Both the glory and despair of summer cooking is that much of it is done à la minute. Consider a tumble of butter lettuce cups with raw, just-shucked corn, anointed with a miso-yogurt dressing; tomatoes at their tenuous peak with salt and olive oil; peaches, that week they are honey ripe but still keep a twangy edge, torn in chunks with jamón and burrata; peas straight from their pods, with nothing more. These are meals of fleeting moments.
In contrast are the rare, easygoing foods that brave the heat and wait rather than wither in it. A salad that not only can sit, but truly benefits from time in the fridge is a boon for picnics and road trips or early-in-the-day prep for dinner that night. Think of a sturdy coleslaw, the stalwart saviour of many a barbecue, still crunchy after any delicate greens have long wilted. Cold soba noodles improve as they lap up their dressing, ready in the fridge for whenever appetite strikes. Gazpacho requires a rest to mellow, and panzanella and fattoush only gain their effectiveness with time.
Here a technicolour salad is similarly rewarding; it is one I’ve packed confidently for lunches hours down the road, to be eaten with sizzling chunks of grilled merguez or wrapped tight in toasted pita with hummus for the vegetarians among us. Carrots and beets are the bulk of the situation, with lentils offering nubbly substance, nuts and seeds for crackle and crunch, and greens that purposely slump to softened tendrils, juicy and lush among the heavier root vegetables. Feta or ricotta salata provide briny counterpoint and North African harissa an undercurrent of warmth. The herbs enliven everything; cooling mint with the grassy greenness of cilantro and parsley is my personal preference, but tarragon, chervil or oregano could make an appearance. Orange and honey in the dressing round out the seasoning, as a splash of Champagne vinegar gives a nimble zip.
Carrot and Beet Picnic Salad
Ingredients (Serves 6 to 8 as a side)
⅓ cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons harissa paste
1 teaspoon honey, plus extra
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Medium-grained salt, as needed
½ cup raw hazelnuts
¼ cup raw pepitas
1½ pounds mixed carrots, trimmed, peeled
8 ounces mixed beets, trimmed, peeled
1 cup cooked legumes, quinoa, or the like
6 cups baby arugula or watercress
A small bunch each mint, cilantro, and flat-leafed parsley, leaves picked
6 ounces goat’s milk feta, sliced
½ cup pitted dates, preferably Medjool, roughly torn
Begin by making the dressing. In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the orange juice, Champagne vinegar, harissa paste and 1 teaspoon honey. While whisking, incorporate the oil in a slow, steady stream so that it emulsifies. Taste, and season with salt, vinegar and extra honey, if needed.
Toast the hazelnuts in a dry skillet over medium low heat until aromatic, 3 minutes or so, shuffling the nuts all the while. Remove to a mortar and pestle and crush lightly. In the same skillet, roast the pepitas until barely crisp and without loss of their colour, 2 minutes should suffice. Transfer to the mortar, but do not crush. Set aside.
For the salad, use a mandolin slicer to julienne the carrots and beets into a large bowl. Alternatively, whirl the vegetables through a spiralizer, or coarsely grate on with the grating blade on a food processor. For the latter, do not press the roots against the blade with the plunger, rather let gravity do the work. This way the strands will be feathery light.
Note, if the carrots and beets are different colours, you may want to keep them separate before serving as their duelling juices can stain each other, especially once dressing is added. So, either together or apart, spoon 2 tablespoons of dressing on the vegetables and another 2 tablespoons for the legumes. With the aforementioned staining in mind, if storing the salad for some time, I prefer to stack the ingredients in a wide-mouthed jar or something similar, layering the vegetables rather than tossing them together, and leaving space at the top for either shaking to combine in situ, or to aid in the decanting. It goes like this; lay some of the dressed beets on the bottom of the container, followed by the carrots. Onto that, tumble on a stratum of legumes. Scatter a few greens and herbs on next, arrange a share of feta atop, along with some of the dates and reserved hazelnuts and seeds. Repeat the process of layering until all the salad ingredients are used up. Drip another 2 tablespoons of dressing over all. Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours. When ready, turn salad out onto a serving dish, and drizzle with more dressing. Add a handful of fresh herbs, if desired.