Archives for posts with tag: salad

It takes me a while sometimes to recall the good food I ate as a child. If prompted for fond food memories I probably couldn’t tell you a great deal but over time moments from the past come to mind. Sometimes I forget it’s been a fair few years since I was seven and there’s not a hope of me remembering every evening meal and lunchbox packed. Sometimes this thought saddens me, other times, I find it a relief.

salad time

But I remember our kitchen, small and pokey with heavy wooden drawers and a smooth white door frame between the kitchen a round wooden table. I can’t remember the frame ever having a door but for me it was a climbing frame as I gripped my way to the top and would perch, my back pressed against one side, my bare feet firmly planted on the other, talking to my mother in the kitchen. I never fell.

This kitchen was eventually expanded, my climbing frame busted down and the room opened out. In the new kitchen and the old one and I suppose the other kitchens in other houses that have come since, the same sort of things happened. Hundreds of sandwiches would have been made in my childhood kitchen, oranges peeled and apples chopped, cereal poured. There would have been chocolate cake and banana cake, lasagne and roast chicken, lamb chops, mashed potatoes, tomato on toast, spaghetti bolognaise or meatballs, sausages – family food.

spring rootschickpeas and coriander

I remember special occasion foods – the marmalade glaze on the Christmas ham, the time Mum butterflied and roasted lamb and we ate outside in the middle of a summer day, roasting marshmallows in the flames of the brazier on summer nights. I’ll remember for always the avocado halves with slithers of cold smoked salmon we ate for Christmas entrée several years.

seedsdiced carrots

We had a few traditions too which I remember fondly. Every Saturday morning all four of us would do the supermarket shopping together. Even now, a family trip to the supermarket seems something to be celebrated, even if it’s just to buy yoghurt and bread. But those Saturday mornings were precious, if not exactly for wandering the aisles, but for what came after – Scottish malt loaf, toasted and slathered in butter. Our supermarket’s bakery section made the loaf, my Dad’s favourite, and often on a Saturday morning the bread would still be warm, the raisins soft and plump and the malty flavour almost caramel, the just overdone sort of caramel with near-savoury tones.

Another tradition: to shyly mock my Dad when he made his long-term go-to dinner, the same dinner he made on his cooking nights when flatting – grilled lamb chops with boiled and buttered potatoes, curried carrots and a green vegetable of some sort. Mock is not the right word, I’m not sure what is really, for we never complain – you cannot go wrong with grilled lamb chops and my Dad’s curried carrots are as good as they come. Perhaps mocking, lovingly, was our way of saying thanks for cooking Dad.

But in my food life, what has been as perennial as the grass, are my mother’s salads. She makes a darn good salad. Her green salad – mixed greens + anything really (feta, red onions, fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, apple…), the house salad, as so aptly named by Food Loves Writing, continues to be good and I’ve been eating this sort of salad for most of my life. Her roast vegetable salad, potato salad, left-over-chicken salad, warm lamb salad, beetroot salad, fruit salad, rice salad, quinoa salad, any salad Mum puts her hand to is fresh and inviting, appealing and nourishing.

carrots and spicetossorange

I learned from watching and helping Mum make salads that anything, anything in your fruit bowl, pantry or fridge, can contribute to the texture and vitality of a salad. Take this roasted carrot and chickpea salad – a can of chickpeas and the bung up carrots from the market – but together with a little bit of manipulation, cajoling, becomes something else entirely, something quite wonderful.

toasted chicksprinkled with spice

The carrots, tossed in aromatic spices, were roasted until a dusky orange while chickpeas were toasted lightly in a dry pan, the pattern they formed in the pan reminding me of an open sunflower. Big handfuls of parsley and coriander were chopped up roughly with jagged edges and the kitchen smelled fresh. I drizzled oil and ground salt and pepper over pumpkin seeds and sunflowers, these toasted in the frypan so well they almost didn’t make the salad. A spring onion for crunch and oomph, then a strong, citrus dressing. Everything together, the spices, the herbs, the buttery warmth of spiced roast carrots, the ting of citrus, the salty crunch of seeds and the smooth nutty chickpeas make every bite bright.

roasted carrot and chickpea salad

This salad is for keeps, like my mother’s.

