomegranate seeds.
Cooked spinach is stirred into cooked seasoned quinoa, for a flavoursome base. To this is added shreds of cooked chicken, which are briefly tossed with pomegranate molasses, spices and honey over a high heat to caramelise them on the outside and imbue them with the warm fragrance of cardamom, black pepper and garam masala, plus a lemony tang from the molasses. Figs are thrown in too, to turn jammy and sweet on the inside. This all sits on the mound of nutty quinoa, topped with fresh coriander and chopped pistachios for crunch and a rich earthy flavour. Finally, sweet pomegranate seeds to balance the sour tang of the caramelised chicken.
This is a great recipe for using up any leftover chicken, though most poultry would work with it - leftover duck would be delicious, or turkey, or even some game. The meat becomes deliciously moist, with a beautiful caramelised exterior that is sweet and sour and fragrant with warm eastern spices. The figs soften and turn syrupy, while all this is balanced by the nutty quinoa and pistachios. Pomegranate seeds and coriander add freshness and zest to the whole plateful. There's no dressing to speak of, so maybe this isn't technically a 'salad', but you really don't need anything more than a little drizzle of olive oil to bring together such vibrant and flavoursome ingredients.
These are ingredients that just seem to belong together: the fragrant spices, the sweet fruit, the earthy quinoa and pistachios.
Is it a salad? Who knows. Is it delicious, beautiful, and good for you too? Yes, so let's not get fussy over definitions.
Pomegranate glazed spiced chicken and fig quinoa salad (serves 2):
- 100g quinoa
- 2 large handfuls baby spinach
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 8 cardamom
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 12 black peppercorns
- 240g cooked chicken
- 3 tsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 tsp honey
- 8 fresh figs, quartered
- 2 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
- 4 tbsp coriander leaves, to garnish
- Thick yoghurt, to serve
Put the quinoa in a saucepan and cover with boiling water by about an inch. Cover and cook on a medium heat for 12 minutes, then drain well and set aside. Cook the spinach briefly, either using a microwave (1 minute on high power) or by wilting it in a pan. Roughly chop and stir into the quinoa. Season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Crush the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar and remove the husks. Grind the seeds to a fine powder, then crush and grind the peppercorns too. Add the garam masala.
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick frying pan or saucepan. Add the spices and cook for a minute on a medium heat, then add the chicken. Cook for a minute or two, then add the pomegranate molasses and honey. It should bubble and sizzle. Stir to coat the chicken in this mixture, then add the figs. Cook for a couple of minutes, until everything is dark and sticky. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
Divide the quinoa mixture between two plates. Top with the chicken and figs, then scatter over the pistachios, pomegranate seeds and coriander leaves. Drizzle over a little more olive oil, if you like, then serve with a dollop of yoghurt.