Lettuce be creative

A mixed salad is best made at home
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Could it be that the reason it's so difficult to get a decent green salad in a restaurant is that it's too easy to prepare? True, you can be quite artistic, assemble an amazing collection of leaves and associated fodder, and exhibit sleight of hand with the dressing, but it won't get quite the same applause as the bollito misto.

Well, I'd be clapping loudly. You can bet that whenever a nicely made green salad makes its appearance on the table at home, be it with bread and cheese, or after a rich main course, it will be consumed with zeal: the more polite among the company using knives and forks; the greedy, myself included, making do with their fingers.

I usually get hungry just thinking about such a salad: all those crisp young leaves, lettuce hearts mixed with peppery cresses, mustards and bitter endives, maybe some dandelion leaves, and the occasional distraction of a spring of coriander or chervil, with the odd flower or two to set it ablaze - orange nasturtiums, borage and purple chive blooms - and all lightly coated with a dressing.

The need to have a good mix of leaves has given rise to a huge range of prepacks, some of which are a disgrace. There are exceptions, one being Marks & Spencer, who have taken up the challenge of "peculiar" leaves by producing a pioneering range of mixtures which succeed in being not only interesting but also well prepared. Their "Californian-style salad" is especially good. In case you have been reading about the likes of mizuna, red mustard, red chard and mustard leaf and wondered what they taste like, here is a starter pack, with a helpful leaf guide on the back so you can identify them.

As for dressings, this summer's flavour seems to be honey and mustard, and there is something incredibly moreish about it: I suspect the sweetness that counteracts the bitterness of the salad leaves. I often find that the secret ingredient in a vinaigrette I particularly like is a little sugar. But please don't buy the ready bottled stuff: it's not convenient, it's just daft. By the time you've struggled to remove the efficient plastic sealing, you could have whisked one up. What's more, yours won't have the consistency of thin wallpaper paste due to the presence of xanthan gum, a stabiliser.

Apart from honey and mustard, I'd go for a plain olive oil vinaigrette: vinegar, mustard, oil and seasoning, with maybe a splash of water to lighten it. (I once had to referee a marital row over water or no water in the dressing - you can do either.) If there's a lot of rocket and other strong leaves in the salad, I make up a ratio of 1:6 vinegar and oil; if it is mainly sweet lettuces, then 1:8.

A green salad has two slightly quirky best friends, fried bread and gravy, the first of which adopts a variety of guises: a slice of French bread fried so it is golden but chewy, and rubbed with garlic placed beneath the salad, or diced croutons tossed in. As for the gravy, you just have to hope that there is some lying around.

One step beyond green salad is the composite salad - mixed salad leaves with the addition of little slivers of radish, blanched green beans or asparagus tips, a few young broad beans or slices of artichoke hearts, a spoonful of skinned and diced tomato, black olives, croutons, pine nuts, and so on.

And beyond the composite salad, you arrive at one of the most useful items for summer lunch: a platter of cold ingredients arranged in separate piles, a sort of vegetarian "grand aioli": again this may include radishes, green beans and asparagus, as well as cooked new potatoes, tomatoes, lightly boiled quails' or hens' eggs, a pile of butter beans and a large bowl of home-made garlic mayonnaise to dip into. I quite like a dribble of dressing with it, too.

"Little Gem" hearts with hot butter and almonds, serves 4

This is my favourite way of eating crisp Little Gem lettuces: deliciously sweet salad leaves, smothered with hot, nutty butter and toasted almonds.

4 Little Gem lettuce hearts

85g/3oz unsalted butter

25g/1oz flaked almonds, toasted

sea salt, black pepper

1 tbsp lemon juice

cayenne pepper

Remove the outer leaves from the lettuce hearts, quarter them, and place on a serving plate.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. When it is quite hot, add the almonds, season, and cook for a minute. Add the lemon juice, which will splutter. When this subsides, spoon it hot over the lettuces. Dust with cayenne pepper and serve immediately.

Green salad with mustard and honey dressing, serves 6

A good salad for serving with ham or duck, or with roasted aubergines. Good additions are slices of avocado, strips of spring onion and finely diced carrot.

mixture of salad leaves, enough for 6 people

for the dressing

1 rounded tsp honey

1 rounded tsp grain mustard

sea salt, black pepper

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Place the salad leaves in a bowl. Whisk the honey, mustard, seasoning and vinegar together, then add the olive oil. Toss with the salad.

Mixed salad with tomato vinaigrette, serves 4

This is a thick, reddish vinaigrette, to be spooned over rather than tossed with the leaves, which have French beans, olives and croutons mixed in. Look for small, sweet tomatoes, rather than the large, bland varieties.

for the dressing

8 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

175g/6oz tomatoes, chopped

sea salt, black pepper

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 tbsp shredded basil

for the salad

110g/4oz French beans, topped and tailed

olive oil for frying

2 x 1cm/12in sliced white bread, cubed

mixture of leaves, to feed 4

55g/2oz black olives, pitted and halved

To make the dressing, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan, sweat the garlic and shallots until translucent, add the tomatoes, season, and cook until the mixture reduces to a pulp, pressing down with a spoon. Add the vinegar and simmer for a couple of minutes to cook off the sharpness of the vinegar. Place in a liquidiser with the remaining olive oil and basil, puree. Adjust seasoning. Pass through a sieve and cool to room temperature. Whisk well to emulsify before serving.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Cook the beans for 3-4 minutes, then refresh in cold water. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and shallow- fry the bread until golden and crisp. Drain. Cool on kitchen paper.

Mix together the salad ingredients and arrange on separate plates, or one very large one. Drizzle the dressing round and about and serve straightaway.

Vegetable aioli, serves 4

This will do as a first or a main course. I usually have a small jug of vinaigrette to hand, as well as the mayonnaise. You can serve hens' instead of quails' eggs.

A lot of extra-virgin olive oils are too aggressive for a mayonnaise, although I do use Provencal and Sicilian oils which tend to be more subtle. It is a safer bet to use either a good pure olive oil, or half-and-half extra-virgin and groundnut oil.

for the aioli

2 egg yolks, size 2

1 level tsp Dijon mustard

about 400ml/14fl oz half-and-half extra-virgin olive oil and groundnut oil

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste, with a sprinkling of salt

squeeze of lemon juice

To make the aioli, whisk the egg yolks in a bowl with the mustard and gradually whisk in the oil until the emulsion is thick. Blend in the garlic and the lemon juice.

275g/10oz small new potatoes

110g/4oz French beans, topped and tailed

2 baby cauliflowers (or 14 large one), trimmed

12 quails' eggs

1 red pepper

175g/6oz small tomatoes

175g/6oz cooked butter beans

1 bunch spring onions, trimmed

85g/3oz black olives

1 bunch radishes, trimmed

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, cook the potatoes until tender, then remove and allow to cool. Boil the cauliflower for 5 minutes, the French beans for 3-4 minutes, and the eggs for 212 minutes, refreshing each in cold water. Peel the red pepper using a potato peeler, remove core and seeds and cut into wide strips.

Arrange all the salad ingredients in piles on a large plate. Accompany with mayonnaise, and let everyone do their own peeling when it comes to the quails' eggs

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