Roasted Carrot and Chickpea Salad

3 carrots, diced
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons oil
1 can chickpeas (about 400 grams)
1 spring onion, thinly sliced
1 handful fresh coriander and parsley, roughly chopped
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1 lemon, rind and juice

Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Place the carrots in a bowl with the spices and oil, toss until well combined. Pour onto an oven tray and bake for roughly 25 minutes or until tender.

Heat a frying pan. Drain the chickpeas and rinse well. Place in the hot pan and toss until warmed and slightly toasty. Place the chickpeas in a bowl with the roasted carrots, sliced spring onion and the roughly chopped herbs. Stir lightly.

Mix the seeds with a little oil, salt and pepper, then toast in a hot pan until quivering with heat. Sprinkle the seeds over the chickpeas and carrots.

Zest the lemon into a jar, add the lemon juice with a glug of oil and shake well. Pour over the salad.

Enjoy.

Carrots, scrubbed and chopped lengthwiseI remember how I began 2012: in Central Otago, the peak of summer, drinking local wines and eating freshly picked stone fruit. We all sat outside on the first day of the year, in short sleeves, probably drinking rosé, rolling the number around on our tongues, 2012. It sounded good, clean, even. It was going to be a good year and, for the most part, it was. I was sorry to see 2012 roll ever so easily into 2013, with little ceremony or pomp. Thank goodness for Christmas.

Christmas always seems a far better way to say good-bye to one year and welcome in the next, and our Christmas this year, well, we let 2012 go out with a bang. On Christmas Eve, the temperature in the late 20s (celsius), Mum and I made mayonnaise, furiously whisking until perspiration glistened on our foreheads. But it was beautiful mayonnaise, the real deal, a shiny yellow and a flavour that you just want to keep in your mouth.
Hot smoked salmon platter + home made mayo
The next day was hot, fan yourself with your napkin hot – the hottest Christmas day in Wellington since 1934. We started with fresh summer fruit – melon, green and coral pink, nectarines and white flesh peaches, strawberries and plump blueberries. We stuffed a turkey breast then set a leg of lamb onto roast. I stirred a handful of finely diced dill into half of the mayonnaise and wasabi into the other half, just enough to make the back of your throat tingle. We began with a smoked salmon platter – buckwheat toasts, fried capers popped open like crunchy salty flowers, gherkins and oat crackers, and so began our afternoon, a tide like motion of ebbs and flows between the kitchen and the table.
marinade for scallops
Lamb leg ready to roastTender and moist turkey breast
There were scallops marinated with citrus, chilli and coriander – their delicate orange and cream spheres bursting with a soft sweetness and a mere whisper of heat. There was the leg of lamb, rubbed down with rosemary and garlic and roasted to a perfect medium – sweet, savoury, herbaceous – New Zealand lamb at its best. A turkey breast nearly halved, flattened and therapeutically beaten then stuffed with Big Bad Wolf sausage, char grilled capsicum and spinach from our garden. Our favourite Christmas salad, a trio of red, green and white, green beans blanched to a pleasing snap and brighter colour, crumbled feta with plum coloured smudges from the roasted beetroot. Boiled new season potatoes, the joy of summer Christmas, with curls of butter and torn herbs.
Cinnamon and cumin roasted carrotsorange rounds
Then this salad, my new favourite, roasted carrot and orange salad. It is no secret my love of roasted carrots – their tender sweetness and bright warmth pull me in every time, no matter the weather. The salad is a wonderful mess of shapes, colours and textures – long rectangles and full rounds, burnt orange and near yellow, flecked with dark spices.
Roasted carrot and orange saladA trio of saladsChristmas colours
In between courses we drank lemoncello, declared how much we all love it, and opened another bottle of Riesling. My uncle Adrian and his partner Nicola made dessert: fresh fruit of every colour, strawberries, grapes, nectarines, peaches and my first raspberries of the season. A dairy free and gluten free trifle that, had we not been told the slight nutty flavour was rice milk custard and the nubbly texture a ground almond sponge, would have fooled us for the more traditional cream and plain flour variety. We ate trifle by the bowl full. There were home made brandy snaps – thin and wafer biscuit like, holding within their lacy edges the taste of real ginger rather than a generic sweetness like the store bought sort. We filled them with cream as we ate them – fill, bite, fill, bite.
summer by the bowl full
It’s mid-January already. Christmas feels long gone and with it, 2012, but the feast we shared that day seems a good a way as any to welcome in a new year. There is not much we can do about the speed at which the years change, except to live each year wholly and fully. Perhaps that is why I loved 2012 so much and, also why I have barely realised 2013 is well under way.

