Dressing for dinner

Whether for a salad or a rib of beef, simple blends of oils, vinegars and juices are the summery way to get saucy, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In the days when salad was nothing more than a few leaves of limp English lettuce, the dressing that went with them was just as limited. My grandmother wasn't alone in having no other dressing in the house except salad cream. Now we've taken salad leaves from everywhere under the sun, dressings have become more varied and exotic too.

In the days when salad was nothing more than a few leaves of limp English lettuce, the dressing that went with them was just as limited. My grandmother wasn't alone in having no other dressing in the house except salad cream. Now we've taken salad leaves from everywhere under the sun, dressings have become more varied and exotic too.

I can't pretend that going to catering college opened up a new world of dressings to me. The only progress I made there in that department was adding vinaigrette to my repertoire. Moving to London, and my first real job at the Grosvenor House hotel - that was when I started to get into salads. Each one had its own dressing, each with different components. One of the most memorable was nothing more than walnut oil and sherry vinegar, just whisked together with seasoning and a pinch of sugar. It had a magical simplicity that transformed the bitterness of frisée into something really quite sophisticated, especially with the warm quails and quails' eggs that sat on top. This must have been the great walnut and hazelnut oil boom of some 20 years ago, and it seems to have faded out somewhat in favour of the now ubiquitous extra-virgin olive oils.

Another terrific salad from that time was similarly simple, yet highly sophisticated. It was frisée - again - mixed with shredded carrots and French beans. Sliced raw scallops were marinaded very briefly in lime juice and walnut oil and a slice of sautéed foie gras was placed on top. The marinade was used to dress the salad.

When I left Grosvenor House and moved to the Dorchester, I still kept in touch with what was going on, and my flatmate John brought me home one of my favourite dressing recipes from the then consultant chef of Ninety Park Lane, Louis Outhier - read on and you will see what I mean.

Basic dressings and their derivatives can be used for more than dressing up trendy salad leaves. Instead of buttery sauces and gravies with meat or fish, try a dressing instead. Or go one step further with something like a salsa verde. During the wild-garlic season, I've been making sauces based on olive oil. You can make them when you have the right ingredients and then store them in the fridge. (I gave a recipe for a wild-garlic aioli a couple of weeks ago, and a wild-garlic pesto.)

All of these dressings are so easy to make, and with a small modification, each can be turned into another dressing. There are thousands of ready-made dressings you can buy, low calorie, low fat, what have you. Although I admire the package and the charitable idea, I haven't tried Paul Newman's brand yet. But I'm not convinced that anything will win me round to a bottled dressing. So many use inferior ingredients, and of the cross section I've tried, out of curiosity, there hasn't been one worth space in the fridge. When it's so easy to make your own, I don't understand the attraction. You can even make your dressing with all local ingredients. I stumbled across extra-virgin rape seed oil at Home Farm, Heveningham, Halesworth, Suffolk, the other day (01986 798660, www.hillfarmoils.com. Whisked up with some mustard and cider vinegar, you've got a vinaigrette that's as British as they come.

Thai green mango salad

Serves 4

If you are a Thai fan, you may well have eaten this salad without knowing you're eating under-ripe mangos. To be honest, most mangoes you buy in supermarkets are generally rock hard and perfect for the job if you can't find the little green mangoes from Asian supermarkets.

2 green mangoes, peeled
A handful of Thai basil leaves
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
A handful of picked coriander leaves, reserving the stalks for the dressing

for the dressing

Coriander stalks (left over from the leaves)
Rind and juice of 2 limes
30g palm sugar, or caster sugar
1 small medium-strength green chilli, seeded

With a peeler or mandolin, slice the mango flesh as thinly as possible around the stone and put it into a bowl with the Thai basil leaves, shallots and coriander. Blend the ingredients for the dressing and mix with the other ingredients.

Lobster salad

Serves 4

This is my favourite dressing of all time from the famous three-Michelin-star chef Louis Outhier. My flatmate John brought it home one day, 20 years ago, and I've used it ever since. It's got so many ingredients that it's sort of up for a bit of personal modification. It's almost like a refined barbecue sauce and can be served with almost anything from a warm or cold shellfish starter to barbecued chicken. Back then it was called Japanese dressing, although the ingredients are not that Japanese, so I guess it had been adapted to more easily available European ingredients. If your budget won't stretch to lobster, cooked tiger prawns would make a good alternative.

2 lobsters weighing 500-550g each, cooked and all the meat removed from the shell including claws and large leg meat
1 small head of curly endive (frisée), cleaned, washed and any dark-green outer leaves removed
1 small carrot, peeled and finely shredded into 3cm lengths
50g extra-fine French beans, trimmed and cooked

for the dressing

1 small shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic peeled and crushed
1 small piece (10g) of root ginger, scraped and finely chopped or grated
Half a small carrot, peeled and finely diced
1tbsp rice wine or white wine vinegar
1/2tbsp soy sauce
1/2tbsp tomato ketchup
1tsp oyster sauce
4tbsp vegetable oil

First make the dressing - preferably the day before, as the flavours will infuse and improve - by putting all the ingredients, except the oil, into a bowl and mixing well, then gradually whisking in the oil.

Mix the frisée with the carrots, beans and any leg meat, but not meat from the main claws, and coat lightly with about a tablespoon of the dressing. Arrange the salad in a pile in the centre of four plates and place a shelled claw on top of each. Spoon the rest of the dressing around the salad, then cut the lobster tails into 1cm slices and place around the salad on the dressing.

