Monday, 30 May 2011

Late spring salad

On our table, salad is usually nothing more than some nice leaves, simply dressed with a bit of olive oil and sherry vinegar and served following our main course and before or after cheese. If we’re feeling ambitious, there might be some nut oil (like this fantastic stuff we’ve been rationing since our last trip to Paris) or Dijon mustard mixed in, or maybe some chives from the window box.

When the weather is warm-ish, we sometimes eat a substantial salad for a weekend lunch or supper, likely something involving tomatoes, olives and herbs, bulked out by bulgur, farro or stale bread cubes. There’s the ever-popular Nicoise, and on the rare occasions when we’re willing to bypass the tomatoes, something with rice noodles, herbs and a sour-sweet-funky dressing. But as for meal-opening salads, our repertoire is functionally limited to a much more wintery assemblage of ingredients like endive, blue cheese and walnuts, or one of a number of variations on roasted beetroot.

There was, however, a recent deviation from form. Inspiration came in the form of the freshest peas, broad beans, and asparagus, all bought that morning from just down the road (and picked the previous evening.) The peas were, for once, better than frozen, their sugars not yet turned to starch, and still small enough that they could be eaten raw. The broad beans were young and creamy enough to do the same once they were double-podded. Even the asparagus were left uncooked, instead shaved into long slivers. These were all bedded on some soft, slightly curly leaves, studded with thinly-sliced radishes and mint. Some blobs of a soft, tangy cheese (we used crowdie, a light Scottish cream cheese, but a rindless, spreadable goats cheese or sheeps' milk ricotta would also work well) added richness and creaminess, while a drizzle of lemon juice and some olive oil drew it all together. The result was not only beautiful to look at, but may have even outshone the new house favourite of duck confit which followed.

I’d happily eat this salad at least once a week for the next few months. But I suspect that it may have been, like the perfect restaurant found on the last day of a holiday, a one-time pleasure. When I’m next at the market (in this case not for another two weeks), the peas and broad beans will likely be larger and coarser, the former perhaps not worth the trouble and (relative) expense, the latter now better suited for a summer minestrone, or a dish of gnocchi and pesto. And the asparagus, which arrived weeks early due to an abnormally warm April, may no longer be at their prime.

There will be many compensations, of course: perhaps the first courgettes, tiny, with their flowers attached, at least a few more weeks of very good strawberries and, if the recent rain abates, some cherries. All will make for some very good eating. But the search for a salad continues.

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