I am a real advocate of what I call the ‘meal salad’; multi-sensory, bold salads that are platters of amazing colour, clear tastes, contrasting textures and even a hint of fragrance. I crave salads that invariably cause you to leave the restaurant with a little dribble on your chin because you were enjoying your food and not minding your manners. In short, I want to know I’ve had a proper feed, and not just been fobbed off with lowest common denominator assembling skills. Just because it’s a salad doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting and taste sublime. Being a greedy sort I don’t think that some frilly-pants collection of lettuces, scattering of delicately sliced vegetables and thimble of dressing constitutes a meal. Yet, if you go out and don’t fancy the meat-heavy or sleep-inducing carb options, this is usually what is left. If you are lucky someone might offer it with a miniscule piece of anemic-looking chicken (which I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole) or trio of king prawns (yawn), but the equation ‘woman+salad=dieter’ seems to be behind menu planning at many eateries. And I resent this. The notion (as I imagine it) that salad-eaters are just looking for something to move around the plate so don’t bother making it interesting or filling is insulting and, in my opinion, wrong. Just because I mainly prefer eating plants to animals doesn’t mean my tastebuds and appetite are dead. Sure, if you go up a notch or two you will undoubtedly find something more adventurous, but probably still not filling enough to see you through to supper, or keep you from later devouring that carefully-squirreled away Valentine’s leftover (am I revealing too much?). Are you weary as well of shelling out good money at places where they spend more time planning the wine list than they do the menu? I don’t even bother now. And that’s a bit sad because eating out should expose you to tastes and ideas that inspire and excite.
I’ve really had quite a wee rant to myself, and involved you who may be perfectly happy with your paid-for salady nosh. Sorry. I’m miffed probably because the UK restaurant and catering industry has upped their game almost unrecognisably in the past 20 years, but this is one area that is still a bit ‘Betamax’. I don’t know how we can get more interesting plant-based fare into mainstream restaurants but here is the kind of ‘meal salad’ I would be happy to pay money for. Let me know what you would pay good money for – keep it decent, Miss R reads this…
Warm Beetroot, Lentil and Pepper Salad
I am a big fan of Sarah Raven – she of UK gardening fame but also an inventive cook – and the au courant London chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Although neither is vegetarian they both display cunning and creative flair to bring out the best in what could be quite pedestrian ingredients. I find that plant-only cooks and cookery writers can be a bit worthy for my tastes, and so I tend to be drawn to omnivores who speak vegetarian as a second language. This earthy, punchy salad takes inspiration from the writings and recipes of my two favourite ‘bi-lingual’ cook-chefs.
4 small or 2 medium beetroots, scrubbed and roots trimmed a little (the smaller the beetroot, the sweeter)
2 red onions, peeled and cut into eighths (with some root attached if possible)
2 red peppers, deseeded and cut into chunks
Extra virgin olive oil
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods + 1 tbsp coriander seeds, + 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns + 1 tsp flaky sea salt – coarsely ground in pestle and mortar or clean coffee grinder
150g/5.3 oz Puy or Puy-type lentils
300ml/10 oz vegetable stock + 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, and a little extra for later
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Leaves from two sprigs fresh thyme (lemon thyme if you can get it)
1-2 red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
Juice and grated zest of 1/2 large unwaxed lemon
Rocket/arugula leaves, chervil and flat-leaf/Italian parsley – as much as you like
1/2 pack of halloumi cheese (about 100 grams), sliced into 1/2 cm depth slices
What To Do: Toss the beetroot, onion and peppers in 1 tbsp of olive oil and almost all of the ground spices. Put the beetroots in a small roasting tin and bake at 190C for 45 minutes – 1 hour. When the beetroots have twenty minutes to go pop the onions and peppers onto the tray. If you are a beetroot fan, you might want to bake a couple of bunches of beetroot for use in other dishes, or for pickling. Anyway, when the beets are tender when pierced with a knife, let them cool and then rub the fragile skins away and slice the juicy beets into big bite-sized pieces.
While things are roasting get on with the body of the salad – the lentils. You could very easily use one of the precooked packs of Puy lentils available in many UK supermarkets but they are really easy to sort from scratch and the suggested flavourings really lift the lentils. Pop the raw lentils into a medium saucepan with the bay leaves and cover with the stock and vinegar. Bring to the boil and then cook on a fast simmer (medium heat) for between 20 and 30 minutes. It is hard to give exact timings but check to make sure the liquid hasn’t evaporated at 20 minutes and give them a little taste as well. They should be tender but still quite firm: if your dental work is threatened, give it another 10 minutes. Drain as needed then pour the lentils into a wide pretty bowl to cool a bit.
Heat a griddle pan or saute pan to high and slap on the halloumi pieces. Griddle or cook until starting to colour or get griddle marks, then flip and do this again. I sometimes use the ‘light’ halloumi in other recipes but it gets bit dry if you do more than heat it through. Use the full-fat stuff for this one. Remember my rant; this isn’t a diet salad.
Add to the lentils the roasted, warm vegetables, chopped garlic, thyme leaves, chillies, lemon juice and zest, whatever amount of leaves you are using, then finally toss together with some extra olive oil and balsamic to taste. Sprinkle in the remaining ground spices if you like, and serve with griddled halloumi or hunks of broken feta cheese, and maybe some flatbreads. Enjoy!