Which is anything but. Humble, I mean. In the India of yesterday it probably was that, positioned at it was on the sidelines of the main fare, one or two dishes in a buffet of several. For the most part it included thinly sliced vegetables – cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and carrots drizzled with lemon juice and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The more innovative cooks chopped their vegetables up and added some sprouts as well but that is perhaps as far as the creativity of the common man extended. If you saw a macaroni salad or a Russian salad at the start of a buffet you knew the meal was going to be good. On a restaurant menu, salad and raita were included as extras, an afterthought almost and why would you even order them when they already gave you onions and lemons for free, which is what you really wanted with your food anyway!
It was a pleasant surprise for me to find that in the US salads could be a meal in itself. I first saw someone eat a salad for a meal when I went to Wendy’s with my roommate who having lived in the US for a while was already familiar with the food. So when she ordered a salad and I looked around and saw how big, beautiful, colorful and healthy the salads looked, I said why not and ordered a spicy chicken Caesar salad myself. The salad of course is veggies and ghaas-phoos as many in India call it, but throw in the chicken and you are in a dilemma aren’t you? You can’t ignore chicken! Then you pour on the creamy flavorful salad dressing and your meal is not the epitome of healthy anymore is it? That little sachet of creamy goodness is all fat my friend and that is what saves face for the humble ghaas-phoos. I was eating so much of that dressing that I almost ran out and had to ration it towards the end.
Over the years though I discovered that a salad takes on several forms from the green leafy everyday salads with my beloved Ranch dressing to the creamy American picnic salads and everything in between. The hubby and I especially took a liking for a salad served in my university’s food court which had three colors of fusilli, tomatoes, olives, chicken, peppers and a light, fresh, tangy dressing. It was so big and filling that we would share one and still be very happy. And when I ate alone, leftovers were happily carried home to be enjoyed in silence later.
Thanks to our research lab’s picnics I came to love the macaroni and potato salads, cold and buttery and melting in your mouth with nothing but starch and fat. How can you turn that down? But it’s not the food that you can eat everyday, especially when your wedding’s coming up and while you are at your brother’s wedding you are so fat, people are speaking in hushed whispers about how you are going to look on your wedding day. Then you have to switch to ghaas-phoos and that too my friend without the real Ranch dressing. So in the months leading up to my wedding, inspired by the salads served at the University hospital cafeteria and my roommates, who were going through this salad phase – we always had different dressings in our fridge – I created my own salad. At the cafeteria they would have all the salad elements – greens, veggies, olives, croutons, bacon bits, boiled eggs and all kinds of dressings, so you could make your own salad and it was sold by the pound. I recreated all the elements at home – bought the packaged greens, shredded carrots, croutons and olives, chopped the cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and capsicum, defrosted the peas and corn, sometimes added in some cooked chicken as well and made my own low-fat dressing. You see I was on this lose 1-2 lbs a week diet and I had a limit on how many calories I could eat, so I played around and found a dressing that exactly fit my lunch calorie quota. So here goes:
“Fake” Ranch for 4 cups of salad more than half of which is the leaves
2 tbsp sour cream
2 tbsp miracle whip, which is really fake mayo
4 tbsp fat free yogurt
2 tbsp fat free zesty Italian dressing, Kraft had this version that we liked
Salt, pepper, sugar and herbs to taste
Incidentally this is the first recipe I ever created and wrote down. Many were the afternoons when I went into the lunch room, took out my boxes from the fridge, poured the dressing on and ate my salad while watching TV, chomping away until my mouth hurt from all the effort. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the salad, especially my dressing which was creamy enough with just the right amount of acidity from the Italian dressing and kick from the pepper. But when you are eating so much raw food, it does take a toll on your jaws. Still I have no regrets because thanks to that diet I lost a lot of weight and my family and extended family heaved a collective sigh of relief upon seeing my at my wedding.
I love eating salad. At any buffet, I always start with the salads no matter how simple they are because they always make you feel like you are eating healthy. In the US, in the middle of my pregnancy I started craving salads and so every afternoon I would make a gigantic bowl of salad for myself and gorge it like a pig. It had vegetables like onions, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and broccoli tossed with balsamic, olive oil, salt and pepper, romaine lettuce, nuts, dried fruits, a little cheese, occasionally beans and a light dressing, often a raspberry vinaigrette which I ate somewhere and became a huge pan of. Then when my very health conscious cousin visited me for a few weeks, we had a ball experimenting with salads – every day would be a different one and she was on a mission to make the dressing completely oil free. It was a thrill.
I am very excited to see that nowadays restaurants in India are playing around with salads and offering interesting options for the health conscious diner. But somehow we have stopped eating salad. I mean we still do the chopped salad once in a while to offset the richness when we have a greasy meal, but as the hubby pointed out, “We are not eating enough salad these days. You used to do so much with salad, what happened?” His comment stuck with me. So a couple of days ago when the hubby announced that he was going to Blue Frog for dinner and live music, I thought I would do stick-it-in-your-face salad for myself. I felt like having this Quesadilla explosion salad that they make at Chili’s. It really puts a salad to shame. It is is so huge, so rich that after you eat it, you die from pleasure and go to hell – where you have to attend fat camp! Here is the description from Chili’s website: “Layers of flavor make this our most popular salad. Includes grilled chicken with cheese, tomatoes, corn relish, cilantro and tortilla strips. Served with our citrus-balsamic dressing and cheese quesadilla wedges.”
Here is a salad that as served has 1400 calories. I kid you not. This information is on their website. But the combination of flavors and textures and colors is so enticing – salty, sweet, tart and spicy, gooey from cheesy quesadillas, crunchy from the greens, meaty from the chicken, creamy from the dressing – it is something else. I tried to recreate this at home, without the cheesy quesadillas of course. I had heard that Nature’s Basket would have chipotle in adobo this week, so I walked down there in anticipation, only to find that they didn’t have the chillies itself but a Tabasco with chipotle in it. I decided to make do with that, bought some lettuce, beans, peppers and lemons. I had some beautiful corn from last week and a couple of small chicken breast pieces from last week’s stuffed chicken breasts so away I went. The chicken was marinated in lemon juice, salt, pepper, parika and chipotle sauce and then pan-fried. When the chicken sizzled on the skillet, the spices oozed into the oil and the oil became paprika colored. The whole kitchen smelled of paprika and reminded me of cooking chorizo. I roasted the corn and took it off the cob, then added in some onions, tomatoes, peppers, beans and pickled jalapenos and tossed it in a dressing of lemon juice and zest, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin and a few drops of chipotle sauce.
For the assembly, I tore a lot of iceberg lettuce into a big bowl, topped it with the veggies, cut chicken, a little cheese, some pita chips for texture and drizzled it with a creamy dressing spiked with chipotle that I also picked up at Nature’s Basket. It was a mess and eminently unphotographable, but here are a couple to make all of you jealous anyway.
It was the epitome of comfort food. Crunchy, chewy, creamy, spicy and tangy. Just the kind of food you want to eat when you hate the hubby for leaving you and going off for music and food and want to feel sorry for yourself – alone food. Because have you ever heard of salad being the centerpiece of a party? No one ever said, “Let’s party! I’ll bring the salad.” This salad is the kind of food that makes being alone worth it – almost.