I can barely believe it but here in Scotland we have had two stunning weekends – in a row. Now, those of you who are not familiar with Scotland perhaps cannot appreciate how newsworthy this is. Even in the height of summer (denoted by calendar dates, not weather) we can go weeks without baring our toes. My summer wardrobe is so lightly worn that, because I am averse to getting rid of things unless they no longer fit or are a bit tatty, I still have wearable – but deeply unfashionable – items from the 90s. I kid you not. Summerwear is really in name only, or something to pack when visiting more southerly climes. In fact one summer, thanks to Marks & Spencer’s then-generous returns policy, I ended up returning still-ticketed summer clothes that Miss R didn’t get a chance to wear. How sad is that. The British, and the Scots in particular, are however nothing if not optimistic, always making the most of any break in the clouds and wind to have lunch in the garden, or recline in public green spaces, trouser legs roughly rolled above pallid knees to catch the sun. So, we are all beyond excited at the prospect of a warm and settled summer. I am putting my fingers metaphorically in my ears and singing ‘ la la la’ to anyone who insists on saying, ‘That was our summer’. It is only Spring for goodness sake: plenty of time for pavement dining, allotments filled to bursting and the dreaded hosepipe ban. As I write this in the garden in shorts and tee-shirt, the weather prognosticators are saying it is set fair for the forseeable future. Just this once, I choose to believe them.
The unseasonable spell has got me in a salady mood. Although the vegetables haven’t quite caught up with the weather, more sun-warmed young vegetables are starting to make their way into the supermarkets, farmshops and markets. Perhaps you are as excited as I am about the prospect of the first local lettuces, sweet podded peas, young slender carrots and peppery watercress. All of my over-wintering herbs have sprung to life so I have had to hide them from my ever-ravenous, plundering girls, who, I am pleased to report, will be joined by a few ex-battery hens on Easter Saturday. More poop, more scratched-up
borders , but also more eggs and loads more entertainment. Hardly switch on the telly these days.
I will report back on the new girls and how they settle in, but back to veg talk. There is still a good amount of local late winter-early spring vegetables to be inspired by. Those of you who enjoy mild weather year round can perhaps easily always find what we in the north of the UK term as summer vegetables, but I am still enjoying using the last of the hardier crops. In this salad I have matched some of the ‘newbies’ with an old timer, cabbage. I was inspired by my love of miso and ginger to give this salad a decided Oriental twist, with a base of grains to give it heft and body. I just love the bite of fresh ginger cosied up to the savoury umami of miso. Leave out the grains for something lighter, or even change the vegetable selection, but make the dressing as-is for a healthy, zingy, fat-free taste hit.
Nutrition Notes: Of course everything in this salad is wonderfully nutritious, but I will single out the miso for special attention as most of you will have heard of it but maybe not know quite what it is and how to use it. Well, miso is fermented soybean paste and is used extensively in Japanese cookery for its sweet-salty taste. In the West its most familiar form is as a mild, nourishing soup containing the edible seaweed kombu, dashi stock, spring onion slices and sometimes dinky cubes of soft white tofu (more soybeans, but in yet another guise). But in Japan this nut buttery-textured paste it is used to flavour sauces, marinades, as a pickling agent, for grilling vegetables and meats, noodle soups and even some some sweets (!). It can also have other fermented goodies in it such as barley, brown rice or buckwheat, but soybeans are the mainstay and why it is so nutritious.
Although firmly associated with Japanese cuisine it is in fact Chinese in origin, having been introduced to the Japanese ruling classes in the 7th century. To look at it you might think, hmm a bit of salty paste, big deal. But the production of miso is very complex, comparable to winemaking in the time it takes to develop and the level of precise ‘chemistry’ involved. It is similar in another way too, as it is also fermented. But in this case fermentation is courtesy of the B vitamin-synthesising fungus, Aspergillus oryzae. Miso comes in many varieties, denoted by their differing colours, tastes, textures and level of saltiness, and is a staple macrobiotic ingredient, providing a cornucopia of nutrients in a single teaspoons’ worth. The fermentation and ingredients contribute to this uber-condiment being a great source of not only protein and B vitamins 2 and 3 but also folate, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, copper and zinc. It is thought to be a natural source of gut-protecting and immune-enhancing Lactobacillus acidophilus, the same stuff in those over-sweet yoghurty drinks but in a savoury, useful, vegan paste. It keeps well once opened and decanted into a suitable container. I often use it in place of salt to add an extra savoury note to soups, gravies, dips, roasted vegetables and mixed with herbs and spread on roasting fish (think of the now-classic miso black cod).
I used the Italian Pedon brand ‘5 grains’ timesaver mix, a dried par-cooked blend of spelt, barley, Thaibonnet rice, Kamut wheat and oats, which is my pantry staple – 10 minutes cooking time and available from large Tescos, in the health food section. The main thing with this salad is the dressing so use whatever warm, cooked grains and any amount of seasonal raw or lightly cooked vegetables and herbs you fancy. But I like it with the following.
1 & 1/2 tbsp rice wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
1 tbsp miso paste/soybean paste (milder yellow or red miso for preference)
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (just dry toast in a pan, shaking occasionally and watching them like a hawk)
1 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp honey
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp hot water
125 g/4.5 oz wholegrain giant couscous (moghrabeih/fregola), cooked as directed for al dente OR as mentioned above OR any whole grains that you like
1 yellow or green courgette/zucchini, halved lengthways and thinly sliced
200g/7 oz purple sprouting broccoli, trimmed and sliced to your preference but include the sweet stems
100g/3.5 oz shredded white cabbage
50g/1.8 oz red or black radishes, thinly sliced
100g/3.5 oz best cherry/grape tomatoes, halved
Blanch the trimmed purple sprouting broccoli florets and stem pieces in boiling water for one minute and immediately drain and decant into iced water. Drain again and pop into a large serving bowl. Add all of the other vegetables and the cooked grains of your choice. In a jug or separate bowl whisk together the dressing ingredients and toss this through the salad. Serve immediately on its own or as part of a salad meal/buffet.