We say it every year, don’t we… Don’t we? Well I say it every year, then… How is it suddenly Christmas again? And how could I have missed the signs?
Neighbours, eh? Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live with ‘em. Which is why they’re called neighbours, I suppose, rather than husbands, or friends, or paying guests.
Neighbours and Christmas parking… The couple over the road from us have started putting out two orange and white witches’ hats on the road outside their house to “save a space in case visitors come”. This year they’ve refined their black art by laying a slender plank between them (the witches’ hats that is, not between the couple). I can only assume that this means I’ll need to ask them to check their diary before I can book an extra space for friends who might care to visit us over the Season To Be Giving.
Obviously, I’ve not been able to get out do any Christmas shopping, as it’s too risky leaving the car space we’ve managed to cling on to. So it will, as usual, be a hasty, last-minute guilt-trip to Easthell, my local Westfield gulag, in the dead of night. Sorry, in anticipation, for the novelty scrapbook with matching glue stick.
Happily, the Actual Day To Be Giving will be spent by the harbour with friends and family, all of us gaily pretending to be extremely, extremely rich in a mansion none of us owns or has to pay the window cleaner for.
And all I have to do is bring a salad. Which is quite handy really, as salads are what have been consuming me in the past couple of weeks – and, indeed, what we, in turn, have been consuming – which was even more handy, seeing as it was dinner time.
This mild obsession was sparked by a plea from a friend who had been deprived of anything remotely resembling fresh, nourishing – nay, edible – food, during a prolonged and challenging stay in (where else?) a hospital. That mortal enemy of nutrition and palatability.
So when I’m not working at my desk or someone else’s, or buggering about in my courtyard fiddling with my succulents (settle, petal), I’m chopping stuff up and throwing it together in bowls. And cooking a lot of it, too – that’s a prerequisite for my friend – raw’s not so great for her right now.
It started with the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Niçoise Niçoise Salad. But this was hardly the first – merely the one I remembered to photograph before we ate it. No, the composed salad is not new to me. It is how I most like to cook. No weighing, no praying.
So, here are three rather toothsome examples I’ve made over the past week or so using ordinary-ish ingredients. They require little skill and no technique and have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Not really. I made that last bit up. Sorry Blanche.
Potato and broad bean salad
Serves me very well, thank you
Small-ish potatoes that you can quarter prettily, scrubbed but not peeled
Broad beans (I used frozen ones – I love ’em)
Finely chopped spring onions
Loads of chopped dill
Jolly nice Australian extra virgin olive oil
1. Chuck the potatoes in a pan of cold salted water and bring them to the boil. Why? Because they’re potatoes and that’s what you do. Ask anyone. It’s something about starch. Cook them, checking neurotically, until they’re done.
2. Meanwhile, throw a couple of handfuls of frozen broad beans into a heatproof bowl.
3. Find that jar you found for the last salad under the sink again, make sure it’s clean, then squeeze in at least half the lemon, a large teaspoonful-ish dollop of Dijon, a good couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and some salt and pepper, then stick the lid on and shake vigorously. Set aside. Whichever side you prefer.
4. Once the potatoes are just done enough (be vigilant, dear friends, with that skewer or knife tip), drain them in a colander OVER THE BROAD BEANS IN THE BOWL! Is this not truly week-night-cooking short-cutting genius? But make sure you don’t flood the bowl in your Superwoman exuberance. You will get burnt. Remember – vigilance, always vigilance.
5. Take the potatoes outside to dry in the colander on the garden table. Dead-head a couple of geraniums, then, as soon as you can put your hands in the bowl of broad beans, start peeling them and slinging them in your serving bowl. If I can be bothered, I’ll dry them on paper towel after I’ve peeled them. Sad, but true.
6. When the potatoes have cooled enough, cut them into quarters and add to the beans with the spring onion and dill, then pour over as much of the dressing as you like (I like plenty) and gently toss it all together. Season it with more salt and pepper if so desired. Lovely with sausages, delightful to know.
Tomato, green bean and beetroot salad
Serves to remind us to always wear an apron around beetroot
A bowlful of green beans
A large, contented garlic clove, preferably from a bulb grown by Patrice Newell, which was delivered in a purple box, nestled with its brothers and sisters on a strawy mattress
More fabulous Australian extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar Ideally, voluptuous, juicy home-grown tomatoes, redolent of the Italian sunshine; realistically, Amoroso truss tomatoes from Coles, because Lucy the labrador has eaten any I’ve tried to grow myself
Cooked small beetroots (yes, I admit it, I have been known to use the Love Beets™ that come in a handy packet from the supermarché, so sue me)
Chopped flat-leaf parsley (although I admit to a fondness for the curly stuff too – there will be a revival of that much-maligned herb soon enough – you mark my words)
1. Chuck the beans into a saucepan of boiling water. Why? Because this time they’re beans and that’s what you do. Ask anyone. No starch to speak of. Cook them for about 5 minutes, or until they’re dead enough to stop squeaking when you bite into them but alive enough to still feel plump and giving.
2. While this mortal battle is going on, smash the garlic and chop it to within an inch of its own sweet life, then put it in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 1 of the balsamic.
3. Chop the tomatoes however you deem fit – I like quarters or sixths, especially after a glass of wine to concentrate the mind – then cut the beetroot into similar proportions.
4. Once the beans are cooked to the tenderest of limbo, drain them and IMMEDIATELY (or face the wrath of the gods) add them, hot and steaming, to the bowl where the garlic, oil and balsamic wait in breathless anticipation. Toss them all together and leave them to stand idly by for a couple of minutes, while you inhale that soft tang of garlicky goodness.
5. Add the tomatoes, beetroot and parsley, and gently toss to combine one more time. Season with salt and pepper, and, if you’re feeling particularly louche, dollop some goat’s cheese over the top. I wasn’t, so I didn’t. One has to draw the line somewhere.
And finally, the roast cauliflower salad
Serves no other purpose than almost erotic pleasure
1. There is no better way to cook cauliflower than roasting the f—k out of it at about 200C after you’ve broken it into florets, slathered them with olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper and maybe lemon juice, and tossed it all with a dozen halved, peeled cloves of aforementioned cosseted garlic.
2. Once it’s all caramelised and nutty and sweet, put the lot in a bowl with handfuls of chopped parsley and mint, currants, and toasted slivered almonds or pine nuts.
3. Drag out that jar again, give it another wash, then add a large dollop of black olive tapenade, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and another cheek or so’s worth of lemon juice. Shake it up, then pour enough of it over the salad to make it a teeny, weeny bit unhealthy but oh, so lush. Gently toss to combine and check on the seasoning. If it’s not home by midnight, you’re locking the back door.
4. The pièce de résistance (and only ingredient I’m ever prepared to eat that squeaks) is a batch of freshly scorched slices of haloumi, cooked with a little bit of olive oil in a hot frying pan or on a chargrill at the last minute and thrown with gay abandon over the top. Eat the lot with relish – but not mango chutney.
And save some for the next day if possible. Even better then.