Bring and share – two salads for summer

July 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Help! Three words that bring on a panic attack. You know the kind of thing I mean – a communal summer event, maybe a club or choir social evening, a music teacher’s summer pupils’ concert, perhaps even a street party. Some people you’ll know well, others less so, and everyone is asked to bring a dish to create an inpromptu meal.

What to bring? It’s got to be transportable; capable of sitting around on a warm buffet table without melting/disintegrating/giving everyone food poisoning; taste good; look a teeny bit impressive but not as if you’v tried too hard, and finally not something that’s going to take all day to prepare.

My suggestion is to avoid little canapé nibble type things at all costs as these take forever to put together and to go for a generous bowl of colourful salad instead. I have two reliable standby recipes, the first an old favourite and the second a recent discovery.

My first recipe is for tabbouleh, the much-loved middle-Eastern parsley and mint salad mixed with chewy grains of burghul.

I learned how to make this from one of my all time favourite cookery books, Claudia Roden’s “A New Book of Middle Eastern Food”. My cookery book collection has grown over the years and has had to have a whole bookcase of its own set aside for it in our study. Neverthless, a selection of just ten books has crept back downstairs into the kitchen because I refer to them so often. ” A New Book of Middle Eastern Food” is one of those ten. It’s a book with no glossy photos (aside from the weird close-up of spring onions and vine leaves on the cover) yet manages to conjure up all sorts of evocative images of the Middle East in its imaginative and well-informed writing. A sort of Arabian Nights of the kitchen. And this small battered paperback is full of meticulously researched, concisely written recipes that actually work.

Tabbouleh, as Ms Roden explains, is essentially a herb salad, a mass of dense green freshness speckled with the pale grains of burghul. Quite often you’ll see something described as tabbouleh which is this idea reversed – lots of pale grains flecked with specks of grain. Salads like this may be good, but to me now they’re just not tabbouleh.

I grew up reading 1970s recipe books where herbs were mostly dried and strictly rationed – a teaspoon of chopped parsley in a white sauce to accompany boiled ham perhaps. I think that’s why I love the hugely generous quantities of fresh herbs you need for this recipe – think handfuls rather than teaspoons. Even with 2 big bunches of parsley, you need still more…

All the salad ingredients can be prepped beforehand which makes it very convenient to put together for a party. I’ve included some walnuts in this version:

You can very the garnishes according to your mood, what you have in the cupboard or fridge and what’s in season. I decorated this version with a few snipped chives and tasty chive flowers from the garden:

Is there any downside to this salad? Well, being honest, it will almost certainly leave green herby flecks on you and your guests’ teeth.

If having to check yourself in the mirror doesn’t appeal, then my second suggestion is a salad of blanched mangetout and French beans livened up with orange zest, toasted hazelnuts and freshly snipped chives. It comes from “Ottolenghi – The Cookbook”, one of those books where I turn the pages and want to eat everything in there.

This isn’t a salad you can throw together in a couple of minutes – each element has to be prepared quite carefully, be it the accurate and separate blanching and refreshing of the vegetables;

the roasting of the hazelnuts to just the right degree of toastiness without burning them;

or the careful preparation of the orange zest to give visually appealing long, thin strips without any pith.

Your efforts spent on preparation will be rewarded in a crunchy salad with a harmonious mix of intriguing flavours – the orange, hazelnut and mild onion flavour of the chives work really well together without overpowering the beans and sugar snaps.

Recipe for tabbouleh

Adapted from Claudia Roden’s “A New Book of Middle Eastern Food”. Serves 10 or more as part of a selection of dishes.

