So the sun has finally decided to come out of hiding. It's been a long, cold winter and in this house we have consumed gallons and gallons of soup in a bid to keep warm and make sure we are getting our precious 5 a day. But halleluiah, we have broken the 20 degree barrier for at least 4 days now and that means a definite switch in our eating habits: from comforting to crunchy, slow roasted to sautéed, gratinated to grilled and, in its simplest form, soup to salad.
A few week's ago an old school friend rang me up and asked whether I'd prepare a few 'interesting' salads for a BBQ dinner party that she had coming up the following Saturday. It made me laugh, as I often refer to salads as 'interesting' by which I mean surprising, innovative or just plain crazy. (I have a guilty habit of adding cottage cheese to my lunch salads, and then tossing it around, which can only be described as the latter.) But then I got to thinking, what makes a salad interesting? Now don't get me wrong, I've nothing against a collection of crisp or buttery green leaves, tossed in a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Alongside a juicy roast chicken, I can think of no better accompaniment. Or a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes, still warm from the sun, cut in half and seasoned with nothing more than a pinch of flaky sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper. But an interesting salad to me is really just a collection of textures and tastes that make it rise above the norm. Something that ticks all of the following boxes: crunchy, crispy, salty, sweet and sometimes even a little creamy (I find it hard to eat a green salad without avocado in it!). But most importantly, it must have a good dressing or vinaigrette. Nothing too oily or claggy, and certainly nothing that strips it of its 'healthy food' accreditation.
Knowing how to make a good salad dressing is a skill really worth having in your cooking arsenal, as it will save you a lot of money, mean that you have the ability to transform a pile of otherwise non descript leaves and veg into something quite spectacular, and mean that you don't need to consume xantham gum, parmesan cheese powder, acidity regulator, and spirit vinegar on a regular basis. (These are just a selection of the questionable ingredients that are listed on the bottles of a few store-bought dressings that I have seen recently.) And better yet, you've probably already got the ingredients in your store cupboard!
The basic rule of thumb to remember is the oil to acid ratio, which is 3:1. That's three tablespoons/teaspoons/whatever vessel you are using, of oil, to one of your chosen acid. By acid I mean vinegar (balsamic, sherry, red wine, cider, champagne vinegar...) or simply lemon or lime (or even orange!) juice. I actually often use more of a 2:1 ratio as I prefer more of a kick but 3:1 is seen to be the Industry Standard.
When it comes to the oil, think about what you are trying to achieve. Do you want some pepperiness? Then go for an Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, or even a Rapeseed Oil (which has all the same omega-3 goodness). Something a little mellower and not so overpowering...a lighter Olive Oil is probably your best bet. If you're going for more of an Asian feel, a Groundnut Oil and perhaps a slick of Sesame Oil will do the trick. The only ones I'd probably try and avoid using are Sunflower or Vegetable Oil as they are pretty tasteless.
So you've got your oil and your vinegar measured out in a clean jam jar, or small bowl. With just a pinch of sea salt and a grinding of some black pepper, you've already got a great dressing. But I quite like to add some sweetness, often in the form of honey, but sometimes a little maple syrup to balance out the acidity of the vinegar and bring out the flavour of some of the salad ingredients. Just a little teaspoon will do, you can always add more later. Lastly, I almost always add some Dijon. I'm not a big fan of mustard, but somehow in a salad dressing it just brings the right amount of punch. It even works with the Asian flavours I mentioned earlier - kind of like an inexpensive wasabi. So a squeeze of honey and a little dollop of Dijon and you are done. Give it all a stir or a shake and have a taste.
Fresh or dried herbs, chilli, tahini, finely chopped shallot.....there are so many other things that can be used to liven up a basic vinaigrette and so I urge you to grab an empty jam jar and have a go. Keep tasting along the way, and just add (a little at a time), whatever you think it is lacking. And please, please, please...dress your salad before serving it. Not too far in advance as the leaves will begin to wilt and go soggy, but it will make all the difference to your salad if each leaf or grain is coated in your lovingly concocted dressing.
So here is my number one Salad Of The Moment, courtesy of the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi. It definitely registers very highly on the acclaimed 'Interesting Salad' scale, is fairly straightforward to make, and is complemented by the most lip-smackingly good dressing. Enjoy!
Ottolenghi's Roast Cauliflower and Hazelnut Salad with Pomegranate and a Cinnamon & Maple Syrup Dressing:
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets
5 tbsp. olive oil
1 large celery stalk, cut on an angle into 1/4 inch slices
5 tbsp. hazelnuts, with skins (I actually substituted cashews here, which worked brilliantly too)
1/3 cup flat leaf parsley leaves
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
1 tbsp. sherry vinegar
1.5 tsp. maple syrup
generous 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
generous 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 220 C.
Roast the cauliflower by placing it on a parchment lined backing sheet, drizzle with 1-3 tablespoons of olive oil and toss it together with some salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 25-35 minutes until parts of it are turning golden brown. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool down.
Decrease the oven temperature to 170 C. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (I used the same one as the cauliflower, just switched the paper) and roast for 17 minutes (although depending on your oven, I suggest watching these closely, mine were burnt at 17 minutes, and I took my second try out around 10 minutes).
In a jam jar, measure together 2 tablespoons olive oil, sherry vinegar, maple syrup, cinnamon and allspice. Give it a shake and set aside.
Allow the nuts to cool a little, then coarsely chop them and add to the cauliflower, along with the pomegranate seeds, celery, parsley, and the dressing. Stir, taste, and season with salt and pepper accordingly.
Serve at room temperature.