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A-Z of Vegetables: Insalata

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:22

Ok, I know I cheated. Insalata is not a vegetable. It’s just Italian for ‘salad’. But why don’t you try to think of a vegetable beginning with ‘I’?

I’m always stumped by articles written by ‘chefs’ who give recipes to suggest what to do with leftover vegetables that you don’t know what to do with. That half-pepper, that cabbage core, a quarter of an onion, a bag of lettuce. They give all sorts of interesting and clever solutions but never the most obvious one. Because when I hear someone say, ‘What do I do with these leftover vegetables?’, I think, ‘EAT THEM?’ Let’s face it, cooking vegetables isn’t hard (unless you’re preparing artichokes from scratch, you masochist). Even the most foreboding carrot steams into a decent-tasting side-dish. That’s the history of the vegetable: the side dish. Their flavours are specific enough to be eaten on their own. Steam that broccoli. Slice that cucumber. Fry that aubergine. Just make a sodding salad.

I promise you, there is not a vegetable under the sun which cannot be made appetising by the loving deployment of salad dressing. I mentioned when I was talking about B for Brussels sprout that the way to make boiled sprouts seem edible is to dunk them in salad dressing like a chip in ketchup and I stand by that. Heck, if sprouts can be made tasty, anything can. Shell out on special vinegars just for salad dressings and it won’t be a profligate expense, it will stop you wasting vegetables which are otherwise not going to get eaten. Sulphite-free balsamic and organic unfiltered cider are the luxury supermarket vinegars. In fact, I just cut my losses and buy posh vinegars to use in everything. I haven’t been able to afford shoes for years but at least my food is nice. 

What’s also great is the versatile bitterness of salad leaves. With the exceptions of iceberg, chicory and watercress – all of which are truly rank-tasting, especially watercress with its scum-scraped-from-the-bottom-of-the-pond vibe – salad leaves are a perfect foil to anything you happen to be eating. As a side, as a starter, as a palate-cleanser before you top up on your joie de vivre with apple crumble, they always work in the context of the meal you’re eating. My brother makes his Sunday roast with a well-dressed salad made of salad leaves and finely-sliced whatever vegetables from the fridge, and it clashes but it’s popular. (See? Just eat the vegetables with salad dressing.)

Obviously I had to include a salad recipe. I could hardly give the sort of all-rounder recipe that the above article champions, because it would read like this: ‘Prepare all vegetables in your fridge, cook if necessary, then stick in a bowl, dress, eat and feel nourished.’ So I’ve gone with this new invention of my mother’s, who, in her endless quest to convince my father that vegetables are lovely, discovered the versatility of frozen green beans.

My father’s side salad – he doesn’t make it, or even like it much, but I associate him with it anyway because it’s warm

  1. Heat up 1 tbsp olive oil in a sauté pan or frying pan and chuck 1 peeled, chopped onion or 1 washed, chopped leek into it, and fry it for 10 minutes so it stops being so raw. Remember leeks often have lots of mud in their layers.
  2. Whilst that’s happening, wash and shred 2 heads of lettuce – or whichever is your favourite/incumbent unloved salad vegetable – and put it in (or on) a big dish from which everybody can help themselves. I should have mentioned: this serves up to 5 salad eaters as a side dish. If there are leftovers, just stick them in the fridge and eat them tomorrow topped with a fried egg or something.
  3. Once the onion is softening and glassy, chuck into the pan 125g frozen green beans (and the same of frozen peas, if you want) and 1 tbsp capers in brine, drained as well as 1 tbsp of the caper-brine and the juice of half a lemon. Fry this all together for an additional 5-10 minutes until the beans are cooked and beginning to scorch. If they’re scorching but not cooking, just pour a little water into the pan to create a braising effect. Yes, cookery is genuinely this basic.
  4. When everything is cooked, ideally give it a bit of time to cool down. If this isn’t an option, simply tip this elegant but juicy mixture onto the lettuce and sprinkle over some toasted garlic granules, or serve with a garlicky salad dressing (which you have made yourself!) Doesn’t dinner look posh? Why don’t people have warm salads more often?
  5. Did you remember to also provide salad dressing? Serve the dressing separately because people like different amounts. Some people dribble salad dressing; some people drink it; some people will want gravy. You never know.

Notes: Do not fry garlic granules. Ever. They burn instantly. And you know frying pans. They burn when the food does. Don’t go there. Garnish garlic granules.

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