It’s unquestionably green, although I’m not quite sure why it’s called a salad. Our dear friend D has often spoken of his paternal grandmother’s green salad. It is something that his family serves at every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal. The subject first came up a few years ago when we discussed the idea of organizing a potluck meal where each guest would contribute a dish that was a family specialty or part of a family tradition—something that we looked forward to eating on special occasions. I have to confess that when D described the green salad of his childhood (a combination of lime jelly, pineapple, whipped cream, mini marshmallows and cheddar cheese), I wasn’t particularly enthused by the thought of tasting it.
Our plans for that particular potluck meal fell through, but D had emailed his mom for the recipe and bought a box of lime Jell-O—the main ingredient in green salad. (I have since discovered that lime Jell-O can be difficult to find in Singapore. D insists that it has to be made with Jell-O and no other brand.) When D moved back to the US in late 2004, he left me with his box of Jell-O and a copy of his mom’s recipe wrapped around it, promising that he would return to make me his favourite green salad before the stuff expired in October 2005. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Or rather, he returned but never got around to making it.
His email print-out has sat in my recipe notebook for three years. While I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of the salad, I enjoyed reading his mom’s recipe and her careful deconstruction of cookbook recipe-speak (including descriptions of what “soft-peaks” and “fold” mean). To me, her recipe and D’s green salad capture the essence of what makes food so special: love. By that, I mean the unspoken affection that goes into preparing it and that grows out of receiving or savouring it. We tasted his green salad last Saturday. (By the way, even though it’s called salad, it’s a dessert.) My taste buds couldn’t quite get around the cheddar cheese, but I did finally get it. This wasn’t so much a gastronomic epiphany as it was an emotional one. It was akin to tasting someone’s memory and that can sometimes be much more special than tasting truffles or caviar.
The whipped cream tempered the sugariness of the jelly and the airiness of both the marshmallows and cream gave the dessert a mousse-like quality. Crushed pineapple took the edge off the brash lime flavouring and the cheddar brought a dairy richness and subtle savoury accent to the combination. I’ve noticed that most other recipes for green salad or holiday green salad call for cream cheese. The addition of cheddar may have been D’s grandma’s innovation. D’s green salad reminded me of a similarly flavoured ice lolly (minus the cheese) that my school friends often ate and prompted me to think of tuckshops and giggling schoolgirls. It also awoke my own dormant weakness for Bird’s Custard poured over cooked fruit (something I developed an affection for after having eaten a year’s worth of English school lunches as a young child). This may not be a sophisticated dish, but it hits a very specific sentimental spot.
More importantly, it is a dessert that will be added to my list of D’s favourites (alongside pecan pie and pumpkin pie). While I am constantly blown away by intricate and exotic dishes, oftentimes, it is the simplest ones that seem most genuine in their expression of a cook’s love. To know what your loved ones take the greatest pleasure in eating requires an intimate understanding of who they are deep inside. It thrills me when our friend BG wolfs down home made coleslaw and steamed chocolate pudding or when N continues to rave about the pork belly I once served him because it reminded him of a dish he ate as a child. I know that a simple steamed custard filled with minced pork (but not the lean stuff sold at supermarkets) and salted duck egg yolks or his mom’s banana cake makes my husband happy. I reckon that in the long run that’s what matters most.
6oz package of lime Jell-O
2 cups mini marshmallows
1 can (8oz) crushed pineapple in heavy syrup (I couldn’t find crushed pineapple and substituted it with a 567gram can of pineapple chunks. The chunks need to be finely diced.)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup or less grated cheddar cheese (I have to confess I omitted this in mine.)
Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the lime Jell-O. Stir until the Jell-O dissolves (a little over a minute). Stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and the liquid in the can. I did this in a large glass measuring jug.
Chill the mixture until it is soft-set. It should be very thick. I’ve seen other recipes state that it should be refrigerated for 1 to 1½ hours.
Whip the cream to soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream and cheese into the Jell-O mixture. Pour the mixture into a large serving dish (I opted for individual portions) and refrigerate until firm.