Celebrating the Salad Days with Pascale Beale

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Celebrating the Salad Days with Pascale Beale

When Shakespeare’s Cleopatra says, “My salad days, when I was green in judgment, cold in blood” — in reference to her young, inexperienced days — I have to agree. Apparently, Cleopatra hadn’t found the burger joint around the corner at that point in her food career. And the derivative connotation of “salad days” just confuses me. Wouldn’t a better metaphor for the peak of youth be “taco days?”

As a result of my boredom with salad, I’ve been skeptical of articles with headlines like, “Five Fresh Salad Ingredients to Perk Up Your Work Lunch.” After years of pitifully-chopped New York deli salads in plastic snap-top containers, I just can’t bring myself to salivate over salad, even one resplendent with jicama or edamame, or trendily packed into a screw-top jar. I only really cared for non-American salads — Korea’s sprout salads, or Turkey’s tomato cucumber salads. And even then, they couldn’t hold a candle to a sweet Kumamoto oyster or a juicy, mayo-slathered burger for me, despite my adherence to the thoughts of Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan.

So salad is something I begrudgingly hate-eat at my desk while dreaming of fields of golden tacos as far as the eye can see. Salad is something the personal trainer-angel on my shoulder wants me to eat — my daily dose of beta carotene that I take like a vitamin, while on the other shoulder a little devil chef sits casually barbecuing sliders on his pitchfork. Salad is something I only like when it’s smothered in a tangy Japanese carrot ginger dressing or a luscious mostly-tahini dressing I make.

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So the first time I saw the book Salade: Recipes from the Market Table by Pascale Beale, I shocked myself by sitting down and reading it cover to cover, obsessing over the recipes, ogling the veggies, and taking mental notes on how to use the tips. I was on a yoga retreat in Ojai, and our veggie-friendly chef was using it to create salads for our meals. Beale’s colorful, page-turning book of salads was a revelation for me — suddenly, I was hungry for salad.

After years of viewing salad as penitence for the weekend’s excess, encountering Beale’s book was like being presented with the vacation dreamland of greens. Count on California to bring beautiful produce to the table. I’d never seen such beautiful, vibrant salads before, with ingredients so beautifully arranged. Suddenly, I needed salad — and not just one salad, but as many of the salads in the book as I could get my hands on. Lucky for us, we had a chef making them for us in between down-dogs.

Beale is as rooted in California market table cuisine as she is in her French family’s cooking, and the two cuisines are a melodic duet. With six books under her belt, including four books based on cooking with the seasons, Beale is as prolific as she is creative.

Paste got the chance to chat with Beale about her life as a chef, California cooking, and how her French background influenced her view on salad.

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Paste: Tell us how you got your start as a chef.

Pascale Beale: I started out cooking, as many chefs do, with my mother and grandmother. I have no formal culinary training. I studied business and marketing at university in London. I opened my cooking school in 1999 and have been teaching cooking ever since.

Paste: How would you describe your cooking style?

PB: Mediterranean-Californian, eating and cooking seasonally, organically and sourcing locally as much as possible. I am inspired by what I find at the farmers market on a weekly basis.

Paste: What is the process of writing a cookbook like Salade like for you?

PB: It all starts with a theme. The Salade book came about because I love salads and eat them every day. From there, I write out copious notes, research dishes, test and test again, draw sketches of the food, take photographs at the market and of the test dishes. I whittle them down to my favorite ones and built the text and book from there.

Paste: What parts of England and France did you grow up in, and how did the local cuisines inform your cooking today?

PB: I grew up in London and all over France. My mother comes from the French Alps where I spent a lot of my childhood. I learned a lot about shopping for food, picking the best produce and cooking there with my grandmother. She taught me many classic French dishes and also how to make jams and preserves, which I make to this day. I also spent a lot of time in Provence. This is the type of food I am most drawn to and have been inspired by.

Paste: English cuisine gets a bad rap. What do you love about it?

PB: Yes English food does have a bad reputation – to this day – although now you can eat incredibly well there. We cooked mostly French food at home, although my mother made some traditional English dishes such as shepherd’s pie and apple crumble. There are lots of English desserts that I love — Eton Mess, a good trifle, Christmas pudding and shortbread, to name a few. There are also some wonderful cheeses in Britain such as Stilton, farmhouse cheddars and now some sensational artisan goat cheeses.

Paste: What do you see as the differences in English and French cuisine — in ingredients, cooking methods, styles and tastes?

PB: Both countries have regional specialties which showcase local produce and in turn influence the types of cooking, cooking style and techniques that you find there.

