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Salads | The Romans, Europeans and USA

The first salad was officially created with salad greens during the days of the Roman Empire. This dish was called herba salata. The word herba referred to greens and the word salata referred to salad. The greens were served raw with vinegar, oil and a little salt.

Originally, the green used by the Romans was referred to as Cos, named after the Greek island where it was discovered. Europeans called it Roman, because it was the Romans who introduced it to them. Over time, the name has evolved to be Romaine.

Romans introduced this salad preparation to territories it commanded during its worldwide reign. Newly acquired areas took the simple preparation and utilized greens that were indigenous to their land. With that step, the simple dish took on tremendous variety in color, texture, flavor and aroma. Add to that the different vinegars that could be derived from different wines and you can see how a tremendous variety of dishes evolved. This simple preparation of salad greens enjoyed great popularity.

Early European settlers to the New World brought all their knowledge of salads with them, as well as a wealth of history about every other aspect of food preparation.

Over time, as is the case with many foods, salad greens fell out of favor here in the United States. The most recent slump in salad appeal was during the 1950s and 1960s, when Iceberg lettuce and gassed cellophane wrapped tomatoes ruled the marketplace. It was a strange culinary time here in the U.S. It seemed as if everything had to have a sterile appearance in order to be accepted by the masses. Lettuces were dull, tomatoes were flavorless, flour was bleached and bread had little to no flavor or character. Fortunately, trends have turned around and we are now enjoying a marketplace that knows no limit to variety and which has little to no restrictions with regards to seasons.

A renewed focus on health and variety has brought many salad greens to the public's attention. Customers now focus on the nutritional value of greens, oils and the accompanying garnishes that are used in each salad preparation. Many customers consider the salad that consists of iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, cherry tomato and slice of onion to be an insult to their palate and also to their health concerns. Customers realize that interesting and nutritious salads are simple to prepare, though they are not necessarily easy to formulate.

It requires an experienced individual to properly balance the components of a dressing and to make sure that the dressing is nothing more than an accompaniment to the greens. The flavor, color, texture and aroma of the greens and how they will work with the dressing needs to be seriously considered. Then, the garnishes come into play. The actual preparation at service time may be simple, but figuring the food combinations, preparing and seasoning are not easy or simple tasks.

Given the tremendous variety of leafy greens available to consumers in today's market, foodservice professionals have to be totally aware of the products that they are working with. Adding a lettuce to a salad simply for color won't work when you are dealing with an educated customer. The notion of adding some radicchio to a salad must be given a second thought if that bitter flavor isn't going to blend well with the other greens it is being presented with.

As a chef, you have to know the flavor of every green. You have to know how the texture, flavor and aroma of an oil, or combination of oils, is going to interact with the greens. You have to know how the flavor and acidity of a vinegar is going to interact with the other ingredients in the dressing, as well as the greens. You have to know what added flavors will benefit the dressing's ability to accentuate the greens. You have to know how to balance flavors. You have to be able to draw the line and realize that the simpler it is, the better it is. All this can only be achieved with experience.

Book knowledge is also essential. Knowing that Romaine goes into a classic Caesar Salad will put you on the same page as the rest of the world. Knowing that Balsamic vinegar is very acidic will cause you to think twice about using it with a bland, delicate baby green. A book will not be the final judge of how to handle this knid of situation. Your palate will be the judge. Book knowledge allows you to move more efficiently through the many flavor options available to a chef.

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