Salad Days

In the greenhouse the seedlings are only just getting off to a start. Over in the polytunnel however some older plantlets are finding their feet in the soil thanks to the longer daylight hours and warm weather of the past week or so. They’ve really shot ahead and last night I was able to harvest the first crop for our evening meal.

 

I love salad. This hasn’t always been the case – as a child I regarded raw vegetables other than carrots with grave suspicion and, if given the choice, gave salad of any description a very wide berth. Some children I played with when I was growing up would ask if I could stay for tea on a fairly regular basis and I often joined them for their evening meal. I really enjoyed playing with them and their parents were lovely (and I suspect the fact that they had a TV and we didn’t possibly had a little to do with the regularity of my visits as well). The one sticking point to my mind was the super healthy meals. My own mother is an excellent cook and gave us proper wholesome food cooked from scratch but this family ate meals that were on a whole other level entirely to my young way of thinking.

 

In our house cauliflower was boiled, covered in a yummy cheesy sauce and baked in the oven till brown on top and then served up with a piece of crispy bacon and some sliced tomatoes. And I still really love Cauliflower Cheese although I can often be found sneaking in ad lib extras to this well-known British dish when I make it now. In their house however, cauliflower would be broken into tiny florets and mixed with grated carrot, seeds and nuts, raisins and a home made vinaigrette. Raw…. I’d been brought up to eat everything on my plate and being fussy over food was simply not an option (for which I am eternally grateful to my parents!!) But challenged by vegetables that I loved cooked but seemed so alien raw and in conjunction with flavours and textures previously not associated with them, it tried my good manners and I would take the smallest possible amount of salad without giving offence. Even then it was noted that I “didn’t really care for salad” when our respective mothers chatted over the fence.

 

Happily my tastes shifted when I became an adult and now I would choose salad in preference to cooked veg, I love mixing up flavours and textures and trying new combinations, I prefer all vegetables cooked as little as possible to retain as much of the bite, texture, flavour and nutrients as I can. Some things of course have to be cooked but generally I like the things I used to be afraid of. Even things I truly detested as a child such as aubergine, olives and lentils have become staples – and in fact aubergine sautéed with garlic, braised lentils and bowls of juicy olives are very high on my list of things I would chose as my last meal should that unfortunate choice ever be mine to make…

 

Some time in early January I start to feel especially strong cravings for salad despite it’s not really being salad sort of season at all. I think perhaps the short days, drear weather and hearty winter food (not to mention the rich overindulgence that Christmas often brings) coagulates into a stodginess of both mind and spirit. And in response, my body craves fresh flavours and crisp, clean tasting food to replenish the reserves of nutrients that are starting to ebb with the depths of this season that out here in the country seems to last for half the year and tries every sense to it’s utmost.

 

I like to start salad seedlings off indoors as soon in the New Year as I can but the truth is no matter how much cosseting they receive they are not as happy and vigorous as their younger siblings that are started off in March. The light levels conspire against them and with the gentle heat in the conservatory where I place them, they can quickly etiolate into pale sickly beanpoles and it takes a lot of tenderness and faffing to get them to an edible stage by about March.

 

I didn’t start that early this year but am still pleased to be picking salad at the very beginning of April – if I’d checked the tunnel a few days earlier I’m sure I could have taken this first wee harvest at the end of March. First in the beds were some old plantlets that didn’t get planted out last summer for various reasons. They’d sat outside over winter looking miserable and rather than chuck them on the compost, I decided to plant them in the tunnel to see if I could gain a few leaves before they bolted. They are starting to flower but have indeed thrown out a few leaves that will do for one meal so I’m glad I did this. There were also a couple of plants of Cavalo di Nero – black kale – which has a lovely flavour and is a handsome plant with it’s fleur de lys structure.

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I had several packets of old seed that I just chucked into pots of compost to see what grew so there are no particular culinary reasons for what is available now. The two staples I insist on though are Cilantro for my coriander fix

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and some kind of cos lettuce such as Little Gem or Romaine.

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We also had some cut and come again leaves from the supermarket and once I’d used them up I tore the compost bound roots and stubs of the stalks into strips and planted those out as well and they are starting to come back which is good – these look mostly to be oak leaf types.

 

The middle section is spinach at one end and mizuna, rocket, watercress and other mustard type leaves at the other. With the exception of the spinach, these being brassicas are quite peppery and get more piquant with age so it’s good to pick these young. I will eat them raw but I find the flavour somewhat “dirty” and so for these I decided to wilt them briefly in the steamer to tone them down a little. I served them with a dollop of yoghurt thinned with a splash of fresh lemon juice and some seasoning, lemon zest and finely chopped gherkin folded in as a relish. I’d also dug up a few beetroot so I peeled and grated one of these to go with the green wilted and raw leaves. They don’t half make a mess with the magenta stains the juice leaves everywhere but so sweet and tasty you have to forgive them this one fault. Beetroot is so much more versatile than the sad little vac packs of vinegar soaked balls on sale in supermarkets which taste of slimy-nothing-much.

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In all it took less than 10 minutes to pick and prepare this plate of salad to go with some mini fishcakes and I enjoyed every mouthful – signifying as it does the promise of more good things from the soil this year. Green fingers crossed that is….

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