Monday, 1 June 2009

Spring into Salad

The frustrating month of May with its yoyo weather patterns often leave us stoically resigned to the ill suited pairings of picnics with gale force winds and burgers hastily chewed under umbrellas.

As we bravely bask in spring sunshine and grocers’ shelves are stacked with fresh local vegetables, praising the joy of salad may not be original for this time of year but it is satisfying at least in its hopefulness for the opportunity to dine al fresco.

One definition I found of salad as ‘a diverse or confused mixture’ sits comfortably with our mildly schizophrenic national attitude to summer eating. Lauding the pastime of outdoor eating has long been a national pastime yet when Spring finally arrives we spend hours wondering when the temperamental British sky-scape will allow us to delve into our packed hampers.

While our gardens and farms now offer a huge range of slowly ripened morsels bursting with flavour, our salad repertoire often remains restricted. Beautiful leaves carelessly thrown, undressed, into a bowl, tender new potatoes smothered in cloying white mayonnaise or shop made coleslaw drowning crisp cabbage in salad cream do little justice to the wonderfully versatile produce we now have access to.

Raw or cooked, crunchy or tender, inject some colour onto your plates and choose dressings that highlight the natural flavours of the ingredients so that individual tastes sing through. Wander around your local shops and markets and pick up new offerings, get creative and experiment.

Green bean, radish and sunflower seed (serves 4)

250g french beans
200g radishes
50g sunflower seeds
1tsp wholegrain mustard
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp honey
Juice ½ lemon
2tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp chopped basil
Freshly ground salt and black pepper

Top and tail the French beans and cut each into three. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add the beans and simmer for roughly four minutes until the beans are just tender. Drain, immerse in cold water and drain again. Slice the radishes into thin discs and place in a salad bowl with the drained beans. Heat a heavy based frying pan and toast the sunflower seeds, keeping them moving constantly until nicely browned. Be careful not to let them burn. Add to the salad along with the finely chopped herbs. In a smaller bowl whisk together all of the dressing ingredients, salt and pepper and mix in to the salad. Leave to infuse for an hour and serve.

Fennel, chicory, radicchio and pancetta (serves 6)

1 large fennel bulb
1 large chicory
1 small radicchio
6 slices pancetta
3tbsp olive oil
1tsp dijon mustard
1tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Fry the pancetta in a heavy based frying pan over a high heat until crispy. Remove from the pan and place on kitchen paper. Cut off the top and bottom of the fennel and half it vertically. Finely slice the two halves as thinly as possible, use a mandolin if possible. Repeat with the chicory and radicchio and put all the sliced vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and toss well through the vegetables. Transfer the salad to a serving dish, the flatter the better and crumble the pancetta over the top.

Beetroot, Feta and Walnut (serves 4)

100g feta
50g walnuts
3-4 whole raw beetroot
2 cloves garlic
1tbsp fresh chives
1tsp honey
1tbsp white wine vinegar
2tbsp olive oil
1tsp dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Wash each beetroot, wrap in tin foil and place on a baking tray in the oven for about forty five minutes until tender all the way through. Fifteen minutes before the cooking time is over add the garlic cloves, still in their skins. Remove everything from the oven and leave to cool. Toast the walnuts in a heavy frying pan being careful not to burn them and chop the feta into 1cm sized cubes. Peel the garlic, crush with a fork and mix together with the dressing ingredients. Finely chop the chives. When the beetroot is cool cut into chunks, place in a serving dish and mix with the dressing. Sprinkle the feta, walnuts and chives over the top and serve.

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