Food: Salad days

Savour the last days of Indian summer with a Mediterranean vegetable salad. By Simon Hopkinson. Photograph by Jason Lowe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
One hot and sunny Saturday morning in early August this year, Uzes market near Avignon was over-laden with prime produce. We bustled towards the fish stalls first, as these are usually the first things to pack up and go. But here, soon after 9am, there were trays of sloppy octopus, pearly-white ready cleaned squid, piles of chipirons - tiny cuttlefish the size of your thumb just waiting to be seized in hot oil and garlic, and wriggling ecrevisses in wicker panniers, their claws angrily poised to pinch unsuspecting fingers.

I wrote about Uzes two years ago, and, once again, I was residing with (and, therefore, cooking for) le docteur, Woodcock. He has inhabited Uzes for many years during the warmer months, returning to London each year for three winter months of theatre, opera, and the dining rooms of London. He has a lovely house in the centre of the town. There is a fine baker only four doors down, which makes the finest fougasse filled with melted Roquefort and black olives. We quickly wolfed one of these, oozing and crisp from the oven. We were returning from the market, so this was breakfast.

Lunch was to be served in the back garden, under the shade of a voluminous almond tree, its furry fruit ripe and dropping. Vegetable salads were to be the order of the day, to accompany the fine colin (hake) that I had clocked on the best-looking fish-stall. Incidentally, why is it that you can meander around a marvellous northern market such as the one in Bury, Lancashire, and see hake stacked up to the ceiling, yet you hardly ever see it for sale in the choicest of London fishmongers?

The most important point to consider, when making a vegetable salad, is that the ingredients should be of the very finest and the freshest you can find. This may be an obvious stipulation, yet it is surprising how often it is not adhered to.

The courgettes in Uzes market were of such a brilliant green, that they begged to be bought; so, too, were the green beans, which were thin as string and snapped with juice when broken. And I have always liked the way one collects produce at French vegetable market stalls. There are these brightly coloured plastic washing-up bowls dotted about, into which you drop your chosen vegetables.

A fine bunch of mint wafted its fresh scent from another corner of the stall, and there were sprightly chives, too, destined for a warm potato salad. The mint made me think of a favourite vegetable salad from Italy, where courgettes are cut into thin strips, quickly fried in olive oil until daintily gilded, and then dressed while still warm with wine vinegar, garlic, a touch more oil, and some coarsely chopped mint.

Courgette salad with mint and vinegar, serves 4

8 medium-sized courgettes, thinly sliced lengthways, preferably on a mandolin

a little salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

2-3 tbsp wine or sherry vinegar

a little more olive oil

a flurry of freshly chopped mint - as much as you like really

freshly ground black pepper

Sprinkle the sliced courgettes with salt, and mix together with your hands in a colander. Leave for 20 minutes. Rinse briefly under cold running water and dry thoroughly with a tea towel, being careful not to crush the vegetable too much.

Heat a very roomy frying pan or wok and fry the courgette slices in olive oil, in batches, until tinged golden, but do not over-cook. After each session, drain the courgettes in a colander, and when all is done, place in a roomy bowl. Add a little more oil to the frying pan and throw in the garlic. Cook till sizzling well and pour in the vinegar. Add back the courgettes for a moment or two and toss around with the mint. Season with black pepper and tip back into the bowl. Serve at room temperature.

Fennel a la Grecque, serves 4

This is particularly good as an accompaniment to grilled fish, but is equally nice eaten all on its own as a vegetable dish or first course. It is important that the fennel is extremely fresh, with the central parts good and white.

8 small, very fresh bulbs of fennel, trimmed and neatly quartered

20 button onions, topped, tailed and peeled

salt and pepper

juice of I small lemon

1 scant tbsp Pernod or Ricard

200ml/7fl oz dry white wine

1 tsp fennel seeds, dry-roasted in a small frying pan until fragrant

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

2-3 sprigs of thyme

2 bay leaves

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp chopped parsley

Put the fennel and onions in a large pot so that they are almost in a single layer. Season and sprinkle over the lemon juice and Pernod. Add the white wine, fennel seeds, garlic, herbs and oil and put on to a low light to cook. Stir together briefly, once it has come to a simmer and cook very gently, covered, for about 45 minutes.

