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Salads have been popular since the days of the Pharaohs, and for centuries they stayed much the same – raw vegetable leaves with a salty oil dressing.
It wasn’t that long ago that salads in New Zealand were termed rabbit food; shorthand for healthy eating, or food fit only for women on diets. Then immigration and international travel changed our eating habits. Salads are often now the sophisticated option, and leading Wellington foodies agree – good salads depend on freshness, texture, and the dressing.
Nikki Chung, owner of Nam Đ
120g castor sugar 100ml lime or lemon juice 3 tbsp fish sauce 1 red chilli, finely chopped 2 crushed garlic cloves
Method Mix together and dress.
Nikki Chung runs four Nam D kiosks serving Vietnamese street food. She came to New Zealand as a small child with her family; they were “boat people” who, sponsored by Rotary, moved straight to Masterton. “Asian ingredients were scarce so my mum Thu – a great cook – had to improvise. There was one shop in Upper Hutt that stocked things like Thai fish sauce, so we’d head there once a month to stock up.”
Nikki started out in banking, then set up and oversaw an Asian foods section for Foodstuffs. She opened her own Vietnamese restaurant 10 years ago – Nam in the Willis Street Village. When a kiosk in Cable Car Lane became available, Nam D was born and her restaurant premises became the prep kitchen.
“Thu inspired me, she teaches my chefs, and they use her recipes. Everything is prepared from scratch: the pickled daikon and carrots, the pâtés, the marinaded, roasted meats. Mum still makes the Moon Festival cakes we sell every September.
“Vietnamese eat a lot of salads and not many cooked vegetables, because the weather is so hot. The food is all about freshness and texture with the liberal use of herbs, and the pickled vegetables and roasted peanuts supply the crunch. Sauces mean everything. Meats are marinaded with fish sauce and lemongrass, then garnished with spring onion oil (made with a neutral oil and salt) just before serving.”
Bridget Dunn, doyenne of Prefab Eatery
2 eggs 3 cloves garlic 1/2 cup grated parmesan 2 stalks spring onions, chopped 1 tbsp Dijon mustard 1 pinch black pepper 1 pinch salt (not much) 1 splash lemon or lime juice 1 tbsp parsley 4 tsp finest white wine vinegar 1/2 tsp sugar High quality olive oil
Method Blend until lovely and creamy.
Bridget Dunn, the doyenne of Prefab Eatery, agrees on the crunch factor. “In summer, the base is always cos or iceberg lettuce. It should be washed, spun, and then dehydrated in a plastic container in the fridge for a few hours; that makes the lettuce really crisp and helps the dressing stick to the leaves. It’s fine to use some rocket or mesclun but eat it on the day it’s bought, otherwise it gets mushy very quickly and dies – just like herbs – once dressed. And no one wants to eat mush.”
And she is full of tips for using seasonal bounty and avoiding monotony and mishaps: “Diversify according to the season; in winter, roast vegetables to boost their flavour, then add a grain like quinoa. In the spring and summer there are so many wonderful vegetables: asparagus (blanch then run under cold water to keep the crispness, or try roasting them), avocados, fresh peas straight from the pod, beautiful cherry or truss tomatoes, baby carrots (raw, or roasted with some honey and cumin); add some red or black rice for extra crunch, toasted almonds, cashews, or perhaps some fruit. Sometimes sprinkle a little goat or feta cheese. Beetroot – pickled or smoked – is fabulous; scatter it on the top for serving. Add your favourite herbs. And only toss the salad when you’re about to eat it.
“Anything goes! Experiment! But don’t use too many ingredients. There’ll be lots of suitable things in your fridge – just don’t use them all at the same time. You don’t want the kitchen sink in your salad.”
Taylor Annals, head chef at Egmont St Eatery
40ml finest white or red wine vinegar 3.5 tbsp Dijon or whole grain mustard 130ml extra virgin rapeseed oil 3 pinches salt 1 pinch black pepper
Method To mix, combine ingredients in a jar and shake aggressively.
Wellington-raised Taylor Annals returned home last year because of covid, having worked in some of Melbourne’s best-known restaurants. He’s now head chef at Egmont Street Eatery, after a stint at Ortega Fish Shack. Taylor shares Bridget’s wariness of mesclun and rocket: “Go gently with them, as they can be peppery”.
“Lettuces with body are best because they hold the dressing. I like to shred iceberg because it gives a more even coating. Preparing the lettuce is important. Wash it thoroughly. Strong lettuces, like cos, can be spun; otherwise leave it dripping upside down on the bench in one layer on a tea towel, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
“A balanced and seasoned dressing is another essential. Mustard adds some piquancy. And use good quality ingredients – like Forum’s Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon vinegars from Spain. If you’re serving barbecued or roasted meats, add about two tablespoons of their resting juices to the vinaigrette. And don’t forget the salt.”
Finally, Taylor says, salads need to be seasoned aggressively, although the dressing should be added only at the very last minute – after all, no one likes soggy salads.