Now more than any other time of the year, conscience battles with comfort.
Holiday eating and drinking excesses might call for restraint and a healthier reorientation, though one objection comes to mind: it is still deep winter.
Snow has finally fallen, and temperatures have dropped below freezing. Now hardly feels like the ideal time for the Master Cleanse.
Somewhere between a Spartan diet and self-indulgence, there is a vast land of possibilities.
Try salads. As I discovered recently in the cookbook “Salmagundi: A Celebration of Salads From Around the World” by Sally Butcher, salads are a world unto themselves. They’re old as time itself (OK not really, but at least old as the Romans, according to Butcher) and as diverse as the cultures on earth.
Butcher, who runs the Persian food store Persepolis in London, is an enthusiastic, indefatigable cook and author. Her joy is contagious and picking up one of her cookbooks is as much laughter therapy as it inspiration for cooking.
“Salad, you see, is a state of mind,” she writes. “It’s all about finding ingredients that will play nicely together in one bowl. It’s about having a feel for things that work, and the willingness to let your imagination travel.”
The title of her book, “Salmagundi”, is an expression from 17th century England referring to a salad dish containing just about everything under the sun.
There are delicate salads like Green Pea and Sorrel Salad, to salads that would better please a carnivore, like Duck Salad with Puy Lentils, Snow Peas, and Kiwi Chutney. But there is always a balance (think Tarragon Salad with Southern Fried Chicken).
Recipes from all corners of the globe are featured, like Gado Gado Indonesian Peanut Salad, or Japanese Deep-Fried Eggplant Gomaae with Black Sesame Dressing.
Butcher’s definition of salad is all-encompassing, like an embrace. It makes room for all persuasions. So whether you’re digging into her Beet, Ginger, and Mango Salad, or Prune and Bacon Salad, you can contentedly say: “I’m just having a salad.”
Spiced Carrot, Orange, and Radish Salad (Super Healthy)
This is a real head-turner of a salad. It is kind of Moroccan: both Paula Wolfer and Claudia Roden (the joint doyennes of North African food writing) offer a range of orange based salads, and this is an amalgamation of their recipes (with a pinch of Peckham). To be honest, the main ingredients make a perfect threesome in more or less any combo.
A zinging side dish for 4
2 tbsp top-notch olive oil, preferably Moroccan (it is decidedly more olive-y than other oils)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp orange blossom water
¾in/2cm knob fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp ras el hanout
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large carrots, peeled
1 bunch radishes, topped and tailed (but retain the green tops)
1/3 cup/1¾oz/50g slivered pistachios OR sliced black olives (either work well)
few springs of fresh mint
Mix the olive oil together with the lemon juice, blossom water, spices, and seasoning, and leave for the flavors to mingle for 30 minutes or so.
Grate the carrots and finely slice the radishes (with a mandolin if you have one). Use a thin bladed knife to cut the peel and pith from around the oranges, working from “top” to “bottom” so to speak. Remove any seeds then cut the orange into thin half moon slices. Arrange the orange, carrot, and radish in layers on your finest Fez plate. Top with the pistachios, and dribble the dressing over the whole bunch. Finish with the mint. Admire. Don’t forget to take a quick photo for your delightfully well-organized social media pinboards.
Scallop Shell Salads with Chimichurri
Shellfish is a dream to work with because it offers so many possibilities for flashy presentation. And the scallop is the best of the bunch, for it comes replete with its own dinky serving dish.
Chimichurri is pesto or pistou by any other name: an Argentinian parsley number, usually deployed as a sauce for steak.
Serves 6 as a quaint but elegant appetizer
For the chimichurri:
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 scallions, minced
½ bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
2–3 sprigs of fresh oregano, chopped (or use 1 tsp dried)
½ tsp cayenne
scant ½ cup/100 ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
For the salad:
1/3 cup/1¾oz/50g pecan quarters/pieces
¼ cucumber, julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 scallions, julienned
big handful of frisée lettuce, pulled into sprigs
6 scallop shell halves, washed
pat of butter and a little oil
12 scallops (18 to make it a more substantial snack)*
juice of 1 lime
pinch of ground saffron steeped in a splash of boiling water
Pound the garlic and scallions together (you could do this in a blender if you like), then add the herbs, cayenne, and salt to taste. Trickle in the olive oil and vinegar, and whisk into a green emulsion of sorts. Set aside until needed.
