She was the sweet marjoram of the salad or, rather, the herb of grace. -- "All's Well That Ends Well," by William Shakespeare
THE WOMEN in our family rank cooking just short of high art. This tradition dates back T for generations, with each mother, daughter and granddaughter adding her own creations to the familial bank of recipes. My aunt's latest contribution is an almond tart; my mother has recently perfected a borscht so delicate and pretty that even beet-haters like it.
But in the greenery department, my little sister Sarah has far surpassed any of us -- in truly classic style -- with a salad concoction that dates to the 14th century. Possessed of a rather refined and medieval temperament, she was moved to explore the history of salads after surveying one day "the particularly unappetizing choices of a long, yet mediocre salad bar."
We all can visualize the rancid display my sister described: "The lettuce was wet, slightly limp and laced with the color brown. Chickpeas floated in the juice from their can. Institutional cheddar cheese sat next to the imitation bacon bits and graying cottage cheese. And, as if all that wasn't bad enough, you could get Jell-O with fruit cocktail at the end of the line."
With faith in the conviction that "salads could not have always been this bad," my sister commenced to research. She peeled back the onion skins of the centuries until she discovered a book, published in modernity by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled "To the King's Taste, Richard the Second's Book of Feasts and Recipes." Thence she resurrected a delicious salad recipe, which she then changed only slightly, due to the obsolescence of a couple of herbs. Most of the ingredients in this adaptation are available, to this day, at reputable grocery stores.
Fresh sage and borage may be found at the Washington Cathedral Herb Garden store. But don't be put off if the ladies there react contemptuously at the mention of ingesting the borage; my sister reports that the taste, which resembles that of a good cucumber, is quite pleasing.
And medievalists, take note: The addition of pepper to this salad overpowers the flavors of the herbs. Finally, use whatever type of lettuce you prefer, but keep in mind that Richard II and his cooks never knew of that modern-day travesty we call iceberg.
SARAH'S ADAPTATION OF A MEDIEVAL SALAD (4 servings)
Head romaine lettuce
Few thin slices of a leek
8 sprigs of watercress, stems removed
2 sprigs of fresh parsley, stems removed
2 leaves of fresh sage, chopped
1 small clove of garlic, minced
Pinch of dried rosemary
3 fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 leaves of borage, finely chopped
3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar
Salt to taste
Tear the lettuce up into bite-sized pieces. Add remaining ingredients and toss.