The impromptu salad I toss together, usually only minutes before we sit down to eat, gets more attention in high summer. The crunchy, peppery, glistening leaves, their more substantial accompaniments and their dressings suddenly become meals in their own right - a light lunch, a late supper, a first course. It pleases me when a wedge of herb-crusted grilled chicken, a neat row of silver-skinned sardines, or a few slices of tongue or pretty pink ham is prepared to take a back seat on the plate and let the salad be the star of the meal.
Light, crisply savoury and gentle to eat, a salad as a main course can't be thrown together without thought. I choose the ingredients with more care in the summer and, with the current seasonal bounty available, more pleasure than usual. This is the bit of summer cooking I like best, the days when you are spoilt for choice at the market - rocket, beetroot tops and baby chard, mustard and cress, romaine and great ears of cos, soporific butterhead or tight furls of little gem. Green-flashed tomatoes, and oval ones of gold and orange, there are knobbly Marmande and Gardener's Delight that pop tartly in the mouth. And that's just for starters. The rest is a matter of intuition, good taste and whim. And believe me, there is no better way to cook.
Little gem, green olives and lemon oil
Buy small, stoned green olives. Marinate them for an hour or so in lemon olive oil (sold in good delicatessens, this is olive oil that has had fresh lemons thrown into the pressing), coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, and salt and black pepper. Separate the salad leaves, then toss with the marinated olives. Great with grilled sardines.
Green bean and goat's cheese
Boil the beans in lightly salted water for a couple of minutes. They should still be crisp, bright green and barely wilted. Drain them in a colander and put them under cold running water. Toss the still-warm beans with a fruity olive oil, a dash of white wine vinegar and slices of soft, crumbly goat's cheese.
Radish, coriander leaf, cucumber and spring onion
Halve perfect, white-tipped radishes lengthways and soak them in ice-cold water for a good 10 minutes. Turn them in a bowl with whole coriander leaves, a little salt, chunks of unpeeled cucumber, thinly sliced rings of salad onion and a drizzle of peppery olive oil. Good before a steak.
Chickpea and chilli
Toss warm chickpeas (canned will be fine here) with a rich, mellow vinaigrette made with mild olive oil and sherry vinegar, then add chopped bottled hot peppers, chopped flat-leaf parsley and thin slices of feta cheese. Leave for half an hour before stirring and serving. Its chunky texture suits grilled chicken.
Cannellini beans and roasted peppers
Mix cooked and drained cannellini beans with sliced grilled red peppers, shavings of young Pecorino, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, torn basil leaves and a dressing of olive oil and red wine vinegar. A rustic little salad that will do as light lunch, with some slices of ham or chorizo on the side.
Baked aubergine with halloumi and mint
Slice two aubergines thickly, brush with oil, season with black pepper and crumbled oregano, then bake for 20 minutes in an oven till tender and soft. While the aubergines are still warm, scatter them with crumbled halloumi, toasted pine kernels and fresh mint. Drizzle with olive oil. Good with grilled meatballs.
Chicory and creamy Roquefort
Dress a raw chicory and cos lettuce salad with a creamy sauce of mashed Roquefort, creme fraiche, red wine vinegar and a little olive oil. Toasted walnuts or croutons are an essential crunch here. A good dish to have with, or before, cold baked ham.
Chilli aubergine salad
Toss crisply fried, thinly-sliced aubergine with a mixture of finely chopped raw chillies, spring onion and coriander leaf. Dress with sweet chilli sauce whisked with a little olive oil and lemon juice. Scatter with chopped, roasted (unsalted) peanuts. Very fine with cold, rare beef.
Beanshoot and prawn with chilli lime dressing
Make up a hot, sour dressing to taste with the juice of a couple of large, ripe (yellow) limes, a little Thai fish sauce, some chopped red chillies and a little sugar. Use it to dress freshly grilled prawns out of their shells, then toss with beanshoots, shredded carrot, coriander leaves and fresh mint leaves.
Finely shred some raw fennel and crisp white cabbage. Mix with diced red onion, mayonnaise (thinned with a little yogurt), a dollop of grain mustard and dill leaves. Grill several slices of pancetta to a crisp, then drain them on kitchen paper and crumble them over the slaw.
Fig, San Daniele and mint
Take ripe figs, wipe them gently, then cut each one into quarters. Arrange them in a bowl with wafer thin slices of San Daniele ham, thinly sliced raw fennel and mint leaves. Dress very lightly with a French dressing. Follow it with grilled fish and ripe tomato seasoned with a dash of red wine vinegar.
Crab, cucumber and peach
Fresh white crab meat, chunks of peeled cucumber, thick slices of flawless, ripe peach. No dressing, just a squeeze of lemon juice. Clean, refreshing and all the better when eaten with a few slices of buttered white bread cut from an old-fashioned loaf.
Summer spinach and garlic
Dress young spinach leaves with a robust salad dressing of red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, olive oil and lots of crushed new garlic. Top with croutons of open textured bread and a few glossy black olives. Slices of roast beef fillet will flatter this salad a treat.
Tomato and ciabatta
Toast thin slices of ciabatta till crisp and pale gold, then drench them in olive oil. Tear them into large chunks, toss with thickly sliced tomatoes, flakes of sea salt and whole leaves of basil. Add a little more oil and red wine vinegar at the table to taste.