I have never been a huge fan of salad. No great story starts with “This one time, after I had way to much salad…”. My experiences of salad are too often those limp after thoughts carelessly added to an otherwise perfectly acceptable plate of food; they should be ashamed. I also tend to feel a bit cheated if I go out for dinner only to order a salad, which is daft I know but many people have the same outlook about ordering the vegetarian options on menus (another prejudice I have dropped in recent years…).
When traveling I have occasionally come across an excellent bit of raw vegetable accompanying my food though, and one such place has been Italy. The tomatoes here are superb and in the slightly warmer climes in the southern parts of Italy, they will soon be coming into season. There are however tons of other lovely, fresh vegetables that can be made into great plates of food, and remember, salads don’t necessarily have to be cold. I have been making friends with salad after many years of being a recalcitrant customer who only eats the meat and potatoes when dining out.
Here are a few of the recipes that I have come to love alongside a nice bowl of pasta, or a piece of griddled meat or fish dressed with black pepper, salt and oil after cooking (do not season or oil before putting on the griddle as you will smoke yourself out of the building, with a new pope already announced you do not need the chimney billowing white smoke…)
Warm squash and mushroom salad with a mustard and balsamic dressing
Squash, mushrooms, garlic, chicory, rocket, avocado, parsley, chopped nuts, thick white bread, goats cheese
For the dressing: Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, whole grain mustard, honey, salt, pepper
Chop the squash into pieces about 2cm x 2cm, about 8 pieces per person. Cover in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put in a roasting tin in the oven at 180 degrees. Roast until soft and caramelly, about thirty minutes. In a dry pan, toast the chopped nuts lightly and then set aside in a nice bowl so people can sprinkle them over the top of their salad. It is also nice to toast the squash seeds too. Take out the biggest, fattest seeds, give them a wash and then pat them dry. Toast them in the same way as the nuts and once cooked, toss them in some butter and seasalt. I warn you now, these may not make it to the table as they are really scrummy to nibble on while you’re cooking.
Slice the mushrooms and fry over a high heat with butter, a finely chopped clove of garlic and lots of chopped parsley. Chicory is delicious both raw and cooked, if you have the griddle pan out to do some meat or fish it is well worth popping the chicory on too. Griddling it adds a lovely nutty, sweet flavour to the leaves which can be replicated on the BBQ too. Slice it into quarters lengthwise and put it on the smoking hot griddle, leaving it alone until there are lovely black bands across the leaves. Yes I know it sounds weird to cook lettuce but if Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall can do it then so can I. Set all the hot ingredients aside to cool slightly while you prep the salad leaves.
Stick the rocket, some more parsley and the chopped avocado into a salad bowl – the avocado will go brown if you leave it too long so don’t prep this in advance. Toss in the mushrooms, squash and chicory. Add a few dollops of goat’s cheese, or crumble it in depending on the type. I have found adding cheese to anything makes it instantly more appetizing though if you are watching your waistline (here waistline, waistline!) then it might be wise to leave this out (it would be a shame though as it is really, really yummy). In the pan you fired the mushrooms in, melt some butter and fry 2cm square pieces of the white bread to make nice chunky croutons. Scatter these over the top and then take it to the table.
Dressing: In a glass or a clean jam jar put 6 tbsp. olive oil, 3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp. honey, 1 tsp. whole grain mustard, lots of black pepper and a large pinch of rock salt. Stir vigorously until a thick, emulsified consistency is achieved. Serve with the salad so people can help themselves.
This salad is great with griddle pork, the meaty flavour of the pork mingles well with the robust squash and mushroom while the salad makes the meal nice and light.
Fennel bulb, salt, pepper, sugar, cider vinegar, olive oil.
This is remarkably simple but so unbelievably more-ish I can’t help myself. I have come to the possibly unfortunate conclusion that salad does not count towards my daily calories so I will quite happily scarf the entire lot myself.
Slice the fennel bulb into thin strips and put it in a bowl. I like to make the dressing with more vinegar than some as I like the acetic bite it lends to the aniseedy fennel.
Dressing: In a glass or clean jam jar put 5 tbsp. olive oil, 2 tbsp. cider vinegar, 1 tsp. sugar, a generous pinch of rock salt and loads and loads of freshly cracked black pepper. Shake or stir vigorously and the toss well over the fennel.
This can also be used as crudités, just arrange the fennel slices on a plate around a bowl of dressing for people to dip into. It is great with raw carrots too. It is a salad I have started eating a lot of at home, inspired by the aperitivi in my favourite bar, Pietro’s. It is light and fresh, the perfect accompaniment to a hearty bowl of pasta, I like it with Pasta Zucchini especially.
Tomatoes (several kinds if you can get them), buffalo mozzarella, basil leaves
This is a quintessentially Italian salad, traditionally made from just these three ingredients. The mozzarella and the tomatoes should be at room temperature before you serve it and the basil leaves freshly picked and torn not sliced. I have no idea why, but some people say cutting basil with a knife can affect the flavour, so tear it up and enjoy the delicious scent on your fingers.
Slice the mozzarella and the tomatoes, then layer alternately on a large serving plate. Scatter with the fragrant basil and serve. It may not be strictly traditional but I do like a good twist of cracked black pepper, a little salt and some olive oil drizzled over the top too but this is up to you. I also add pesto if I can’t get hold of fresh basil, which is cheating but it tastes great so who cares.
Because this salad has a bit more body, what with the cheese, I tend to eat this as part of a tapas style lunch with prosciutto, pears and parmesan (my three favourite Ps), a bowl of big, green picante olives, artichokes done with garlic dip and even some dippy eggs or a slice of frittata (this one is my favourite from Simply Recipes)
So I hope these delicious dishes will lead to stories that can be regaled with the beginning, “This one time, we had a great salad and then…” Though I will perfectly understand if in actuality it was the Pinot Grigio that made you sneak round your neighbour’s house and have your way with his wife…