The Hong Kong chefs putting a fresh spin on salads
As with cocktails, small tweaks of classic recipes often provide the best blueprints for new salad creations. Chefs take us through some of their new taste and texture combinations
For many people it's difficult to get excited about salads. Widely regarded as something to be ordered on sufferance in the interests of health or weight loss, they are not really expected to taste of much.
There are, however, evangelists for the virtues of raw vegetables who maintain that they really can be eaten for pleasure. This summer - traditionally and rationally the salad season - a number of chefs around town are going a few extra miles to convert the unconvinced.
Among these is Paolo Morresi, executive chef at Aqua, where the summer menu features what he calls "a new take on Italian insalate".
"They say in Italy that if you can prepare salad well it shows the calibre of your kitchen, and also introduces your guests to the creativity that is to come. In terms of health, Italians are interested in a balanced lifestyle, but we also care about taste, so salads in Italy must have great flavour. I bring this thinking with me to Aqua," he says.
"The dishes from my insalate menu contribute to a balanced diet, but as well as this, the salads are tasty. I also want to make sure that they are appealing to the eye, with lots of colour, using fresh ingredients. They look like individual works of art. Salads don't have to be cold, and they don't have to contain mostly lettuce leaves. For example, you can mix and match warm with hot in one dish, such as the pork leg cube salad on my menu. It is served hot but with a complement of cold orange, mushrooms and sliced apple, with raisins, pine nuts and apple sauce."
Other unusual salads on the menu include the farro and Bronte pistachio lobster salad, served with sweetly glazed sweetbreads and house-made bell pepper jam, and the Orbetello sea bass carpaccio salad served with avocado, crunchy vegetables, toasted hazelnuts and lemon foam.
Like any decent chef, Morresi is acutely aware that you can't make a good dish with poor ingredients, and that this truth is particularly exposed in a salad.
"Definitely avoid any frozen produce. My salads are made using 100 per cent fresh ingredients - 80 per cent of my ingredients come fresh and direct from Italy. Salads must be made fresh every day from top quality ingredients. I am a big believer in knowing where your produce comes from. You must know your source."
Cecconi chef Michael Fox also believes in the importance of making salads appealing to the eye - and following through with equally stimulating tastes and textures. "Make them pop - lots of colour helps with the eye appeal," he says.
"And make them interesting. Take a humble ingredient and prepare it in such a way that tempts the unadventurous. A carrot salad may be made up of raw shaved, spice roasted, and char-grilled carrots. Make the salad with different textures such as roasted nuts, puffed grains, toasted seeds, and fried herbs."
An example of Fox's approach to salads is a dish comprising pickled baby beetroot of different colours, shapes and sizes, combined with smoked beetroot purée, braised lentils, shaved radish, baby spinach, and horseradish dressing.
Chef Chiu Ming Chan of The Steak House at the InterContinental in Tsim Sha Tsui says that when creating salads he likes to combine bright colours with strong flavours.
"On our new à la carte menu, one of the appetisers is Spanish prawns and Hokkaido scallops, with applewood bacon and red radish salad, in which I use lemon zest with scallops for an interesting taste combination, along with the bacon that adds a different texture and a savoury touch. I try to make the salads appealing with a 'wow' presentation. For example, this salad is served on a large platter and is big enough to share."
A preconception to get over, according to Pirata chef Stefano Rossi, is that salads have to be light and geared to the requirements of slimmers.
"Look at the Caprese salad. It is just tomato and a nice chunk of mozzarella, but it is rich in fat and high in calories," he says.
However, Rossi doesn't believe chefs need to resort to fat for flavour, and stresses the need for critical tasting of salad recipes, with plenty of trial and error generally being involved before the right combination is found.
"Sometimes people just add anything they can get their hands on and still believe it's going to taste good. You need to make sure the flavour profiles are in balance. If you want a salad to fill you up, try adding some cereals or beans instead of fatty ingredients," says Rossi.
As with cocktails, small tweaks of classic recipes often provide the best blueprints for new salad creations - an approach Cocotte chef Petrous Moldovan has taken to the classic insalata Caprese.
"Our summer menu has the Caprese salad, which consists of a fresh mozzarella di burratina, heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh white peach, 12-year-old balsamic vinegar and Parma ham. The creaminess of the mozzarella, ripe juicy tomatoes, sweetness of the peach and the smokiness of the ham complement each other so well, creating an unusual and interesting salad," he says.
Nobu executive chef Sean Mell also believes that the heart and soul of a successful salad are flavour and texture.
"The spinach dry miso salad, which can be found on Nobu menus across the globe, has a delicious yuzu truffle dressing, seasoned with Nobu's signature dry miso and finished with a good Italian Parmigiano cheese. The flavour of the dressing goes well with the saltiness of the miso and cheese. We finish it with a little crispy yuba skin for added texture and flavour. I would definitely recommend this salad to anyone," he says.
Aberdeen Street Social executive chef Chris Whitmore takes the view that "salads are among the few dishes that benefit from having a large number of varied ingredients. The most common mistake is too much lettuce. In fact, my favourite salad doesn't have any lettuce at all - the panzanella salad [a Tuscan dish made with bread and tomatoes]", he says.
Although professional chefs have the luxury of sourcing their salad ingredients directly from trusted overseas - and in a small number of instances local - suppliers, for many of us trying to make interesting salads at home, the source of those ingredients is a supermarket.
In the opinion of journalist and accomplished amateur cook Chris Davis, even shelling out the premium for organic produce won't salvage the bland lettuce, tomatoes and herbs that tend to be found on those retailers' shelves.
"The more talked up things like organic vegetables are, the less they taste. Grow your own, and there's a huge difference in the crispness, taste and zestiness," he says.
Davis is sufficiently keen on his salads that much of the roof of his Sai Kung village house is given over to pots of herbs and vegetables.
Urban apartment dwellers may not have the luxury of that exterior space, but Davis says that it is still possible, using movable pots or window boxes, to grow salad ingredients of markedly superior quality.
"There's always an advantage in growing your own because you can see what's coming and start thinking about what you're going to do with it in a day or two," he says.
Davis makes his own pots from recycled plastic water bottles, drilling holes into their bases, and says these are good for almost any variety of lettuce.
Among those he grows are mizuna, resembling a flat leaf parsley, which he likes to pair with prawn or crab; mustard Oriental red, the slightly peppery leaves of which he says complement duck dishes; and rocket and wild Italian rocket, which he serves with house-made herb bread with smoked salmon, dill and tarragon from the roof garden, in a lemon and garlic dressing.
It is generally minutes at most between the harvesting of the ingredients and their presentation on a plate and there is, he believes, no substitute for that kind of freshness.
"The sap from the roots is all there," he says.
At Aqua, Morresi says the new menu has been well received by diners looking for something different from unambitious green salads.
"Salads are not always thought of as filling. However, the insalate menu is the opposite. We have carefully sourced the freshest ingredients and kept the dishes light but hearty. So guests will feel satisfied and well fed," he says.