In 1988, an artist friend, gave us a very ‘artistic’ cookbook. The book was Salad, by Amy Nathan and Kathryn Kleinman, (1985). According to the sleeve notes, it was full of ‘stunning salad dishes to delight the eye as well as the palate.’ At the time the book was published, the modern English restaurant scene – with its regalia of Michelin stars and Instagram galleries of beautifully crafted food images – was still waiting in the wings. It’s therefore remarkable that a cookbook, 32 years old, should include such arresting visuals of food – it was clearly well ahead of its time.
Each plate of food (and photographic ‘plate’), was immaculately composed into symmetrical or asymmetrical patterns. The food was shot on top of a light box using transparent dinner plates, a technique that emphasised not only the colour and shape of the food, but also the creativity of the authors. These days, the photographer’s light box has been replaced by burnished metal or distressed wood, the transparent plates with artisan crockery. Both styles could be accused of fetishising food, however, the intention of Salad is not to stimulate a ‘food porn’ reaction, but rather to show the food in a more elemental and refined light so that each ingredient might be appreciated for its own sake. Salad’s dishes are reminiscent of Nouvelle Cuisine, its characteristic lightness of touch, lightly cooked ingredients and the minimalist approach to arranging food could have been an inspiration for the book.
I’ve been critical of the new trend in scattering grains, seeds and whole foods on a plate. I imagined treating ingredients as an assortment of components brought together in a random manner will only create endless nondescript dishes. What is needed is a greater appreciation of the ingredient: why is it distinctive, what are its characteristics, what does it add to the plate, can it be complimented or contrasted by other ingredients? I sense our Salad authors considered this as much as the visual appeal.
My versions, are adapted to add further ideas, either in the visual impact or in the flavour combination. The tomato salad, is simplicity itself. But, it allows us to pause and acknowledge the different tomato varieties. I have also attempted to add, where possible, new ideas about taste and texture contrasts such as savoury, fresh and crunch. A baked goat’s cheese is turned into a poppy flower incorporating beetroot. A pear dish is less about leaves and flowers and more about a classic pairing of flavours.
Salad should be used by culinary colleges to help students with their presentation and appreciation of flavour combinations. It certainly made me re-think how I put food on a plate and provided new insights into combining food.