Stepping into Spring

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Cliodhna Prendergast shrugs off winter layers – and sets about layering salads instead 

A burst of spring sunlight has me wanting to make all kinds of lovely salads for a moment and then the sky clouds over and I feel my feet firmly stuck in winter again.

What calendar do you go by, the one in which Spring starts in February or March? Whichever you choose to live by there is a sense of health and vitality that comes with the snowdrops and daffodils and we often want to reflect this in the way we eat. It’s time to cast off the winter comfort food and gently step into spring with robust salads.

I wanted to create a sort of crossover salad, one that’s healthy enough for spring but filling enough for lingering chilly days.

And you might well ask how does one ‘create’ a salad for a particular season – well there are more than a few things to consider.

Below is a recipe that I feel does the job but here are the reasons I chose these ingredients, so that you can do the ‘creating’ with the ingredients you have or want to use.

A hearty salad is a balancing act of textures, colours and contrasting flavours. Do you build your salad from greens, vegetables, add cheese, fish or meat?

So where do we start? As some of the spring ingredients have not quite caught up with the season yet, I chose a raw vegetable salad as we still have plenty of root vegetables around. They also give us the health kick we are looking for in spring, fill you more than salad leaves and set the tone with their amazing colours. I sliced some of them very thinly, others I peeled off in ribbons and some I chopped into matchsticks for all kinds of different textures.

Next, I chose to add blood oranges, again because they are in season (but not for long) and they have a great balance of sweet and acid, plus a refreshing juicy texture – so we are off to a good start.

For greens I had sea spinach and sea purslane to hand. The sea spinach has a nice crunchy texture and the sea purslane adds a lovely tangy, salty flavour. By the time you are reading this you should be able to get watercress, which would be a wonderful substitute. Some capers add to the acidity and bursts of flavour like this are always great in salads.

I want something even crunchier than the raw vegetables, and toasted nuts and seeds always have a great bite as well as being great flavour builders.

Cheese is always worth considering and I had some smoked Scamorza from Toonsbridge dairy in the fridge that leant a lovely but light smoky flavour. Shavings of parmesan would do the trick nicely too.

Then to the all important dressing. It’s such a crunchy salad I felt it could carry a creamy dressing, but wanted to stay away from a mayonnaise base as it doesn’t really go with the health kick I was after. So instead, I opted for a tahini based dressing. This particular one was inspired by Anna Jones’s fabulous book ‘A Modern Way To Cook’. She does a lemon tahini dressing – mine is modified slightly and uses blood oranges instead.

Finally, to fill it out a bit more I used Freekah. I am not the greatest fan of quinoa and Freekah (wheat that is harvested while young and green) has a much creamier texture and a slightly smoky flavour. I love it and it’s super good for you, so that will do nicely!

I used some wild garlic flowers to finish it off, which make it look pretty springy indeed.

It may sound like there is a lot to it, but really once the ingredients are decided upon, there is not much else other than slicing and layering. It’s worth it – enjoy!

Spring(ish) salad

Ingredients to serve 2-4 for lunch or 6-8 as a side dish

1 medium red beetroot, peeled

3 small yellow beetroot, peeled

2 carrots, peeled

1 fennel bulb, trimmed

6 radishes

5 blood oranges

Large handful of sea spinach

Small handful of sea purslane

Large handful of almonds, skin on

2 tsp of fennel seeds

100g approx. smoked scamorza cheese

100g caper berries

50g uncooked freekah

Wild garlic flowers – to finish

Salt/pepper

A little olive oil

Tahini Dressing:

4tbsp spoons of olive oil

1 tbsp tahini paste

Zest and juice of 1 blood orange

1tbsp cider vinegar

Freekah:

Add the freekah to ¼ ltr of cold water, with a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Drain of excess water and allow to cool.

Dressing:

Shake all of the ingredients together in a jar, or whisk until they come together to a nice creamy texture. Set aside.

Salad:

Heat a dry pan and toast the fennel seeds for a minute or two. Set aside for later. On the same pan at a moderate heat, add a small splash of oil and toast the almonds with a good pinch of sea salt until they are toasted, five minutes or so.

Start by tossing the almonds on a moderate heat with a small splash of olive oil and some sea salt for about five minutes, or until toasted. Set aside to cool.

Chopping the root vegetables: If you have a mandolin, use it to slice some of the roots thinly; if not, a sharp knife will do. I do the carrots with a peeler to give nice thin ribbons. Cut some into thin matchsticks for different textures.

Start to build the salad on a very large serving plate. Maybe start with thinly sliced round red beetroot, followed by a layer of carrot ribbons followed by a layer of yellow beet matchsticks, and so on. Add the freekah to these layers, saving a little for the top.

Segment four of the blood oranges and save all of the juice. Add the segments to the layers of salad.

Slice the fennel very thinly and pour the saved juice from the segmented oranges over it to prevent it from turning brown.

Slice the radishes into wedges. Scatter the fennel and the radishes on top of the other layers last to prevent them getting completely stained by the beetroot.

Slice the sea spinach very thinly and scatter on the salad with the sea purslane. Drop the caper berries on top, the rest of the freekah, any left over orange juice and then drizzle the dressing over the salad. Finish off with the toasted almonds, fennel seeds, the scamorza and the wild garlic flowers.

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