English food has had a reputation for overcooked vegetables, overcooked meat and stodgy puddings, but the food in England has changed greatly over the past twenty years with the huge influx of cuisines from around the world, particularly from around the Mediterranean basin, think of Yotam Ottolenghi’s influence. There is a much greater use of spices and herbs and access to more varied produce than say 40 years ago.

Chefs and writers like Nigel Slater, Hugh Fernly-Wittingstall, Jamie Oliver, Skye Gyngall and Diana Henry have all had a profound impact on how people cook. I now find the food to be lighter and fresher.

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My experience in France is that the food has been less influenced by outside cultures – with the exception of North African cuisine – so regional French cooking still prevails. This has positive and negative impacts.The positive is that culinary traditions and techniques are upheld — the making of duck confit, rilletes or boudin for example. The negative is that is does not evolve outside variations of the existing panoply of dishes. The exception to that is in pastry where French patissiers constantly push boundaries in their field. I think French people love their food just the way it is if my family is anything to go by! They thought the addition of fruit to salads as very peculiar. I have managed to make converts of them though.

Paste: Many people know classical French cuisine and mother sauces, but are less aware of simple home-cooked French salads and country dishes. How do you feel about this divide in the view of French cuisine, and is it your goal to make people more aware of fresh dishes like French salads?

PB: I agree that people think of French food in the classic sense, but that type of food is very much a product of regional cooking. Dishes that feature butter and cream generally come from Northern France, Normandy and Britany. Olive oil-based cooking and a more vegetable-based diet come from southern France and Provence.

My goal with my books, articles and classes is to showcase my interpretation of the dishes and produce I enjoy the most, so a classic Duck with Orange Sauce is remade into a lighter version with roasted citrus fruits rather than a heavy sauce, for example.

With regards to salads, generally speaking the whole country enjoys light green salads served after the main course. When I am there I make a huge variety of salads — tomatoes with peaches and goat cheese, for example, which I serve as a first course. This is still unusual there. Maybe if the Salade book gets translated into French, I will have more influence!

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Paste: Most people, especially in the food world, are very aware of Alice Waters and her version of California cuisine, but fewer people know about Santa Barbara, Ojai and Ventura as culinary destinations. What is the food scene like there?

PB: I think the Alice Waters school of cooking has reached all over the state as the foundation on which Californian cuisine has grown. Local food in Santa Barbara and the surrounding counties is exactly that — a cuisine that is hyper-focused on making the most of local ingredients. We are very lucky here to have access to farmers markets almost every day of the week with an incredible array of produce and fresh fish. The food scene is epitomized by the farm-to-table movement with chefs working in close concert with local farmers.

Paste: What about the area draws you to the Santa Barbara area? Does it remind you of where you grew up?

PB: This area is very similar to Provence, although the winters here are milder than in France. I love the climate despite last year’s boiling temperatures. I love the scenery, the proximity of the ocean to the mountains, the small town feel and the people I have met here. It is a beautiful place to live and I am very fortunate to call Santa Barbara home.

Paste: What vineyards and restaurants in the SB area would you recommend visiting?

PB: Ooh, so may to choose from! In Santa Barbara, some of my favorite restaurants are Julienne, C’est Cheese, Mesa Verde and The Lark. My favorite bakery in town is Renaud’s.

My favorite foodie town is tiny Los Alamos, about 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara, where you’ll find incredible tasty food at Full of Life Flatbread, Bell Street Farm, Bob’s Well Bread and Plenty on Bell.

There are so many wineries in this region – some of my favorites include Zaca Mesa Winery, Alma Rosa — their beautiful tasting room is in Buellton next to Industrial Eats, another wonderful place to eat — and Buttonwood Farm and Winery. There are many small wineries with small production that are just being discovered. I think that is part of the fun and the draw to the area – finding that hidden gem.

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Paste: Do you love teaching cooking classes?

PB: I love meeting new people and sharing ideas about food. I like to think of teaching as an extension of gathering people around the dinner table. Is it ever challenging? It can be – particularly the demonstration classes with large groups of people, or when cooking outdoors.

I once did a cooking demonstration at a food festival when the wind picked up, so much so, that the peaches I was trying to grill for a salad, flew off into the air! You never know what might happen, so it’s always a good idea to try an anticipate challenges. Luckily, I had extra peaches!

Paste: What are your future projects?

PB: I am currently on a book tour for the new book, Les Fruits: Savory and Sweet Recipes from the Market Table. It came out in January and I have been travelling doing signings, classes and demos linked to the book.

The big news is that we are shooting my new video series in April, and I start work on a new book later this year.

Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. She likes beer so sour it tastes like kombucha. Tweet her @dakotakim1.