Salads used to be an aside or even afterthought to the meal. These days they’ve taken center stage as entrees, often with complex combinations and innovative ingredients. French native and New Orleans transplant Jean-Mark Sens is an authority on leafy greens. He is the author of a manuscript called Leaves of Greens and Sundry Things and a summer salad columnist for NolaVie. Recently we talked to him about the once lowly salad and its cultural evolution from culinary disdain to contemporary stardom.
You are a classically trained chef and a culinary instructor. Why choose salad dressings over classic sauces?
It is something healthy. It is something that offers also a great variety. And a salad dressing is a sauce, for all particular purposes, so basically it fits into the training of any chef.
So you can bring the complexity and the talent to a salad in the same way that you do a grander dish?
Yeah, that is part of the purpose of making your own dressing — exploring flavors, oils, different herbs. There is a bit of alchemy to the salad.
Salad has come of age, because people now are seeing the artistry that can go into an entree salad. It seems to have reached a 21st century status that it didn’t have before.
Yes, because salad actually has become something global. It is true you want to have your greens locally sourced, but also you have access to so many other ingredients on the market. If you want to do something with pomegranate, you can get pomegranate seeds. You can make a market salad. You can make an Asian-style salad if you buy some rice vinegar. You put a bit of seafood, you tweak something and you have a salad that is totally different. And I think that is part of the appeal.
We have our own contribution to the salad line, which is the Creole salad.
Actually that is very interesting, because I think what we mean by Creole is a form of cooking that comes from mostly New Orleans, whether we are talking about Creole people who came mostly from France or from the French Islands like Martinique or Guadalupe and adapted a very French, Parisian-like cooking with local ingredients. Long ago I remember finding this recipe and I was surprised it had fennel and sliced tomatoes; that was, historically speaking, the type of salad that came from New Orleans.
Because we are more global, we are more interested in different versions of salads. In a way, salads reflect both globalization and individual cultures.
Also, what makes salad interesting is that you can give guidelines. To say that there is a standard recipe is not exact. There are definitely recipes I wrote, but they shouldn’t be taken in a literal way. Every time you make your salad you need to taste your greens. You have to taste your herbs. You have to think, am I going to put shrimp in this? Does the dressing need to be stronger? It gives you a lot of freedom with what you want to do.
It sounds like improvisation is an important component.
It is like music in a way. A good musician will improvise, but always with prepared improvisation. Improvisation doesn’t mean just going off the wall and doing anything that goes with your head. If you notice, musicians who improvise really have a sense of working together and they have improvised before. The improvisation is not just random playing.
The word “salad,” you write in your book, derives from the Latin word for salt. Why is that?
Originally, I think, you would preserve a certain number of ingredients in salt and then you would arrange them in a way that could be edible, and then eat them usually cool. So that is one of the origins. And ironically, putting a lot of salt in your salad is not very good, not only for your health, but for the taste, too.
What is the weirdest ingredient that you have ever used in salad?
I remember as somewhere in Florida having an Asian style salad the person had made with some squid tentacles in it that had been sautéed in a little bit of black ink. And it was very interesting and a visual effect. It was a creative contrast with the salad.
You write very evocatively about dressings. You say in your introduction that no leafy greens should go commando.
What I say is to think about yourself and the function of dressing yourself and dressing your salad. You also want to give a bit of underwear to your salad. And what I call the underwear is pre-dressing your salad with oil, usually olive oil. Leaves naturally absorb dressing. But if you put a bit of oil beforehand and you toss your salad then you put your ingredients and then you put your dressing, then you are going to see a difference.
We have a skyrocketing variety of greens these days. It is fairly bewildering. What are the best new greens on the market and what have you discovered that you are high on right now?
Kale. Years ago I remember I worked in a big hotel and the only function of kale was to make a garnish. So we had this really pretty purple kale and we just used them as a garnish. And now we have seen kale boom. You have a whole variety, from Italian kale to purple kale to more exotic forms. More expensive but fun to use once in a while are hydroponic greens. They are like micro greens, baby greens, and they are far tenderer and they are available throughout the year. And of course we have made such a progress in packaging salads. It is amazing: You can buy a box of salad and keep it in your fridge for almost a week.
You may remember a couple of years ago we had Kalegate here. A New York Times writer interviewed someone who said that you can’t get kale in New Orleans, and it caused quite a stir. How up to date are New Orleanians on the latest trends and greens?
I would say that we probably have as much if not more than anywhere else. Because when you make salad, you have to go beyond your iceberg — which now I think people probably don’t remember what it is, iceberg salad. Locally we grow some pretty good greens.
There is a phrase, “salad days of summer.” People may not realize that it actually dates back to Shakespeare, when Cleopatra was talking about her dalliance with Caesar, and she said it had happened in her “salad days.” It came to mean something very young and foolish. Now “salad days” has come to mean something young and vigorous, something young and good. And I think salads have actually gone from that foolishness of iceberg to the vigor of kale and micro greens. So there has been an evolution of salad, right?
Yes, salad occupies a greater place in any restaurant. And also the foolishness is good in a way, as it is a joyous foolishness. For a long time in many restaurants the first thing that you would serve was the salad, not because it was better for health but it was just that they have time to take care of the important part of the meal, which was usually the meat or the fish. So it has changed.
Salads too are more visual.
Yes and some people go pretty far. They integrate, say, edible flowers. But out of really simple ingredients you can arrange them and have a whole palette of colors. There is such an importance of colors in the salad and if you toss it right, the salad doesn’t hide everything at the bottom but actually reveals all the other ingredients. So it has a nice visual effect.
Actually is a very modest dish, if you think about it. When salad gets overly sophisticated, it means you are no longer making a salad. I have seen so many books that integrate so many things like it could be taken as a salad. But for me when I see the word salad I think of minimal cooking.