Making the “composed salad” — or “salade composee,” if you want to get French about it — is an art in danger of being lost. A composed salad is simply a salad in which the individual ingredients have been arranged on a plate rather than being tossed together in compost-heap fashion.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, when the “science” of home economics was born, composed salads were big. “The object of scientific salad making was to subdue the raw greens until they bore as little resemblance as possible to their natural state,” wrote Laura Shapiro in “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1986).

As a salad holder, the lettuce cup came into its own, as did the hollowed-out tomato. A ring cut from a red pepper could be used to corral asparagus spears, writes Shapiro, “and a string-bean salad could be hidden within a ‘crown’ made of hard-boiled eggs that had been cut in quarters lengthwise. The pieces of egg had to be trimmed so that each would stand level, and they were stuck to the plate with gelatin.” She describes the apotheosis of the composed salad: a celery salad that was “wholly subjugated by being served in a block of ice.” It was deemed “very artistic” at the time, writes Shapiro, but she never found out how it was to be eaten.

Nowadays, composed salads seem to be making a bit of a comeback in restaurants, where professionals have the time and skills to build show-stopping constructions with the crudites. (Actually, that frozen celery “salad” seems like something one might encounter at some very trendy place in Manhattan or Barcelona.) It should come as no surprise that the first recipe below comes from a new book by Rudi Sodamin, the consulting master chef for the venerable Holland America cruise line; the dish has the kind of elegant and artistic appeal that makes the phrases “captain’s table” and “evening wear” come to mind. But these salads are fun to make at home, too, if you have a bit of time and are out to impress — or to entertain.

Here are three “ah”-inspiring recipes, the first from Sodamin’s new book, “A Taste of Excellence” (Rizzoli, 2006); the second from “FingerFood” by Elsa Petersen-Schepelern (Time Life Books, 1999); and the third (which looks surprisingly cool, despite its simplicity) is from “New Food Fast” by Donna Hay (Whitecap Books, 1999).


For the salad:

6 thin asparagus spears

6 large ripe but firm yellow or red tomatoes

1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 bunch frisee lettuce (use the yellow sprigs)

1 bunch oak-leaf lettuce

1 bunch bull’s-blood beet tops (or regular beet tops)

1 bunch magenta spinach (or regular baby spinach)

1 bunch baby red romaine lettuce

1 bunch chives

1 bunch akashiso leaves (see note)

1 bunch baby tatsoi (see note)

1 bunch popcorn shoots (see note)

1 bunch mizuna (see note)

1 bunch enoki mushrooms (see note)

For the dressing:

1 medium shallot, finely chopped

6 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

2 tablespoons cognac

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons sugar

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

Note: These microgreens are often available in specialty/natural-food stores, Asian markets and farmers’ markets, and some (tatsoi, mizuna and enoki mushrooms) can even be found in the supermarket. Akashiso is a red herb said to taste like a combination of cumin, cilantro, parsley and cinnamon. Tatsoi is a kind of bok choy. Popcorn shoots — long popular in Europe — have thin, yellow blades and taste like fresh, grassy corn. Mizuna is a saw-toothed, Japanese mustard green. Enoki mushrooms are long-stemmed, thin, delicately flavored cultivated mushrooms. If you can’t find one or all of these ingredients, no worries; just substitute any small, fresh greens and herbs.

For the salad: In a skillet, bring an inch or so of water to a boil and lay the asparagus in. Quickly cook them until fork tender (just a few minutes), then drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside. Wash all the remaining greens very gently and drain or pat dry.

Cut the tops from the tomatoes and hollow them out carefully, without breaking the tomato skin. Artfully arrange the asparagus and remaining salad ingredients in the tomatoes as if they were flowers in vases. Refrigerate, loosely covered, until ready to serve.

For the dressing: In a nonreactive bowl, whisk together the shallot, vinegar, cognac, mustard and sugar. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve: Place each filled tomato on a plate and encircle it with some dressing. Serve with extra dressing on the side.

Yield: 6 servings

Recipe from “A Taste of Excellence Cookbook: Holland America Line” by Rudi Sodamin (Rizzoli, 2006)


2 red chilies

1 clove garlic, minced

2 inches lemongrass (white part), very finely chopped (see note)

grated zest and juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce (see note)

1/2 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk (stir well before measuring)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 small shallot, finely chopped, or 2 scallions, finely sliced

salt to taste

3-1/2 cups cooked crabmeat

1 bunch basil, preferably Asian basil (also sold as “Thai” or “holy” basils), shredded

1 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped, plus extra for serving

at least 24 Belgian endive leaves, preferably red

Note: Lemongrass has a scallion-like, white woody base and green tops and a distinctive lemony flavor. It is found in Asian markets and some supermarkets. If you can’t find it, substitute the zest of 2 lemons. Fish sauce (“nam pla,” in Thai, and “nuoc nam” in Vietnamese) is made of fermented fish. It can be found in Asian markets and many supermarkets. It keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Core, seed and finely chop one of the chilies. Put it in a bowl with the garlic, lemongrass, lime zest and juice, fish sauce, coconut milk and sugar, and mix until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the shallot (or scallions). Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Fold in the crabmeat, the basil and the 1 bunch chopped cilantro leaves. Pile about 1 tablespoon in the base of each endive leaf. Chop the remaining chili and sprinkle over each leaf, along with some of the extra chopped cilantro leaves. Arrange the leaves on a platter and serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Recipe from “FingerFood” by Elsa Petersen-Schepelern (Time Life Books, 1999)


For the salad:

2 heads iceberg lettuce

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup extra-virgin oil or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves

If the lettuce is not very crisp, soak it in a large bowl of ice water to refresh.

Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisking constantly, add the oil. Then stir in the parsley leaves.

To serve: Drain the lettuce. Remove the outer leaves of each head and cut each head in half. Serve each half , cut side up, on a plate, drizzled with the dressing.

Yield: 4 servings

Recipe adapted from “New Food Fast” by Donna Hay (Whitecap Books, 1999)


Marialisa Calta is the author of “Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family” (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to

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