By this time, the vegetables will be very soft and deeply flavoured. Allow to cool to room temperature, before tasting the juices to ascertain a correct seasoning. Spoon into a serving dish and sprinkle over the parsley.

Salad of green beans with anchovies, serves 4

1 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

12 clove garlic, well crushed

4 tbsp warm water pepper

150ml/ 14pint peanut oil

150ml/ 14pint virgin olive oil

12 anchovy fillets

450g/1lb extra fine French green beans, topped and tailed

1 large shallot, very finely chopped

a little extra virgin olive oil

First make the dressing. Blend the mustard, vinegar, garlic, water, pepper and 4 of the anchovy fillets until smooth in a food processor or liquidiser. With the motor still running, add the oils in a thin stream until the dressing is homogenous and creamy. If it has become too thick, thin with a little more warm water.

Fill a large pan with salted water and bring to a rolling boil. Drop in the beans and cook briskly for 3-4 minutes or until tender - they should not, however, squeak when you eat them. Drain and then immediately refresh under very cold running water. Drain again and pat dry with a tea-towel. Divide the beans on to 4 individual plates and loosely arrange into piles. Spoon over the dressing, sprinkle over the shallots and decorate with the remaining anchovies. Drizzle with a little of the extra olive oil.

Potato salad, serves 4

700g/l12lb waxy potatoes (la ratte or pink fir apple are ideal) un-peeled

dressing:

2 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

a little lukewarm water

325ml/12fl oz peanut or groundnut oil

2 tbsp chopped chives

Put the potatoes to simmer (or steam) in salted water. When evenly cooked through, drain and leave until you are able to just handle them, then peel whilst still warm.

To make the dressing, put the mustard, vinegar, seasoning and a couple of tablespoons of water in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth and then start adding the oil in a thin stream, as in the green bean recipe - and to the same consistency. Slice (or halve) the potatoes into a warm bowl, sprinkle over the chives and mix in enough of the dressing to coat the potatoes well. Pile into a serving dish and eat without delay. Note: you will have more than enough dressing, but it keeps very well in a screw-top jar in the fridge for several days, if not longer.

Salade Nicoise, serves 4

This is the way I like it. Others can go and run and jump.

For the dressing:

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

175ml/6fl oz Provencal extra virgin olive oil, and deeply fruity

4 medium eggs, as fresh as possible

1 round or little gem lettuce (optional)

chervil sprigs, flat leaf parsley, a few torn basil leaves, rocket, etc

one heart of celery, just the tender inner stalks, sliced into strips

a large handful of green beans, topped and tailed, boiled in well salted water, refreshed and drained

about 4 tbsp broad beans, shelled and given the same treatment as the green beans

12 small new potatoes, scraped, boiled and then cut in half, and kept warm in their cooking water until ready for use

1 heaped tbsp capers

4 ripe tomatoes, skinned and quartered

16 small black olives; the tiny Nicoise are best

6 small spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced

anchovies, fat and pink, preferably ones that have been packed in olive oil, allow 5 (or more) per person

Make the dressing by whisking together the vinegar, seasoning and garlic in a bowl. Continue whisking, adding the oil in a thin stream until amalgamated. Put on to one side. Boil the eggs for exactly five-and-a-half minutes, in fast boiling water, drain and refresh under a cold running tap, for 5 minutes. Peel and cut into quarters. In a large and shallow terracotta or white dish, arrange the lettuce leaves in a single layer. Disperse the other ingredients in a random fashion and spoon the dressing over. Serve immediately

'The Prawn Cocktail Years' by Simon Hopkinson & Lindsey Bareham is published on 24 October. To reserve a pre-publication copy at the special price of pounds 15 p&p free, call 0181- 324 5700

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