Salads are for caterpillars

Salads are for caterpillars

Matt Wilkinson
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Jacqui Melville

The most joyous part of dining is not the food itself – food is what we need to survive – but the table and the SHARING of the food.

So where do we start? Simple, really. Let’s look at this book’s title: Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads. It’s all in the name, they say. I can’t tell you how many different thoughts have gone through my head in order to get to this title, but as time passed it was the first title that sat well with me.

My first book, Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables, was – like most things in life – about timing. It was my reflection, through recipes, of growing up, being in a kitchen and around food, and my philosophy (if we can use that word) about eating local and in-season food, from a belief that these are the most flavourful and tastiest. It really is so simple: buy the best tasty raw ingredients and foods from good producers, and the cook is already winning… then cook it properly and hey, you have delicious food! The same philosophy goes for this book – seasonal produce cooked well – but this time it’s me looking at what I eat the most: salads!

So, why salads? Let me digress. I think of most food groups as a salad. Really I do. Why?

Well, the salad is one of the most diverse food groups ever, in some way or form. A burger is a burger, and a curry is a curry… but salads are so wonderfully variable and can be hot or cold. Any ingredient can be made into a salad – any vegetable, fruit, grain, pulse, seafood or meat – not just salad leaves. A salad to me is simply a marriage of flavours and textures that you bring together; dress it with the right vinaigrette or dressing, and there you have it. For me, a salad primarily is designed to share, but on occasion can be brilliant on its own for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or any of the meals in between.

Which leads me to the question: do we all really think salads are just leaves or lettuce with other bits added? My little Hooligan number 1, Finn Thomas, after asking him how he enjoyed the little pumpkin salad I made for our family dinner, replied, ‘No Dad, salad’s for caterpillars!’ This resonates so strongly with me – that we all think salads are simply just salad leaves. Which really is crazy! The category for salad leaves is just that: a category. I don’t know any salad leaf called salad leaf. Rocket, witlof, mizuna, yes – but not salad leaf. It’s not rocket science, it’s rocket leaves.

My salad days, and a revelation

For those of you who don’t know, I grew up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in that country called England. My father lived in a pub for some time, where my hospitality and culinary career really started. I worked for Rob Jane (my father’s best mate Alan’s son); he was my start-of-life mentor, who taught me to think for myself, work hard and have fun while doing it.

The Crown & Cushion was the pub I grew up in, and was my first look at adult life and what work was. The food on offer was very similar to most other pub food – the plate generally consisted of a form of meat or fish taking pride of place on the whole plate, some form of potato (generally hot chips, we all love them) to cover the rest of the plate, and then you got asked by the wait staff, ‘Vegies or salad?’ These really just being a plate filler.

It was this ‘salad’ that offered my first insight as to what a salad was. We must have all seen it: iceberg lettuce cup filled with slices of onion, cucumber, tomato, radish, grated carrot and some baby mustard cress on top, served with a side of salad cream. It was the staple salad for the masses in pubs, clubs and I guess any food place that served a main meal. This was my first thought of a salad – boring but refreshing, something ‘healthy’ on the side of the meat and chips. When clearing tables in the pub, it fascinated me just how many people would leave the salad. ‘Not eating that rabbit food crap!’ they would say. Back then, I would’ve had to agree.

My first insight into the workings of a professional kitchen was in Kingston upon Thames, on the outskirts of London, in a place called Warren House, under the guidance of mentor, friend and head chef Michael Taylor. It was here at Warren House, in my first job as a chef at seventeen, that I really saw what a salad could be. There were dishes named Waldorf, Niçoise, Caesar, Caprese, Panzanella and Cobb, all foreign to me back then; saying that, you couldn’t get the old potato salad or coleslaw past me. In those two years of my life I learnt so much about cooking and being a chef, but the lunch salad section was my first real insight into a proper salad, how to make a dressing and the many different types, how to get the right ratio of dressing to the leaves or produce used, learning flavour combinations and textures that make for a better salad, and getting them all out on time.

However, it wasn’t until I was the head chef of Circa in Melbourne that I realised how good a salad could be, and how often I was making them and putting them on the menu, and not just as a side. Salad of this, or blah blah salad and so on… until I stopped to think how deeply entwined the salad is within all cuisines and cultures. It makes sense to me to make and eat a lot of salads, so if you have to define me as a chef, I guess I’m really good at doing seasonal salads, leaning on the vegetable side.

I really do think the concept of ‘salad’ is changing in everybody’s mind to be something other than just a leaf salad, and hopefully the recipes that follow will help you think about salads a little differently too.

About this book

I have divided the salads into four seasons, with a little introduction to each chapter as to what grows in each season and how I feel at that particular time of the year.

There are thirteen recipes per chapter, as a guide to what to make during that season. Ideally I would love it if you made one salad a week, but see how you go. Please note that produce also often flows into the following season. Take tomatoes and basil, for example. These are a highlight of summer, but I was still picking stunning tomatoes in mid autumn, and I made my last batch of pesto for the Mrs and Hooligans in late autumn.

At the end of each season is a dressings ‘family tree’. Why? Well it annoys me that in many a cookbook there are some great recipes that can be used in so many other ways, but they don’t tell you about it! I love Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion for this – how she notes what a certain item also goes well with – so I have included here, without recipes, a few other little things I would do with the dressings.

At the end of each season there is also a recipe for a fruit salad – simple fruits of the season that make for a delightful change to just a plain old fruit number. I love cordials, so I have also shared with you some different ones I make throughout the year, so you can capture the bounty of each season to enjoy at a later time.

A couple of tips to finish

Sometimes it can feel like we’re all starting to take cooking a little too seriously, making it a lot harder work than it should be. Whenever this happens I close my eyes and think of my Nanna Rita pottering around the kitchen, not a stress in the world. If you do stress in the kitchen, or at times don’t enjoy the labourers’ chore of cooking, try the following tips for size; it’s what we do at home…

Cooking starts with organisation, so what we do at the start of each week (although you could do this on any day that best suits you) is to simply write a list of what we are going to eat, or would like to eat, for the week. It brings us together, makes us talk – the old art of conversation! – but then we also know what to buy throughout the week. We are all generally busy, and there isn’t anything worse than getting home, tired after work or from the kids, and figuring out what to bloody well cook.

And please, please, you don’t have to cook every night. Go out, get some take away – but if you do, just make it a good ethical choice.

Here is an example of what a week in the Wilkinson–Gibb Clan household sometimes looks like.


MONDAY: Spaghetti bolognese

TUESDAY: Dinner at Pope Joan

WEDNESDAY: Free-range chicken schnitzel + zucchini salad

THURSDAY: The Mrs' Silverbeet & Feta Pie + egg salad

FRIDAY: Take away meal from one of our favourite spots

SATURDAY: Vegetable & chickpea curry + brown rice salad

SUNDAY: Corned beef with white sauce + carrots cooked in their own juice

And lastly, please eat at the table and share food in the middle of the table. The most joyous part of dining is not the food itself – food is what we need to survive – but the table and the sharing of the food. To keep in contact and gather information, to spend some time with family or friends, to talk, laugh and even cry – the table is where we get the chance to stop, catch up with our loved ones, then enjoy the food. The food is a tool: the more delicious it is, the easier it is to talk about it, but it’s just a tool in our life to talk to one another and enjoy each other’s company.

I truly hope you enjoy Mr Wilkinson’s Simply Dressed Salads… and, like me, start to think of the salad as a truly unique and wonderful thing.

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