Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Salad of Late Spring Vegetables with Mint, Feta & Black Olives ...and a great Basic Vinaigrette

One day last week I joined a friend at a small bar & grill near my home for lunch.  I ordered a Reuben.  I couldn't resist.  And it was delicious.  But as is so often the case, it was very large...too large.  And even though I only ate half of it, it was just too much—so much heavier than the kinds of things I normally eat for lunch.  When the dinner hour rolled around I still wasn't very hungry.  What I really wanted was a plate of raw vegetables.

As I looked through my vegetable drawer, I realized that something fresh, light and raw was definitely within my reach.  The market this time of year is serving up young, crisp root vegetables (radishes, carrots, white top "salad" turnips), crunchy head lettuces (like iceberg and romaine)...and peas of all kinds.  As I looked at all of this bounty I remembered a salad I taught in a recent class.   The salad features shaved radishes and lightly blanched snow peas...but it's mostly an idea for how to combine and enjoy the best vegetables of late spring in their raw and lightly cooked state.  Suddenly the light and fresh meal that I craved was taking shape. 

Two things set this salad apart:  the vinaigrette...and the combination of the olives, feta and mint.  Over the past couple of weeks I have made this salad with lots of different combinations of vegetables, but always the same dressing and garnish.  It has been delicious every time. The vinaigrette is my current "house" vinaigrette.  It is from Monique Jamet Hooker's Cooking with the Seasons and is appropriately dubbed "Basic Vinaigrette."  It is tangy and flavorful, but neutral enough to go with all kinds of different ingredients and styles of salads.  You can even turn it into a creamy vinaigrette by adding some heavy cream (add a tablespoon of cream for every two tablespoons of vinaigrette).  It is a great vinaigrette to keep on hand.  It doesn't separate (the presence of the Dijon...and mixing it in a blender...contribute to a stable emulsion) and it stays liquid in the refrigerator, ready to be used without having to be set out to warm up and become liquid again.

As for the garnish, the salt in the feta and olives does a fantastic job of drawing out the flavors of each vegetable.  This is what the classic pairing of radishes with butter and salt is all about—elevating a simple raw vegetable and allowing it to shine.  Similarly, if you have never enjoyed a carrot, cut into slender sticks and accompanied by a little pile of salt in which to dip them, you should give it a try.

The mint too seems indispensable to me.  It adds the perfect cool and fresh tone to the salad.  I'm pretty sure I would miss it if it weren't there.  It does not seem like a coincidence to me that at the same time the young root vegetables and peas are thriving on the farms in my region that the mint in my garden is at its best—reveling in the cool days of spring.  Mint is a wonderful partner for the vegetables of spring.  If you don't have mint, I'm sure other soft herbs would be good too...flat leaf parsley...perhaps some dill...or basil...  But I don't think any of them would have quite the same effect as the mint.   

The manner of cutting the vegetables is important too.  Everything should be finely/thinly sliced or shaved.  The lettuces, since they are inherently thin, can be cut into a small rough chop, but I think they look pretty when shaved/thinly sliced.  Carrots, radishes, turnips and fennel should all be thinly sliced on a mandolin or the salad becomes an exercise for your jaw more than anything else.  Snap peas and snow peas benefit from a one minute blanch in boiling water.  It sets their bright green color and softens their crunch just a bit.  It would be better to eat them raw than to cook them to mush though....a minute really is sufficient.  And make sure you rinse them under cold running water or drop them in an ice bath to stop the cooking (and then spread them on towels to dry so the water clinging to them won't water down your vinaigrette).  After blanching, the peas can be added to the salad whole...or sliced on the diagonal into two or three pieces.  English peas are also pretty in this salad—tossed in raw or blanched.  I have even added asparagus...thinly sliced on a slight diagonal.  You can blanch it...or not.  Asparagus can also be shaved into long ribbons with a vegetable which case you would add it raw. 

Shredded Iceberg, radishes, sugar snap peas, asparagus, sunflower shoots and mint
I would advise against using too many different kinds of vegetables.  In addition to the lettuce, a medley of four or five (or less) seems like a nice number...each item remains identifiable in the mix.  Too much more than that and the individual interest of each one is lost.  As with the original snow pea and radish salad that inspired mine, you can dispense with the lettuce altogether (if you don't have it...or don't like it), but I find that a little adds fluff and a bit of lighter crunch in the midst of the more serious crunch of the root vegetables.  

