By Gerhardus Geldenhuis
My left little toe has started to tremble and my pads are broken, so I have to put on sneakers by necessity and my trembling toe keeps getting stuck. The doctor says it’s a shortage of mutton, so I try to supplement it regularly because I don’t like trembling little toes. However, a few years ago I discovered a salad that is so tasty that it can be used as a substitute for mutton for this trembling tone.
I want to dare myself to say, if I had to eat less meat now, I would still be able to face life squarely if I could only eat this salad. However, before I get to the recipe I just want to talk about what makes this salad so special and what it taught me about cooking and balance.
I believe by now most people know about the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. For the sake of those who do not know about umami, it is a loanword from Japanese (旨味) and can be roughly translated as “pleasant salty taste” or my personal translation as “deliciousness”.
Umami taste comes from various amino acids of which “monosodium glutamate” or MSG is one of the amino acids we are most familiar with, but not the only one. We add salt in the Western world and certainly ingredients for umami but rarely MSG in a pure chemical form. In the east, salt is typically added via soy sauce and MSG in pure form as well as via ingredients such as fish sauce.
Umami is typically found in cheese, fermented food, tomatoes, meat and certain nuts, specifically hazelnuts, you also find it in miso and soy sauce. The recipe is very easy to make but requires a little work around for some of the ingredients, but nothing impossible. The secret of the salad did not reveal itself immediately, and only after I made the salad a few times and wondered why it resonated with me so much, and I realized it was because it contained every element of taste and in a specific balance which means no component stands out and everything is in balance. The secret of the salad is the quality of the ingredients and, as already mentioned, the balance between the tastes. I love a banana salad but it only contains two primary tastes, sweet and sour, which is why Greek salad is so popular because it typically contains four of the five tastes.
Greek Salad #245
- 15 ml red wine vinegar (acidic)
- 10 ml grape syrup (sweet)
- 60 ml olive oil
- At least 100 g of hazelnuts (umami)
- A pinch or two of coarse salt (a quarter of a teaspoon, but use less and add later instead)
- 250 g baby spinach leaves (bitter)
- 1 clove garlic (umami)
- 200 g feta cheese (umami)
The quality of the ingredients will make a big difference, you will reap what you sow. So get red wine vinegar, not because it’s fancy but because it really adds extra flavor, white vinegar isn’t going to work. Hetvlockcasteel.co.za sells moss jam which is the closest I could find to the grape syrup I use. You also find pomegranate syrup quite commonly available, the desired taste is a more concentrated sweetness with a dark molasses complexity and background. The grape syrup I use is wine grape juice that is slowly boiled in a large pot until it becomes a syrup, the wine grapes give a more complex flavor than table grapes. I have used brown sugar in the past, about a tablespoon, but the grape syrup is the best. The olive oil should preferably be extra pure (extra virgin) be – I simply call it Maria oil – because we want the hot pepper taste of a good olive oil and it adds complexity of taste to our salad.
The baby spinach leaves are less bitter than the large leaves and are softer because we are specifically looking for a softer texture for the leaves that wilt more easily. Only fresh garlic will work, the already processed garlic is handy but it loses flavor and we are looking for flavor and complexity. We look for raw hazelnuts because we want to roast them ourselves to maximize the flavor. Finally, the feta cheese, original Greek feta cheese, is made from sheep’s milk and sometimes goat’s milk is added so it will give us the best flavor and complexity. Not feta cheese with all kinds of frills, because that might be nice on its own but throw off the balance of the recipe.
- Cut up the clove of garlic roughly, add the salt and crush with a fork until the garlic and salt are fine and combined. The salt will draw the water out of the garlic so it will become more runny. I just mix the garlic and salt in my final salad bowl.
- Add the vinegar, olive oil and grape syrup and whisk until it forms an emulsion.
- Put the hazelnuts in a pan in the oven and turn the heat up to 180 °C. I put the nuts in the cold oven so they warm up with the oven. The nuts are ready when the skins start to come off and they start to crack. The best way is to taste. If the nuts are cooked, they will be crunchy and crumble when you bite. If they have to bake a little longer, you will taste that they still have a slight softness to them. The children are going to walk into the kitchen at this point to see what smells so good. When the nuts are ready, take them out of the oven and put them in a metal bowl so that they can cool quickly and stop baking, otherwise they will become too dry and then they will no longer taste good.
- Put the leaves in the bowl with the sauce five minutes before the other food is ready, add the nuts, crumble the feta and stir well so that all the leaves have a little oil on them.
Operate and watch your toe stop shaking. The leaves wilt rather quickly due to the salt and vinegar in the salad, so eat as soon as possible. It is still edible the next morning but it is, like a nice chop, really only at its best fresh off the fire.
Now make version 246 of this salad
The ratio between the oil and vinegar is 4:1 which is the basic ratio for any salad dressing, the grape syrup can definitely be a bit more if you have a sweet tooth like me, but remember it’s a salad, not a pudding. The hazelnuts are irreplaceable in my opinion, but freshly roasted pecans can also work. Although I haven’t tried it myself, macadamia nuts might also work well when toasted. The feta gives a specific texture and taste that you don’t really get from other cheeses, maybe parmagiano, but then it is no longer affordable. Think about the balance of the flavors when you experiment, adding too much sweet will change the texture drastically, and if your experiments work well then I’d love to hear about your successes.
- Gerhardus lives in England with his heart in South Africa. He regularly prepares large meals for the church, hosts cooking workshops at his home, such as how to make your own miso, and picks more flowers and fruit each year than he can ever eat himself. So he regularly distributes jam, syrup and other tasty things to friends. He learned to bake bread in a German bakery and is actively involved in the Oxford Food Symposium on Food & Cookery. Send Gerhardus an e-mail at [email protected].