simple haloumi salad

haloumi salad
Three ingredients. No fuss.

Well, this is different. How many times do you get to say it’s really hot in London? Summer has found its confidence and is blazing away at a temperature that makes the thought of a pasta dinner just slightly uncomfortable. Thankfully, though, there’s haloumi – glorious haloumi – the delicious squeaky cheese that renders all who consume it instantly voluntary vegetarians.

Ok, so it feels like cheating to call this a recipe. But when it’s hot, the very last thing I feel like doing is cooking, so it’s gotta be simple: three ingredients (very Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) and there is zero chance of the oven going on. Slip it onto a plate, dress with balsamic or lemon juice, and slide out the door to enjoy the rest of the summer evening.

Simple haloumi salad
Half a 225g block of haloumi
Spinach leaves
Plum tomatoes
Balsamic vinegar or lemon juice

Fry the haloumi over a medium heat until brown, turning once to fry the other side.

Arrange the spinach on a plate and slice the tomatoes. Top with the grilled haloumi and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

kale & quinoa salad

kale, quinoa and salmon salad
kale, quinoa and salmon salad

Remember when you were growing up, and a salad was eternally comprised of a sad, round tomato, circles of cucumber and wads of damp iceberg lettuce, drowning in a sea of sharp, vinegary dressing? Oh, that salad. Sometimes it was accompanied by a ring of pungent onion, or a lonely olive that was also wondering why it was there. They weren’t particularly bad or good, they were just something that had to be heroically endured to get to the good stuff, like pizza and chicken and lasagne.

salmon on kale and quinoa salad
grilled salmon is a delicious indulgence

I’m not sure when it all started changing, but Australia probably owes a great debt to its multicultural history. Greek salad. Caesar salad. Someone heard a rumour of this amazing stuff called tabbouleh, others murmured words like panzanella and fattoush and niçoise.

And thus salads were set free, and we were all a lot happier for it.

kale and quinoa salad
Say yes to salads.

I love using kale as an alternative to salad leaves, because it feels so much more substantial than biting into lettuce (although don’t get me wrong, I also love lettuce). Quinoa is often a feature in my salads, not just because it’s excellent for my gluten-free friends, but also because it lends a brilliant texture, holds dressing well and gives the salad a certain heft.

And if you need something else to convince you, let me just say that the grilled salmon is a deliciously indulgent affair that means you’ll never have to dread eating a salad for dinner ever again. I promise.

Kale and quinoa salad with grilled salmon (serves 2)
For the salad:
1 x salmon fillet, grilled (try honey soy salmon)
100g kale
150g quinoa
5 baby radishes, sliced
100g plum of cherry tomatoes

For the dressing:
250g low-fat Greek yoghurt
Juice of a lemon
1 tbsp honey

Rinse the quinoa well and cook until just tender. This is quite often a much shorter cooking time than they suggest on the packet, so check it at 5 minutes.

Steam the kale (if your pot is big enough, you can steam it above the quinoa) and dry using a clean teacloth or a salad spinner.

Slice the radishes and tomatoes.

Combine all the salad ingredients and make the dressing by stirring the juice of a lemon into a cup of yoghurt, then sweetening with the honey.

mayo-free coleslaw

You know you’re in trouble when you’re rifling through the vegetable bin on a mad search for the most photogenic carrot in the bag.
You know you need serious help when you’re rifling through the vegetable bin on a mad search for a ‘photogenic carrot’.

I get the feeling that it’s not quite cool to love cabbage. I mean, there’s the trendy purple sprouting broccoli, showy rainbow collards and the ultra-chic kale, but you don’t really hear about artisanal cabbages, do you? And that’s a little sad. It always strikes me as somewhat underappreciated and overlooked; a steady and consistent performer, but hardly ever invited to be the star of the show.

Except, of course, in coleslaw.

Coleslaw is one of those mad concoctions that has the rather unexpected capacity to blow your culinary socks off. It’s a riot of colours and textures, a positive festival of flavours. Homemade coleslaw is a world away from its commercial counterpart, which tends to be a damp and colourless collection of mystery vegetables swimming in a sort of mayonnaise soup. If you have the chance, it’s worth the extra effort.

Mayo-free healthy coleslaw
It’s time to celebrate the humble cabbage, don’t you think?

Since it’s so often served with meat (like the weekend’s pulled pork), I think it particularly important that it be able cut through that rich density with a bright, crisp zingyness.

