Wednesday, April 6, 2011

If We Cantaloupe, Lettuce Eat Gourmet Salad

What is "gourmet"? What does it really mean?*

For me, it evokes a sense of culinary decadence. Pretension, even. I picture a sliver of duck confit garnished with two slices of radish and a candied tulip, drizzled with a tablespoon of mysterious sauce, surrounded by an ocean of empty white plate, and served with a $300 Bordeaux.

On the other end of the spectrum, “gourmet” has suffered the unfortunate, but not uncommon, fate of being used to tart up some very un-gourmet food products in unscrupulous marketing campaigns across the nation. Seeing the word “gourmet” on a label does not guarantee a high quality product these days. Just look at the line up: Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, Jelly Bellies, and Walmart. Need I say more?

So when Susan decided to sell some “gourmet salad mix” at the Charlottesville farmer’s market last Saturday, I asked about it. What makes her salad “gourmet”?

Her answer: “If it’s good quality and it has some unusual items in it, I think it’s fair to call it gourmet.” 

This particular salad mix was the last of a few rows of lettuce, harvested by yours truly, before they submitted to farm reincarnation (tilling and planting something else). It consisted of a few varieties of baby lettuce, miner’s lettuce, feldsalat, lamb’s quarters**, and some brassica blossoms – arugula and tatsoi, primarily. When arugula and tatsoi go to seed, they shoot out some beautiful yellow flowers that happen to be edible, and make that gourmet salad mix shine. Susan sold out of ours by 10:30.

So I think I’ve arrived at three rules of thumb for creating your own gourmet salad mix.  

Rule number one: Go off the beaten path. Gourmet folks apparently love the unique, the atypical, the curious, and sometimes the just plain weird. Weeds are great for this, especially edible ones. Try some unusual tastes too – toss in some fresh herbs.

Rule number two:  Presentation is everything. To that end, use flowers as garnishes... preferably edible ones. They add color, even though they don’t always taste like much.

Rule number three: I suppose it helps if it tastes good.

So with these rules in mind, I made my own special gourmet salad tonight. (I can’t claim it as my complete intellectual property, though, since I’m basing it off one Susan made last week.) Ingredients: lettuce mix, fresh mint, fresh cilantro, arugula blossoms, and wild violets.

Of course, taking pictures slightly yet artistically askew helps further the correct impression.

*According to Wikipedia, gourmet is “a cultural ideal associated with the culinary arts…characterized by elaborate preparations and presentations of large meals of small, often quite rich courses.” Yes, I fact check with Wikipedia. Climb down off that high horse.
**Miner’s Lettuce is a plant native to California that happens to be edible. It’s a very attractive plant with a cluster of long, elegantly draping stems, each capped with a green diamond-shaped leaf. It’s pretty tasty. Feldsalat, known as “corn salad” in the US, is an edible weed with a nutty sort of taste. At least, so says Susan. I just taste plant. But it was tasty plant. Lamb’s Quarters is another tasty, edible weed. Spotting a trend here?

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