FOOD / How to cook up a perfect salad: With summer on the horizon, our cookery writer serves up some rich, chilled dishes made with cooked vegetables

One slant of early summer sunshine and the potato salad suddenly becomes essential eating. Within a month or so, I bet that every rain-free weekend lunchtime will see thousands of shivering Brits tucking into something with a potato salad, as they try to convince themselves that the great British barbecue is a pleasant thing.

So are the potato salads, and those countless other cold dishes made with cooked vegetables that the prospect of warmer weather inspires. And with the whole summer stretching ahead there is no shortage of time to experiment, and no shortage of recipes to play with if you are curious enough to search them out.

The enduring vogue for Mediterranean cooking has brought a fair number of cold, cooked vegetable dishes in its wake. Grilled vegetable salads are among the best - singletons or mixed, perhaps aubergine and courgette (slice and salt, then brush with oil before placing over the coals), fennel (wedges, parboiled and oiled) or onion (thick rings, held together with a wooden cocktail stick, a little oil) and, king of them all, grilled peppers.

If you have never yet grilled a pepper, get cracking now and make up for lost time. Cut peppers of whatever colour into quarters, grill skin-side to the flame or heating element at a high temperature until the skin is charred black and blistering. Drop into a plastic bag, knot the ends and leave until cool enough to handle, then strip off the skins, which will have been loosened by the steam. Dress with olive oil, a little crushed garlic, chopped parsley and salt and pepper. Embellishments such as a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or black olives, are welcome but by no means essential.

Not that grilling is the only Mediterranean-led way of making a cooked salad. Fried vegetables (and the frying must be in olive oil), particularly but not exclusively courgettes, can be dressed with a little garlic, vinegar and mint, basil or parsley and then left to cool.

The East is another source of magnificent vegetable salads, enlivened with the most appealing and, to our palates, unusual dressings. These are often oil-free, but lifted with the fragrance of herbs such as lemon grass, mint and basil, and the spicy acidity of lime juice. Look to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia for inspiration. Korea and Japan, too, have their own special forms of vegetable salad.

Even if you cannot lay your hands on every single ingredient stipulated in the cook books, it is worth reading oriental recipes and swiping the basic ideas for dressings. They usually taste just as good on our local vegetables.

When it comes to preparation, timing is what makes a cooked vegetable salad noticeably different from a few leaves of lettuce with a splatter of dressing. While lettuce leaves droop and wilt under the weight of a vinaigrette, cooked vegetables positively relish a decent bathe in their dressing - an hour at the least. It gives them time to mellow and harmonise, absorb flavours and generally settle down into it. There are always exceptions (see the broccoli salad below for one) but, by and large, it is best to have the dressing ready and waiting while the vegetables are still in the pan or on the grill.

The other golden rule is that the vegetables should be only just cooked through. Al dente is the general aim, particularly with greens. Obviously, potatoes must be thoroughly cooked, and peppers, aubergines and courgettes need to be soft enough to be pleasurable, though they must never be mushy and collapsing.

Green bean and bacon salad

We came up with this a few years ago, at the end of the children's cookery holiday I was tutoring. The green beans and bacon were my contribution, the garlic and the Worcestershire sauce came from the children.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) fine green beans

4 rashers streaky bacon

2tbs chopped parsley

For the dressing:

1 clove of garlic, crushed

1/2 tbs white wine vinegar

1tsp Worcestershire sauce

3tbs olive oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: To make the dressing, whisk the crushed garlic with the vinegar and the Worcestershire sauce. Gradually beat in the olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste.

Top and tail the green beans and cut into 1-1 1/2 in (2.5-4cm) lengths.

Drop into a pan of boiling salted water and simmer for about 3 minutes or until just tender but retaining a slight crunch. Drain thoroughly and mix with enough of the dressing to coat well. Grill the rashers of bacon until brown, then cut into small strips. Toss with the green beans and the parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding a little extra Worcestershire sauce if necessary.

Broccoli salad with cream and orange dressing

There is something about the pairing of broccoli and orange: they are always a good match. Do not dress the salad until just before serving or the acidity of the citrus juices will discolour the lively green of the broccoli. If you have time, blanch a few fine strands of the orange zest to decorate.

Serves 4

1lb (450g) broccoli

For the dressing:

juice of half an orange

1tbs lemon juice

6tbs single cream

salt and pepper

Preparation: Trim off and separate the florets. Slice the stalks on a steep bias, into 1/4 in (0.5cm) thick ovals. Blanch the stalks and florets in lightly salted, boiling water until al dente - this should only take a few minutes. Drain and run under the cold tap. Drain again thoroughly and leave until tepid. Pile into a shallow serving dish.

Mix all dressing ingredients, taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon dressing over broccoli and serve.

Asparagus, broad bean and pea salad with roast peanut and

lemon grass dressing

The dressing is based on various South-east Asian salads, but it goes extremely well with this trio of spring vegetables. Sweet and sour, salty and hot notes all balance each other. Lemon grass is gradually becoming easier to find - look out for packs of 'Thai herbs', which contain fiery hot red chillis as well.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) asparagus, trimmed

10oz (280g) shelled broad beans

6oz (170g) shelled peas

4 lettuce leaves

salt

For the dressing:

6 mint leaves, shredded

2 stems lemon grass

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

juice of 1 lime

1tbs fish sauce (available from oriental food stores)

2tsp light muscovado sugar

2oz (55g) unsalted, toasted peanuts, finely chopped

Preparation: Cut the tips off the asparagus and cut the stalks into 1- 1 1/2 in (2.5-4cm) lengths. Drop the stalks into a pan of boiling salted water and simmer for 4 minutes, then add the tips and continue simmering until barely tender. Drain and run under the cold tap.

If the broad beans are fresh, blanch for 1 minute, then slit open the grey-green exterior skin and squeeze out the bright green beans. Finish cooking for a couple of minutes in boiling salted water. If they are frozen, blanch and slit open as above, but there is no need to give them any more cooking than that. Fresh peas should be simmered for a few minutes until barely cooked. Frozen ones just need to be thawed.

Use only the lower 3in (7.5cm) of the lemon grass, discarding the upper part. Take off a couple of the outer layers, then bruise the stem with the back of a wooden spoon. Chop finely. Mix with all the other dressing ingredients.

Make a bed of the lettuce in a shallow bowl. Mix the asparagus, peas and beans, toss with the dressing and pile on to the lettuce leaves. Serve lightly chilled or at room temperature.

Kajinamul (steamed aubergine sesame salad)

A Korean 'namul' is a salad, usually of cooked vegetables, dressed with sesame oil and seeds. This aubergine namul is now a favourite of mine. The recipe comes from Flavours of Korea by Marc and Kim Millon (Andre Deutsch).

Serves 3-4

Ingredients: 1 medium to large aubergine

2tbs soy sauce

1tbs sesame oil

1 spring onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1tsp toasted sesame seeds

1tsp rice or cider vinegar

Preparation: Cut the aubergine in half and steam until tender (if you do not have a steamer, boil the aubergine whole).

Drain and leave it to cool, then slice lengthwise and tear the flesh into thin strips. Squeeze out any excess moisture. Mix all the remaining ingredients and pour over the aubergine. Stir to coat it evenly, then chill lightly before serving.

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