This mayo-free coleslaw is all zesty freshness and isn’t remotely heavy. You can serve it as a traditional side dish, but in my opinion it also stands on its own as a delicately balanced, intensely crunchy salad.

Mayo-free coleslaw
For the slaw:
4 x spring cabbage leaves, finely sliced into ribbons (you can use a quarter of a white cabbage if you prefer)
Quarter red cabbage, finely sliced into ribbons
Half a red onion, very finely sliced
1 carrot, grated
Juice of half a lemon

For the dressing:
4 tbsp olive oil
Juice of a whole lemon
1 tbsp honey
Half tbsp wholegrain mustard

To take the punch out of the onion, squeeze half a lemon over it and leave it to soak as you get on with the other ingredients. You can skip this bit if you’re fond of the taste.

In a large bowl, toss all your salad ingredients.

In a separate bowl, whisk the salad dressing ingredients together (you can also shake in a jar). The juice output of lemons varies, but you’ll know when you’ve got it right because it will form a light, citrusy emulsion. Season with a pinch of salt, or to taste.

Pour the dressing over the coleslaw and mix well. I tend to like mixing it ahead of time so the cabbage has time to lose a little of its rawness. The dressed or naked salad keeps well overnight.

warm tortellini salad

warm tortellini salad
a winter salad

Don’t laugh, but there are tortellini on my salad.

Sometimes I suspect the best food combinations have less to do with a considered stroke of genius and more to do with indecision, greed or laziness. Breakfast or lunch? Brunch sounds great! Meat or bread first, or keep playing cards? Hello, sandwich! Croissant, or donut? Behold the cronut! (tastier but much less amusing than its croissant/flapjack hybrid cousin, the crapjack.)

All of this is justification for what I’m sure you’re going to love, even if it does sound a little strange at first: a warm tortellini salad.

I’ve recently come back from Australia and moved into a new flat, which means that the cupboards are crazily, disconcertingly bare. The local Sainsburys is being far less cooperative than my old Tesco (why are the washing gloves not next to the washing up liquid? Why are dried pulses not in the vegetable or rice sections? For the love of God, are there any insoles left in London?), but I will prevail in time, and my cupboards will go back to looking like I’m preparing to sit out a small nuclear disaster.

In the meantime, though, supper is the quickest-of-quick meals: pasta and sauce.

There’s really nothing like coming home in the freezing sleet and gale force winds and diving into a pile of warm, comforting pasta. I suspect that my brief and unsuccessful stint at proper low-carbing had more than a little to do with my ongoing love affair with spaghetti. Pasta is a hug on a plate.

The thing is, pasta doesn’t have the healthiest reputation, and the vitamin content of a jar of sauce is not spectacular. But salads are just so cold and uninspiring at this time of year. What’s a girl to do?

The warm tortellini salad is the best of both worlds: a moderated helping of pasta and all the nutritional goodness of a salad. If you time it right, the pasta will still be warm and the salad crisp, and you’ll feel virtuous and beloved all at the same time.

Warm tortellini salad
150g tortellini
Salad of choice – I use baby spinach, plum tomatoes, capsicum and chestnut mushrooms
Good balsamic vinegar

Boil a pot of water whilst you prepare the salad vegetables.

Salt the boiling water and cook the tortellini as directed on the pack. While you’re waiting, place the salad on a plate.

Drain the tortellini and add to the salad. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

It’s almost embarrassing to call this a recipe, but there you have it. I will say that tortellini is very easily overcooked (even when the directions say 3 minutes) and I really dislike soggy pasta, so I tend to knock a minute or so off the cooking time. Enjoy!

frijoles negros

Black turtle beans.
Black turtle beans.

If you’re ever in Sydney’s inner west, swing by a restaurant known as Baja Cantina in Glebe and you’ll understand why the top end of my food-rating spectrum is food for which you would consider moving countries.

Is that a little extreme? You might think so if you had never eaten the nachos at Baja Cantina. The first time I tried them, my little head exploded with the colours, tastes and textures of a country I had never seen; the salty crunch of thick, hand-cooked corn chips, creamy, gently spiced beans, fire-laced salsa and jalapenos and zesty guacamole married in perfect harmony by smatterings of mature cheese and a dollop of sour cream.

I’m getting a little emotional just thinking of it.

My bestie and I have been to Baja Cantina hundreds of times, the colourful walls bearing silent witness to our laughter, tears, venting sessions, tantrums, dramas and soul-searching conversations that can only occur over a plate of Sydney’s finest nachos.