Ingredients

250g bunched flat leaf parsley – approx. 3 supermarket LARGE bunches
100g bunched mint
100g burghul
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 2 lemons
80 ml extra virgin olive oil
200g spring onions

Garnish – standard
2 little gem letttuces
3 medium tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
2 inches cucumber

Garnish – optional additions
Handful of roughly chopped walnuts
Chive flowers, wild garlic flowers
Handful of pomegranate seeds

Wash the mint and parsley and dry carefully using a salad spinner. Pull out the thickest of the parsley stems and any discoloured leaves. The thinner parsley stalks can stay in as they are fine to eat once chopped. Remove the mint leaves from their coarse stems as these are generally too fibrous to make pleasant eating.

Chop the herbs either in a food processor or by hand as you prefer. I tend to use a food processor, pulsing carefully to chop the herbs to a medium degree without turning them into too fine a mix or worse of all, a mush. Set the chopped herbs aside in a tightly sealed plastic box and place in the fridge. If you’re preparing this dish ahead of time, the herbs will keep quite well in the fridge for 24 hours, even longer. Given that freshness is the essence of this salad, I don’t like to leave the herbs in the fridge too long though.

Finely slice the spring onions and set these aside in the fridge.

Meanwhile, prepare the burghul. Covering with cold water and leave to soak for half an hour or so. Tip into a sieve and leave to drain for 10 minutes or so, pressing out any excess water. Put in a mixing bowl and add half the lemon juice and olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Let it absorb the dressing for a further 30 minutes or so.

While the burghul is soaking, prepare your chosen garnishes. Carefully remove perfect whole leaves from the little gem lettuces and wash and dry them thoroughly. Dice the tomato and cucumber. If using, roughly chop the walnuts and/or remove seeds from a pomegranate.

Now assemble the salad. It’s best to assemble it no more than 30 minutes before you plan to serve it as otherwise the lemon juice in the dressing begins to blacken the mint leaves. Add the chopped herbs and spring onions to the dressed burghul in the mixing bowl. Add the remaining lemon juice and olive oil and more salt an pepper. Taste and check flavours. You need plenty of lemon juice and salt to make the salad really sing. Once you’re happy with the balance of flavours, line your chosen serving bowl with the prepared lettuce leaves, pile in the tabbouleh and scatter your garnish of tomato and cucumber, plus any optional additions, over the top.

Recipe for French bean and mangetout salad with orange and toasted hazelnuts

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “The Ottolenghi Cookbook”. Serves 8 or more as part of a selection of salads and other dishes.

Ingredients

400g French beans (trimmed weight)
400g Mangetout peas (trimmed weight)
60-80g skinned hazelnuts (use the higher quantity if you like hazelnuts)
1 unwaxed orange
1 clove garlic, crushed
5 tablespoons hazelnut oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10-20g chives, snipped into small pieces with a pair of scissors (plenty of chives perk up the flavour of this salad – use fewer if you prefer)
squeeze of lemon juice

Begin by blanching the vegetables. Bring a large pot of water to a fast rolling boil and add a little salt. Throw in the French beans and, using an accurate timer, cook them for 4 minutes, until just cooked. Using a slotted spoon, remove all the beans and throw them into a big bowl of iced water to refresh. Take the bowl to the sink and allow the cold tap to run over the beans until they are completely cold. Drain in a colander and tackle the mangetout in a similar fashion but the mangetout require just 60 seconds blanching time.

Pat the vegetables dry with kitchen paper and store in a sealed container in the fridge until needed. You can do this up to 24 hours ahead of time.

Scatter the hazelnuts on a shallow baking tray (I use a battered old Swiss roll tin) and bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees C for 10 minutes until toasted to an even golden brown. Watch the nuts carefully as they bake and check them before 10 minutes is up to make sure they don’t burn. Chop roughly and set aside to cool.

Now prepare the dressing. I use a lidded jam jar to do this. Add to the jar the nut oil, the crushed clove of garlic and the zest of he orange. To prepare the orange zest, you need either to peel off a thin layer of orange skin without any pith using a swivel peeler. Having done this, using a sharp knife, cut the peel into long thin shreds. Much easier is to buy a special little zesting tool which you scrape over the surface of the orange which produces the desirable orange shreds in an instant. Add the juice of just half of the orange to the jar together with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste. Don’t add the chives at this stage as the fruit juices will make them go soggy and dark coloured.