Roast Carrot and Orange Salad
Taken from the Cuisine Christmas issue 2010 The salad is a cinch to make if you happen to have a bottle of orange blossom water lying around, but I’m sure it will be fine without.

600 grams carrots, scrubbed and halved lengthwise
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
sea salt to taste
4 oranges
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon orange water
1/4 cup finely sliced mint

Pre-heat oven to 200°C. Place the scrubbed and cut carrots in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of the oil, cinnamon, cumin and salt. Stir well to combine. Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper and roast for 40 minutes or until tender.

Meanwhile place the juice of one orange in a large bowl with the remaining oil, sugar and orange flower water. Slice the rind and the pith off the oranges and slice into rounds. Set the orange slices to one side.

When the carrots are cooked add them to the orange vinaigrette and set aside. The salad can be served warm or cold so just before serving add the sliced orange rounds and sliced mint, toss well and place on a serving dish.

This salad goes very well with lamb.

Quinoa Everything Salad + Roasted Carrot Chilli SaladThere is a beauty in a salad that you will never find in a roasted leg of lamb, or a chicken curry, or a pasta dish no matter how good and how well made they are. There is a freedom of spirit in a salad. You can free wheel in the kitchen. Salads can be immensely satisfying – a meal in their own right.
fresh herbs - coriander, basil and mint
A roasted carrot salad has been brewing in my mind for a while now. I first fell in love with roasted carrots while living in France. Often at the local market a 2 kilogram bag of carrots would be a euro or two. I would eat raw carrots like a rabbit, only turning to other carrot recipes when, alarmingly, my finger tips began to look like I had rubbed them in tumeric. I made carrot soup sweetened with braised leeks or fresh orange juice or, alternatively bulked up with potatoes. And then, when I reached the the end of my tether for carrot and orange soup – who knew there was such a tether? roasting became the way to go.
Carrots in long wedges
Cut into long strips the carrots char slightly at the thinner edges while the thicker end near the top of the carrots maintain their soft bite. Roasted carrots, while not the prettiest roast vegetable to look at all withered and wrinkly, they are perhaps the best to eat. They are sweet and if well seasoned with good oil and salt and pepper take on a buttery, salty-sweet flavour. In France I would eat them simply straight from the roasting dish, pulling each long wedge from the soft tangle of burnt orange. Or I would pulse them into hummus with a pinch of cayenne and paprika, then slather it on fresh, crusty bread with sliced tomato.

It wasn’t until this winter with bags of carrots seeming to outnumber potatoes, pumpkin and other roastable vegetables that I rediscovered the roasted carrot. I like the shape of a roasted carrot, long and slender. A carrot roasted to tenderness and vibrant orange seems quite different and elegant lying next to round, pale golden potatoes. The inspiration for this carrot salad came from a Ruth Pretty recipe I have always been fond of. The carrots are tender, boiled perhaps as they are less caramel tasting and more mellow, but are zinged up with plenty of chilli, olives, and coriander. I love the heat of the chilli, the acidity of the olives and the freshness of the coriander.
Roasted carrot salad with chilli, olives and coriander
For my salad I roasted everything together – beginning with a whole pan laden with chopped carrots and whole garlic cloves, then twice opening the oven to toss in chopped red chilli and Kalamata olives. Next time I might toss in almonds to roast for the last few minutes to add a bit of crunch.
Asparagus and fresh herbsRed and yellow capsicumQuinoa Salad with shaved Parmesan
The quinoa salad is more of an everything salad; endlessly versatile. Start with a base of cooked quinoa – I used a red, black and white mix – and add whatever you have on hand. Sautéed asparagus with lemon, feta, sundried tomatoes, red and yellow capsicum finely diced, sunflower seeds, fresh mint, chopped tomatoes and zuchini rounds cooked until soft and floppy together with fresh basil leaves. The extra bits and pieces nestle well in the tiny fronds of the quinoa and their soft nutty flavour is the ideal vehicle for stronger tastes and textures. Go wild.

