I didn’t grow up totally leafless, but as a child a salad was never called a meal. My parents mostly saw it as an end of the dinner supplement, something to adorn my tuna mayo-mush sandwich, or as a garnish on the side of a roast. Crisp green leaves would most often be the uninspired, rather flavourless, cos or romaine. We are talking pre the days of rocket, when the leaves would sit for the duration of the meal, on top of a glossy slick of olive oil and lemon, waiting to be devoured once the tasty part of the meal had finished. Never exciting, never original, enough to have anyone hating on salad. It was only in my later teen years that I discovered its potential and my oh my, I have never looked back.
You might be wondering why the salad chat… Its cold outside, grey and pretty miserable (in most parts of the world) in what way is it a time to be eating or talking salad?! Well, as it turns out winter is the peak time for it, with at least 40% of Londoners turning to it as a lunch option, to beat the bulge of Christmas into submission. From cold winter leaves, to hot roast and dressed veggies, it is now we are hungry for it the most. So what better time to big up the best and get you feeling a little more inspired about this versatile, yet so often undervalued, dish.
It might seem like an obvious, but salad is so much more than a bowl of leaves. These are only the base of the story, like a rice is to a curry, or noodles are to ramen. A vehicle upon which to build with. Shaved, sliced, pickled or poached, thrown in tupperware, mixed through noodles, covered with chicken gravy and crispy skin, the modern salad can take on many forms.
Unlike many of the evangelical health nuts, I revel in the fact that a salad gives virtually any food a halo of health. That it can make a few leaves thrown in with any calorie-dense, diabolically indulgent food legit. (Anyone who has enjoyed my confit duck and orange salad with olive oil croutons and a port dressing will concur on that one.) Certainly Nigella’s newest series showed exactly how this is successfully done. Her late night halloumi and chilli salad, included a whole block of the fried cheese assigned to one’s bosomed self, covered in a sweet n sticky chilli sauce and eaten with gusto.
For me its not so much about health, but taste. For sure healthy eating is a key part of my life, but I just love the crunch of fresh peppery leaves, with soft salty cheese and toasted nuts. Or warm, crispy chorizo, zingy herbs and sweet root vegetables. The best of salads is dependant solely on a balance of texture and taste. It requires nothing more than a selection of a few key ingredients that really sing together, to make one worth celebrating.
That said, for this month, I am on a finding mission to find some of the best around London. Im not talking courgetti crap, or raw slaw, but real, hearty. Shiiiit damn salads that are anything but basic. Ottolenghi and Ceviche unsurprisingly have it down, but I have had more limp and uninspired offerings than successes thus far, so tips and recommendations are most welcome.
For all those keen to get cooking, my favourite of today is a hot, leafless wonder. A roasted sweet potato salad, with toasted almonds, ripe, plump sultanas, fresh parsley and a fragrant cinnamon and ginger speckled dressing. Its amazing with a fried egg, with lamb chops, or simply solo. The full recipe is here. Its a real crackerjack of a dish.