My 1970 salad lessons teach students how to make elaborate plates of over fussed food. We don’t have exotic things like avocados or alfalfa, so we fiddle about instead. Radishes become roses, tomatoes turn into lilies, cucumber is stripped and scissored and spring onions are converted into tassels. Nothing is served simply. Every item is mauled and prepared, plated and primped. And if we can stuff it we do – stuffed eggs, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed cucumber.
Salads in these days are not tossed or dressed. Heinz Salad Cream goes with everything. My mother is horrified when, during a half term visit to Kettering from my London school, I toss a bowl of freshly picked salad from her garden with some French dressing.
‘You’ve ruined it with that muck. Keep out of the kitchen with your fancy ways! We eat salad cream with our salads, and we don’t need the French to show us how to cook.’
Lettuce from my mother’s garden is a choice of crunchy Cos or the sweet leaves of Little Gem. The greengrocers in East London, send us soft, floppy, round lettuce with limp, tasteless leaves. All fur coat and no knickers I call it – it looks OK but underneath it is naked nothingness. No wonder students hate it. When Iceberg arrives on our shores to accompany McDonald’s hamburger buns, our lettuce eating habits change forever.
The aim of this salad lesson is to arrange a plate of colourful cold vegetables and serve it with some stuffed eggs. I provide all the ingredients, but this means everything must be the same size and quality.
‘His tomato’s bigger than mine miss!’ Girls like Alice always protest about the size of my offerings. I wonder if Alice went on to get a job for a campaign organization, or worked in politics.
‘I don’t want those radishes – they’ve got weevils in them!’ Ian likes the best quality produce and should grow up to be a greengrocer.
Hard boiled eggs are our protein food today but the truth is we can’t afford anything else for this lesson. 25 eggs in a large saucepan of water, boiled for 7 minutes, then plunged into a sink of cold water to keep the yolk yellow.
‘I want the brown egg miss – me nan says brown eggs are best.’ Janice’s nan often has stern things to say about my cookery lessons.
‘You peel off the shell and don’t eat it, Janice, – the shell colour doesn’t matter.’ I get a glower.
Nan is wise and old and always right.
Janice’s gran also says she must have hot food at lunchtime. When I suggest making salad for a picnic, I get a note from Gran explaining that it won’t be eaten as it is cold, so can Janice make a sponge cake for tea instead. A teacher has kindly bought the overfussed salad with stuffed egg that Janice will prepare today, so I must watch that she remembers the health and hygiene lessons and keeps the food safe to eat. I’m sure she won’t spit in it to show her disgust at not being allowed to bake a cake, but Janice needs reminding that hands need washing before food preparation, despite Gran telling her that a bit of dirt never hurt anyone.
Now to demonstrate the new skills they will learn today. I crack and peel the egg shell – if the eggs are too fresh the shell sticks to the white, so I keep older eggs for this lesson.I slice the eggs in half lengthways, scoop out the yolk then mash it with salad cream – yum.
‘You can put this mixture back in the egg with a spoon, or if you are really skilled, use this piping bag and twirl it back into the egg like this.’
As I demonstrate , Janice lets out a squeal. ‘It looks like a yellow turd. I’m glad I’m not eating that.’
I decorate the twirl with a sprinkle of paprika, topped with a sprig of parsley. This is fiddled food at its most extreme. Good enough for any hostess trolley.
Vegetable fiddling is next. Tomatoes are cut into lilies with pointed edges, and filled with cottage cheese – a new ingredient on our shop shelves – and salad cream.
I cut the radishes into roses and slice spring onions to become tassels. This fussed over veg is dunked into freezing water to open up and lose its nutrients. We peel and slice the cucumber then scoop out the middle and mix with salad cream.
They are eager to get on. Including Janice who would rather be cooking than sitting glowering at me.
‘OK – eggs then salad – we’ll do the lettuce later.’ They rush off to choose a tray which has the largest egg or tomato, or both. I arrived in school early to share the ingredients on trays for each student. I dread this choosing stage. There’s always grumbles and swapping.
‘Miss, I don’t eat salad.’
‘Miss, her cucumber’s bigger than mine.’
‘Can I have tomato instead of this green stuff?’
‘Miss, my tomato is missing.’
At last they are sorted and busy. Eggs are twirled and salad chopped.
To perk up the droopy lettuce plants, I’ve dumped them in a sink of ice cold water. The examiners don’t like this tactic, so I warn the class that the Vitamin C which will leach out into the water, and the limp lettuce will not be so nutritious.
‘Come round and I’ll show you how to present the salad.’
I remove the lettuce, radish and spring onions from the cold water, and pat them dry with a tea towel. No fancy salad spinners here.
‘Place in colourful sections on a plate, sprinkle with a garnish of mustard and cress and serve with a jug of SALAD CREAM.’
What a fuss for something which today would be chopped, tossed and served in bowl!