My attempts to grow salad leaves for the kitchen have always come to nothing. With no space for a greenhouse the seedlings are left to their fate outside, and if a hailstorm doesn't get them, the slugs will. Last time I grew the robust, tight-leaved Little Gem, its best leaves were often shredded by snails in the time it took to knock up a dressing. Anything more fragile was chomped the minute it raised its head above ground. My deep distrust for the supermarket salad 'pillow pack', whose contents wilt so alarmingly within minutes of opening the bag, means I shop for most of my salad at the farmers' market, whose leaves will stay in good nick in the fridge for at least a few days.
A farmers' market bag of salad leaves is a delicious puzzle. You know the baby red chard and the spiky mizuna, the maroon freckled oak leaf and maybe the rosette of mache, but there is always something unrecognisable there that intrigues. Perhaps a leaf that is hot to the tongue or with a faint breath of aniseed to it, or one that tastes sweet and of the soil. It is these baby leaves that make up the green bulk of my spring salads.
What else goes in can be a matter of whim or hunger. This time included a couple of marinated artichoke hearts per person. Lardons - sizzling snippets of bacon or golden cubes of fried bread hot from the pan - are welcome too, but hardly enough to declare your salad a light lunch. In the last week I have had three great meals of spring leaves given a bit of muscle by everything from toasted walnuts and shavings of young English cheese to thick slices of marinated and grilled chicken breast. I have taken to putting them in shallow pasta bowls, the slices of cheese or chicken perched perilously on top at a jaunty angle. They give the whole thing room to breathe.
Salad is not all about leaves, especially so early in the season. I am not fond of pasta salads, but rice noodles are a different thing altogether. There is a light freshness to the wheat-free noodles in a spicy dressing that lifts the spirits.
I start with spring onion, some toasted peanuts, a little grated ginger and very often some lime juice and fish sauce. Toss in a few red chillies and some coriander and you have a joyous lunch.
The rules are that you make the salad then leave it in the fridge for the flavours to marry.
I break with tradition here, and chill the drained noodles first, then toss them with the dressing and the other ingredients just before we eat.
This way, all the spiky freshness of chillies, lime and the crunch of the raw vegetables stays vivid and clean - the noodles are cold and the dressing spanking, shockingly fresh.
Gentle flavours here, just the thing for a light lunch out of doors. Serves 2.
a mixture of young salad leaves - red chard, wild rocket, oak leaf lettuce, spiky-leaved mizuna and Little Gem lettuce
British cheese, such as young Wensleydale, Cheshire or a Caerphilly (about 75g per person)
a handful of walnut halves
for the bread:
2 thick slices fresh white bread
for the dressing:
a small shallot
25ml red wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
50ml extra virgin olive oil
Make the dressing: peel and finely chop the shallot and put it in a small bowl. Pour over the red wine vinegar and then whisk in a good pinch of salt and ground black pepper, then the mustard and, lastly and slowly, the oil. Set aside. Cut the bread into small cubes, removing the crusts as you go. Fry them in shallow oil, continually turning and tossing until each side is crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper and season with fine sea salt. Toast the walnuts in the same pan; they will need no oil. Remove them when they smell warm and nutty.
Rinse the leaves gently, so as not to bruise them. Pour the dressing into the bottom of a salad bowl. Pile in the salad leaves, then the walnuts. Fold the leaves over in the dressing, gently and using a large spoon and fork. Take fine slices from the cheese with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler. Divide the leaves between two plates, tucking in the slices of cheese and scattering the toasted bread as you go.
Rice noodles with mung beans and cucumber
A good enough salad on its own, but one I have used as the base for grilled chicken breast that has been marinated first in lime juice, a little groundnut oil and grated ginger. Serves 2 as a main course.
100g large rice noodles
6 spring onions
2 medium-sized carrots
half a cucumber
2 large handfuls of sprouting mung beans
50g shelled peanuts
a small bunch coriander
a large handful mint leaves
a little sesame oil
For the dressing:
4 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp Thai fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar
a knob of ginger for grating
2 small, hot red chillies
Put the rice noodles into a bowl and cover with boiling water from the kettle. Leave them to stand for five minutes. Drain, toss with a small amount of sesame oil and chill thoroughly.
In a mixing bowl make the dressing by lightly whisking together the lime juice, the Thai fish sauce and the sugar. Peel the ginger and finely grate a teaspoon of it into the lime juice. Slice the chillies in half, remove and discard the seeds, and chop the flesh very finely. Stir into the dressing. Toast the peanuts in a non-stick pan with a little salt till they smell warm and nutty, then chop them roughly.
Remove and discard most of the green shoots of the spring onions, then slice the rest finely. Drop them into the dressing. Cut the carrot into thin matchstick-like shreds. Cut the cucumber in half, remove the seeds, then cut into similar matchstick pieces. Toss them with onion then add the coriander leaves and the mint.
Gently toss the drained noodles with the onion and carrot, cucumber, mung beans and the dressing. At the last minute scatter over the toasted peanuts and a few shakes of sesame oil.