They're not exactly photogenic now. But you'll understand when you taste them.
They’re not exactly photogenic now. But you’ll understand when you taste them.

It was Stephy who introduced me to black beans, and I’ve never looked back. Black turtle beans have a dense texture, unlike the starchy flouriness of pinto beans, and stand up to flavours well. They require lengthy cooking, but are very low-maintenance and the end result is a delicious, inky, creamy and deeply flavoursome dish.

Frijoles negros
250g dried black beans
1 onion, cut into eighths
5 cloves garlic, peeled
Six large sprigs of thyme
Five bay leaves
Two slices of bacon
oil
salt

Bay leaves and thyme are essential to this dish.
Bay leaves and thyme are essential to this dish.

Normally, you would begin a bean-based recipe by soaking the beans to reduce your risk of being poisoned by the toxin phytohaemagglutinin. With this particular recipe there’s no risk of that since you cook them for ages anyway, but you can soak them for a few hours to reduce cooking time. If you don’t have time for that, it doesn’t matter – you might just have to keep them on the stove for a bit longer.

Place the onion, garlic into a pot with a splash of oil and cook gently for a few minutes.

So beautiful in the pot!
So beautiful in the pot!

Add the black beans, thyme and bay leaves and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for one hour. Skim off any scum that appears on top and make sure they’re not boiling dry, adding water if necessary.

After an hour, add the bacon and a pinch of salt and return to a simmer for another hour. You can leave the bacon out if you’re vegetarian, but I find it provides a good weighty saltiness to the beans.

Beans reach a stage where the skin begins to lift off if you blow on them. You actually want to take these beans beyond that stage, to the point that they provide no resistance when you want to mash them.

After the beans are cooked, you’ve got a few options. The Mexican culinary goddess Thomasina Miers, of Wahaca fame, takes the cooked beans and fries them with a large amount of lard or butter plus additional onion and garlic, then processes them until smooth. She serves them with sour cream and a crumbled mature cheese.

Frijoles on salad.
Frijoles on salad.

I absolutely love Wahaca’s frijoles and they have never failed to transport me to the heights of culinary bliss, but at home in the tiny kitchen I find the second stage too fiddly and guilt-inducing. Instead, I take a fork to the cooked beans and mash until creamy. Don’t drain the cooking liquid, as you’ll need it to store the beans and to mash any leftovers the following day. Before reheating in a microwave, cover the beans with a little water to prevent them from drying out.

I like to serve frijoles negros on a pile of fresh, crunchy salad topped with pickled jalapenos and guacamole. A handful of corn chips rounds everything off nicely.

salmon fishcakes

When was the last time you made fishcakes?
When was the last time you made fishcakes?

As it nears the end of January, the health kick you started at the beginning of the year starts to lose its sheen and you begin to wonder if you can actually go to jail for clobbering that pizza-munching individual over the head with a cucumber and nicking off with a slice of Meatlovers.

If I was on the jury, I just might acquit you.

Not many people have a vast repertoire of healthy meals they routinely prepare, but I don’t think that’s because we don’t know how to make them. I think it’s just because we often forget how many things we can cook. Sometimes all it takes is seeing someone else making a dish to make us remember that we already know how to make it, that we too can reach the heights of healthy culinary brilliance.

So here’s a little reminder from the tiny kitchen that fishcakes are easy, light, delicious and nutritious. I’ve made these without potato because this month I’m trying to go easy on the carbs, but the cauliflower mash I made last night has substituted nicely. They are a little difficult to flip in the pan because of it, but they taste absolutely scrummy.

Low-carb salmon fishcakes – makes 12
Half an onion, very finely chopped
415g salmon
1 egg
1 cup cauliflower mash
Handful grated cheddar
Salt and pepper

Incredibly, the majority of the work is done as soon as you’ve prepped the ingredients. Simply combine everything in a large bowl and work through to form a sticky, lumpy paste. If it’s too dry, add some milk or another egg. If it’s a little too wet, it should dry out a bit when you place it in the fridge.

Fishcake mixture.
Refrigerate the mixture to help it set.

You’ll need to refrigerate for at least half an hour, then take it out and form into patties. Fry in a little oil for about five minutes on the first side, and flip very carefully – they’ll be difficult to flip, but you can do it with two spatulas.

The smell of these frying is incredible.
These are a one-turn job. Make sure you don’t try to flip them too early!

Serve with lemon, a dab of mayonnaise and a large salad.

haloumi salad

haloumi salad
Suddenly, post-Christmas penance doesn’t seem so bad.

