How To

How to build a salad

Yesterday one of our customers complimented me on a particular salad I had made; she asked me if it was an Ottolenghi recipe, or if I had made it up. Well, I was pretty chuffed to have one of my humble creations likened to that of one of my biggest food heroes, but I also started to think about the process I go through when I’m putting salads together and thought that it might be interesting to write about here.

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Typically we have four to six salads on offer at the cafe, which can be either eaten together as a salad plate or served on the side of tarts or sandwiches. They are probably my favourite thing to make at work because they allow for a bit of creativity; you really have to be inspired in the moment by the ingredients you have on that particular day and take them in a direction that will show them at their best. It also closely reflects the way that I like to eat and I love the way people respond to them when they’re really good; even the least likely person will be tempted (one of our staff members, Zoe, is always saying “I never thought people in Farsley would go for salad!”).

The way I think about putting together a selection is probably slightly different to the way you would think about making one salad at home: I want them all to stand alone and be delicious in their own right, but I don’t necessarily need them to be a complete meal in and of themselves. I always offer some dairy-free and gluten-free salads, but if a particular combination seems to demand cheese or something particular to really work, I’ll put it in. I might be inspired by a blog post I read recently, or my latest cookbook, or a vague memory of something I once enjoyed, or just a general flavour profile – for example, I might see aubergines and think, “middle eastern” – often it’s only once I’ve started that I start to get a clearer idea of where I’m heading. I try not to rely too much on obvious combinations, but similar themes inevitably emerge.

So, to get into more detail. Of a selection of salads, I want at least one to be a composition of raw vegetables for freshness and crunch. I want at least one to be based on grains or beans for a bit of substance. And I want at least one to be cooked (probably roasted) vegetables for earthiness and rootsiness. Within each salad, I want a harmony of flavours with some bright top notes (usually lemon, but sometimes vinegar, also fresh herbs and raw vegetables and fruit) and some savoury base notes (woody herbs, toasted nuts, roasted vegetables, grains). I also want a mix of textures, so if a salad is primarily soft I would include some toasted seeds or nuts to add contrast. I also think about colours, for example orange butternut squash looks and tastes fantastic with green kale and red tomatoes. Fresh green herbs on top often lift a less colourful salad. Finally, I tend to think about certain key ingredients, or in other words, what makes me really want to eat this? When I’m reading other people’s recipes, I’m in the habit of scanning the ones that catch my eye for something that stands out and makes me feel that this is really going to be worth making. My favourite key ingredients are things like za’tar, feta, pomegranate, nigella seeds, goat’s cheese – any of which, if I saw in a recipe, I would immediately want to cook it.

To break this down, the salads I made at work yesterday included a roast aubergine salad with quinoa, slow roast tomatoes, toasted pumpkin seeds and coriander with a garlic, lemon and olive oil dressing with a little bit of pomegranate molasses. The aubergine, quinoa and pumpkin seeds are savoury base notes and the seeds also add crunch.The tomatoes and coriander add colour and vibrancy. The pomegranate adds an interesting sweet and sour note. I also made a chopped Lebanese salad with tomatoes, cucumber, celery, red onion, sumac, olives and feta and a simple lemon and olive oil dressing. Here the vegetables are sweet and crunchy, the olives are feta are salty but at different ends of the flavour scale and the sumac and lemon add a bright zesty note.

Kale market salad

This is the salad that our customer liked so much. It’s a category of salad that I always think of as a ‘market salad’ because it involves whatever in-season vegetables are most perfect at the time. I must credit the Kinfolk cookbook for planting the idea of a kale market salad in my head, although looking at their recipe now it’s called a ‘simple market vegetable salad’ and is pretty different to this…so this is how recipes evolve! It can be varied endlessly to include a variety of thinly sliced raw vegetables, different nuts, fresh fruit and cheese and makes a great lunch with herbed griddled chicken.

Serves many.

3 cloves garlic
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
12 tbsp olive oil
salt

1 bunch of kale – any variety
3 bulbs fennel
3 carrots
3 golden beetroot

a couple of handfuls of walnuts
a big chunk of pecorino or parmesan

First make the dressing: crush the garlic with a little salt into a paste. Whisk in the lemon juice and vinegar with extra salt to taste. Then whisk in the olive oil until you have a thick dressing (you may not need all of the olive oil – I like this dressing to be sharper and more acidic than a typical vinaigrette).

Wash the kale well in a sinkful of cold water. Drain, rinse and dry. Remove the thick central stem (I find it easier to just pull it off) and chop the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Pour over about half of the dressing and rub it into the leaves firmly (this helps to break the leaves down a bit and make them easier to eat – the volume of kale should shrink quite noticeably). Wash the fennel; peel and wash the carrots and beetroot. Slice them all thinly (a food processor attachment is the easiest way). Toast the walnuts in a dry frying pan, moving them around frequently so they don’t burn.

Add the fennel, carrots and beetroot to the kale and mix. Shave or grate in a big handful of the cheese and mix again. Add more dressing if necessary and check the seasoning. Finally mix in the walnuts and shave more cheese over the top. Because the ingredients are quite sturdy, this salad will keep well for a couple of days in the fridge.

Inspired by ‘The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings’ by Nathan Williams, Artisan, 2013

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