Salads have come a long way since the rabbit food of yesteryear. Mark Hix turns over a new leaf

But now's the time to make salad the main event. A good one can be a meal in itself, and if you want an idea of the extremes to which a salad can go, have a look at Peter Gordon's timely new book Salads - The New Main Course (£18.99, published by Quadrille). Peter, a New Zealander, turns all sorts of ingredients into salad - ceviche of cod with cucumber, lime, grapefruit, tomatillo, Thai basil and mint is just one example. It probably won't surprise you to hear that I like to keep salads simple, bringing out the best in each component in an uncomplicated way. They don't need to include many - or any - leaves but if you are using some leaves, and, I hope, some herbs, invest in a salad spinner, and a selection of decent vinegars and oils.

Grilled rare beef with rocket and shaved Parmesan

Serves 4-6

This sums up the way I like things - simple, but sophisticated. You can make it even more impressive but putting it together with meat hot off the barbecue, or make it for a fancy picnic, cooking the beef at the last minute on a little disposable barbecue. But you can just as well cook the beef ahead and serve the salad indoors for lunch or dinner.

The craze for rocket seems to have settled down a little now. I quite like using the wider leaf version, which we first got to know before the peppery little leaves really took off.

400g beef fillet, left in one piece and trimmed
1/2tbsp olive oil
60g piece of Parmesan
80-100g rocket, washed and trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
for the dressing

1tbsp balsamic vinegar
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Heat a barbecue or ribbed griddle pan, season the beef well and cook it for about 4-5 minutes for rare, turning it every so often so that it cooks evenly. If you want the meat medium or even well done then cook it for another 3-5 minutes depending on the thickness. Leave to cool a little on a plate for 3-4 minutes, reserving any juices.

Meanwhile make the dressing by whisking together the balsamic vinegar and olive oil with any juices from the beef. Season. With a peeler, or sharp knife, shave slices of Parmesan as thinly as possible on to a plate. Slice the beef into 1/2-1cm slices, dress the rocket leaves and arrange on a large plate, or individual serving plates, and arrange slices of beef on top. Scatter the Parmesan shavings on top and eat immediately.


Serves 4

Looking at the ingredients, this could be mistaken for a gazpacho before it gets whizzed into soup. In fact it's a classic Tuscan salad. It is one of many traditional ways of using up stale bread so nothing in the kitchen is wasted. Open textured rustic breads such as ciabatta are best for this as the oil and flavours can get into the air pockets. If you can't wait for your bread to go stale before turning it into salad, tear a fresh loaf into bite-sized chunks and dry them in the oven until they have a bit of a crunch to them (see below).

4 x 11/2 cm thick slices of ciabatta or similar, crusts removed
6 ripe tomatoes, cut into rough chunks
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
Half a cucumber cut into pieces the same size as the tomato chunks
2 sticks of celery, peeled and thinly sliced
A handful of basil leaves, torn
6tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2tbsp good quality red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 175°C/gas mark 4. Break the bread into small, rough bite-sized pieces and partly dry in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Put all the ingredients into a bowl, season, mix well and leave for 30 minutes. Serve spooned into pasta-type plates with the juices. It's a salad that will fill you up, but you could have it with grilled fish or meat, too.

Salad of grilled chorizo and black pudding

Serves 4

Looking through Peter Gordon's book Salads, I eventually decided to try this recipe. It's probably because it's one of the simplest and with ingredients I really like. And it's certainly a meal in itself. Peter favours the Stornaway black pudding, which I have sampled many times, and I quite agree with his choice. Black pudding is a personal thing and some people just love the more dry-textured ones, which I think resemble sawdust. I'm of the opposite opinion and much prefer the soft and squidgy Spanish and French versions, especially the one with apple purée mixed in. You choose.

4 eggs
250g black pudding, sliced (any casing peeled)
600g cooking chorizo, preferably small ones, halved lengthways
3 ripe pears, cored
12 radishes, thinly sliced
300g broad beans, podded (800g whole-bean weight)
2tbsp lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 handfuls crunchy leaves (little baby gem or cos)

for the sage dressing

4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
10 sage leaves, coarsely shredded
2tbsp red wine vinegar
2tbsp soy sauce

To make the sage dressing, heat a small pan and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Fry the sage until it begins to sizzle, then add the red wine vinegar and the soy sauce and take off the heat. Mix in the remaining oil.

Soft boil the eggs by bringing a pot of water to the boil and immersing the eggs (best to let them carefully roll off a slotted spoon into the pot). To soft boil a medium-sized egg, cook it for 4 minutes, then drain and run cold water into the pot for 3 minutes. Shell the eggs.

At the same time as the eggs are cooking, heat a dry pan and fry the black pudding and chorizo until they're cooked - as they are both fatty they won't need any oil. It may be easier to cook them in batches and keep them warm in an oven preheated to 150°C/ gas mark 2.

While they're cooking, dice the pears and mix with the radishes, broad beans and lemon juice. Season lightly. To serve, toss the crunchy leaves with the pear salad and divide between 4 plates. Place the cooked meats on top, then rest an egg on top of that - either serve it whole or cut it in half. Spoon the warm dressing over as you serve it.