Well! Where on earth have I been?

You know how it is over Christmas. There’s the huge leadup where you embrace the Christmas spirit and try to push people out of the way when you’re buying presents on Oxford St, then there are the alcohol-soaked Christmas parties, then (if your family is anything like my boyfriend’s) there are days and days of being fed turkey and ham and potatoes and chocolate biscuits until you feel you might as well hop into the oven and roast alongside the bird. Ain’t it glorious?

Then, inevitably, comes the period of self-recrimination where you realise that you maybe ate one or fifteen too many Roses. The new year begins. And so does the diet.

Salads are fantastic because they’re healthy, quick and no-fuss. The trouble is, when you’re eating a salad you always, always know about it. It goes from making you feel virtuous and elated at how good you’re being to your body to making you feel depressed and like you’d kill a small puppy for a plate of pasta. Trust me, I know.

The trick is to use fresh ingredients and keep it interesting. I am not a fan of bitter leaves, although I know lots of people who think they provide a nice contrast in a salad (actually, I’m not a fan of bitter flavours, full stop). But each to their own.

I confess that the inspiration for this salad came from a recent purchase of a non-stick frypan which is actually non-stick. I don’t know how I’ve been getting along without it. Do you know how liberating it is to cook without knowing you’ll need to soak the burnt pans overnight again? Really, if I’d known how ridiculously happy it would make me I would have spent the £2.99 a long time ago.

So I have been looking for things to fry (not easy with salads) and haloumi came to mind. Haloumi is a Cypriot cheese made from goat’s, sheep’s or cow’s milk, is salty to taste and firm in texture. I like it grilled, which creates a nice brown crust and softens the inside to a toothsome squidginess.

The bad news about haloumi is that if it goes cold, it takes on a rather rubbery texture (still tastes good though). Also, it is high in fat so if you’re concerned about that, try to watch the amount you’re using.

Haloumi salad
3-4 slices of haloumi
4 baby plum tomatoes
half an avocado
salad leaves
balsamic vinegar

Place the haloumi into a non-stick frypan (no oil necessary) over a medium heat.

While the cheese is grilling, arrange the salad leaves on a plate. Slice the tomatoes and avocado and add to the salad.

Make sure you turn the cheese once or twice during cooking so both sides take on that browned look. When they’re done, place them onto the salad and finish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

not tabouleh

THIS IS NOT TABOULEH.

I’ve got to say that before all my Lebanese friends come after me, pelting me with falafels (which I maybe wouldn’t mind as much as I should). Real tabouleh is made with parsley, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, spring onion and mint. Calling this tabouleh would be like saying sushi is Chinese because it’s made with rice. Big no-no.

But as potentially culturally offensive as this little salad is, the ingredients were what I had in the fridge when I came home at about 8pm after a day of hardcore shopping and I certainly was not about to traipse out to get anything else. I very nearly reached for the pasta and sauce, but I didn’t, and I’m glad. This dish tastes wonderful – zingy and fresh and healthy – so I’m going to post it here for you to enjoy under the proviso that you all understand that calling it tabouleh would be a mistake, a misrepresentation, an egregious error.

The Not-Tabouleh Salad
Bunch of parsley, chopped
Two tomatoes, finely chopped
Quarter of a red onion, very finely chopped
3 tbsp of couscous
Juice of one lime
Olive oil

Parsley is wonderfully springy and robust, but the key is to get it as dry as humanly possible before chopping it, otherwise it ends up in a soggy mess. You can just use paper towels to pat the leaves after you’ve washed it. I know people who use a salad spinner to get it really dry before chopping it, which is great but a little Mission Impossible for the small kitchen.

When chopping parsley, grab the stalks and chop from the leaves down. Get it right the first time because the ‘running the knife through again’ technique that I often use to make things are properly chopped doesn’t really fly with parsley – you can end up bruising the leaves and they get soggy. In any case, don’t fret if there are one or two leaves sticking out at the end. Make sure you’ve chopped enough that the parsley salad is really about the parsley, not the couscous.

Combine the parsley, couscous, tomato and onion (I’m not wild about raw onion, so I only used a quarter, but use your judgement). I don’t like lashings of olive oil dripping everywhere so I used just the tiniest drizzle and then squeezed the lime juice over. Mix well and serve by itself, or with romaine lettuce leaves.

I may have also helped myself to the world’s largest scoop of hummus. Why not?