Salad, or a Riff on Balance

21 Feb

Salads are quick to put together, but I think the process is a more delicate one than cooking a hot dish. With every dish I make, I want to achieve an equal balance of flavours – sweet against savoury, light and herbal against dark and rich.

The simplest way to get all the different tastes to play together nicely is to apply heat. For example, simmering carrots in an orangey beef stew releases their sweetness into the dish, countering the savoury beef and tart citrus.

But with some small exceptions, that’s not how salad works. Everything is what it is, and the cook has to be much more aware of how raw ingredients taste, and calibrate them to each other and the dressing accordingly.

The following recipe from Veggiestan (a superb cookbook which I strongly recommend you all buy) looks bizarre, almost alien, on the page. Cumin and dried chili in salad dressing? Cooking bulgur in apricot nectar? I almost skipped over the recipe, but I decided to give it a shot as part of my health kick.

And man, is it good! Incredibly fresh and lively, with the dried apricots, bulgur, and pistachios meeting the red onion, herbs, and spicy dressing in an entente cordiale. The chiles added a delicate, warming sensation that tied all the ingredients together.

This is brilliant on its own as a main course, and I think it would make a great side dish at a barbecue, paired with some grilled aubergine or a lamb burger.

Spinach, Apricot, and Bulgur Salad (adapted from Veggiestan by Sally Butcher)

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter

Salad:

75g/2.5oz dried apricots, coarsely chopped
150g/5.25 oz fine bulgur wheat
200ml/ 7 fluid oz vegetable stock
150ml/5 fluid oz apricot juice/nectar
200g spinach
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced (If you find the flavour of onion too aggressive when raw, soak the slices in iced water for ten minutes for extra-crispy onion without the sulfurous burn.)
50g shelled raw pistachios, toasted
1 handful fresh coriander, woody stems removed and coarsely chopped
1 handful fresh mint, leaves plucked and coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 140C/275F.

Put the apricots in a small bowl and pour lukewarm water over them until just covered. Leave them to rehydrate.

Meanwhile, spread the bulgur on the bottom of a baking or roasting tray, making sure there’s plenty of room for the bulgur to expand. Cover the bulgur with the stock and apricot nectar and mix well. Pop into the oven for 20 minutes, stirring the grains halfway through.

While the bulgur bakes, prep the vegetables and herbs and toast the pistachios. Mix up the dressing (see below).

When the bulgur is done, remove from the oven, fluff the grains with a fork, and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Drain the water from the apricots, and put all ingredients (except the dressing and the bulgur) in a big-enough salad bowl. Then add the slightly-cooled bulgur and dressing, then toss.

Dressing:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lime juice
0.5 teaspoon cumin
0.5 teaspoon red chili flakes
salt and pepper

Beat all ingredients together in a small bowl with a fork.

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