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For summertime or anytime: Mexican salads

Karen Hursh Graber

Now that summer is approaching, along with Father's Day, graduations and weddings, thoughts turn to celebratory meals to be shared with family and friends. From barbeque to buffet table, formal or casual, salads play an important part in these warm weather repasts.

When I first came to Mexico, I was overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of fresh produce in the markets, especially at this time of year. Fragrant bunches of herbs, baby spinach, watercress, different types of lettuce, purslane, quelites (lamb's quarters) and other wild greens, plus scallions, squash blossoms and fava beans are just some of the delicacies that beckon the salad lover.

Here in Cholula, the Sunday and Wednesday tianguis, or outdoor markets, are crowded with vendors from the outlying villages and countryside offering the season's finest. Why then, with all these greens, don't Mexican meals seem to feature many salads? The answer is that they do, but not always in the way that they are presented in other places.

Salad in a Mexican meal is often either an integral part of the dish itself, such as the shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and sliced onions that top servings of taquitos and tostadas, or something called an ensalada compuesta, a "composed" or arranged, rather than tossed, salad. These are usually made up of cooked vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans, beets, zucchini squash and carrots, among others, often arranged on, or combined with, raw greens like lettuce and spinach. These composed salads are a carryover from the upper class European-influenced households in Mexico both before and during the Porfiriato, when they were considered de rigeur for women. An ensalada de damas - "ladies salad"- was served instead of the meat offered to men, because women were considered not as active as the men folk, and possibly made "too passionate" by the consumption of meat. The women were, however, expected to eat baroque arrangements of six or more vegetables, sometimes dressed with chopped fruit.

The origins of the ensalada compuesta in Mexico date back to the colonial period, and some of them are to be found in the 1780 cookbook of the seemingly tireless Fray Geronimo de San Pelayo, who wrote nearly four hundred recipes that he prepared for the friars in his convento. He also left versions of ensaladas revueltas, salads of mixed vegetables or fruit. His vegetable ensalada revuelta was made up of cooked zucchini squash, cauliflower, beets and carrots dressed with a vinaigrette seasoned with ground chile, garlic, pepper and cinnamon. His mixed fruit salad, called ensalada capuchina - "Capuchin salad," although he was a Franciscan - was made with apples, pomegranates, pineapple and oranges and flavored with sugar, cinnamon and wine. Sweet sherry was often the wine of choice for fruit salads.

Raw green salads, such as lettuce and spinach salads, have only become popular in Mexico in recent years, although that restaurant classic, the Caesar salad, is a Mexican creation. In 1924, Caesar Cardini, a restaurateur in Tijuana, invented the salad in honor of the pilots at Rockwell Air Base in San Diego. Featuring tableside presentation and a rich, creamy dressing, the Caesar salad was originally made without anchovies, so those that do not care for them can order an "original Caesar." Good recipes for Caesar salad abound, but many do not give instructions for coddling the egg, which simply means lowering it into boiling water for 45 seconds, a step that produces a much creamier dressing. Although the Caesar salad is still primarily a restaurant offering, other green salads are finding their way into meals prepared at home, especially as Mexicans become increasingly health conscious.

In addition to the composed salads, mixed cooked vegetable salads, fruit salads and raw green salads, there are also those that fit into the category of light meals. An example of this is salpicón, made with either cold cooked meat or seafood, mixed with onions, tomatoes, avocados and, frequently, pickled jalapeno chiles. Two of the most famous versions of this dish are the Yucatecan salpicón de venado, made with shredded venison, and Veracruz's salpicón de jaiba, made with crab. Salpicón is usually served with either totopos - fried tortilla chips - or tostadas.

Another dish in this category is ensalada rusa - "Russian salad" - of which several Latin American countries have their own versions. The one I learned to make here in Cholula was taught to me by my comadre, Lourdes Gómez Zacarías, who usually serves it as a first course at the late-night New Year's meal, as well as other festive occasions. No matter what variations regional cooks create, ensalada rusa always has potatoes and a couple of other vegetables. Adding shredded beef or chicken can make it a light lunch or late supper.

One other kind of salad comes to mind, although it is not usually called a salad as such, and that is the fresh fruit and vegetable medley sold on the street in Mexican towns, usually in the morning and early afternoon. Sticks of cucumber and jicama, slices of orange, chunks of pineapple and papaya, all sprinkled with lime juice and mild powdered chile, are a common street snack. Although the paper cones in which these were once sold are, sadly, being replaced by plastic cups, the combination is classic, and when chopped together and served at the table rather than on the street, it becomes the western Mexican pico de gallo salad. Another salad-like street offering is Oaxaca's chileajo, a medley of cooked vegetables in a chile and garlic vinaigrette. The women who sell it on the street serve it piled on tostadas, but it could also be served on lettuce as a salad or side dish.

To add a Mexican touch to any salad, try garnishing with pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds without hulls) popped amaranth, or sunflower seeds. Sliced or diced avocado is also a nice garnish with many salads, as are roasted or pickled green chile strips. The following recipes leave plenty of room for additions, subtractions and substitutions. Whether serving buffet style, family style, or as individual servings, most salads, with the exception of tossed green salads and some fruit salads, look more appetizing when presented on a plate or in a salad bowl lined with lettuce or on a bed of mixed greens.

Ensalada de Espinacas y Berros: Spinach and Watercress Salad

Ensalada de Nopales Asados: Grilled Nopales Salad

Ensalada de Mango y Aguacate: Mango and Avocado Salad

Salpicón de Res: Cold Beef Salad

Ensalada Rusa de la Comadre: The Comadre's Russian Salad

Chileajo: Marinated Mixed Vegetable Salad

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2006 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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