The great salad toss-up
As spring takes hold and the days grow longer and warmer, our gardens also burst into life and begin to produce delicate salad greens. The first peas and broad beans arrive on the scene, baby new potatoes with dirt attached fill the greengrocer's shelf and the prices of red peppers and cucumbers drop dramatically.
We have come a long way in New Zealand in the salad department. There was a time not so long ago when the only salad you were likely to see on a Kiwi dining table consisted of chopped lettuce, sliced hard-boiled egg, sliced tomatoes, cucumber and grated carrot and maybe grated cheese.
All of this was topped with a dressing made from Highlander condensed milk, malt vinegar and Colmans dried mustard.
Now we are veritably cosmopolitan and 21st century, with salads diverse and fabulous. The list of recipes is never ending and covers the four corners of the world.
Thank goodness we have come to our senses and now know that delicious salads can be crafted on the plate with subtle combinations of vegetables, pasta, rice, pulses, fish, seafood, meat and fruit. It is testimony to how far our food culture has travelled.
After a winter of slow cooking and warm vegetables, it is such a taste treat to sample new, crisp vegetables again and to feel warm enough inside to savour cool taste combinations. To make a whole table of salads, presented together at your table, is a classic summer activity, but it can equally be a spring surprise as well.
Salad greens and how to treat them are a vital part of the salad table. I can think of many travelling experiences where I haven't been able to eat fresh salads because of concerns about water hygiene, and how I crave raw greens.
No wonder, for salad greens are an indispensable part of a healthy diet: the more highly coloured, the greater the nutrient value. Greens contain vitamin A, vitamin C, beta carotene, calcium, folate, fibre and phytonutrients.
There are several essential greens that should be part of any repertoire. Try a salad with three different types of greens – a mild, soft lettuce like a red or green-leaf lettuce, bib or boston; a crisp lettuce such as cos, or spinach; a bitter green such as rocket or radicchio.
Always wash greens before using them. Fill the sink with cold water and immerse the greens, and soak to get rid of any dirt and contaminants that may come from fertilisers. Tear large leaves into smaller bits. Occasionally, greens can be sliced, depending on the recipe.
An essential piece of equipment is a salad spinner. Just as greens need to be washed, they also need to be dry in order for a dressing to adhere to the surface of the leaves. A salad spinner protects the leaves, stops them from being bruised and dries them perfectly.
Dressing the salads is also a very important part of the process. I do not believe in a "dressing on the side". A salad is made to be dressed by the cook, not by the eaters.
It is best to make it in the bottom of the salad bowl and then fold in the rest of the ingredients. You want to coat the ingredients in the dressing, and folding works best.
Normally, it is a 3:1 ratio (3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar or lemon/lime juice).
Here is a recipe that can be your standby for almost any occasion.
3 Tbsp good-quality extra-virgin olive oil (you can play around with the oils for salad dressing – try a little walnut oil or peanut oil along with the olive oil for extra flavour)
1 Tbsp of vinegar – for darker greens use balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar, for lighter greens use wine, tarragon or cider vinegar, or lime/lemon juice
1 clove of garlic crushed
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt (Marlborough preferably)
Put the garlic and salt and pepper in the bottom of the bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon. Add the oil and mix, then add the vinegar or juice and mix well to emulsify the mixture. Add the washed and dried greens and toss well to incorporate the dressing onto the leaves.
The salads that follow can make your spring salad table. I have included two fish salads and three vegetable salads, with nuts and pulses for variety.
This is the classic French recipe for this salad. It is a salad that is popular and there are many adaptations of it.
This is taken from Julie Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is a great summer salad. Child uses canned tuna in her recipe, but you can substitute fresh tuna.
If using fresh tuna, it must be seared and quite rare inside.
Cool the tuna and then refrigerate. When it is cold, cut into slices and use in the salad.
250g of either tinned or fresh seared tuna
2 cups of blanched French beans
Cos lettuce leaves
4 potatoes cooked and cooled (while they are still warm, toss gently in a mixture of lemon juice and a dash of white wine)
1/4 cup of pitted black olives
2 hard-boiled eggs
6 anchovy fillets
Fresh herbs such as basil and parsley
A dressing of 3 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 Tbsp white-wine vinegar, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, salt and black pepper, all mixed well together.
Combine all the ingredients and gently toss through the dressing.
HOT SMOKED SALMON SALAD
Use a fresh local hot smoked salmon for this dish.
300g hot smoked salmon
8-10 asparagus spears, lightly steamed so they are tender but still crunchy
2 cups of mesculin greens
1 red onion, finely sliced
1 avocado, sliced, with the juice of a lime squeezed over it
Fresh basil, roughly chopped
Olive oil, lemon or lime juice, Dijon mustard
A little salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper
In a salad bowl, make a dressing of 3 Tbsp olive oil to 1 Tbsp lime or lemon juice. Add lots of freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp sea salt and 1 tsp Dijon mustard.
Add the greens, broken-up pieces of smoked salmon, red onion, basil, steamed asparagus and avocado in lime.
SPINACH, RED ONION AND PEAS
4 cups spinach, washed and dried
1/2 red onion, finely sliced
1 cup baby peas, cooked
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Make a dressing in a bowl of 3 Tbsp olive oil, 1 1/2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix well together.
Add the spinach and toss and allow it to sit in the dressing for about 10 minutes before you add the onion and peas. Mix well together.
CUCUMBERS WITH LIME AND CHILLI
1 cucumber, roughly peeled so some of the skin is left on, sliced and each round cut into 4 pieces
1-2 tsp chilli flakes
Juice of 2 limes
1 tsp salt
Combine the ingredients and toss well.
CHICKPEAS, CHERRY TOMATOES , NEW POTATOES, FENNEL AND PINE NUTS
400g cooked chickpeas, just warm
3 potatoes, cooked and sliced into fat slices, just warm
6 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 cups rocket
1 tsp toasted fennel seeds
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced very finely
Fennel greens, finely chopped from the top of the bulb
3-4 Tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
2 green onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
Oil and white-wine vinegar
Combine all the ingredients and make a dressing to drizzle over the top with 3 Tbsp oil and 1 Tbsp white-wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.