Toast (dry-fry) the pecans for a few minutes and then take off the heat. Mix the cucumber, pepper, and scallions together with the frisée. Add the pecans and distribute the mixture between each of the seashells.
Heat a little butter and a drop of oil together in a frying pan, and just before it reaches smoking point, lower the scallops in. Allow them to sizzle away for around 1½ minutes (without poking or moving them), before turning them over and cooking for another minute. Take off the heat and spoon 2 of the scallops onto each shell, leaving the butter in the pan. Put the pan back on the heat, tip in the lime juice and saffron water, and bring the liquid back to sizzling point before tipping it over the scallops. Drizzle a little of the chimichurri around the outside of the salad greens, and pour the rest into a serving dish. Serve the scallop salads immediately with the chimichurri on the side. Some warm moppy-uppy bread would be good too.
Your best option when buying scallops is to get them already out of the shell (preferably dry-packed, as these are additive free—if you use wet-packed rinse them well before using). If you buy from a good indie fishmonger, they will normally let you have some shells to play with. If you do buy whole scallops in their shells, use an oyster shucker or other small pointy knife to pry the shell open, then place the shell so that its flat side is face down on your chopping board. Next, slide a filleting knife all the way through the shell towards the flat hinge (this will sever the scallop from the shell). Now you should be able to open it and pry the scallop out. Peel away the frill round the edge and any nasty looking black bits to leave the white and orange edible parts. A useless trivia-night scallop-shaped factoid for you: these dudes are associates with Saint James, and are thus often found on heraldic crests, as they denote that the family in question has made a pilgrimage to Santiago de la Compostela.
Harissa Spiced Fig, Merguez, and Almond Salad
This is a rather special salad. Actually, figs have the capacity to render pretty much anything special: their appearance is lush for starters—they have but to lie down on a plate or pose in a fruit bowl and they steal the show. They are also feted for their aphrodisiac properties: yup—they are the all-round floozy of the fruit world.
Fun fig fact: they would not have survived as a species if it wasn’t for a tiny critter known as the fig wasp, Blastophaga grossorum (a name straight out of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, surely), pollinating them. This must be the only useful recorded function of any wasp, anywhere.
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ smoked paprika
pinch of caraway seeds
pinch of red pepper flakes
½ tsp dried mint
pinch of salt
3 tsp runny honey
6 fresh figs
6 merguez sausages (or spicy Spanish chorizo)
smidge of oil
1/3 cup/1¼oz/35g slivered almonds
1¾oz/50g dark green salad leaves
handful of frisée (curly endive) lettuce
For the dressing:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp orange flower water
½ tsp harissa paste (optional; it is HOT)
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Preheat the broiler. Mix the spices, mint, and salt with the honey. Make a cut through each fig from the top to within a few millimeters of the base, followed by another at right angles to the first cut, so that you effectively end up with a cross cut through the top of the fruit. Pinch the 4 quarters created by the incisions so that the fig opens up a bit like a flower, and divide the spiced honey between the figs. Broil them for around 1½ minutes until the fruit starts to sizzle. Turn the oven off, but leave the figs sitting there to retain their heat.
Slice the merguez on the diagonal into ½in/1cm thick oval slices. Heat a teeny bit of oil in a pan and cook the sausage for around 3 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon. Toast the almonds in the same pan for a minute or so until they start to color.
Toss the greens in a bowl. Whisk the ingredients for the dressing together. Arrange the figs on top of the salad, and scatter with the merguez and almonds. Drizzle with the dressing and serve with crusty bread.
All recipes are from “Salmagundi: A Celebration of Salads From Around the World” by Sally Butcher, Interlink Books, $35