Time and time again, I get asked, what makes a good salad? Innately, I prepare them from instinct, what’s in season and whatnot, but know this simple explanation isn’t satisfactory for Nyam & Trod readers. Therefore, it was a no brainer for me to turn to the expert, Donna Noble, who for me, is Jamaica’s Queen of Greens. A beautiful soul, her aura radiates pure energy, a trait I continually notice within folks who have special connections to the soil. A production set decorator, food stylist and organic farmer, Donna’s progression to author was recently added to her incredible achievements. Over decades, she has built a niche career from scratch gaining a solid reputation for her signature artistic and culinary style. Her flexibility ranges from film sets to farming and now, writing. Her cookbook, My Goodness Greens! was recently published. I believe that throwing together a decent salad is a skill set every cook should learn. Her cookbook, without doubt, is a great guide for the art of preparing multiple greens, growing your own and cooking naturally. I picked Donna’s brain to share the basic concepts of composing a delicious salad.
You are a pioneer in so many ways, Jamaica’s first food stylist and one of the first organic farmers on the island, what inspired you to get planting?
We loved the idea of ‘the simple life’ whenever things weren’t hectic in our small film production company. Fresh air, peace and quiet and growing our own food was something we really wanted to do. The simple life theory didn’t pan out! Living in the country led me to a community of rural farmers, and together we started planting. What started out as a small kitchen garden grew into a market and teaching garden that supplied organic salad greens to the Jamaican market for twenty five years. It became so much more than just growing our own vegetables. The organic principle of healthy soil leading to healthy food, people and environment, that whole circle still makes such perfect sense to me. The farm gave me a connection to food and our rural community and a whole new way of eating. Through our film work, I started food styling in the days when our craft was suspiciously viewed as having secret ‘magical concoctions’ for making food ‘shine;’ but it was an edible garden with fresh, just picked vegetables and herbs where I found that the art of styling food really has its roots, to pardon the pun.
Jamaica has moved beyond the iceberg variety of lettuce, what are some of the more popular ones you are seeing and why is it important to diversify?
Loose leaf, bibb and romaine are some of the more popular varieties and there are many different types of these. Bright red and green lettuces with their ruffles, curls, frills and freckles bring flavor, beauty and nourishment to table.
What inspired you to pen My Goodness Greens!?
I was always trying to find creative ways to use the leafy greens and herbs in our garden. The jottings grew into a collection of recipes and thoughts about balancing nourishment and the pleasure of eating. This is my first book and a huge learning curve. I am also self-publishing, so the project evolved over a long time, often taking a back seat in between my jobs. It has been exciting, overwhelming, and totally fulfilling. Writing a cookbook allowed me to combine the things I love organic farming, food styling and set design, in one project. I am so happy to finally say we are published!
Can you break down for Nyam & Trod readers the anatomy of a good salad from choosing greens to making the right dressing or vinaigrette, what makes a salad special?
Think fresh! With layers of texture and flavor. With a salad there are no disguises. You can make a brilliant salad with just a couple ingredients, but they must be the freshest you can find. Rinse the leafy greens in cool water and dry them carefully, whether in a spin dryer or on cotton towels. It is important to dry the leaves so that the dressing will adhere to the salad. Start layering using a few types of lettuce such as sweet bibb, nutty mâché and crisp juicy romaine as the base for the salad. I like to gently tear the leaves into bite sized pieces. Now comes the fun part! There is such a wide variety of leafy greens and herbs that make a salad exciting. Each has specific flavours from sweet to peppery, bitter and tart. So, taste and balance flavours in your favourite combinations. For instance, to the base of lettuce, you could add a few peppery arugula leaves, a couple bitter radicchio leaves, chopped chives, sweet basil, and juicy purslane, and for some crunch and texture toasted nuts like walnuts or almonds. Top with edible flowers for visual interest and that extra burst of flavour. This is a pretty simple salad but there is a lot of flavour and texture going on, and the ingredients compliment each other nicely. Build the salad in a glass bowl, cover and refrigerate if not using straight away and dress just before serving. Homemade dressings make all the difference. A vinaigrette is the simplest way to bring all the flavours together and is often as delicious as a more complex dressing. Make a good dressing and even the skeptics among us will eat every leaf.
For the novice, explain how one elevates a salad from side dish to a main or centrepiece meal. What do they need to think about in terms of ingredients and preparation?
Add other food groups. Layer upon layer will add more nourishment, flavour and texture to salad greens, transforming them into delicious and very satisfying meals. I just love the warmth and oomph that grains and noodles bring to a salad. Add whole grains like wheat berries or bulgur, nutty brown rice or protein-packed Quinoa. Roasting root vegetables like beets, carrots, potatoes and garlic deepen flavours and bring delicious sweetness to bitter greens. Add cauliflower ‘rice’ with beans, lentils and sprouts. Creamy avocado, grilled mushrooms with caramelized onions and heirloom tomatoes. Toasted nuts and seeds add a nice crunch and dried fruit a touch of sweetness. Wedges of cheese, or a platter of grilled meat, poultry or fish can be served as optional sides. Any combination of these, drizzled with your favourite dressing, turns the old food pyramid completely on its head, and salad greens firmly at the top and into a hearty communal meal. The wonderful thing is that serving a main meal like this allows every family member, despite dietary preference, to be present and fully satisfied at the same table. Family, fellowship and food, what could be more comforting.
Can you share a simple recipe with us?
It is my pleasure to share with Nyam & Trod readers the following recipe from My Goodness Greens!
Guava, Greens, and Goat Brie with Guava Vinaigrette
Sliced guavas and a guava vinaigrette add fresh fruity flavours to a salad of mixed greens, cucumbers, creamy goat brie and nutrient filled chia seeds and hemp hearts.Substitute mangoes if guavas are not in season.
- Juice of 2 ripe guavas – Place the guavas in a blender with just enough water to blend until smooth. Strain to separate the seeds from the puree. Discard the seeds. Use guava puree if you can’t find fresh guavas
- Juice of 1 lemon or lime
- ½ cup Extra Virgin Olive, avocado, hemp or oil of your choice
- 1 T. chopped parsley
- 1 whole clove garlic – peeled and halved
- 1 T. raw honey or your choice of sweetener to taste
- 1 T. chia seeds
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Place the guava puree and the rest of the ingredients into a canning jar. Shake thoroughly to combine.
- Stir the chia seeds into the mixture for a few minutes so that they do not clump.
- Discard the garlic clove and shake or stir the dressing before serving.
- 4 cups mixed lettuce leaves – rinsed, dried and torn into bite sized pieces
- 2 cups mixed greens – rinsed and dried – we’ve used baby spinach, red-veined sorrel, amaranth and moringa
- 4 medium sized ripe guavas – seeded and sliced into quarters or bite sized pieces
- 1 medium cucumber – thinly sliced
- ¼ cup red onions – thinly sliced
- 6 ozs. Goat brie – cut into slivers
Place lettuce, greens, sliced guavas, cucumbers, and onions in a salad bowl, toss to combine. Add brie slivers, sprinkle hemp hearts over the salad. Garnish with a few amaranth flowers and drizzle with guava dressing.
Donna Noble works in production, doing food styling and set design for feature films and television commercials. In 1994, Donna started Woodford Market Garden. Working with her rural community, they organized workshops and school visits and used the farm as a model to train farmers in healthier and more sustainable farming practices. The farm is now operated as a community group continuing the same organic methods successfully developed at Woodford.