and Mr. McGregor isn’t going to run me off~
For the longest time, I always wondered why Europeans had their salad course AFTER their main/meat course. In America, we eat our salad course first, almost as an appetizer. I am not sure why there is a cultural difference, but it has always made me want to ask the question, “Does it really matter where the salad falls during the course of the meal?”
The answer is—YES!
While I was living with the family in Italy, regardless of how we started the meal or what the main course was, we always finished every meal with a salad, followed by fresh fruit. And I discovered the reason why—after a meal, your palate becomes overwhelmed with rich sauces, exotic spices, and meats glistening in their juices (fat). If you follow all of that with fresh, crisp greens (my favorite being arugula), simply dressed with olive oil and some type of acid, like lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, your palate gets revived.
My first night in Viterbo with the family was a whirlwind. I had been up for 33 hours and, between flights and trains, I was exhilarated and exhausted. The food was home cooked, the conversation was all in Italian, and I was starving. I ate my fair share and, after the main course, out came a bowl of lettuce. I really wasn’t in the mood for salad at this point. To my American palate, my meal was over. All that remained was dessert. But I decided that “when in Rome,” or as close to Rome as I was, I would have the salad.
It was fantastic! Nothing complicated—no grated cheddar, thick sliced red onion, chopped iceberg lettuce drowning in a creamy, mayonnaise-y glob of dressing. It was a bowl of simple mixed greens accompanied by a salad set of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper mill. I placed some greens on my salad plate, drizzled over some olive oil, added a couple dashes of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sea salt, and a twist of the mill. Done.
After my first bite, it hit me. Wow! The acid of the vinegar, the crispness of the lettuces, the hint of salt, and the spice of pepper cleared my palate. It revived my taste buds, which had been subdued by all of the food before. Truly, it didn’t really hit me until I was served the fruit course next. The sliced cantaloupe was so sweet, so juicy, so incredible tasting—it had everything to do with the salad course clearing my palate. Again, WOW!!!
That is how I learned the importance of the salad course coming after the entrée and before dessert. The salad cleared my palate; the fruit paved the way for the dessert. Brilliant. I was again refreshed, ready for dessert, coffee, and an after-dinner drink, too.
While I was in Minneapolis last weekend (remember the birthday party where I served the roasted cauliflower—read the comments from the previous post and you’ll see how successful the recipe was for someone else), I went with another friend to a shop where they sold olive oils from around the world and flavored balsamic vinegars.
Vinaigrette is set up as a taste-testing store where you take a small piece of bread, fill a tiny cup with a sample of an olive oil, a flavored balsamic or wine vinegar, or a combination of the oils and vinegars, and using the bread taste the sample. Here large metal samovars held an Italian, Greek, Egyptian, Californian, Syrian, and Tunisian olive oil to sample from. Behind were more samovars offering olive oils and balsamic vinegars infused with various fruit flavors, spices, and even chocolate. It was fun to mix a porcini mushroom-infused olive oil with a Cabernet wine vinegar or the chili pepper-infused olive oil with the chocolate balsamic vinegar. Richard, one of the owners, was very helpful and it was fun to spend a good 45 minutes there sampling all there was. We even talked about a possible book event there. You should check out their website and, should you happen to order anything, please tell them where you received your information.
The visit there reminded my taste buds of the importance of a well-dressed and well-placed salad during the course of the meal. I hope you try to vary up your salad schedule, too, and see what it does to your palate.
Photos: (1) My favorite kind of salad: Arugula dressed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar (this time pear-infused thanks to Richard at Vinaigrette), grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. (2) My purchases from Vinaigrette in Minneapolis: Balsamic vinegars infused with: pear, raspberry, fig, and chocolate; and a bottle of their Italian extra virgin olive oil, naturally my favorite.