We’re really not great at salads here in Scotland. Yes, we now grow plenty of the ingredients, but our way of assembling them seldom gets the taste buds going. From the Far East, on the other hand, there are wonders to be had, served with vibrant zingy dressings. But you have to source the appropriate stuff. A green papaya salad is a thing of loveliness, but if you have to fork out a fiver for the basic component, it gets a bit silly as a side dish.
So, not for the first time, it is to France that I turn. Their idea of a salade composée, made with a wide range of substantial ingredients, can easily be a meal in itself. Salade Niçoise is one of the best known (and often worst executed) examples. That’s cold, of course, as per the rules of salad. And if you know the rules well, and can execute them to perfection, then and only then can you set about breaking them.
In a tweet unrelated to this blog, I wrote about a warm salad which I had made for our supper, and it attracted a lot of interest. Many people were unfamiliar with the idea, and I can’t think of too many places I’ve seen these on restaurant menus outside of France itself. They can be served as starters or as the main course for lunch or supper. I offer a couple of ideas, below, but first some general comments,
The rules of warm salads (salades tièdes)
In essence it is a bed of cold leaves upon which you put warm food. You are looking to maintain contrasts, of colour, texture and flavour. At its simplest there will be the difference between the crispness of the leaves and anything else, and, obviously, the temperatures of the different types of food. Clearly a warm salad has to be assembled at the last minute, otherwise the leaves wilt. One should never serve any type of salad undressed, and this is no exception. Another of its many delight is the commingling of the pan juices with the flavours you have put on the leaves. Neither should blot the other out. If you can, get a mixture of salad leaves. The French are very fond of using frisée lettuce which has both texture and flavour. For the last one I made I used a mixture of Romaine lettuce, Chinese leaves and a supermarket bag of mixed salad.
Your topping? Anything you fancy, but again look for contrasts. They are particularly good if there is something with crunch. In the couple of examples below I am using bacon and croutons, but take your pick. Toasted pine nuts perhaps, very lightly cooked peppers, crunchy cubes of sautéed potato? Have fun experimenting.
Warm Salad with Pigeon, Beetroot, Bacon and Black Pudding (Quantities given are for a single portion)
Pigeon breast, preferably skin on (1 per person is fine for a starter portion, 2 for a main); cooked beetroot (NOT pickled), cut into 2 cm cubes; 1 – 2 slices good quality streaky bacon; 1 – 2 slices good black pudding, skin removed, cut into 3 cm chunks; salad leaves of choice; salad dressing of choice (for this I would fancy a vinaigrette made using Balsamic vinegar); vegetable oil for frying; sherry vinegar; salt and pepper.
Just before starting to cook, dress your leaves and assemble on a serving plate. Dry the pigeon breasts. Salt and pepper on each side. Fry the bacon until crisp. Set aside and keep warm. Do not clean out the pan. Heat a good layer of oil in a separate frying pan on maximum heat. Cook the pigeon breasts at high heat for two minutes on one side, then one minute on the other. Set aside to rest for about five minutes. (The resting is absolutely essential – if you don’t, they will have the consistency of shoe leather. Overcooked pigeon starts to have the taste and consistency of liver – don’t say you haven’t been warned.)
In the original pan, warm the beetroot through, remove and keep warm. Cook the black pudding, then deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar. Dot the salad with the black pudding and beetroot. Break the bacon into pieces and arrange round them. Cut the pigeon into thin slices and place on top. Finally spoon over the cooking juices, and serve immediately.
Warm Salad with Scallops, Lardons and Croutons (again, for a single portion)
OK, first thing off the chest. Note the spelling of scallop. ScAllop NOT scOllop. Meerkat, not market. Let’s pronounce the bloody word correctly. This recipe does have the advantage of making a very expensive ingredient go a long way. It may also upset those of you who believe there is only one way to cook a scallop. These days that involves them being seared over a fairly high heat to caramelise them. When I was first shown how to cook them decades ago, I was taught to use a fait bit of butter and cook quite gently. As I (a) want melted butter to augment the dish and (b) want to use it to carry the flavour of the ginger which goes so well with scallop, I’m reverting to the old ways. A final word on lardons. It is best if you can make your own, by getting a piece (not a slice) of streaky bacon and cutting it into cubes. Sadly, many butchers, even quite good ones, buy their bacon in ready sliced. You can buy little packs of lardons in supermarkets. Quantities below are very approximate. You may have big croutons or small, your lardons may be large or delicate.
Ingredients (per person)
2 king scallops, each cut into 4 pieces, 6 if they are large: lardons, number to suit you depending on size; croutons, 4– 6; 50g butter; 1 tsp freshly grated ginger; fresh lemon; pepper; salad leaves and dressing as per the above recipe. For this dish I would use a lemon vinaigrette.
Make the croutons in advance. Use bread with the crusts removed. You can make croutons in the oven or in a frying pan. Brush the bread on both sides with melted butter or olive oil and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C/Mark 4 until browned. This will take about 15 minutes. Alternatively fry them in a little melted butter or olive oil in a single layer over a medium to high heat, turning occasionally until they are browned all over. If making in advance, warm them before assembling the dish.
Prepare your serving plate with the dressed leaves. Hard fry the lardons (ie cook on a high heat), until they are browned. Set to one side and keep warm. Lower the heat to medium. Melt the butter and stir in the ginger. Cook the scallops gently for a few minutes until they are no longer opaque in the middle. Be careful not to overcook. If in doubt, taste a bit – chef’s perks.
When the scallops are ready, arrange the bacon, croutons and scallops on top of the leaves, then spoon over the ginger butter. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and a grating of pepper.