Credit for this salad (and for many more to come) goes to the wonderful British Deli, Melrose and Morgan. After I did my diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine, I bounced around the London independent scene, never really finding my place. I got a little discouraged because I felt as if I had finally found what I loved but it didn’t love me back!
There was a very modern deli in Primrose Hill that I would pass on my way home, so one day I went in there and asked for a job. I was too insecure to ask for a kitchen job so I ended up working on the shop floor.
There I was, 30 years old, with a BA and an MA – making coffee for the well to do with nothing to do. It was a thankless job, believe me. But I was positively transfixed by the chefs in the open kitchen. Melrose and Morgan (the one in Primrose Hill) had this long worn table that was piled high with salads and savoury tarts on one side and baked goods on the other.
The “salads” simply blew my mind. They often pivoted on cheap and readily available ingredients but expert cooking combined with good seasoning and a liberal helping of herbs transformed them into outstanding dishes.
And everything I know about presentation I know from them. At Leiths my teachers would always say that my food looked “rustic” meaning sloppy and badly plated and it was. I figured, I just didn’t have any flair for plating – in reality good plating skills can be learned.
There are at least 4 variations of lentil salad I had there. One with pumpkin as the star ingredient and one with beetroot. I loved both!
I am one of those people who love beetroot. One of my favourite soups is beetroot, apple and dill (a recipe I will post in the autumn). Stephen was the head chef there at the time and he taught me to roast the beetroot individually, doused in olive oil and salt. Cooked this way, they become sweet and tender.
5 small beetroot
3 medium carrots, cut into small dice
2 sticks of celery, cut into small dice
1 1/2 cups of lentils
3 tablespoons of chopped parsley
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (and a little more)
6 tablespoons of virgin olive oil
150g of goat’s curd or young soft goat’s cheese – should have the consistency of Philadelphia cream cheese
micro leaves or cress for presentation (if you have them around if not, leave it out – it’s just o make it look prettier)
1. Rinse the dirt off the beetroot. Wrap one to two beetroot together in some tinfoil, douse with olive oil and sprinkle with lots of salt (remember you will peel the skin off the beetroot later so the salt needs to penetrate through the skin). Roast at 180C for 1 hour or until easy to pierce with a butter knife. Allow to cool until easy to handle, then peel. I usually do this the night before.
2. Rinse the lentils, immerse in cold water, bring to the boil and cook for about 15 minutes until cooked but still firm. It’s important that you don’t overcook the lentils so that they begin to split – for visual and taste reasons.
3. Dice up the carrot and celery and put aside. Chop up the parsley somewhat finely.
4. In a big bowl, put the balsamic vinegar and salt (about 1/2 a teaspoon), whisk in the olive oil. Add the lentils when they are still warmish (that way they soak up more of the dressing). Then add the diced carrot, celery and parsley. Toss to combine.
5. Now taste. Even though that dressing might have seemed overly tart at the beginning – the earthy lentils have a way of totally mellowing it out, so you might need to add another teaspoon or so of balsamic.
6. Cut the beetroot into slices. I like to toss them in a little bit more balsamic and olive oil so they are also dressed separately to the salad.
7. Now assemble your salad in a low dish. First spoon on the lentils, then scatter on the beetroot and then drop bite sized pieces of goat’s curd or cheese on top and micro leaves if you have them.
8. If you have left overs you want to keep for later, then keep the lentils, beetroot and cheese separately (otherwise the beetroot will stain everything and everything will taste sameish). Allow the beetroot and lentils (check seasoning on the lentils) to come to room temperature and then assemble as before.