There can be no doubt that the last ten or fifteen years have witnessed, if not a revolution, at any rate a very great change in the domestic habits of the middle classes of this country. Persons nowadays drink wine every day who twenty years back looked upon a glass of port after a Sunday's early dinner as a rare luxury. There are probably more cases of champagne consumed in a month now than bottles in a week ot the time of which we speak. In many households we regret to see brandies-and-sodas have taken the place of good old-fashioned home-brewed ale. But in the general management of the table the universal increase in the undoubtedly luxurious habits of the age is still more marked. In every class of society dinners are served in the present day which would have simply astounded our forefathers. Now, were we to inquire into the cause of this change, our subject would be political rather than domestic economy. The freer intercourse, not merely amongst ourselves, but with our foreign neighbours, the alteration in the value of money, the great increase in the importation of foreign goods of various descriptions, have all had their effect. Again, it must be borne in mind that increased luxury in one sense does not necessarily mean increased expenditure. We have before had occasion to contrast the old-fashioned heavy English dinner with a modern one à la Russe, and have endeavoured to explain that the latter, while far more luxurious, is at the same time far more economical.
If there is any dish in the world that varies more than another, probably it is a salad, and at the same time it may be considered as one of the cheapest of modern luxuries, which by some is considered almost an essential to the every-day dinner. Contrast what we may call the early English style with the modern French. First, that huge lettuce, sliced up, saturated in a pint or two of vinegar ; it never even reached the dignity of being eaten alone, but was considered a proper accompaniment to a strong cheese, the unavoidable noise made in masticating it unfortunately invariably drowning what little conversation there was. Second, the salade à la Française as one gets it in Paris : soft, delicious, digestible, and somehow or other containing some subtle flavour that seems at present to have baffled the research of the most intelligent foreigner with the astutest taste. Of course, too, tastes differ and require training. Many of the lower orders in this country, were they to see a Frenchman in humble life dress a salad, using the oil as he does, would regard him with feelings somewhat akin to what the Frenchman would feel were he to witness the national feat of drinking off a quart of adulterated beer as an appetiser before breakfast. Each countryman would regard the other as a beast. But we must come to the practical part of our subject, and endeavour to improve upon the lettuce and vinegar, though by preface we would state that that by no means small class who think the best part of the salad is the vinegar, which they keep to the last, like a child with the jam part of a tart, and lap up finally with the assistance of a blade of a steel knife, will find but little instruction from our remarks.
We will commence with giving simple instructions for dressing an ordinary salad, composed of plain lettuce.
First, have ready a salad-bowl sufficiently large to enable the salad-dresser to toss the lettuce lightly together. Next, the lettuce should be crisp, but not too hard, and we would advise that hard stalk part (which, by the way, many persons think the best part) not to be put in. This, of course, however, is a matter of taste. Then, if possible, don't wash the lettuce at all; examine every leaf carefully and wipe it clean, and remove any specks of garden-mould that may be on it, and in wiping be particularly careful not to crush I or bruise the lettuce. Sometimes, and indeed often, washing is absolutely indispensable; when this is the case, however, bear in mind the importance of leaving the lettuce to soak in the water as little as possible; next, when the lettuce has been washed, it must of course be dried ; the best plan being to shake it in a little wire basket, which can be swung round in the open air. These wire baskets are sold in the streets by men who go about with skewers and penny gridirons, and are. well worth buying. If you possess a whitebait-basket, that will answer the purpose admirably.
Another method of drying the lettuce is to put it in a clean, dry cloth, and take the cloth by the four corners and shake it lightly; the drops of water shake off, and are absorbed by the cloth, but the lettuce does not get bruised. Next chop up finely about enough parsley to fill a small salt-spoon, and with it one or two leaves of fresh tarragon (we will suppose you are mixing salad enough for four persons); sprinkle this over the lettuce in the bowl, which, if the flavour is liked, may be first rubbed inside with a slice of onion, or better still, a bead of garlic. In giving this onion or garlic flavour to a salad, too great care cannot be taken to avoid overdoing it. Sydney Smith wrote a recipe on dressing salad, so well known that we will not repeat it in full, with the exception of the two admirable lines which every one should know by heart:—
" Let onion's atoms lurk within the bowl, And, scarce suspected, animate the whole."
There are various ingredients used in cooking which can only be used as here directed—viz., " scarce suspected." Garlic is essentially one of these, as well as nutmeg, allspice, mace, etc. But to return to the salad which requires dressing. Place in a table-spoon a small salt-spoonful of salt, about half of pepper, then fill up the spoon with good fresh Lucca oil, stir it quietly with a fork, and pour over the salad and toss it lightly about; add another table-spoonful of oil, and continue the mixing ; and finish by adding about half a table-spoonful of English vinegar, or rather less of French white-wine vinegar. We ought in this country to be very careful before we set up our opinions on such a subject as cooking before the French. Now, some French cookery-books I have seen maintain that in dressing a salad it does not matter whether you put in the oil first or the vinegar. For my part I think it does. If the vinegar be put in before the oil, it is apt to be absorbed by the lettuce-leaves, and consequently one part of the salad will taste sharper than the other; while if the oil be put in first, and the salad well mixed, each leaf gets coated with oil, and the small quantity of vinegar when added is generally diffused. To my taste the king of salad-dressings is mayonnaise sauce, but before refreshing your memories as to how to make it, I will first describe two exceedingly nice salads, which have the advantage of using up cold vegetables. The first is asparagus salad, and as absolutely no oil is used in compounding it, a description may raise the hopes of some of my readers, who somehow " never will believe in oil." We will suppose some properly-boiled asparagus has been left from dinner. All that is necessary is to dip the eatable parts or tops in the following sauce. Place the asparagus on a dish, and if any remains over from the sauce pour it on the tops; the sauce being made as follows :—Melt, but do not heat too much, a little butter—say an ounce—and pour it on to a plate ; mix in with a fork a good tea-spoonful of made mustard, a little pepper and salt, and nearly a dessert-spoonful of English vinegar; stir it all up quickly, and dip in the ends of the asparagus as directed. This is a capital way of using up asparagus, and the salad makes an excellent dish at a supper confined to cold meats.