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When the fortunes of our restaurant were at a low ebb, we noted that a rival had opened up nearby and was getting queues around the block. It was said that our greengrocer was later than usual with his deliveries because of the vast quantities of goods that the interloper was ordering from him. We shook our heads in disbelief. We’d heard the food was ordinary. The waiting staff, albeit young and attractive, were perfunctory and absent-minded. It didn’t make sense. We sent spies to discover the secret.
It turned out to be perfectly simple. Salad. The ladies who lunch liked salad and this is what they were offered. Everything this parvenu provided, — even if it was a plate of lentils — was called a salad. And it is a piece of marketing folklore that it is the female partner who chooses the restaurant in the evening as well. We writhed with envy. The other man’s grass really was greener. With a restaurant specialising in meat, wild fish and game, we were in a different business altogether.
A friend used to put a “seasonal salad” on his menu that was perennially popular. I didn’t get it. It was a large “main course” salad and, while some elements remained constant, most of the constituent parts were culled from the leftovers department. I like my salads to be a little more particular about their bedfellows. Even the idea of a “main course” salad is itself a little odd: I have no wish to chomp through acres of herbage in the name of nutrition, wellbeing or renunciation. A glorious Niçoise, crammed with luscious tomatoes, eggs, anchovies, olives and the rest, is the exception that proves the rule.
The best salads depend on editorial discretion. The fewer ingredients the better. One of my favourites consists of peach and tomato with nothing more than salt, pepper and olive oil. I also like a good Caesar, just cos lettuce with croutons, Parmesan and an eggy, anchovy-laden dressing. Once you put a piece of grilled chicken on it, you have broken the spell — even if you do call it a salad.
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Lettuce, radish and lemon salad
My go-to salad for a light, low-calorie starter. It proved popular in the enervating heat of Hong Kong. Honestly. Serves four.
- Split the lettuce into quarters through the stalk, rinse in cold water and spin dry. Peel the skin off the lemon with as little pith as possible. Chop the peel into very thin strips, put in a small saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Drain and repeat the process, simmering for a minute to ensure the peel is tender.
- Prepare the dressing. Squeeze the lemon very well and add half a teaspoon of salt and a good milling of pepper. Add the yoghurt and whisk well. Finish by whisking in the olive oil. Taste, adding a bit more lemon juice if necessary. Thin with a little water if desired.
- Finely slice the radishes and the spring onions. Place the lettuces cut side uppermost and pour the dressing over so that it runs down inside the leaves. Sprinkle the radishes, spring onions, peas and lemon peel over the lettuce and serve.
Hispi, turnip, scamorza and mortadella salad
Hispi is a tight, pointed summer cabbage that is becoming quite common. Cabbage and turnips might sound odd for a summer salad but they work. Any type of radish can substitute the turnips. The little basil leaves in the picture are Greek basil but, obviously, torn leaves of ordinary basil will do just as well. The scamorza (smoked mozzarella) can be replaced by other smoked cheeses. Serves four.
- Cut the hispi into ribbons about 1cm wide. Wash well and then drop into a big pot of boiling, salted water for 30 seconds. Drain, refresh in cold water and then spin dry.
- Peel the turnips and cut them into neat, 0.5cm dice.
- Cut the scamorza into similar-sized dice and the mortadella into ribbons like the hispi.
- Place all in a large bowl. Season and sprinkle a dessertspoon of vinegar over, followed by four tablespoons of olive oil. Distribute the olives over the salad, followed by plenty of basil.
Smoked trout, pink grapefruit and avocado salad
A starter or a little lunch dish. The acidity of the grapefruit and rich flesh of the avocados are perfect companions for the trout and need little dressing. Serves four.
- Slice the top and bottom off the grapefruit and cut away the skin like peeling staves off a barrel, removing all the pith as you do so. Run a small knife down between the segment walls and, working over a bowl to collect the juice, remove the segments.
- Run a knife from top to bottom and over each avocado and repeat so that you can remove the four quarters from the stone. Peel off the skin and slice the flesh. Mix with the grapefruit, a pinch of chilli and plenty of black pepper.
- Peel and slice the onion into very thin rounds and add to the bowl with the washed spinach. Add a pinch of salt and toss gently. Break the trout up into shards, fold through the mix and serve.
Photographs: Andy Sewell
The FT food & drink team would like to know about your favourite summer recipes and the stories behind them. Share your recipes or suggestions in the comments below
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