As a cook, I’m generally a recipe-follower. I seem to know a great deal of people who say ‘oh, really I just throw everything into the pot as I go along‘ but, on the rare occasions I’ve done the same, I’ve tended to achieve results which, whilst edible, might not be the type of thing you’d shout about from the rooftops. That isn’t to say I never cook without a bit of paper in front of me; I can knock together a curry, a stew, a loaf of bread and all manner of things out of my head, but all as a result of memorising proscribed techniques, imparted by people who know what they’re talking about. It’s not that I have contempt for the ‘just throwing stuff together’ approach and, honestly, I wish I had a little more of that sense of freewheeling adventure in my cooking, but generally, the excitement for me is in finding something I don’t know how to do, researching it, and then getting down to it in the kitchen.
Despite all that, today is a rare occasion when caution has been thrown to the wind and I’m going to try a few things out. This is neither a thrown-together-on-the-spot thing, nor a studied rendition of a cheffy technique, but something else, maybe: a kind of informally written recipe.
Yesterday, I found myself stood in the middle of the vegetable section, bag of beetroots (beautiful small, firm ones, for a giveaway price of 7kr (65p) per kilo that I couldn’t resist) in hand thinking. I find thinking difficult at the best of times, so I shut my eyes and thought ‘what tastes good with beetroot?‘ Little sparks of ideas presented themselves, one by one: ‘Cheese! Maybe feta… no… gorgonzola… maybe? Chèvre? YES! Horseradish, without a doubt. And herbs… dill? Parsley? THYME! Definitely some nuts…‘ etc, etc, and so, after a good two minutes of standing still frowning to myself like someone in need of an intervention, I raced around the supermarket, getting what I needed before the ideas slipped away.
Should you wish to make this, you will need:
- 500g Raw Beetroots
- 100g or so of Chèvre Goat’s Cheese (more if you like. It’s no hardship to eat more cheese)
- One Head of Chicory, or a Crunchy Lettuce of some kind, sliced into pieces you can imagine happily eating (i.e. not so big you’ll cover yourself in dressing, nor so small that you’ll feel like you’re eating a bowl of coleslaw)
- A bag of small salad leaves. Watercress, rocket, or a mix.
- a few Radishes, sliced as thinly as you can
- A Spring Onion, thinly sliced at an angle
- Some young, soft Thyme
- A big handful of Walnuts
…and for the dressing
- A Horseradish Root (or a jar of prepared horseradish)
- 100ml Creme Fraiche
- 1tsp Runny Honey
- 1tsp Wine Vinegar (red or white, or indeed sherry or cider vinegar. Use what you like)
- 1tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Salt and Pepper
Wash the beetroots and wrap them up unpeeled and still wet in a parcel of tin-foil. Roast them in a 200°C oven until, as my friend Ellen so evocatively suggests, ‘they no longer feel like a cricket ball’ (mine took 90 minutes, but I’ve known them take far less than that. One of life’s mysteries, clearly) before leaving them to cool enough to peel of the skins. I use my bare hands to do this. Yes, my fingers go pink, but isn’t that half the fun?
While they’re roasting, grate (or fish out of your jar) a few tablespoons of horseradish into a bowl, and whisk together the rest of the dressing ingredients, seasoning and tasting as you go. Once it tastes delicious, you’re away. Stick it in the fridge til you need it.
To assemble the salad, slice your beetroots into thinnish wedges and put them in a good sized bowl with the chicory, a couple of big handfuls of the leaves, the radishes and the spring onion. Either slice the cheese into thin rounds, or crumble it into thumb-sized chunks (it really depends on the type of cheese you have, but go with your instincts) and scatter all but a little of it over. Pull the Thyme apart into small lengths, stripping some of the leaves as you go (or, if the stems are tough and woody, strip off all the leaves and discard) and similarly scatter, reserving a small amount again, then do the same with the walnuts. drizzle over half of the dressing, then toss gently together using your hands, aiming for a pretty good distribution of everything, but trying not to break up the goat’s cheese.
Sprinkle over the remaining chèvre, thyme and walnuts, and drizzle one last time with some dressing and a flourish of extra virgin olive oil.
We ate ours with some little focaccias (based on the recipe from James Morton’s book Brilliant Bread, which I absolutely cannot recommend enough), baked in a muffin tray and a globe artichoke from the fridge which needed cooking, both apt to be dipped in that Modena via Islington staple, olive oil with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
The potential for this kind of Big Salad is huge. You could substitute the Chèvre for hard, salty Montgomery’s Cheddar or Parmesan, add some crisp, thinly sliced apples, scatter with hazelnuts and parsley, and toss a cider vinegar and grain mustard dressing; you could use feta, chickpeas and toasted pine-nuts and pumpkins seeds, coating it all in yoghurt and lemon-juice; or you could make a vegan alternative, leaving the cheese out altogether and mixing in cashews and a sesame oil and lime dressing and scattering with coriander, finely shredded, both leaves and stems.
I make no claim to any thread of authenticity with these suggestions, but they are simply tastes which, to me, belong together and I think sometimes, that’s enough.