The Curious Cook

Salad days

If there was one thing that my mother taught me how to do, it was how to make salad dressing. Just like me, she is super controlling in the kitchen – she never taught me how to cook. It was all instinctive, all I learned was from eating and observing, and discovering things for myself. Of course, there was always that niggling obsession with food that made itself known from very early on.

The salad dressing my mother made changed my life. Made with sunflower oil with just a dash of olive oil, it’s just the right balance of pungent, rich and light. Luckily, I always loved vegetables as a child, but her salad dressing made me gobble them all up. For most of my life, I would only ever eat raw tomatoes if they had been dressed accordingly.

I believe it is the bench mark of a good cook who makes their OWN salad dressing. I have been to so many good restaurants where I noticed a glaring oversight – no dressing on the salad whatsoever. And then I’m reluctantly handed a bottle of balsamic vinegar, as though that could ever suffice. In my opinion, almost anyone can make a rich chocolate dessert that impresses everyone, yet hardly anyone can make a good dressing. And it’s so easy! I love to dress steamed vegetables such as broccoli and green beans while still warm, so it can soak up all the flavours. It really makes all the difference, especially if you are encouraging little ones to eat their greens. The much maligned iceberg lettuce has been scoffed at for years but if you dress it in a good homemade dressing, it can be delicious.

The best salad dressing I have ever eaten was at a magical restaurant called Foliage. The salad, a mixture of microgreens and sunflower seed sprouts with caramelised seeds, accompanied the most sublime savoury cheesecake made with homemade smoked cheese. Light and flavoursome, it was a subtle but important note in a beautifully executed dish.

A good salad can be put together so easily by realising how to complement the crisp ingredients with the right balance of acidity from the vinegar or lemon juice and the richness of the oil. What seems to rather a lot of salt is also important as it adds flavour and brings all the ingredients together. Here’s how I make mine…

The best salad dressing



Grate 2 cloves of garlic with a Microplane into a small glass bowl. Add 1/2 tsp fine salt and 1 level tsp Dijon mustard. Combine well. Squeeze the juice of three lemons into the bowl, making sure no seeds get in. Add a dash of canola oil to the bowl so that there is as much oil as there is lemon/garlic mixture. Do the same with a dash of olive oil to make up two parts oil to one-part lemon and garlic. Stir vigorously to combine and use as needed.

For a more lemony variation, remove the zest from two of the lemons and chop finely. Add the zest to the bowl before adding the juice.

For a child friendly version, omit the garlic and use a herb salt such as Herbamare instead. Mix in half a teaspoon of raw honey when combining the mustard and the salt. Use a combination of white wine vinegar and lemon juice for a milder flavour.

One of my favourite ways of using this dressing is to make a warm salad of steamed cauliflower florets drenched in this dressing and garnished with black olives and a lattice of anchovy fillets. Then there’s a marvellous marinated mushroom salad that preserves all the delicate earthy flavours of raw mushrooms. Simply slice a punnet of white button mushrooms fairly thinly and coat in a quantity of this dressing. Shower with coarsely chopped Italian parsley, cover and refrigerate for 4-8 hours.

In honour of my mother, I will share with you her recipe for a lighter version of macaroni cheese without béchamel, which we would we would always gorge ourselves on. I love the way the crusty cheese top is smothered with the fresh salad as it emerges from the oven so that the dressing soaks in and makes its garlicky goodness known.

May your salad days be many and varied!

Photo: Justus Wagener

Macaroni cheese with basil and tomato salad

250g ridged elbow macaroni (chicciole)

1 tsp coarse cooking salt

3 extra-large free range eggs

250g (1 tub) cottage or cream cheese

Cayenne pepper, to taste

1 clove fresh garlic, crushed

Rosemary salt, to taste

100g mature cheddar cheese, grated

3-5 sun dried tomatoes in oil, coarsely chopped

100 g white cheddar, grated

100g Pecorino cheese, grated

½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground

2 T sweet chilli sauce

For the salad, you will need:

The best salad dressing, to taste (I use about 1 teaspoon)

3 ripe tomatoes, cubed

A handful of fresh basil

Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until just before it reaches al dente stage. Err on the side of caution because if you overcook it, it will become mushy while baking in the oven.

While the pasta is cooking, take a big mixing bowl and grate or crush the garlic into it. Loosen with a dash of olive oil.  Then mix in the pepper, sweet chilli sauce, rosemary salt, sun dried tomatoes and cayenne pepper. Fold in the cream cheese and combine well before adding the Pecorino and grated mature cheddar. Add an extra pinch or two of plain salt as well.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celcius.

Separate the eggs and beat the whites to the soft peak stage. Add the egg yolks to the big mixing bowl and combine well.

At this stage, the pasta should be ready. Drain and add to the bowl with a tablespoon of the starchy pasta water. Gently fold in the beaten egg white with a wooden spoon.

Pour into a greased baking dish and sprinkle the grated cheddar all over the top. Bake for 25-35 minutes until golden and crispy.

While the macaroni is in the oven, prepare your salad by dicing the tomatoes and tearing the basil into smallish pieces. Add to a bowl and pour a generous amount of the dressing over it.

As the macaroni comes out of the oven, scatter the salad over the top and pour the remainder of the dressing over it. Serve immediately, it needs nothing else.



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