So I’ve submitted my dissertation and my last ever piece of coursework and I’m officially not really a student anymore it feels great (actually no it doesn’t – if I’m not a student I’m just unemployed, and there’s nothing great about that), but that’s not what I want to talk about. What I really want to talk about today is salad. Though most people might associate salad with diet food/a side dish/a ‘light lunch’, I think salad is the most versatile interesting meal out there, because it’s literally anything you want mixed together – warm or cold, meaty or veggie, self-righteously virtuous or diet-defyingly fatty. In my flat, the boys enjoy a particularly nutrient-rich dish we call ‘sausage salad’ on an almost daily basis – that is, 6-12 sausages (depending on the girth of the sausage and the level of hunger) baked and put on a plate for consumption, ketchup to accompany. You may question the sausage salad’s legitimacy as a true salad, but if that’s how they define it, who are we to judge. Maybe they’re pushing the culinary boundaries of the salad to new heights (eat your heart out Heston).
I’m talking about salads because I was asked by one of my best friends a couple of weeks ago to do a post on how to make salads more interesting but still easy and quick to prepare. Whilst my obsession with food means that I might spend 4 hours slow cooking things and buying obscure ingredients that drain my bank account and only get used once before they go out of date and I either throw them out or put them tentatively in a stew in the hopes they won’t poison me, lunch is a different matter. I get hungry quickly and I want the food to be made quickly. If lunch isn’t made in 15 minutes flat, I will have eaten all the ingredients before they have a chance to get on the plate, and I’m left with a shit lunch. To avoid the disappointment of shit lunch (and boring salad), I’ve adopted some preventative measures that mean I can make new combinations of lunch every day within the strict 15 minute time slot – here’s a list of my favourites:
- Herbs – one of the most important and underrated (at least among students, I think) elements of a good salad is fresh herbs. Not just one type – today I used dill (my current favourite) coriander to make the leafy element of salad way more interesting. Buy a pot of basil or coriander, keep it by the windowsill and water it whenever you remember/when it starts to look sad, and you’ll have a constant supply of fresh herbs to add to whatever you’re preparing.
- Beans etc. – everyone knows that adding things like beans and rice and pulses will add bulk to your salad etc, but don’t just drain, rinse and throw them in. Fry them, roast them, mix with a pesto or blend into a kind-of bean hummus with a bunch of herbs and spices. Roasting butter beans on high with olive oil, salt and paprika, for example, and scattering a few over the top at the end. You may argue that this isn’t in keeping with the 15 minute time slot, but if you do it whilst you’re watching TV one day in the evening and keep them in the fridge, all they require is a quick toss in a hot pan or 10 minutes in a hot oven and they’re back to their former glory. Make some rice/grains/boiled new potatoes at the same time and refrigerate them too for the next few days.
- Those ready-made pots of things that always taste better than whatever you make – you know those M&S pots of quinoa and julienned things and dressings that would take far too long to make at home? Get some discount ones at the end of the day and use them as a base. It’s not cheating, it’s improving. Add leftover meat, veg, herbs, lemon juice (I add lemon juice to pretty much all salad) and some toasted nuts and claim it as your own creation.
- Cooked and raw things – mix together both cooked and raw veg. Roasted, sautéed or charred broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, asparagus etc. goes great in a cold salad alongside raw veg.
- Other dead easy impressive things to add – confit tomatoes taste kind of like intensely sweet, almost sun-dried tomatoes and take about 2 minutes of prep, and 2 hours in the oven. Just glug a thin layer of olive oil on the bottom of a pan, add a punnet of sliced cherry tomatoes, cut side up, throw in the whole garlic cloves, any herbs you have and salt and pepper, and roast at 150 for 2 hours. The oil can be used in dressings or stirred through pasta, while the tomatoes can be added to the salad. Similarly, pickling onion, beetroot, cabbage, cucumber or radishes takes minutes. Just slice your veg thinly and cram into an empty jar, mix together 1 part apple cider vinegar (or red wine/sherry vinegar) with 2 parts water, a tsp sugar, salt and any aromatics you want the veg to have (peppercorns, star anise, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin etc.) until the sugar has dissolved, and pour over the veg. Let it sit at room temperature for an hour, and then refrigerate until you want it.
- Crunchy things – my go-to is to toast some almonds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds until verging on burnt to add to the salad at the end. Croutons literally just require bread and olive oil, plus any flavouring (garlic, rosemary, I’ve used the leftover fat from roasting a chicken) and take minutes to make.
- Interesting shaped things – shaving raw courgette into thin ribbons not only makes it much more enjoyable to eat, it means that it’ll take on a lot more flavour from dressings and can be eating spaghetti style. Shaved courgette with chopped cherry tomatoes, cooked quinoa, spring onions, diced chilli, crumbled feta and a dressing of white wine vinegar and olive oil is a favourite at home.
- Add fat – The courgette salad described above can sometimes feel a bit insubstantial if you don’t add a bit of fat/creaminess to it, hence the feta cheese (or to make dairy free, add large cubes of ripe avocado). Often salads will have a tangy dressing that needs something to cut through it and mellow it down a bit – cheese solves this issue (as it does with every other issue in the world).
- Add fruit! Grapes and cheddar world really nicely together, so pair them with some cumin and numeric roasted cauliflower, herbs (coriander maybe?) and raisins with a simple olive oil dressing. Raspberries in summer are great added at the end or smushed into the dressing, strawberries are nice in any salad with a balsamic dressing, grilled peaches are great with feta. I’m yet to find any salad that works with a banana, so maybe stay clear of them. Stone fruits and berries are a safe option, though.
- Dressings – probably the most important element of the salad is a proper dressing to bring it all together. Tahini, maple syrup, chilli flakes and sesame oil with a little water will make a good creamy dressing; the juice of an orange, red wine vinegar and olive oil will make a nice mellow dressing; honey, wholegrain mustard, olive oil and lemon will make a good classic dressing. Just remember to whisk well and add the oil in slowly. You don’t want to pour the dressing on and find you’ve managed to leave all the good stuff at the bottom and now have a salad dripping in nothing but oil.
So there’s my very loose guide to how I go about everyday salads. Basically, do anything you want with what you’ve got. But you can make some more interesting things by investing some time, whenever you have it, into shoving some things in the oven for a bit and mixing some things in preparation for when you find you’ve only got a 15 minute time slot before you consume everything you currently possess in the fridge. For more ideas, look at the salads section of my blog, or have a look on sites like Food 52 or Green Kitchen Stories – that’s where I get a lot of ideas from.