lifestyle

Neil Perry’s golden rules of salad: ‘With so few ingredients, there’s nowhere to hide’


You might think that making a salad is easy, but it isn’t. With so few ingredients, there’s nowhere to hide. When it comes to classic green salads, the lettuce must be carefully chosen and perfectly dressed – neither under nor over.

The first thing to think about is the texture you want – crunchy, soft or a combination. Here are some popular kinds to get you started:

  • Cos – crisp, with a sweet flavour

  • Curly endive – narrow curly leaf, slightly bitter flavour

  • Green and red oak – soft-textured and sweet-flavoured

  • Iceberg – crisp, with a neutral flavour

  • Radicchio – red leaves, pronounced bitter flavour

  • Treviso – elongated variety of radicchio, with a crunchy texture and a slightly bitter flavour

  • Witlof (chicory) – crisp white or red leaves, with a slightly bitter flavour.

Once you’ve chosen your leaves, it’s very important to wash and dry them thoroughly; that is the making of a good salad. If you don’t have a salad spinner, get one now!

Next up, the dressing. There is nothing like the crisp crunch of lettuce and the balance of oil and acid. Generally, a ratio of three parts oil to one part acid is about right, but always take a little taste of both first to get an idea of their strength, and don’t forget to season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

My two favourite oils for dressing salads are extra-virgin olive oil and walnut oil. Most of the time, extra-virgin olive oil is my go-to oil. Walnut oil is also fantastic for salads and starters, especially in combination with lime juice. It works really well with seafood – crab in particular. But as it is expensive and goes rancid easily, you should buy it in small amounts and keep it in the fridge.

Now you need the vinegar, verjuice or citrus juice that will add sourness and acidity.

Balsamic vinegar is wonderfully complex: a good one becomes incredibly intense, so you only need a few drops. Red wine vinegar is one of the best all-rounders, but I also like to use it in combination with richly flavoured sherry vinegar. Cider vinegar’s sweet, mild flavour can be a welcome element, and verjuice’s natural sourness (which comes from the acidity of unripe grapes, not from fermentation) lends itself to all sorts of dressings. Citrus juices contribute a wonderful soft acidity and a fresh taste. Always make sure the quality of your vinegar matches the quality of your oil, and use freshly squeezed lemon, lime or orange juice.

These are the building blocks for salads. Of course, a salad can go anywhere from here – I give you some ideas here, but build on them to make them your own and you can create amazing dishes.

There is nothing more satisfying than a salad supplemented with some leftover roast chicken or pork. Roast, boiled or barbecued vegetables can also play a starring role, adding substance and flavour to turn a simple salad into something of great beauty. Just follow the golden rules, season well and dress with good-quality ingredients, and you will get great results every time.

Ramen noodle salad with chicken, ginger and spring onion

Ramen noodle salad with chicken, ginger and spring onion.
Ramen: the king of the noodle dishes. Photograph: Petrina Tinslay

Ramen noodles are wheat noodles that contain no egg but instead use lye water to bind them, giving them their prized chewiness. You might not think it when you read the menu, but for me this is the king of the noodle dishes. I love a bowl of these for lunch – the vibrant green dressing is so refreshing, with the beautifully clean flavours of spring onion and ginger. Add some chilli sauce and it truly is as good as it gets.

If you want to make the white-cut chicken ahead of time, it will keep in the fridge for up to a week.

Serves 4 as part of a shared meal, or 2 as a one-dish meal

For the white-cut chicken
100ml shaoxing wine
1 tbsp sea salt
2 x 200g chicken breast fillets

For the spring onion oil
200ml vegetable oil
Small handful green spring onion tops
, roughly chopped

For the ginger and spring onion dressing
2 tbsp spring onion oil
60ml mushroom soy sauce (or light soy sauce)
2cm knob ginger, roughly chopped
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 tsp sesame oil

For the noodles
200g ramen noodles
30g spring onions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
Chilli sauce, to serve – I like sriracha

For the white-cut chicken, pour a 10cm depth of water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the shaoxing wine, salt and chicken, then turn the heat right down so the surface of the water is barely moving. Leave for 12 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave for another 18 minutes. Lift the poached chicken out of the stock and refrigerate until cold, then shred into long, thin strips (the meat will naturally pull apart that way) and place in a large bowl.

To make the spring onion oil, combine the vegetable oil and spring onion tops in a small, heavy-based saucepan. Place over low heat and warm until the oil reaches 80C. Remove the infused oil from the heat and leave it to cool slightly. Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth, then strain through a muslin-lined sieve. The oil you’re not using straight away can be kept in the fridge for up to one month – though it is best made fresh.

For the ginger and spring onion dressing, blend two tablespoons of the spring onion oil with the rest of the dressing ingredients in a blender or small food processor until the ginger is finely pureed.

Cook the noodles in plenty of boiling salted water until chewy.

Drain and refresh in iced water, then rinse and add to the bowl, along with the dressing and spring onions.

Toss everything together, then pile on to a plate, giving it some height.

Serve with chilli sauce.

Variations

Cooked sliced king prawns are good with this noodle salad – and, call me crazy, but a combination of cooked prawns and chicken is pretty awesome too.

You could also top with crushed fried peanuts. They add complexity but keep things light.

The white-cut chicken and dressing, plus some sliced spring onions, make a great salad without the noodles – just serve with some pickles.

Prawn, tomato, nectarine and hazelnut salad

Prawn, tomato, nectarine and hazelnut salad
Cos and witlof contribute freshness and crunch to this prawn, tomato, nectarine and hazelnut salad. Photograph: Petrina Tinslay

Ripe tomatoes and nectarines make a killer combination in summer: at the peak of their season, both are deliciously sweet, especially when matched with the natural sweetness of prawns.

The sharpness of lime offsets all the sweetness, and the mellow richness of crushed hazelnuts and hazelnut oil is pretty hard to beat, though you can of course just use olive oil. The cos and witlof contribute freshness and crunch.

Serves 4

16 large cooked prawns, peeled and deveined
2 heads witlof (chicory) – red, white or a combination
, leaves separated, washed and dried
2 heads baby cos lettuce,
leaves separated, washed and dried
2 tbsp hazelnut oil
2 limes,
juiced
2 yellow-fleshed nectarines
2 vine-ripened tomatoes,
cored
75g hazelnuts,
roughly chopped
1 small handful flat-leaf parsley leaves,
finely shredded
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the prawns in a large bowl. Roughly tear the witlof and baby cos leaves and add to the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drizzle with the hazelnut oil and lime juice, adding a little at a time and tasting as you go to achieve the right balance.

Cut the cheeks off the nectarines and thinly slice each cheek. Cut the tomatoes into wedges.

Neil Perry cookbook cover

Arrange the nectarines and tomatoes on four plates. Divide the salad leaves and prawns between the plates, placing them gently around the fruit. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts and parsley and serve.

Variations

Any crustacean would work well here – crab, lobster or bug meat would be great.

Try this with fragrant white peaches or nectarines. When stone fruit is in season, it can be hard to choose!



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