When you’re ready to serve, tip the beans and peas and snipped chives into a handsome serving dish. Pour over the dressing and toss lightly. Scatter over the toasted hazelnuts and serve.

Kentucky Fried Camel anyone?

November 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

Here are my 2 sons George and Arthur wandering down the main drag in Naama Bay, Sharm El Sheikh, looking in vain for a real taste of Egypt. Diving in the Red Sea has been something I’ve hankered after doing since my first scuba attempts in the cold Atlantic waters off Pembroke in Wales in my early 20s. The 2 week half-term break this year meant we had the opportunity to travel a little further afield than usual so I thought why not take the boys snorkelling in the Red Sea?

Sharm El Sheikh (or just Sharm as it’s universally known in the travel industry) is a package holiday Mecca. It processes thousands of foreign tourists from the northern climes of the UK, Russia, Poland and Germany who are jetted and bussed in for a week’s guaranteed sunshine and sent back home a week later without having left the grounds of their all-inclusive resort-style hotels. Astoundingly, many of them don’t even bother to dip a toe into the truly exquisite clear warm waters of the Red Sea, preferring the hotel pools and waterparks.

The Red Sea did not disappoint and the boys took to snorkelling like the proverbial ducks:

But what of the food? Before our trip I had dreams of Bedouin-style charcoal-roasted lamb, aromatic spices and orange-flower water scented sherbets. One of my most-thumbed cookbooks is Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. Claudia grew up in Egypt and I’ve long been bewitched by her evocative descriptions of the food of her childhood, the ful medames (fava beans), Sephardic Jewish dense orange and almond cakes, salads fragrant with parsley and mint.

You can imagine that the all-inclusive “international buffet” served in the ersatz surroundings of the “Andalusia” restaurant of our hotel, the Dreams Vacation, was a bit of a rude awakening. Remember the Leyton Buzzards’ 1979 hit “Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees”?

Sharing mealtimes with the tattooed classes was quite an experience. The sight of a middle-aged Geordie sporting nothing but a pair of Speedos tucking into his lunch washed down by as much free lager as he could drink is one that will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

Then there were the Russians. We’ve all laughed about Germans bagging all the best poolside spots but over here it’s practically a Russian invasion. The menfolk were securing beach sun loungers at 6.00 in the morning, bikini clad babushkas were throwing themselves into the water with wild abandon, and the imperious way they treated the local staff was nothing less than shocking at times.

The food on offer at the “international buffet” was at first sight not particularly appealing. The chef clearly knew on which side his bread was buttered and tried to please his Russian and Polish customers with his command of Communist Cuisine – a lot of indeterminate grey boiled meats and stodge.

As we became more familiar with the place we searched out some of the better things to eat which surprise surprise were local Egyptian staples. At breakfast time I developed quite a taste for the falafel served with soft fresh pitta, tahina and sour pickles – I know it sounds weird but pickles at breakfast time are appealing in a hot climate, especially after an early morning swim.

At lunchtime the cucumber and yoghurt salad was the star attraction for me, along with gloriously sticky Levantine pastries. The Egyptians clearly have a sweet tooth and can fashion a pudding out of almost any ingredient it seems.

Here’s a pic of that well-known school dinner classic cornflake pie, Egyptian style:

The chef had more up his sleeve: he’d also prepared a branflake pie, unconscious of the irony of turning such a Puritan and unappealing cardboard-like product into a calorie-laden syrupy treat:

The most confusing cross-cultural experience of the week has to be the night we ate in the hotel’s Mexican restaurant. The sensation of sitting in an Egyptian hotel eating Mexican food listening to piped German music (a Beethoven symphony!) surrounded by Russians and Poles was nothing if not bizarre.

So did we ever find a taste of the real Egypt? You’ll have to read the next post to find out…

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