Essex seaside salad with oyster dressing

Serves 4

This salad doesn't actually come from Essex. The ingredients do, so I reckon that makes it fairly Essex. For several years I've been visiting places like West Mersea island in search of sea vegetables like samphire, sea spinach and sea purslane and treading on sea shells, then stopping off at the Company Shed for some local seafood. It seemed appropriate, as I can't resist gathering free food from the sea-shore, to make one in honour of Essex. So few people gather these vegetables, and unless you're in the know it's not that easy to make this dish for nothing. But you can get pretty close if you're on the coast this summer. Check first where and what you're allowed to pick. You can also add any cooked shellfish, such as whelks, lobster or prawns.

A handful (about 200-250g) of cockles
A handful (about 200-250g) of mussels, washed and de-bearded
1 squid or cuttlefish tube, about 200g, cleaned and tentacles reserved
A handful of small sea spinach leaves, or baby spinach, washed, stalks removed
A handful of sea purslane or rock samphire, washed, and with any woody stalks picked off (if you can't get these, use regular purslane)
A handful of samphire, woody stalks removed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the oyster vinaigrette

2 oysters, shucked
Juice of half a lemon
2tbsp each of olive oil and vegetable oil, or 4tbsp rape-seed oil

Put the cockles in a bowl of cold water for about 1 hour, giving them a vigorous stir with your hands every so often. Then give them a final rinse and drain. Put the cockles in a pan with a splash of white wine, cover with a lid and cook on a high heat for 3-4 minutes, giving the pan a shake every so often, until they are all open. Remove the cockles with a slotted spoon and leave to cool.

Put the mussels in the same liquid the cockles were in and cook just as you did the cockles. Remove from the pan and leave to cool. Strain the juices through a fine meshed sieve and reserve for the oyster dressing. Score the squid or cuttle fish in a criss-cross fashion about 2-3mm deep on each side and cut into rough 3-4cm chunks. Heat the oil in a frying pan, season the squid and cook on a medium heat, stirring every so often, for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the pan and leave to cool.

To make the oyster vinaigrette, put the oysters in a pan with the cockle and mussel cooking juice. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 seconds, then remove from the heat. Put the oysters and juice into a liquidiser, then blend with the other ingredients for the dressing and season.

Arrange the leaves on plates with the fish and spoon the dressing over.

Grilled rib of beef with salsa verde

Serves 2-4

Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is a wonderful thing, and every so often I get a craving for it, especially when I'm out of town. Unfortunately most pubs are trying to offer the punters a bit of a deal on the Sunday roast and you usually end up with a piece of overcooked topside. The only solution is to smother it with horseradish and shove it down inside the Yorkshire pud. If you manage to get your hands on a decent bit of rib, preferably on the bone, this is a good, clean and simple summery option. Try cooking it on the barbecue, nice and rare, and carve it up with some simple seasonal accompaniments, such as broad beans or a garden salad.

1 rib of beef, on the bone, about 500-600g
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for brushing

for the salsa verde

20g mint leaves
20g parsley leaves
20g green basil leaves
2tbsp capers, washed
100ml extra virgin olive
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp dijon mustard
4-6 anchovy fillets (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First make the salsa verde, by blending all the ingredients in a liquidiser to a coarse purée and then seasoning. You may need to add a little more olive oil to bind the herbs.

Next pre-heat a barbecue or ribbed griddle plate. Lightly brush your beef with oil and season well. Grill the beef for about 5-6 minutes on each side for rare and another 2-3 on each side for medium-rare. If you are grilling indoors you will need your extractor on full blast. You could finish the meat in a hot oven, although it's the charred exterior of meat cooked on a griddle that really makes it.

Leave the meat to rest for about 5 minutes and carve into 1cm slices and serve with the salsa verde.

Dressing smartly

Walnut oil dressing

This will liven up many a bland salad leaf and it goes particularly well with, say, chicken livers and offal salads. Whisk 1 part sherry vinegar with 4 parts walnut oil, season and add a pinch of caster sugar to taste.

Chardonnay dressing

The Spanish are producing some great vinegars that put some of the more common store-cupboard ones to shame. They are not cheap, though, and when you try them they have little in common with their cheaply produced counterparts. The reaction of most people I give a little nip to, to try, is that they are more palatable than most bottom-end wines. Well they're certainly pricier, per 250ml, than most quaffing wines.

They also need less dilution of oil as their acidity level is low. So, 1 part vinegar of, say the Forum brand's chardonnay vinegar, with 3 parts olive oil is sufficient, then add a few sprigs of tarragon and a few slices of garlic, season and leave to infuse overnight.

Use to dress simple green herb salads or use with finely shredded fennel to go with marinated salmon. You can even toss it into some summer vegetables to serve with fish.

Cabernet sauvignon dressing

Again, this dressing uses one of my favourite Forum Spanish vinegars, this time made using the cabernet sauvignon grape. My favourite way to use this vinegar is as follows.

Finely chop 1 shallot, then add it to a pan along with 2tbsp of this vinegar and bring to the boil. Take it off the heat and leave to cool, then whisk in 6tbsp olive or walnut oil and finally season.

This dressing goes particularly well with robust leaves, such as Treviso or radicchio. Or you can just drizzle it on beetroot or meaty salads with, say, wild mushrooms.

Basic vinaigrette

1tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
2tsp Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2tbsp olive oil
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar. Give them a good shake and leave to infuse overnight at room temperature.

This classic dressing can be used for simple green or mixed salads.

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