Roasted Carrot Salad

A large amount of carrots, say a kilo or so.
4 cloves garlic
2 small red chilli
a handful of black olives
salt and pepper
olive oil
a small bunch of fresh coriander

Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Chop carrots in half lengthwise then into quarters lengthwise until you have long strips. Place the carrots and the peeled garlic cloves in a roasting pan with a generous slug of olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes then add the finely diced chilli. After another 10 minutes add the olives and continue to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Garnish with chopped coriander.

This colour! Look at it!

It seems more likely the colour of a winter scarf – the burst of colour tucked under the collar of a dark coat. Or perhaps the colour of a beach kaftan – sort of lustful and carefree all at once like a day spent at the beach with nothing to do but swim and lie in the warmth. This is what is on my mind at the moment. This deep fuchsia could be a berry sorbet or a berry muddle in a cool glass ready for mint, gin and soda. This is also on my mind at the moment.

But in a similar thread to the last post what is really at the forefront of my mind is healthful good food so I can keep going, keep working, keep healthy. Days spent at the beach in the warmth of the sun and nights spent with good friends and berry gin drinks are a while away yet.

But that’s ok. We are winding down to the end of the year, and whew, it’s been a quick fire busy year. To see the peak of the rise, the grass on the other side, if you like, is an extra little nudge towards longer hours and full days. For as well as that green grass on the other side I can see the energy I have when I work well and the fitness I have gained from being on my feet for so many hours a day. I can see the health of my bank account(!), and the renewed will to be more organised and to live as well as I can.

I have been thinking a lot about the way we work; what it means to work and to earn a living. I know a lot of people who have recently graduated from university or are about to and are deciding how to live and how to work; grappling with life decisions. To choose how we live within our income, whatever amount that may be, is how I want to approach my life. The 9 to 5 working day may never be how I choose to live and to earn but this means I can make beetroot hummus, or go for a swim, or meet a friend for coffee before starting my work later in the day. You get used to this backwards sort of day.
roasted beetroot - like a cut plumbeetroot hummus
The morning I made this hummus the light was shifty and high in the sky being buffeted and lifted by the wind. I wrapped the beetroot in tinfoil with a bit of oil and a good grinding of salt and pepper. As they roasted I could hear the sizzle and the spit within the foil parcel. It sounded like drizzly rain inside my oven; slightly disconcerting at first, but after a while rather comforting. The sweet earthy smell, slightly herbaceous and vaguely of mushrooms, filled my kitchen.

The first buzz of the blender as the roasted beetroot was added, deep red and almost translucent in its tenderness, and the colour that burst throughout the pale beige of the hummus made me smile and reach for my camera. A few photos too many for the light was difficult to work with and I was running a little late for work – it’s not all blissful morning cooking and coffee dates. There is a rush to squeeze what is probably a normal Sunday routine into the few short hours between waking and working at midday.

But then I found myself at work – polishing glasses or making sandwiches – and thinking, dreaming, of this beautiful colour. To open my little lunch box during my break and see big dollops of bright, bright deep pink amongst my salad is cheering; a metaphorical clink of glasses, a toast to roasted beetroot hummus.
crudités and hummushummus in the afternoon lightfuchsia pink hummus
I have a standard leaf salad I turn to time and time again; it’s my tried and true. You can’t beat the taste of fresh and clean and good – cucumber with snap and lettuce with crunch – but I think the virtue of salad, the feel good factor of salad is sometimes greater than the taste of lettuce leaf and diced vegetables. Sure, salads can be jazzed up – a sprinkle of sunflower seeds, cubes of feta and vinaigrette are always good ideas. But this beetroot hummus is the way to go, perfect for a working lunch.

Roasted Beetroot Hummus

I used two large cloves of garlic and the heat of the garlic was a bit too strong and overwhelmed the sweetness of the beetroot. It did improve after a couple of days left to mellow. Next time I might try with one small clove, or leave the garlic out altogether. Also, I have watched my mother make hummus a hundred times and now make it following her very loose set of instructions. I am guided by a desired consistency – more like a thick soup than a thick paste – than by real measurements so the measures below are a rough guide only.

2 medium sized beetroot
1 can chickpeas
1/2 cup tahini
1-2 cloves garlic (see the above note)
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 to 1/2 of olive oil (see the above note on desired consistency)
salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C. Cut the stalk end off the beetroot and discard. Place the beetroot in a piece of tin foil with salt and pepper and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Wrap the beetroot loosely but seal the tin foil well. Roast for an hour, then check to see if tender when inserted with a knife. (Careful of the steam when opening the foil parcel!) I roasted my beets for one hour and fifteen minutes.

