Read: Irish Examiner | Salads with style
First published in the Irish Examiner on 24 June 2022.
“Salad that is served with lumps of egg and tomato and beetroot through it is a horror.” Irish food writer Monica Sheridan, writing in her 1963 book Monica’s Kitchen, had very definite ideas of what to avoid in a salad. Unfortunately for most of us, her advice didn’t filter through and the salads of the 1970s and 80s involved a lot of limp lettuce leaves, tasteless fridge-cold tomatoes and rolled up slices of ham, with vinegary jarred beetroot bleeding all over proceedings. These were salads as penance – as Spike Milligan put it, the dreaded cold collation – or as diet food. Certainly not something to be enjoyed.
Thankfully, times have changed. When the first Avoca Café Cookbook from Hugo Arnold and Leylie Hayes was published in 2000, it had recipes for simple, fresh salads that your mother most definitely had not been making. Dishes like their broccoli, feta, hazelnut and cherry tomato salad or grated carrot with roasted sesame seeds (many copies of the cookbook fall open at these well-used pages) were a joyful introduction to salad plates around the country and we haven’t looked back since.
It’s something that Nicola Crowley, who owns and runs Mezze in Tramore with her Israeli husband Dvir Nusery, has particularly noticed. The couple started selling their colourful salad selection at farmer’s markets in 2015. Although Crowley grew up with Irish salads that just featured “lettuce, tomato and onion”, she says that the most popular salads at Mezze now are “our Moroccan carrot salad with harissa and our cabbage and poppyseed salad. They’re both raw with simple ingredients. Because these are the most popular, and the vegetables are available from our veg grower most of the year, we keep them on the menu every week.”
“The freshness and quality of the ingredients make a good salad,” says Crowley. “We’re lucky that we work with local suppliers for most of our veg and it comes freshly picked from the farm. Then we add a few simple ingredients to make the salad. Our Middle Eastern take on salad gives a lot more variety: raw, crunchy salads with a little oil and lemon juice, or orzo salad with roasted root vegetables in pomegranate molasses, or potato salad with turmeric and coriander.”
We eat first with our eyes and being presented with a display of colourful, vibrant and creative salads – many of which are easy to make at home – is one way to whet the appetite. “I find that the way of eating salads mezze-style is best,” says Crowley, “in that you have a few different salads with different colours, textures and flavours. It’s easy to eat salad when it’s like that!”
Nicola Crowley and Dvir Nusery have just launched their first cookbook and Mezze: Middle Eastern Food to Share, with lots of salad recipes and delicious accompaniments, can be ordered at mezze.ie
Making a salad nutritious
For dietitian Lauren Owens, a nutritious salad is all about balance. Her list of necessary elements includes:
1. A good source of protein: meats, fish, eggs, tofu etc.
2. Lots of colours: colourful vegetables and fruits – raw or roasted.
3. Healthy fats in wholefood form: avocado, good quality cheese, like feta, or a sprinkle of nuts / seeds.
4. Salads are a great opportunity to get some leafy greens in, ideally local greens: rocket, spinach, baby leaves for some antioxidant chlorophyll and beta carotene.
5. Be careful with shop bought dressings – ensure that they’re made with good quality oils. Healthy fats and oils, like olive oil, help with absorption of beta carotene for skin health. No dry salads please!
6. A great way to bulk up salads so that they keep you going longer is by adding in some legumes – e.g chickpeas/ beans or lentils – or some roasted veggies like charred broccoli or roasted squash and sweet potato for slow burning carbs and more fibre.
Top tips for the brightest and best salads
- Think crunch: start with a base of raw veg. Chopped broccoli, grated carrot, shredded cabbage, thinly sliced beetroot or celeriac cut into matchsticks are all good ways to start your salad journey.
- Pickle it: if you are adding raw onions to salad, slice thinly and give them a few minutes soaking in lemon juice or the vinegar that you’re using in the dressing. It improves the flavour – and the eating experience – immeasurably.
- Fridge forage: roasted some squash or root vegetables for dinner last night? They can be the starting point for today’s salad. #nofoodwaste
- Texture’s the thing: if you want to add nuts or seeds, toast them beforehand to add flavour. Crunchy croutons, fried polenta cubes or roasted chickpeas add more interest. Thinly slice colourful radishes or sugar snap peas for a fresh bite.
- Make it a meal: add protein and carbohydrates to fill you up. Chunks of rotisserie chicken, baked tofu or halved, jammy soft boiled eggs are all good, alongside grains like barley, bulgar wheat, rice noodles and wholemeal couscous.
- Fermentation fun: Like Owens, you can “add a little bit of fermented foods for extra probiotic benefits and nutrition e.g sauerkraut, probiotic yogurt dressing.”
- Dress with style: ditch the mayo and take a leaf from the Mezze kitchen by using ingredients like “fresh lemon juice, Irish extra virgin rapeseed oil, sea salt, garlic and fresh herbs or spices”.
- Go big: use a big bowl or platter to display your colourful salads. The better they look, the better everything will taste.
More good salad resources:
Avoca’s Salads, Cornucopia: The Green Cookbook by Tony Keogh & Aoife Carrigy, Blazing Salads 2: Good Food Every Day by Lorraine Fitzmaurice, The Brother Hubbard Cookbook by Garrett Fitzgerald, anything by Ottolenghi, A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones, Smitten Kitchen Every Day by Deb Perelman. Sign up for the brilliant Department of Salad newsletter at eatsomesalad.substack.com for weekly inspiration.