Finally, when you are choosing your vegetables consider whether they are hot and pungent...or sweet and mild...and balance them accordingly.  I personally like a salad of at least a third...preferably half...sugar snap or snow peas.  Peas are naturally sweet...and their crunch is delicate.  The salad would seem more like a relish or root vegetable slaw without them.

I don't very often eat such a light meal for dinner, but on the evening in question—served with a bit of nice bread—it was just the thing.  It will probably be the rare occasion when this salad appears on my dinner table as anything but a side (it would be great with grilled burgers...or fish...or chicken...).  But since that first dinner, I have had it for lunch several times.   Each time the composition of vegetables and lettuces has been slightly different.  And each time it has been a delicious little celebration of the light and fresh foods that are filling my farmers' market right now. 

Salad of Late Spring Vegetables with Feta, Olives & Mint

1 lb. (trimmed weight) young spring vegetables—use a mix of three or four of the following:  radishes, carrots, fennel bulb, white top salad turnips, asparagus spears, sugar snap peas, snow peas
6 oz. (more or less) chopped or thinly shaved ice berg lettuce or romaine hearts
Salt & Pepper
1/2 c. mint chiffonade
About a half cup basic vinaigrette, plus more for drizzling
1/2 c. olives, pitted and cut into lengthwise strips
1/2 to 2/3 c. crumbled Feta

Prepare the vegetables:  For sugar snap and snow peas, remove the strings. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil.  Add the peas and blanch until the water returns to a boil—about a minute.  Transfer the peas to a bowl of ice water.  When cold, lift out and spread on kitchen towels.  Blot dry.  They may be left as they are, but I like to cut them into 1/4-inch strips on the diagonal.

Asparagus may be cut in thin slices on a short diagonal and added raw or blanched (like the peas), or they may be shaved into long strips using a vegetable peeler and added raw.

Fennel and young root vegetables should be trimmed and sliced thinly crosswise (at a slight angle if appropriate) using a mandolin.  Peel the carrots and salad turnips first, if you like.  I would recommend peeling if the skin is especially tough or dirty.

Place the vegetables, lettuce and mint in a large bowl.  Season well with salt & pepper.  Drizzle in about a third cup of the vinaigrette.  Toss until everything is well coated...adding more vinaigrette as necessary.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  You may add the Feta and olives and toss to combine—or plate the salad (on individual plates or in a large serving bowl) by layering handfuls of salad and sprinkling of feta and olives in between the layers, finishing with a final scattering of feta and olives and a drizzle of vinaigrette, if you like.  Serve right away.  If you have not used any lettuce, the salad may be held briefly in the refrigerator before serving.  Serves 4 as a light entrée or lunch...8 as a side salad. 

  • Quantities of vinaigrette, mint, olives and Feta should be to taste.  I have given amounts only as a starting point.  You should alter to suit your preferences and your palate.
  • I think this salad is best when 1/3 to 1/2 of the vegetables are made up of sugar snap or snow peas.  As you consider the vegetables you will add, think about the character of each...whether they are hot and pungent...or sweet and mild...and balance them accordingly to obtain a pleasing whole.
  • The quantities in this recipe are easily divided for an impromptu lunch for one...or multiplied for a large party or buffet platter.  In general, the amounts given are a guideline.   You should use amounts and quantities that suit your appetite and your palate.
  • Sprouts and shoots make a delicious addition to this salad.  More substantial varieties can be tossed in with the lettuce and vegetables...more delicate ones should be scattered over the finished salad.

Basic Vinaigrette:
1 T. finely minced shallot
1 small clove of garlic, minced
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 T. Dijon mustard
3/4 c. oil—olive oil, or half olive oil and half vegetable oil
1 T. finely minced parsley

Place the shallot, garlic, vinegar, pepper and a half teaspoon of kosher salt in the cup of an immersion blender...or regular blender.  Let sit for five minutes.  Add the mustard. With the blender running, add the oil in a thin stream to form a thick, emulsified dressing.  Add the parsley and process briefly...or simply stir in.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Makes 1 cup vinaigrette.

The dressing keeps at least two weeks in the refrigerator.  If all olive oil is used, it will solidify under refrigeration and you will need to bring to room temperature before using.  When made with half vegetable oil it will still be pourable when cold.

Note: You may add the parsley with the Dijon...just be aware that your vinaigrette will have a pale green cast to it.

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