In a blender place the drained and rinsed can of chickpeas with the tahini, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and lemon juice and blend until quite smooth. Once the beets have roasted, open the parcel and leave to cool enough to handle. Gently peel off the skin of the beetroot – this should slip off easily. Dice the beetroot then add to the blender and blend until smooth.

This makes a large amount of hummus but will keep in the fridge for a week.


Central Otago reminds me of the south of France, near Provence and around the Marseille coast with stark cliffs and jagged arid hills. Wild rosemary and thyme grow in abundance; the thyme covering some of the barren hills in a musky purple tinge. Pity then for the colourful array of mullets and dropped Toyota Corollas taking me out of my Provençal dream….

The land is dry and crisp in various shades of pale golds and dull browns. Yet, in this parched landscape is an orchardist’s and winemaker’s paradise. Apricots, cherries, peaches and plums – beautifully ripened near roadside stalls. And like the great wine making regions of France, rows of straight green vines stretch across the land.

View from Felton Road Vineyard

We spent 10 gloriously hot days (28-30 degrees most days) sampling the very best of the region. We visited the cellar doors of some of New Zealand’s best vineyards: Felton Road, Carrick, Peregrine, Rippon, Three Miners. Rippon was beautiful on the shores over looking Lake Wanaka – a wonderful cellar door experience. Three Miners was an exciting find. At the end of a bumpy gravel drive is a modest cellar door, more of a tin shed, but their Pinot Noir and Riesling is smooth and delicious. I am going to drink more Riesling this year.

We bought kilos of cherries and apricots, but more about these in a later post. We discovered the Gibston Valley Cheesery – a wonderfully cool room on a hot day. You can buy a cheese platter matched with Gibston Valley wines to eat outside on the deck overlooking the vines, or sample the sheep, goat and cow milk cheeses at the counter. My favourite was the Balfour, a pecorino style hard cheese.

We spent Christmas Eve day in Queenstown shopping for our feast the next day. We bought a ham, fresh salads, new Jersey Benne potatoes, baby beets, oat crackers for our cheese, plum fruit paste, croissants, marscepone, and bubbles. Georgie and I made a three layered tiramisu that night, allowing plenty of time for the sherry spiked coffee to seep through the lady fingers before dessert the next day.

We roasted the baby beets, peeling their slippery skins off once cool, staining our fingers a purpley-red. The beets were for a beetroot, feta and mint salad – a rather popular addition to our Christmas table. I read not too long ago the rantings of a woman so bored of the beetroot/feta combination that she refused to buy any cookbook that featured a recipe with the two ingredients. Beetroot and feta together is a classic pairing. We added shredded fresh mint leaves to our salad, which not only produced bright Christmas colours but gave the salad a summery feel. Orange segments in place of the mint would add a touch of sweetness.

Christmas beetroot-feta-mint salad

In fact, there are several variations of the beetroot and feta salad if you too fear they are a somewhat tired duo. Add dry roasted walnuts to the salad for a bit of crunch. Slice the feta as you would haloumi and grill it with a generous grind of salt and pepper, serve with the roasted beetroot (as per recipe below) atop grilled ciabatta or other quality bread. For another interesting salad idea add roasted beetroot, cut into wedges, and crumbled feta to cooked orzo.

Beetroot, Feta and Mint Salad

We roasted the beetroot the day before and left them overnight in the fridge covered in a generous dash of salad dressing. This enhanced the earthy, rich flavour of the beetroot.

5-6 small to medium sized beetroot
125-150 grams feta, a sharp, crumbly feta is best
torn fresh mint leaves, a small handful
salad dressing, or a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon mustard

Pre heat the oven to 180°C. Place the whole and unpeeled beetroot in a roasting dish with a dash of olive oil and salt and pepper – make sure the beets are well covered in oil. Roast for 45-60 minutes, or until the beetroot is tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool until just warm. Gently remove the skins from the beetroot, taking care not to pull off too much of the flesh. Cut the beetroot into quarters and place in a bowl. Pour over a couple of tablespoons of salad dressing and leave to sit for several hours or overnight.

