The Holy Roman Empire is often cited as an example of a name which is inaccurate in all three its components (being neither Roman, nor holy, nor a proper empire). At least this salad's name scores a two out of three for accuracy – it is a salad and it definitely has layers. It's only at the counting of the layers that things go wrong – seven becomes eight, ten, or as many as you like. Still, the name has stuck.
Many moons ago, back in 1989, my brother went off after his final school exams to our favourite resort Plettenberg Bay where he and his fellow pupils drank, played pool and enjoyed general debauchery for a week to celebrate the end of their school career. He came back with a hangover, a bag full of dirty clothes… and a girlfriend. We all fell in love with Paola instantly and it was not long before she was considered part of the family. Me? I changed boyfriends like I changed shoes (regularly, and often with more thought for looks than practicality!), but Anton and Paola stuck together through all the ups and downs of student and young adult life and are still together twenty years later.
I am really lucky in that my brother married somebody that I am best friends with, and it always amazes me how much of my and Paola's bonding over the years has taken place over food! On our many student holidays, it was always Paola and I who would plan the menus (if you call tuna mayonnaise a menu!), shopped for provisions, and cooked to make sure everyody had some food to soak up the alcohol. We famously made a toxic sludge (jelly made with half water and half vodka) that contained so much alcohol that it stubbornly refused to set; we stained the pots in a rented house cooking up repeated batches of gluhwein; and we nearly set her old kitchen alight one night when she flambéed the penne a la vodka in an electric frying pan… directly underneath the kitchen cabinets!
Our friendship, rather like this salad, has revealed itself to have many layers. Some people have sisters-in-law that they can't stand, or barely tolerate, or like but would never be friends with were it not for the marriage. But I got lucky – I got somebody who has been among my best friends for nearly two decades. Thanks, bro! The first layer of our friendship was obviously the student drinking buddy kind, but since then the other layers have revealed themselves: out shared love of art, our passion for food, our shared legal background and ability to make decisive choices; our mutual support in tough times of losing a parent; our addiction to Plett, our sense of the absurd (ridiculous nicknames and speaking Martian); and above all our fierce love for my brother and their two sons. She is my sister in all but genes and I am so lucky to have her in my life.
I can't remember when Paola first made this salad for us – I suspect it was on an Easter holiday in Plett. We had never heard of it but it was such a hit that it later became part of our traditional Christmas lunch. I have subsequently discovered that our family was unusual among South Africa families, as almost every other family has a family recipe for a version of this salad – but apparently its origins lie in the American South. There is some similarity to a Russian salad in that everything is chopped up finely and ends up coated in mayonnaise, but unlike a Russian salad, it is served in layers with the mayo on top and the mayonnaise gets mixed in as you dig in the serving spoon. We made this at a couple of our braais/bbqs this summer and it proved to be as huge a hit with our guests as it was with me when Paola first served it. The best thing is that you can make the salad with whatever ingredients you have to hand – just chop 'em up and layer 'em! The recipe below, though, is the best combination that I have discovered so far in terms of colour, flavour and crispiness.
Just don't count the layers – there certainly are more than seven and I'd hate to offend the Food Accuracy Police
SEVEN-LAYER SALAD (serves 12)
2 cups shredded little gem lettuce
1.5 cups diced radishes
1.5 cups diced cucumber
1.5 cups diced red pepper
1.5 cupsdiced celery
1.5 cups frozen corn
1.5 cups frozen peas
1.5 cups Miracle Whip mayonnaise
1 cup cooked diced bacon
1 cup grated mature cheddar cheese
Fry the bacon until crisp, then leave to cool on paper towels. If using croutons, fry the bread cubes in the bacon fat until golden brown, then drain on paper towels.
Shred the lettuce and chop all the vegetables into small cubes.
To assemble, place a small upturned saucer or Tupperware lid in the base of a glass salad bowl (this is to make sure that the salad is slightly raised and any liquid runs down the side of the saucer and does not pool at the bottom of the salad to make it soggy). Then spread all the lettuce in a layer in the base of the bowl, followed by a layer each of radishes, cucumber, red pepper, celery, frozen corn and frozen peas (don't defrost the corn & peas). Spread the mayonnaise in a thick layer over the peas, then sprinkle the bacon and cheese (and croutons, if using) on top of the mayonnaise.
This salad goes down a treat at braais (BBQs)!