I was invited to go to Macedonia recently, but I realized that I had only the vaguest idea of where Macedonia is actually located on a map. I suspected that it was one of the many little countries that spun off from the former Yugoslavia, and I did recall some distant association with Alexander the Great. But the only immediate association I could make to Macedonia was…salad.
In Italian, a macedonia is a fruit salad, and in French, a salade macédoine is a vegetable salad. In fact, in France, it’s a classic institutional appetizer, served in the finest school cafeterias and consisting of cooked peas, carrots, green beans and turnips in a heavy mayonnaise dressing that looks like white sludge and, as I recall from my elementary school days in France, tastes just as good (here's a commercial version, minus the sludge).
So where the hell is Macedonia? And how it is that chopped carrots and peas and pears and peaches can all somehow claim to be Macedonian? It turns out Macedonia is actually wedged way down in Southeastern Europe between Serbia, Albania and Greece, that the national diet tends massively toward barbecued meat, and that there wasn’t a single Macedonian salad on any of the menus in the many restaurants I sampled there.
What I did find in Macedonia, however, is an unbelievable hodge-podge of ethnicities. The country that calls itself Macedonia today is actually populated by one quarter ethnic Albanians, two-thirds ethnic Macedonians, equal sprinklings of Serbs, Bulgarians and Roma, and a substantial serving of Turks. Add to that a seasoning of intense religious diversity—one-third Muslims, two-thirds Macedonian Orthodox, and a potent dash of Albanian Catholics—and suddenly you begin to understand why the term macédoine in diplomatic history is synonymous with “complicated mixture.” If, over its many centuries of ethnic conflict, Macedonia has come be known as the “tinderbox of the Balkans,” it’s because no amount of mayonnaise dressing could ever make the ethnic peas identify with the ethnic carrots, or make the green beans speak the turnips’ language.
So a Macedonian salad, in the end, is just a mixed salad. A salad with a diversity of similar ingredients—fruits, veggies, warring ethnicities, whatever. And it also turns out that the sludgy mayonnaise dressing part of the salade macédoine is just some French lunch-lady’s idea that everything tastes better with mayonnaise.
Below, a recipe for a seasonal macédoine of spring vegetables. Hold the mayo.
Macédoine de Légumes
1 bunch of fresh tarragon (optional)
1 tsp. of sugar
½ cup of pancetta, chopped in small cubes
3 Tbsp. clarified butter
1 cup of fresh shelled peas [Note: you can also use frozen peas, but don’t defrost them before]
1 cup of snow peas
6 mini-carrots with their green tops
6 scallion branches
6 small turnips
Salt and pepper
Wash and peel the turnips and the carrots, leaving the tips of their green tops.
Shell the fresh peas and trim the tips from the snow peas.
Wash the scallions and cut them in half.
Wash and pat dry the bunch of tarragon, and remove the leaves from the branches.
Bring a pot of water to a boil, add salt, and cook all of the vegetables separately, except the scallions. About 15 minutes for the carrots and turnips, 10 minutes for the fresh peas, and 5 minutes for the snow peas. Rinse each of the vegetables under cold water to prevent them from continuing to cook—it’s important that they remain al dente, a little firm and crunchy—and drain them. Set them aside.
In a frying pan, heat 1 tbsp of the clarified butter, add the scallions, sprinkle them with the sugar, and cook them over low heat until they are lightly colored.
Meanwhile, plunge the pancetta cubes in boiling water for 3 minutes, and remove them with a slotted spoon. Set aside.
In another frying pan, heat the rest of the butter, add the pancetta, the onions, and all the vegetables. Heat the mixture over very low heat, about 5 or 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper and sprinkle with the fresh tarragon.
Serve immediately, while warm.