Just before serving crumble the feta over the salad but do not mix or the juices from the beetroot will stain the feta. Sprinkle over the torn mint leaves.

Serve as a side with hot or colds meats, or with several other salads for a light summer meal.

I once read that food writing should really be called writing about eating. The food is only one part of what is the overall eating experience. It is the people we are with, the weather, the location, the sense of occasion, or lack thereof. It is our frame of mind; what, in that moment, or evening, or hurried lunch break, do we really crave.

Sometimes the circumstances of a meal are just as delightful or enjoyable, or odd as the food itself. This week I have particularly enjoyed a Thai beef rice salad: chopped tomatoes, cucumber and capsicum, finely sliced green chilli, nutty brown rice and perfectly medium rare steak. However, eating this salad while on a school trip with 70 or so kids at Titahi Bay to learn about beach safety is slightly less kosher.

Would this salad have tasted so fresh and clean, so wholesome and so lightly spiced with chilli heat if I hadn’t been eating it from a plastic container at a plastic table in the sandy and slightly damp Titahi Bay surf lifesaving club? If I hadn’t been wearing jandals, trackpants and an oversized polar fleece jersey of my father’s? The club room was full of damp and sandy children. I overheard a few jokes about SAND-wiches, jam beginning to dribble from their slightly squished cheese rolls.

Fog and drizzle rolled across the beach, almost following the waves, and Mana Island became hazy and blurry in the distance. On the beach the remains of a sand castle building competition were starting to collapse, wet sand creeping out from their carefully constructed forms – survivor island, volcano island, a two-headed sea turtle and an orange road cone covered in sand and twigs.

As I ate my salad and looked out over the water – the colour of slate – I wondered if this salad would have tasted any less delicious on a warm summer evening, perhaps sitting outside wearing a sun dress, drinking a cold beer and the Thai beef brown rice salad served on a lovely platter? Probably not.

Thai Beef Brown Rice Salad
Serves 2-3

2 beef steaks (I used porterhouse)
2 cups of cooked brown rice, warm
1-2 chopped tomatoes
handful diced cucumber
handful diced red capsicum
1 small green chilli sliced very finely
1-2 finely sliced spring onions.

Dressing:
juice of 1 lemon or lime
splash of fish sauce
1 tablespoon of sweet chilli sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
salt and pepper
the remaining meat juices

Cook the steaks for 3 minutes each side. Wrap in tin foil and leave to sit for 10 or so minutes. Place the cooked brown rice and chopped tomato, cucumber, capsicum, spring onions and chilli on a platter.

To make the dressing, mix all the ingredients together, except the meat juices. Leave to rest for several minutes, if not longer, to let the flavours develop.

After the meat has rested, pour the meat juices which have gathered in the tin foil parcel into the dressing. Mix well.

Place the steaks on a board and slice. Arrange the slices of steak on the rice and pour over the dressing.

Great for lunches at the beach or a light meal outdoors in the sun.

Last week on a quiet Sunday afternoon spent lounging in the sun, I read Stephanie Alexander’s book Cooking and Traveling in South-West France. It is a beautiful book with stories of the people she met and the meals they shared. The south-west is quite possibly my favourite region of France with its rich culinary history and wine culture. I enjoy Stephanie’s book in a somewhat bittersweet way: during my few days in Bordeaux I was as poor as a church mouse and surviving on a few yoghurts, a few apples and a pottle of couscous salad, eating a few teaspoons every few hours to tide me over.

It is these experiences of the poor starving backpacker that made me so appreciative of the meals I shared with my french friends. One particular meal with my friend Sophie and her family we had an entrée of a salad with mesclun, foie gras, magret de canard, corn and small preserved onions that were so tiny and so sweet I thought they might have been a berry. It is a surprisingly light salad, and a reminder that salad is so much more than torn lettuce with a chopped tomato or cucumber.

It was not until I read the page titled La Salade Composée in Stephanie Alexander’s book that I remembered this meal and this salad, the delicate flavours of the duck enhanced by the simple preparation. Stephanie writes that a ‘composed salad’ can be made with any number of ingredient combinations, though it pays not to overcrowd the flavours too much. La salade composée reminded me of another salad, our Saturday lunch sort of salad, in winter or summer: chicken, pear, walnut and blue cheese.

Slices of fragrant, slightly firm pear, crumbles of blue cheese, lightly toasted walnuts and pan-grilled chicken is a classic combination, and, like the duck and foie gras salad, the marriage of flavours is perfectly balanced by the freshness of mesclun, or baby rocket, or cos lettuce. Serve with grilled bread, drizzled in olive oil.

When I lived in France I didn’t really live the culinary dream many expected. I didn’t dine on foie gras or steak frites or cassoulet each day, drink a bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy each night, and buy new cheeses and interesting cuts of meat from the market each week. I did most of my own cooking and would sometimes spend 3 days living on porridge, or bread and butter, or pumpkin soup for lunch and dinner.  I rarely ate meat, mostly tofu, in fact I practically became a vegetarian.

But there were wonderful meals during trips away to my friend’s auberge, or the confit du canard we treated ourselves to during a cold December weekend in Paris. There was Christmas in Wales with the most enormous turkey and a celebratory New Year’s dinner in Barcelona with Rioja and tomato bread and octopus. There were thick winter stews and a citrus, slightly tangy, cheese-cake strudel dessert at a tavern in Innsbruck, Austria.

Then, towards the end of my travels around France I spent nearly a month living and working with two different French couples in the south-west region of France. For the first two weeks I lived on the outskirts of a small town south of Bordeaux called Pissos with Marie Hélène and Christoph. They live on pancake flat land surrounded by pine forest stretching to the horizons. They have a small river near their property where they catch trout, and make beignets from the blossom of elderflower trees hanging over the river banks. They have chickens and pigeons which cluck and coo all day, fly at the windows and have even been known to come inside the house.

The kitchen is the centre of their home. It is an eclectic kitchen with benches of different surfaces and different heights, apothecary style jars sitting on shelves holding home-made herbal teas and their “pantry” is spread throughout the house in a beautiful collection of old chests and cupboards and sideboards. But the most impressive part of the kitchen, indeed the whole house, is the 180 year old  fireplace. It is framed by a stone wall and has a white piece of lace fabric hanging around the top edges. It has a grill nestled in the bottom and a bar above the flames for hanging pots.

I ate very well during my two weeks with Marie Hélène and Christoph; Marie is an amazing cook. I was helping Marie in her organic vegetable garden so everyday we had a an apéro hour of fresh radishes, or peas still in their pods, or baby carrots. We came home from the garden around 1 o’clock for lunch which was nearly always accompanied by a bottle of wine and fresh bread. One day lunch was a whole roast chicken (complete with innards and gizzards….) with home-made fries, another day it was fish baked in the outdoor fire, or roast pork and crispy sauteed new potatoes, or chunky andouillette sausages. Every meal was followed by coffee and, maybe yoghurt. The yoghurt was made in Germany and sold by Marie’s friend at the market; it was the smoothest, creamiest, most flavoursome yoghurt I think I have ever tasted.

Every meal was memorable but one which I can most easily recreate here in my humble kitchen is the lentil salad. One day Marie Hélène rose early to cook a large pot of lentils. Before lunch she mixed through whatever she had on hand and fresh produce from her garden: tomatoes, feta, onions, chopped radish, garlic, fresh herbs and pieces of beautiful, sweet and slightly smoky cured Spanish style ham. We ate it outdoors in the sun at a table with a blue floral pattern cloth.

My lentil salad had a spring twist with asparagus and zucchini sauteed with lemon zest and juice and a pinch of chilli flakes. I used canned lentils and tossed through capers, diced tomato, cubes of Parmesan, though feta would have been nicer, small strips of bacon and slightly caramelised red onion. Shake a dressing together with olive oil, lemon juice, a crushed garlic clove, a teaspoon of mustard, salt and pepper. Then let the flavours mellow and soften together for a while.

My lentil salad was more a topping to go with a leafy green salad but if I added one or two more cans of lentils this could have been a meal on its own. A torn piece of baguette or ciabatta drizzled in olive oil and lightly toasted would have been perfect with it. In the winter add cooked lentils to a warm roast vegetable salad with some spicy chorizo sausage; wonderful for eating seasonally.

Summer is taking its own sweet time reaching us here in Wellington. I may not be able to recreate spring time in France sitting at an outdoor table surrounded by pine trees, blue skies and plentiful wine, but I do plan to coax summer forward with strawberries and Pimm’s and good, good salad.